If there's one theme that has been prevalent since Children of Morta's original Kickstarter back in 2015, it's the crisp, high quality pixel art. It's what originally caught my attention all those years back, and now players and backers finally have a chance to see for themselves the culmination of developer Dead Mage's hard work. It's not easy to produce such visuals, but Dead Mage gave us a look into their process.
Children of Morta is an action RPG set in a fantasy world full of monsters and mysteries. You play as members of the Bergen family, a group of talented individuals versed in all manner of combat and magic. We looked at how Dead Mage brought not only this family to life, but a whole new fantasy world.
Children of Morta's Origins
This is not Dead Mage's first title. This independent developer made games such as 2011's Garsharp: The Monster Slayer and Shadow Blade. Children of Morta is noticeably different from the others, both in terms of gameplay and especially in its art style.
Team Lead Amir Fassihi says that Children of Morta originally began as a project by a small group of friends who recently joined the Dead Mage team.
"The game was planned to be a very small game to be made by a young team while the studio was finishing Shadow Blade: Reload," said Fassihi. "Soheil and Arvin who were part of this new team decided to explore this type of art direction and the more the project progressed, the more it became an important part of the company. All other developers joined Children of Morta after Shadow Blade: Reload was released."
From day one, Fassihi says the art direction was praised, so the project continued from there. Games other than those Dead Mage developed served as inspiration for the visuals of Children of Morta. 2D Artists and Animators Soheil Zarghami and Arvin Garousi list several games that influenced the art direction, including Hyper Light Drifter, Super Time Force, Crawl, and Nuclear Throne. Interestingly, a famous Japanese animation studio also proved a great reference.
"We have always been very much inspired by the animations of Studio Ghibli and other eastern animations," said Zarghami and Garousi.
Modern Techniques in Children of Morta
The painstaking detail you see in Children of Morta is the result of meticulous work from the game's designers. Children of Morta uses many different techniques to achieve its unique look, including frame-by-frame animations, hand-painted art, and modern lighting techniques.
The Bergen family is at the forefront of gameplay, each of them made up of sprites. The process in creating these characters and bringing their sprites to life in an action-packed RPG is arduous but well worth the effort.
"The reference key of characters and their anatomy are mostly drawn and painted in photoshop," said Garousi. "After finalizing the character, we draw key frames in another animation software and fix their anatomy with the reference frame in order to keep the proportions. After that, considering how much smoothness we want in animation, we draw between-frames."
As Garousi says, Children of Morta is very smooth in its animations, and the action is frantic. To reflect that chaos in gameplay, the team went through another challenging process to assure that everything is up to par when it comes time to fight.
"The game designers would come up with a few ideas for a character’s combat moves," said Arvin, "then we would roughly animate the character. This would be a few key frames only and not a full detailed animation. We would play-test the animation in the game and see what parts of it would need tweaks in order for it to be very smooth and impactful."
Arvin mentions that their prior games have always been combat-focused, so they had a good idea on how to approach animation and the overall feel of fighting in Children of Morta. Of course, animations in combat were more challenging and required a greater amount of work than idle animations.
To make the visuals really pop, Dead Mage uses modern lighting techniques in Children of Morta. Arvin compares their techniques to a puppet show:
"The world of Morta is not exactly in pixels resolution," said Arvin. "We stretch the pixel animations in HD resolution (about 4 times to fit the full HD screen). By doing this, our lighting could have a resolution as high as other normal 2D games. Instead of making the pixelated lights, we used the high-res dynamic lights and this made the difference with other pixel art games and created an eye catching style. It's like a puppet show. The puppets are pixelated but we shine them with real lights. "
Bringing Children of Morta to Life
One major component to Children of Morta's action RPG gameplay is procedural generation. Dungeon layouts change, as well as the placement of enemies and items. The challenging aspect for Children of Morta's art team was finding a way to distribute narrative elements within procedurally generated areas. Based on the player's progress in the story, an algorithm would place these narrative elements in areas at the necessary times.
"The unique look and feel of every environment required the procedural generation algorithm to be tailored for that environment," said Arvin and Soheil. "The first chapter of the game is in an indoor area, the caves, but the second chapter happens in an outdoor city. These two have different algorithms for procedural creation."
In addition to procedural generation, characters are at the forefront of Children of Morta, with the team painstakingly creating the Bergen family you play. Also akin to procedural generation, the idea that you play as a family was a component from the beginning of development. Each family member has their own play style and character design.
"We also thought about their personalities, like being kind, introverted, smart or stubborn," said Arvin and Soheil. "Other than that, they have their own passions and skills, like Lucy loves to draw, Linda is passionate about playing the violin, Kevin loves nature and flowers, and Mark is into spirituality and meditation."
Watching these characters come to life and interact in their family home and within Children of Morta's world is even more convincing with Dead Mage's meticulous attention to detail in artistic design.
The Bergen family can expect to fight all manner of creatures along the way. Designs vary from chapter to chapter; early on, players tackle spiders, goblins, and more. Later on, Soheil teases mummies, ghosts, scorpions, and even robots. He alludes that there are "dark enemies" that corrupt other monsters during gameplay.
"The creature and boss design ideas came from the whole chapter theme and the lore of the game," said Soheil. "For example, the cave boss, Nohar, was created by the spirit of the caves from stone and acted as the protector of the spirit, this protector gets corrupted when the darkness falls and will be the main boss of the first chapter of the game."
Prepare for Children of Morta
It's not easy making a game like Children of Morta look as good as it does. It's a game that is very narrative-driven, so the reuse of assets was limited to some extent. Narrative elements require unique artwork. Arvin and Soheil say creating high resolution pixel art is a lot of work, and so was creating the Bergen family.
"Many members in the family requires a lot of effort for creating the cutscenes and animations since all of them needed to be included in most of the game narrative events," said Arvin and Soheil. "Their unique combat abilities needed a lot of animation sprites for each character."
Despite these challenges, Dead Mage had a lot of fun creating the world of Children of Morta. Arvin enjoyed creating the animations of the Bergen family, as well as the game's final cutscenes. Arvin also liked other animations, such as making children play in the house, making light of the dark themes in Children of Morta. For Soheil, designing the Bergen's family home was his favorite part.
"Not all the details might be noticeable at first," said Soheil. "A lot of what happens in the house changes by the story progression."
You won't have to wait long to explore the world of Children of Morta and see for yourself the fruits of Dead Major's labor. Children of Morta is available now.