In “Concrete Genie,” the player finds themselves dodging bullies and swinging from the rooftops of a largely abandoned town. But it doesn’t want users to fight said bullies. Instead, the goal is to fill their world with a little bit of color.
The title, the latest from Sony’s in-house studio Pixelopus which releases on Tuesday, puts gamers in the shoes of Ash, a young artist in the generally lifeless fishing town of Denska. It becomes Ash’s job to turn the bleak landscape into one filled with art, wielding a magic paintbrush that brings his creations to life, resulting in the expressive titular genies that help the teenager along his journey.
To turn self-expression and creativity into a game mechanic, developers turned to the PlayStation’s DualShock 4 controller, utilizing the motion censors to turn it into a paintbrush. Players point the controller at the screen and draw landscapes and genies on the city’s walls with what work similarly to stickers. There’s still the opportunity for customization, however — and it makes sure that anyone, even if they didn’t ace art class, can make a stunning mural. That was very much the goal, lead animators Becky and Lucie Roberts and designer Jing Li told Variety.
“We wanted every player to feel like an artist when they played, because not everyone enjoys drawing or knows how to paint,” Lucie said. “We wanted everyone to feel that sense of freedom of expression with the different brushes.”
“At the end of the game, everybody’s walls should be different,” Li added.
The concept of the game, which originated from Pixelopus visual effects artist Ashwin Kumar, went through several iterations through the brainstorming process. One idea had Ash drawing a world within the walls for the genies to live in; another version of the game had the player being guided through their drawings. As for the genies themselves, which were inspired partly by the team’s pets, their personalities had a big responsibility: represent the friends that Ash didn’t have in real life, and serve as an extension of the character himself while still allowing the sort of self-expression that the developers strove for.
“When we were trying to decide how the genies worked, that was a really big challenge because we wanted them to be your own genie,” Becky said. “And so how do we animate those characters that could have any scale or could look like anything?”
Adding arms and legs helped, giving the player more opportunity for customization and freedom for the genies to walk around. Lucie credited game artist Lancing Love Chen with helping to create the look of the genies and said her personality ended up surfacing in a lot of them.
In the finished product, a genie’s abilities and personality shift depending on what the player adds. Genies painted with a red brush have fire powers, for example, and can burn down wooden doors that stand between Ash and an objective.
Players are never rated on their art, and while the genies ask for players to draw them certain things, be it a patch of trees or a group of butterflies, they don’t say how to draw them. Sure, the designs for the genie’s body parts are pre-drawn, but should you put a tail on its head or ears on its belly, you won’t be punished in any way.
“Game mechanic-wise, we are not judging players’ skill as an artist,” Li said. “Whatever you paint we deem as beautiful.”
That idea of beautifying a cityscape was inspired by Li’s hometown of Xiamen, China, which saw something of an art revolution when residents started painting on the walls. Like Denska, Xiamen is a small fishing town, with its ports mostly abandoned in favor of the city. A few years ago, however, Li said, residents started to paint on the walls, drawing more foot traffic and retail opportunities to the area. The high school Li attended also caught up with the idea, opening up the walls on its playground and giving each classroom the chance to decorate their own sections.
“It’s really inspiring to see all the kids sharing their creativity and art with everyone,” Li said.
The concept of “Concrete Genie” had already been developed when Li made a visit to her hometown one winter. However, the idea made its way into the game, as Ash works his way around coloring a formerly bleak landscape.
Along the journey, however, he faces bullies that threatens to zap the life out of his artwork, tossing Ash into dumpsters and forcing him to stealth around and scramble up rooftops to get away. But they’re not just caricatures standing in the protagonist’s way; play long enough, and you’ll find that the bullies have their own backstories and struggles. “Concrete Genie” encourages empathy over fighting back.
“We’ve always cared so much about all the different characters that I think it helps us guide their behaviors a little bit to make them still feel like real kids and not just boogeymen,” Becky said. “They’re not totally out of control violent. They’re still just kids who are kind of figuring out their world.”
It was important for the “Concrete Genie” team to show those darker parts of the world without getting too scary or discouraging. Ultimately, “we really want Ash to feel like, or the player to feel like, they’re the light of the world, and they’re the magician of the world,” Li said. “And we want them to feel like they’re filling the world with art and creativity and positive energy.”
“Concrete Genie” is only the second game from the San Mateo, Calif.-based Pixelopus, which launched in 2014 with “Entwined,” a colorful, soothing rhythm game that follows two souls in love, tasking the player to bring them together over the course of their lifetimes. While different in gameplay, Becky said they’re similar in that “you fall into them and you’re taken away into a very artistic world.”
“It’s the kind of game that a lot of us like to play,” Lucie said. “We like playing really artistic games with a lot of heart and a lot of us like adventure games and it’s where the team is, I think.”
“Concrete Genie” is now available for PlayStation 4.
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