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MythForce: Video games’ love letter to 1980s cartoons says the sweetest things

The lesson of MythForce, if Beamdog’s zany roguelite has one, is that parody is easy; homage is hard. It’s simple enough to snicker at the 12-frames-per-second animation of the 1980s, and the cynical narratives that the decade’s syndicated cartoons spun to sell Jem and the Holograms dolls or Centurions playsets to kids coming home from school. But making that look and feel come home to someone playing a video game, as if it were a cartoon come to life, would take a lot of work. They’d have to work against the engine they’d be using to build the game, even.

It was worth it, Eric Booker and Luke Rideout said. Their boss, Trent Oster, wasn’t sure.

“You’re telling me,” Oster said, summarizing a conversation with Booker and Rideout, “that you want to take Unreal — which is really good at doing photo-real stuff, and lighting, and all this awesome stuff — and you want to turn all that lighting off, and put a bunch of effort into making it look how it’s not supposed to look?”

The look, of course, is what makes MythForce, which launched April 20 in early access on the Epic Games Store for Windows PC. In gameplay, yes, it’s a lively, first-person hack-and-slash adventure where players level up a team of characters with loot and XP from procedurally generated dungeons. In look and sound, MythForce players are plundering a world of pure 1980s syndicated UHF cartoon nostalgia. All it’s missing is a blue-screen 1-800 ad for Freedom Rock or Time Life Books.

“My favorite thing to watch has been when [players] first boot it up, that theme song comes on, and, like, the four or five seconds of confusion,” said Beamdog artist Micah Pettibone. “And then people just, literally, jamming to it.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=S6uqBi2SBtE%3Frel%3D0

Pettibone, by the way, wasn’t even around for the awesome How-to-Buy-Action-Figure-Man cartoons of Reagan’s deregulated decade. She’s 29. But Pettibone, an environment artist for the game, was also a quick student for nailing the 1980s look. It may be a distinctive style, but it’s also built on fundamentals and design processes that professional illustrators understand today.

“When we started with this project, we had a nice document that details, ‘Here are some of the main rules of how they approach these scenes,’” Pettibone said. “You can see that this was an animation where they had less money to put into backgrounds. So these were some of the choices that defined those styles, basically. It was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got five bucks for the shot, so you’re gonna do a solid color, right?’”

It’s ironic that such a rich and evocative artistic style could, in fact, be described as cost-conscious. But in a way, that mentality helped Eric Booker, the art director, get the project to a point where Oster wasn’t just comfortable with the pitch, he was all-in for the aesthetic, and all of the extra ways it could be expressed in the game.

  • “This was our original concept” for the playable character Maggie the Mage, says Eric Booker, MythForce’s art director, back when the game was codenamed Project Battle-Axe. “In keeping with the source material we chose to reduce the character’s line count and remove thematically dark material, such as the facial tattoos and skull on the spellbook.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “This is an early, in-engine render test of our 3D asset.” — Eric Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “These are early ideas for Maggie’s magic turret,” the follower AI that helps her deal spellcasting damage, Booker said. “These designs ultimately had too much detail, and bent a little more sci-fi than magical tech.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “These are additional concept explorations of Maggie’s magic turret (again choosing to simplify the design),” Booker says. “We were looking to the old He-Man toys and the classic stop motion <em>Clash of the Titans </em>movie for inspiration. (<a class="ql-link" href="https://clash-of-the-titans.fandom.com/wiki/Bubo" target="_blank">Mechanical owls for the win!</a>)” “These are additional concept explorations of Maggie’s magic turret (again choosing to simplify the design),” Booker says. “We were looking to the old He-Man toys and the classic stop motion Clash of the Titans movie for inspiration. (Mechanical owls for the win!)” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “I wasn’t a big believer in the cartoon visuals off the start,” Oster said. “I used to joke about it when I worked at BioWare, it’s like, ‘Hey, talking heads, humans that look at you and move their mouths?’ Yeah, that’s a $10 million feature. Now, what’s our feature? Everything looks like an ’80s cartoon. That’s what we’re spending money on, that we could put elsewhere.

    Oster told Rideout, the creative director, and Booker, the art director, they had three months to make the concept work. “And after three months, we were like, ‘OK, this is working,’” Oster said. “‘And this is working really well. And it’s blending really well with the gameplay. Let’s do this.’”

    By this point, Booker, working with Pettibone and character artists Diego Velasquez and Aimee Correia, had a solid conceptual foundation for MythForce’s dashing heroes, smug villains, and the forbidding Castle of Evil where both sides would meet. Still, Booker needed a creative backstop to be sure that everything was going in the proper direction — that MythForce, wizards, warriors, and all — really did look like a 1980s cartoon, and Booker and his colleagues hadn’t just convinced themselves it did. For that, Booker turned to a mentor, Mark Cappello, an artist with more than 25 years of experience in both traditional animation and video game development.

