How Bungie Created Destiny: The Taken King's Art Style
Painting the stars.
Bungie's version of a post-apocalyptic solar system is beautiful: Mars emits a vibrant shade of orange, Venus overflows with fauna, and even Earth, a planet long ago touched by the malignant Darkness, hums with a chromatic energy.
Much of this world came from the minds of Mike Zak and Jesse van Dijk, the art director and lead concept artist, respectively, on Destiny's Taken King expansion. And although Destiny's art direction is the product of numerous teams, creative minds, and converging ideas, Zak and van Dijk have a close personal attachment to The Taken King's style.
I recently sat down with these two at Bungie's studio in Bellevue, Wash. to examine how different ideas coalesced to create Destiny's vibrant world. They've discussed each piece of art in the above slides, from new weapons and armor, to the new environments that compose The Taken King's aesthetic.
Oryx, The King Himself
Van Dijk: "We worked on Oryx a long time ago. We were talking about this story of Oryx and Crota. This is a father on the war path, in a quest for revenge for the death of his son. First and foremost, that meant we had to have some kind of resemblance between Oryx and Crota himself. We looked at our original visual pillars for the Hive, and created a more regal version of it."
Zak: "This also applies to the shapes. So, when you're thinking of the head, it needs to be a shape that is instantly recognizable, that immediately embeds itself on your retinas, and once you see it you can never let go of it. That's why we have these massive horns, none of which the other Hive have. Oryx can project his power across time and space, and that hits you emotionally. In the story he shows up almost right away, the giant visage of his face yelling at you."
Van Dijk: "We looked at particular insects. Moths came up a lot. We wanted Oryx's color to immediately convey a sense of danger. The most important thing was he just needed to look more impressive than anything the player had seen from the Hive up until that point. That led to where Oryx's final shape ultimately landed. The insect idea, that turned into plating on his body. But we also wanted to have a royal kind of armor. The purple color conveys the sense of danger, but also underlines the royal bloodline of the Taken King, in name and appearance."
Zak: "It was nice to be able to support the designers' desire to condition the player to fear Oryx over the course of the campaign. You can really let it out on an emotional level during the final showdown in the raid."
Van Dijk: "This is an example of an idea where design definitely permuted over time. There was this notion that we wanted to introduce a new race, essentially composed of existing facets that mutated in some way. There was only a handful of sketches that implied what it might look like. It was sort of like this inverted solarized effect.
We didn't want to end up in a situation where players would just always think of their enemies as fodder. At the end of a year of acquiring super high-tier raid weapons, they were just eating their way through waves of enemies without concern for their own well being. It became clear that the Taken were going to be a nastier, meaner version of existing factions. We felt the visuals needed to reinforce that. We wanted to introduce somewhat of a visual paradox, where these guys are closer to the darkness than the existing combatants, but in some weird way also much brighter.
That contrast ultimately led us to the Taken. They seem somewhat illuminated, their faces typically tend to have a glowing bright spot inside of it. They're very much based on that paradox: How do we play up the significance of the battle of light and dark within this particular combatant race?"
The Taken Gladiator
Zak: "One of the very first ideas was that it might be engaging for the player to fight combinations of races on the same team, that they previously only experienced separately. The idea of erasing factionality from the combatants, bleaching out all the color, taking it all away from them and giving them this unifying look. But we still felt that from a gameplay perspective, these guys need way more. That's when we started investing in unique abilities for every single guy. Really pushing that corruption to a new level, giving them the crazy otherworldly slitting abilities and blinding balls and all the crazy shit they throw at you now.
You're drawing from ideas or iconography or established themes that have meaning for people. But you're colliding them or combining them with other themes to create something new. I think that retro future is a good starting example in Star Wars. It's the future, but it's an old future, and that was super cool. For the Hive, you can reduce them to say they're zombies, or that the Vex are robots. But they're certainly not just that. That's what makes them more interesting. Those things continue to rotate and continue to be meaningful when we think of new things to do with the Taken."
The Titan Tank (Now Called Murvaux Armor)
Zak: "When we think about our gear, and even about our classes, what we're always trying to do is to allow players to have certain kinds of fantasies.
