There are few fictional worlds that are set as firmly in the mind’s eye as the well-spring of all modern fantasy, Middle Earth. Over more than half a century, numerous creative works and our collective imaginations have distilled to establish a set of rules as to how Tolkien’s world should look.
Anyone could be forgiven for being daunted by the prospect of sharing their vision of Middle Earth with such an educated public, but not Philip Straub, art director on Lord of the Rings: War in the North at Snowblind Studios.
Straub's career as an artist in this industry has seen him work on everything from Barbie to Guild Wars, from Madden to Lineage. That breadth, he believes, helps him to visualise worlds must faster.
As the title would imply, War in the North recounts the battles for those lands left behind as Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and the Fellowship carry the One Ring south towards Mordor. It’s a unique opportunity, Straub told us, “to visualise some locations that have never been seen in any media before.”
Nonetheless, Straub and the team Snowblind accept that the stakes are high: “We’re we very sensitive to ensuring that whatever we created that had not been visualised before was consistent with the lore.” And if he concedes that the studio has taken some artistic license, it appears that he’s a firm believer in the freedom of a tight brief. “If you look at the environments you can see that it is consistent with people’s expectations but that it’s also fresh.”
Naturally the additional difficulty when creating such a game is that players don’t merely want to see Middle Earth, they want to experience it. “Everybody always talks about immersion,” says Straub, “but for me that means using the tools we have to create an emotional response” – and the primary tool for achieving that goal is colour.
“One of the things I’m really interested in is understanding how humans relate to different visual stimuli. So for example there are certain colours that have a visual or emotional impact. We use those different colour palettes to accentuate a mood.”
Each environment in War in the North has its own palette and its own lighting solution. “We never do high noon,” emphasises Straub, adding that at midday there are no interesting shadows, no rich colours. Instead, Snowblind is focusing heavily on the twilight hours, dusk and dawn.
Contrast is an equally important tool. “If you look at Rivendell for example, a painting I did in pre-production, that’s a lighter moment in the game and it’s really important that we had that contrasted with some of the darker, scary environments such as the Barrow Downs or Carn Dum. There we’re using a lot of deep reds and blacks, colours that people (at least in America) associate with evil.”
Then there are the characters that occupy this world. “It’s important to understand silhouette,” says Straub, “that each character’s is unique and recognisable that supports their personality.” He goes on to explain that each character must have a unique and identifiable colour palette, materials, and both positive and negative shapes within the patterns and costumes.
“What I mean by that is we look at the human, we look at the dwarf, we look at the elf, and obviously those different races lend themselves to specific visual languages.”
When it comes to costumes and armour, Staub is particularly insistent. “If you think about other role-playing games where you have rich customisation, a lot of the time what you get is clown suits.” He goes on, “The developer has had to develop so many different pieces of armour or different aspects of customisation that as you progress through the game it becomes very likely that the pieces just don’t fit and you get these characters that look ridiculous.”
To address the issue, Straub says the team at Snowblind has “applied palettes and materials to each different race and it means that you pretty much always look good,” whether you’re able to replace a low-level piece of armour or not.
The result, Straub believes, is a game that emphasises coherency while remaining iconic and immersive. War in the North, he says, will give players the sense that they’re “being pulled into this universe.”
Lord of the Rings fans could ask for little more.