  • “This was the original concept art for Rico, at the time named Quincey,” back when the game was code-named Project Battle-Axe, Booker said. “He came off a little too much like a bad guy and not the lovable rogue we were pulling for. “ Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “In this version, we took steps to make Rico feel a little more heroic, while drastically toning down the fine details and adding in musketeer/swashbuckler elements,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here is the final concept for Rico, further pulling out details and injecting more personality, and finally choosing to remove his flintlock from the design,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “And here is an early, in-engine render test of our 3D asset,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “He actually worked on some of these projects,” Booker said, meaning the kind of cartoons that MythForce sought to emulate. He explained what they were doing to Cappello and then said, “Tell me where I’m wrong.”

    Booker said that Cappello came into the process and explained what the team was looking at, so they would know what to recreate in Unreal Engine 4 and what to leave out. The advice was very technical, but it worked.

    “Then we had Mark, who [said] ‘OK, line count specifically references this.’ Or ‘This is cel damage, as opposed to, like, a paint imperfection.’ So, that really helped us cherry-pick the elements from a vast array of shows, and then actually get that animation-appropriate terminology that we kept throughout the project.”

  • “Reintroduction of some of the lion motifs, adding a simple lion ear and mane helm, and lion fur around her gauntlet,” explains Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “An early sketch for Victoria” from the Project Battle-Axe days, Booker said. “We decided that this version didn’t feel enough like the heroic knight we wanted.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “A much more revised version of our knight character, at the time named Phaedra,” said Booker. “You can start to see some of the core roots of Victoria taking shape with the undercut hair. “ Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “In this image we can see Victoria really taking shape and the introduction of the lion motif,” said Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “In this image we looked to drop the line count and tap into She-Ra and the Thundercats vibe, lion gauntlet and all,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Booker: “Further simplification while trying to retain the He-Man feels.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “This is the first introduction of Victoria’s iconic mace,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “And here is the early, in-engine render test of our 3D asset,” says Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • MythForce’s visual appeal, of course, isn’t a single idealized frame or linear animation, like the assets Filmation’s artists were famous for reusing (and reusing, and reusing) in shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Fat Albert, or Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. It has to execute and present a cartoon action sequence in real time. Even if defeated enemies disappear in a puff of smoke and magic dust (with attendant sound effects) it’s still a lot of extra work to do right, Oster said.

    “There’s another side to this, which is, you can’t use any of the existing tools that are out there,” Oster said. “Like you want to make something that looks great, and before, you’d go out, 3D scan a bunch of people, you throw them in the game, boom, it sucks them in, and they’re there, but, ‘Oh, I want it to look like outdoor lighting.’ Bang, bang, we use the automatic lighting generation. Well, none of that stuff works.”

  • “Right out of the gate we knew we wanted the brute to be big, scary, and memorable, while drumming up the nostalgia of cartoon henchmen,” said Eric Booker, MythForce’s art director. “Thematically these are way darker than where we landed, but you can see elements of him starting to form in numbers 04, 07 and 10.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here, we’re looking at how the brute could fight or act in a boss fight scenario, also exploring his facial animations,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Looking at colors and facial markings before settling on the facial and chest scars. Honestly, how could we have gone with anything other than orange? <a class="ql-link" href="https://he-man.fandom.com/wiki/Beast_Man" target="_blank">Beast Man</a> would never forgive me,” Booker said.  “Looking at colors and facial markings before settling on the facial and chest scars. Honestly, how could we have gone with anything other than orange? Beast Man would never forgive me,” Booker said.  Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “First full turnaround for the brute,” says Booker, from when MythForce was called Project Battle-Axe. “Later we greatly reduced the amount of hair rendering for the character as this level of detail would not be possible in an ’80s cartoon show.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • The refined concept. “The big man himself,” said Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Some further facial expressions, looking to show the beast and the more human side of Beastor,” said Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Daedalus is MythForce’s primary antagonist. Think Skeletor, with a mullet. Also skin. And competence. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • An early concept for Daedalus, leaning into the Mumm-Ra (of Thundercats) look. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Even if it’s impersonating the kind of low-frame-rate, assembly-line animation for which Rankin/Bass (Thundercats, Silverhawks) or Sunbow Entertainment (G.I. Joe, The Transformers) was well known, MythForce’s processing workload is “deceptively demanding,” said Rideout, the creative director.

    “To accomplish the look that we are ultimately put into MythForce, it requires a surprisingly large amount of post-process work, which is very expensive, graphically speaking. There’s the overhead of creating the death animations that you mentioned, but that’s still a relatively high VFX cost. We have to create bespoke VFX for all of those, as opposed to what a lot of games would do, which is just to ragdoll something and have blood spatter everywhere. So we definitely have picked a handful of pretty large fights with this.”

    That’s to say nothing of the biggest, most optional fight Beamdog picked — the title song.

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=Z1HtOKSSuY0%3Frel%3D0

    “Every time we leaned more into the cartoon,” said Oster, the guy signing all the checks, “it just felt better. So at one point, we were like, ‘Hey, we want to do an animated trailer, and a song, and everything.’ And everybody was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it! What’s it gonna cost?’ I don’t know! Let’s figure it out! It was like, ‘We’re committed. We’re making it happen.’”