We want them to experience the game as if they were X or Y or Z, and they tend to vary. When you think about the hunters, you can think I want to be a rogue or a cowboy or an outlaw. With the titan, those words tend to be different, and at some point when we were working on our gear for the Taken King, we sat down and asked ourselves the question, what if you could literally be a tank? What if you could wear a tank? We started thinking about this, and it sounded ridiculous at first. But what is the visual vocabulary that players understand? What makes them recognize military vehicles for what they are?
It turns out there's actually a fairly distinct visual language that comes with that. What we ultimately did was very simple. We applied that aesthetic to something that was compatible with our way of building gear, but the point of that entire effort was to let players feel like, 'Hey, I'm inside a tank and I'm running around.'"
Van Dijk: "And throwing flaming hammers."
Zak: "Isn't that awesome?"
The Suros Lineup
Zak: "When I saw the first concept of the Suros line, I felt like part of the world was in my hands. That was pretty much it for me when I saw the development. It was sort of like an instant success."
Van Dijk: "We were thinking about Suros weapons essentially being Formula One cars you hold in your hands. Or a Formula One car that you use to kill people with. I think our ability to convey the spirit of an idea with just a single sentence is really the hallmark of a strong idea. I think simplicity is a very prominent aspect of many art-related things in Destiny. Our ideas are fairly simple, and it is possible to describe them in a single sentence. Usually you find that when you need a lot of words and time to explain certain concepts, they're too convoluted and too complex for them to be really rewarding for players as well."
Touch of Malice Scout Rifle
Van Dijk: "We like the idea that players develop a kind of fondness for specific weapons. I'm a hand cannon kind of guy. But with exotics, we always try to do something that is, in many ways, unlike everything else, which is hard. With a Touch of Malice, that sort of philosophy was taken to an extreme.
The point of it was never to even look like the weapon at all. It was just mostly a thing you held in your hand. In fact, the point of it was for most of its features to be obscured. The idea behind it was this filthy looking rag, and we want our players to even experience the sense of unease when they were holding it. The idea of putting your hands underneath this dirty cloth. There's a menacing quality to it. We talked about this weapon feeling like it wasn't very benign at all.
We ended up where we are now--it saps your life force as you're firing it and it starts to take out your own health. That's a great example of how the functionality of a weapon is in-tune with its visuals, and that's obviously something you always want to do. It doesn't necessarily have to be visuals first, behavior second. In fact, it usually is the other way around. But in this particular case, this component, those two properties of the weapon were so nicely in-tune."
Telesto Fusion Rifle
Van Dijk: "Telesto is another case where we started off with the desire to have a very visually distinct weapon. We looked at very strong automotive references. If we can build a Formula One car, can we build a motorcycle? And that's what informed us in terms of design on Telesto. It almost looks like a motorcycle you can hold.
And I'm not even sure how to describe it, but when you fire this weapon in the game, you get this lightning phenomenon that's hitting the glass container on top. It's a very visual weapon, this thing. This is one where we said okay, let's have the visuals inform its behavior. It's a very tactile thing that happens, when you can see the weapon emitting this energy, and see its effect in the game's world."
Hereafter Sniper Rifle
Van Dijk: "Hereafter [called Curiosity in conceptual stages] breaks a lot of the stylistic rules that we have established. In this concept piece, the gun is obviously inspired by the recent NASA missions and high-tech technology of today, taken to the nth degree on steroids in the future. The retro future Star Wars idea obviously resonates pretty strongly here, too. The universe probably did from day one. Hopefully they didn't name this gun Curiosity in the final game. I actually didn't even know its name until I got it last night.
Also, it wasn't until last night that I actually shot it myself and heard it for the first time. I have to give a huge amount of props to the audio team, because I think in this particular case, the audio adds so much to its character."
The Omolon Armory
Zak: "The new weapon brands are a great example of the connection we want to foster between players and their items. The brands--Omolon, Suros, and Hakké--each have their own visual vocabulary. You can look through your inventory and say, "That's an Omolon. That's a Hakké. That's an Omolon, too." That was important for us.
