Every corner of the Darksiders world is laced with art. There’s art on art, more art than you can shake a stick at. That makes sense, given the fact that Vigil, the studio behind Darksiders and this August’s Darksiders II, is headed up by well-known comic artist Joe Madureira.
I spoke with Madureira last week about the intricate and instinctual process of designing the art for Darksiders, why his new protagonist Death wears purple, the importance of Death’s loincloth, and what instrument the horseman would play if he were in a metal band.
Madureira also shared some cool new artwork and screenshots from the game, which you can check out in our exclusive galleries below.
Kotaku: So, you’re making a new game with an entirely new protagonist. And he’s got a mouthless skull-face. How can you make Death into a relatable character? Is that even a priority?
Joe Madureira: A lot of it comes through in the voice performance by Michael Wincott — even if you were looking at the back of Death’s head, you’d still get a lot of the emotion. A lot of it’s done through body language as well. In the end, we had to cheat a little and affect Death’s mask, even though it’s made of bone. It does contort, and his brow furrows slightly. We couldn’t get away with not doing that. But I think we pulled it off.
Neither Death nor War had any irises in their eyes. Do you worry that makes a character seem too inhuman?
The thing with War is that he’s just a lot more of a stoic. He just didn’t have a lot to say. If [Death] had a lot more moments of really high emotion and stuff – it would be really difficult. But he’s just an aggressive badass killer anyway, so it was not as hard to pull off as we thought it would be. Not having a face helps more than it hurts this character; it gives him that mysterious, creepy vibe.
You’ve said Darksiders II will have much more of a supporting cast than the first game. Could you talk about that?
There’re definitely a lot of characters where you actually can interact with, you can go back to them throughout the game. You learn a lot about the story from interacting with them as opposed to watching cutscenes – that helps give more depth to Death’s character than watching a little movie, because you actually get to see the interaction.
Even though Death is kinda of just a dark badass guy, he definitely has a more personal story than in the first one. We haven’t revealed too much about it other than the fact that the Horsemen were involved with the destruction of their people, their own kind, the Nephilim, but Death carries that guilt with him in this game, and he’s faced with some big choices that affect humanity and his own redemption.
Does the narrative branch at all?
It’s not a branching narrative – there are occasionally choices, there are dialogue choices, but they don’t affect the game in a major way like moral choices or anything like that. It’s more about where you want the conversation to go so you can get more info about specific topics.
Is Death based on a particular rock star? He looks like a heavy metal god.
[Laughs] Not at all. He just – I think it’s the long hair, and skulls, hey! It’s rock ‘n roll.
If Death played in a heavy metal band, what instrument would he play?
I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some dudes rockin’ out with Death’s mask on. That was not the intention though.
He seems like a bassist to me, with the way he slings his arms down.
I dunno, he seems like more of a drummer to me.
Ha, yeah, I see it. Okay: What is a Darksider?
We thought rather than pick a name that was very specific to one of the characters or the four horsemen or whatever, Darksiders just kind of encompassed all of the characters and the universe, and the tone of our world. There aren’t really any innocent parties in the first Darksiders, even the angels sort of have their dark secrets.
Honestly, part of it was just that it was a name that we all liked, and Darksiders kind of just kept making our top 10 list over and over. And we said, “Damn it, let’s just call it Darksiders!” It just kind of stuck, it was catchy.
I kind of like names like that anyway; I did a book called Battle Chasers and at no point does anyone say, “It’s the Battle Chasers!” it’s like… who is a Battle Chaser? I don’t know. You never see the word anywhere in the book. But it just kind of encompassed the right energy and vibe for the book. And again, like Darksiders, it’s vague but it also sort of fits the story and the characters.
Do you think about how the character models animate when you draw them?
Yes. I think it’s the first thing that I think about actually, with characters and game concepts. In comics, as long as you can draw the pose you need to, then it’s fine. In games, a lot of times it’s how they move and it’s the design role that the creature plays. If we’re doing a creature and we’ve just done five flying guys, it’s like, ‘You know, you really need a big weapon wielding ground-guy,’ and that immediately tells me it’s going to have two arms, probably legs, what kind of weapons is he holding…. those sorts of choices sort of narrow everything down.