    MythForce’s original soundtrack was composed and performed by Ross Lara of Archipelago Entertainment, in collaboration with the singer-songwriter Jeff Garrison. “We showed him references to the cartoon intros to Thundercats, and M.A.S.K., and Silverhawks, basically had him listen to those,” Rideout said. “And the two of them, together, slammed out that song in a couple of weeks, and sent it back to us with a sort of Simlish mumbling, because we didn’t have the lyrics yet.”

    Oster admits he got a little nervous at this point, as he was “pot-committed” to a big, hairy song without much assurance it’d resonate with the audience.

    “That Simlish version, where they came in without lyrics like, ‘Ba-baaa, ba-da-baaaa. Ba-namanamnanaaa,” I was like ‘I don’t know about this! But trust the process!’” he laughed. “It’s a little synthy for me, it’s a little boppy, I want a little more sawtooth edge to my synth in there.’ You gotta remember, easy listening of 2020 was heavy metal in 1990. It’s gotta be what you remember, but then, your memory’s a little skewed. […] It was a lot of fun. The first time I heard it with the lyrics, I had the headphones on, I cranked it up. I’m like ‘That’s awesome.’”

  • “This is one of the earliest explorations into the environmental style, pulling in themes from Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, Frank Frazetta and of course Rudy Obrero,” said Eric Booker, MythForce’s art director. “Ultimately we decided that thematically it was too dark and it pulled away from the all-ages adventure we wanted to pursue.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “In this image we explored something a little more in keeping with the abstract backgrounds from Thundercats and He-Man, using a lot of the neon contrasting colors the show is famous for: saturated purples and toxic-sludge green,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Said Booker: “After the pitch process we reevaluated our intended approach to environments, choosing to go less abstract and lean more into a style closer to an animated feature film, such as The Secret of NIMH or The Black Cauldron, while remaining true to the Saturday morning cartoon inspiration.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “This is one of our revised enviro benchmarks,” Booker said. “Here we are really beginning to nail down the look and feel of a high-end animated show, controlling the amount of detail as it fades into the background and finding the right amount of tooth and grain to the paint strokes and the overall composition.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “To begin our transition to replicating a painted feeling in a 3D space, we looked at how traditional background artists would construct the scene, and general workflow from there,” Booker explained. “The art team began to rebuild this process procedurally in-engine.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Pulling in elements from our previous explorations (level of detail, fade of information at distance, and saturated color palette), Diego Velasquez, one of our talented concept artists, put this visual target together for the 3D enviro team to try and hit,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “We began roughing out the space, applying our procedural wash maps and brush strokes down, while looking to paint the scene with light,” Booker says. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here we have further refined our 3D block out and have started to globally control our detail fade at distance, while introducing a coarse paper grain to the scene,” explained Booker. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here the scene is really starting to take shape,” Booker said. “We have finer control of our lighting, the ability to add larger-scale paint strokes, and paint in bounce light on selective objects.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “A further polishing of the scene,” says Booker. “More complete assets have been added, final textures are coming online, and our color values are beginning to get locked into place.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “The final scene is complete. We have the details working over distance and the lighting behaving in a predictable manner,” Booker said. “Painted details are represented without overwhelming the eye, final 2D elements such as film grain and scratches are added to lock in the aesthetic of the shot.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Booker: “Early thumbnails for our forest adventure.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Booker: “More forest adventure thumbnails.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Originally we had wanted the forest start room to feature an old windmill as the rally point for our team of heroes,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here is our revised concept for the forest start room,” Booker explains. “Here you can see our tree forms beginning to take shape along with our bioluminescent mushrooms.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Here we have a concept by Aimee Correia, another of our fantastic in-house concept artists.” Booker said. “With this image we wanted to set the tone and feeling for the forest adventure and biome.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “Refined concepts for our forest adventure,” said Booker. “We really wanted to capture the feeling of exploring a giant ruined castle and surrounding area.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Booker: “Concept for one of our discoverable treasure rooms and exploring the use of stained glass windows as an Easter egg for delivering our law drops and world-building.” Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “This is in-engine progress for our forest adventure,” Booker said. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • “More in-engine progress for our forest adventure treasure room,” Booker explained. Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media
  • Awesome, the word that gained currency with the valley girl slang of the 1980s, is the aspirational ideal for everything in MythForce. It’s an early access game, which means the developers are closely watching community reaction, particularly the streamers. Pettibone, Rideout, Oster, and Booker all seemed personally touched by the reactions their game has garnered so far. “It was one of our pillars of design: Never, never become a parody,” Rideout said. “This is homage, not parody.”

    “We really wanted it to be a love letter to the ’80s,” Oster said. “And to do that animation, and to not be a mocking, cynical thing. And I really feel we’ve hit that, especially watching the streams and watching people, being in that happy, 13-year-old head space. I just love that.”

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