It lends more character to the overarching world. There are these consistent brands, and companies still pumping out weaponry after the Darkness came, to outfit the Guardians. All of the design contributes to making the world believable."
Sleeper Simulant Fusion Rifle
Van Dijk: "For Sleeper Simulant, we looked at NASA references, as usual. We also looked at stealth fighter planes, things that were shielded from radar, stuff like that, which have a very typical visual characteristic--all that came together in this weapon.
We started tossing around specific ideas early on, and at some point the idea came into fruition where we were talking about this being a fusion rifle in your heavy weapon spot. And its powerful, intimidating appearance sort of plays into it being a heavy weapon.
We also didn't want to give away too much information about this gun, as with many exotics. We're careful not to do that. We want some things to remain mysterious once the player acquires them, seeing as how these are some very distinct weapons that lend more character to the world. I struggle to pick a favorite between Sleeper Simulant and Touch of Malice. This one comes close. But I loved working on both. They're both awesome. [Laughs]"
Zak: "This is the very first painting we have of the Dreadnaught. One of our concept artists did it. This is an example of what we call a postcard. It's kind of like the visual version of what we've been talking about, the single sentence idea. It's like a single visual sentence. It's the postcard image you would send your family and friends. It has to be something memorable. It's got to capture something.
The Dreadnaught has to make the viewer instantly say, "Oh my God, what is that place? What else is there? That looks amazing." That's the goal of this image. This is essentially what we call our postcard, and it's the very first image we did.
Often times it can be challenging. We'll be working on a destination and we'll be doing tons of concept art and we'll be wrestling with different scenes and trying to find that postcard imagine and it will take a while, whereas this one--I just think it kind of works. It was just a really clear image from the beginning. Everything else is built off of this. All the other pieces just flowed from this one. And that's not how it always works."
What Lies Inside
Zak: "The Dreadnaught has this weird sort of zombie undead quality. There's no airlock--it's just sort of porous in this weird way for a spaceship, and clearly it's a monumental spacecraft approaching Saturn, which is an epic idea on its own. And then it's got this strange decay. It looks incredibly powerful yet it's sort of decrepit and it's sort of foreboding to all these nautical space life forms. A lot of barnacles are growing on it from its millennial voyage through galaxies. It's something ancient and haunting."
Inside the Hive Ship
Zak: "We wanted to have the hive ship feel like this ancient mausoleum filled with treasure inside, where you were never quite sure what you were going to encounter, and you might always run into new mysteries and secrets. This is why the entire surface of the thing is featureless if you zoom out far enough. There's all these tiny intricacies, but on a macro level, it is mostly just an obscure box floating in space. And that contrasts very starkly with all the super complex mechanisms that players will run into inside."
Zak: "I think for anything in Destiny, we want players to have that immediate sense of partial understanding of what they're looking at, but also partial amazement. A part where they will automatically ask themselves questions like what happened here, what is going on here, what am I looking at? But it always needs to be coupled with something that triggers some kind of pre-existing idea in their minds. There has to be a sense of familiarity to it.
If we did come up with a super amorphous blob that existed in four dimensions, it would be too abstract for it to be appropriate for Destiny. We wanted this thing to have a very distinct shape--but that shape should be understandable. However, what's inside of it should not necessarily be immediately clear. That is the part where we want players to think, "Okay, I see its outer silhouette, but what is inside of it? Why is it even here? Why is light coming out of one side?"
Before the Altar
Zak: "For anything related to design in Destiny, creative meritocracy is definitely the goal here. If you allow ideas to come from anywhere on the team, and you believe that ultimately the best idea should prevail, and it doesn't matter where it comes from, that can be a hard process. But it opens up a ton of possiblities. That's absolutely the goal. We want everyone, no matter who they are, to be working on this project. They're putting some of themselves in it."
Van Dijk: "On an even higher level, I think the fact that we do it that way comes from a shared desire to collectively push ourselves out of our comfort zone. There's such a strong urge to always try new things, to always engage with ideas that we're never quite sure will actually work until we test it. And sometimes they don't. But that willingness is always there, and even deep into the project, when we're concerned with timelines and schedules and everything, there's always a desire to make it as amazing as we can."