In the end, the gameplay aspect is the most important because, you know, ‘this guy doesn’t wield a weapon, he shoots stuff at you from far away,’ he doesn’t necessarily need to walk, so… as long as he’s far away from you, shooting, he could fly or whatever. And that is the kind of stuff that gets worked out beforehand. But [gameplay] is probably the biggest influence on how the character’s going to look like than, you know, what I felt like drawing that day or whatever.
When you make an environmental structure, how much thought do you put into its function? On a lot of these notes I’m seeing are pretty functional.
Again, it really depends on if it’s just eye candy or if it’s involved in the direct gameplay path, or if it’s part of a puzzle. If it’s just buildings or trees that are just dressing up the scene, then it’s like ‘eh,’ a quick drawing will do. But if it’s something where “oh, you need to pull this lever,’ and it turns the water on, and it goes down this aquaduct, and then you can cross this thing… obviously it needs to be way more specific so that the modelers can build it right. It’s done in stages, so we’ll build it and make sure it’s functional in a very loose prototype before we go in and polish it up. The notes happen throughout, sometimes beforehand, sometimes after it’s been built and it’s not working properly. Or sometimes it does work but it looks crappy. We’ll do what we call Paint-overs where we take a screenshot of the crappy looking version and paint on top of it in photoshop. Sometimes even with layers you can show, ‘Here’s how the bridge should close’ and you do a couple different layers showing the various stages. I would say the majority of our art direction is done through paint-overs. It’s a constant iterative process.
Do you guys do that more or less than other studios?
I believe that it’s common – I actually don’t get together with other studio art directors as much as you’d think and talk about our process. But at vigil, right from the beginning, it’s just the way we work. I had no experience at all, and this is the easiest way to convey – you can’t really explain something in words, it’s easier to just scribble it on there. Kind of like drawing on a whiteboard except that you’re actually drawing on the image.
I know it’s a common practice at other studios, I just don’t know if they do it as much as we do. Because we paint over on almost everything.
How many iterations do the characters go through before they’re done?
We tend to nail characters more often without problems right off the bat, but if we have a variant like, let’s say, here’s a demon soldier, here’s a demon brute. And if the brute is basically just the soldier but with bigger armour and weapons then it doesn’t really make sense to re-draw the entire guy. So we’ll just paint stuff right on top. Usually. Not always.
Or let’s say we have a concept that we like, but in the game he just doesn’t look super cool, and we want to add horns and whatever — we’ll just do that in a paint-over. We won’t re-do the entire process. But it’s not as common [with characters] as it is for the environment, that’s for sure. We just struggle more with environments in general.
Is it always additive? Do you ever feel like you’ve got too much art onscreen?
Occasionally, yeah. We’ll sometimes overdo it with effects, or the colours will look really garish, in certain lighting. And we’ll have to tone stuff down. In general [laughs] more is better. Especially in games, when stuff is moving around on the screen, and stuff can look kind of small from far away, we just try to give everything unique elements so they’re recognisable. Sometimes it involves taking way, but usually it involves adding more cool stuff.
It’s definitely a hard balance. You look at a scene and you’re like, ‘Eeh, something’s missing, it’s not dramatic enough.’ And then you start adding stuff and then you’re like, ‘Woah, there’s so many boulders in this area! I can’t even tell where I’m supposed to go, what a mess!’ And then we’ll start taking stuff out. Or we’ll do like, one giant boulder instead of eight small ones. It sounds dumb but that’s the kind of stuff we constantly have to deal with.
For Death: Why purple?
War had a lot of red going on, so red was off limits. When we tried blue, blue is a soothing color… there’s basically two colours that sort of fit death or arcane magic, or underworldly ghostly etherealness: so we had this ghastly green and this purple. Black and purple just look evil, I don’t know why. [Laughs] But you’ll notice, there’re a lot of Disney villains that actually have purple as well. We used the ghastly green so much in a major area of the game called the underworld where Death is facing off against an undead kingdom – we couldn’t have giant landscapes and characters in purple because it was way too garish so they got the green, Death got the purple, and it just stuck.
Did you worry about the Skeletor comparison?
We heard that early on, and we laughed about it. Honestly, I think it was one of the reasons that I took the teeth off the mask, because I didn’t want it to be an actual skull face. Then it literally would be Skeletor. But we weren’t worried about it, it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of a funny connection. You always get stuff like that – like “Oh, he looks like this, the game looks like this.”
