Ghibli & Level 5: Another World

I was surprised this morning to hear some news about, and see some footage from, the upcoming Level 5 (of Professor Layton fame) and Studio Ghibli collaboration, “The Another World” (hopefully that’s a working title).

Anyway, this game was originally slated for release on the DS, and a gorgeous trailer was released a while back, showing off a game seemingly late in development. This was exciting in its own right, but it’s recently been announced that it will be coming to the PS3 (which seems a bit of a late move), which gave me mixed feelings… until I saw this trailer:

Seeing what has been done with the graphics in the game is truly jaw-dropping, with a few minor details ignored, the environments might as well have come straight out of the fully animated sequences. Watching the trailer, it dawned on me, Ghibli (along with many other animation studios) have been excelling at creating 3D environments that look like paintings-come-to-life for years. This is one of my favourite recent developments in animation, since when it’s integrated well with 2D character animation, it gives  the resulting “2.5D” films the cinematic impact to compete with full 3D titles – which no matter how good they get (and I’m a big Pixar fan), somehow never fully capture the quality of character animation that a 2D film can. Perhaps for stylised characters there is such a thing as too much tangibility, and motion too smooth?

Anyway, character animation aside, the environmental 3D in Ghibli films can be stunning: one moment you’ll be looking at what you think is a static painting, the next the camera will be smoothly panning through it. This effect is achieved mainly because the textures (flat images pasted over the underlying 3D structures) are fully hand-painted (instead of fully or partially photographic) and there is little to no procedural lighting (light sources & shadows generated by a computer program) involved. The atmosphere is all created by the lighting and balance of colours in the original paintings; the shadows are literally painted into the textures. This leads to some restrictions in dynamic or moving light sources, but there are plenty of creative workarounds that don’t rely overly on a computer’s restrictively literal way of handling light & shadow. The fact that Ghibli use this technique to create animation for films means that the emphasis has always been on faithfully and seamlessly adding a 3rd dimension to the already stunning background paintings used in such animation.

So, there have been many attempts at cel-shaded games before, but  because of the inadequate processing power of earlier consoles, relatively low staffage in video games, and perhaps, lack of expertise in traditional animation, much has fallen short of the mark. This trailer however shows that the PS3 and 360 have to power to come close to the painterly environments seen in Ghibli films. What’s more ( and I’m only guessing here) the 3D techniques developed by studios like Ghibli seem perfectly suited to computer games, since hand-painted lighting might free up console resources that would otherwise be spent on generating procedural lighting. Not to mention the method putting even more creativity in the hands of the people working on the game, and reducing the time it takes to reconstruct the look of the level design paintings.

I half fancy that with companies like Ghibli getting involved in computer games, high-end, big budget computer game design is about to take a serious level-up, and a much needed step away from the hyper-realism of current big games on the market. We’re already seeing similar innovations in many indie games, and it’s encouraging to know that they scale well.

Well, most of this is guess work, so it might be the fact that Ghibli have nothing to do with the creation of the textures for the game, and it’s all Level 5’s work. It might also be that creating 3D for animation and 3D for games are so far apart that the two techniques overlap in an only incendental way.

Either way, I’m excited about this game, I can’t wait to roam free around those environments!!


  1. CrowbarSka says:

    Interesting… I’d never considered how real-time lighting is unnecessary in that style of animation and what that could mean for games. The character models in this game are 3D though so they would still require full light rendering. The amount of processing saved on lighting the environment though… Just think what other beauties that could be dedicated to!

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