And it’s like: Eh, we just wanted to make him cool. And I like He-Man, whatever. I like Skeletor. I’ll take it. It’s the 80’s comeback, man. And look, you’re never going to play a Skeletor game. It’s not going to happen, so you might as well just buy Darksiders II. [Laughs]
Did you put a lot of thought into death’s back? Since we’re going to spend so much time looking at it?
It’s one of those things – it’s iteration, one thing they absolutely need is a loincloth. I put one on the back so that I don’t have to see a guy’s butt while I’m running in the game. You’ll notice Death and War both have them. You need that coverage. Beyond that, you have to pick a pose that’s cool from the back not the front – it’s the exact opposite of what would come naturally. Once you have those rules in mind… I mean, we’ve been doing it for a while, so it’s second nature now. But in the beginning there was a learning curve to it.
What do you miss about doing comics all day?
Well, I’m still doing it to some extent. Not full time, but every once and a while I do get that bug, and I’m lucky enough to get to keep my foot in both worlds. It’s one of those things where the grass is always greener. When I’m home drawing, it’s relaxing, I don’t have to deal with a ton of people. I’ve got my music on and I get to draw just like when I was a kid. There’s something really meditative about it – but eventually, after a while, it’s just boring and lonely, and it’s nice to go into the studio and feed off everyone’s energy and excitement. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, sometimes we have arguments and bad meetings, and whatever. There is an energy to being in a studio that’s pretty awesome. So I would definitely miss that as well. So, you know, they each have their own appeal.
How has it been developing the game for Wii U?
Yeah, we’re not allowed to talk about the Wii U version at all.
PR: That’s where I’ll jump in. We’ll talk more about the Wii U later.
Okay, OK. Since the plotlines of the first and second Darksiders are concurrent, are we going to find out what happens at the end of Darksiders, or are we really going to have to wait for a third game?
Aw man, I can’t talk about the ending of Darksiders II!
No, of course. I’m just wondering if people who are hoping for some resolution for the first game’s ending will find any kind of satisfaction here, or if they’ll have to wait for a third game.
You’ll definitely get a lot more insight into the story – there’s two ways to progress a story: one is to tack on to the end of it, to add to the linear story. And the other is to go depth-wise into it. I won’t say which one you get more of in the sequel, but you’ll definitely get something out of it.
We were conscious of it, we knew that we’re not starting off where the last one ended. It was cool to end on a cliffhanger in the first one, some people were frustrated; some people were super frustrated, some people were super excited. And everyone remembered it, and that was the main thing. Because some games just end and you never talk about it again.
In the sequel, we chose to just give you a whole new character, which also blew people’s minds. It’s the way we do things — if it’s not jarring and it’s not exciting you, (hopefully not frustrating you), just being impactful, then it’s probably not worth doing. Hopefully people will be happy with the ending of Darksiders II. But I can’t really comment more than that.
To wrap up, here’s something I’ve been curious about lately in general: What does the word fantasy mean to you? What makes a world a fantasy world? What do fantasy games need more or less of?
To me… I play a lot of RPGs and I read a lot of fantasy novels so when you first say “Fantasy” to me, I think of elves and warriors and magic. But I think that as far as game genres, and when we’re talking about art direction, to me, it’s just anything that we’re not photo-referencing.
When I say ‘Hey, let’s go more fantasy with it’ when I’m talking about art, a lot of times, you can just have like, waterfalls spilling out of building windows in this desolate apocalyptic scene, and it’s more fantasy. It’s not just, you know, a hollowed-out building. You could see that in Detroit. Adding fantasy elements, it’s just something that you couldn’t possibly see.
I’ve been enjoying games that are definitely fantasy but aren’t Tolkien-style fantasy. Gravity Rush, Bastion, The Secret World, etc.
Yeah, and I’ve always been fascinated by… I love elves and dwarves as much as everyone else, but I love worlds that blur the lines and introduce new elements. That’s why even when I was doing Battle Chasers there were giant robots and guns and swords and wizards… it was kind of a mishmash. But yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t just have to be Lord of the Rings fantasy.
Thanks for your time.
Definitely, it was fun.