Atelier Sento has been working on The Coral Cave for a couple of years now, slowly piecing it together from memories journeying out to Japan, and especially Okinawa. It’s a point-and-click adventure game meant to evoke the serenity and beauty of the archipelago’s out there at the edges of Japan.
Given that The Coral Cave is beautiful at first sight, being made of water colors and keen artistic vision (Atelier Sento also made a film and comics), Siliconera spoke to Atelier Sento about the process behind creating The Coral Cave’s look, covering everything from the inspiration to the act of drawing up a scene inside the game.
First of all, could you tell us who and what Atelier Sentô is, and give us an idea of what range of projects you work on?
We are Cécile and Olivier, a French couple who lives and works together. We had the chance to live for one year in Niigata, Japan, in 2009-2010, where we discovered the Japanese countryside, its landscapes, people, and folklore. From then, we decided to travel to Japan often and to work together on projects inspired by those trips. After some comics, a short film, and a few exhibitions, our first big project is The Coral Cave: a watercolor point-and-click adventure game.
It tells the story of Mizuka, a little Japanese girl, who lives on a peaceful island, in the Okinawa archipelago. The player will explore a typical Okinawan village, enter a mysterious spirit world and investigate a local folktale whose ending has yet to be written. The story and the backgrounds are inspired by our numerous stays in Japan. We spent one month in Okinawa, traveling from island to island. We drew many watercolour sketches on location which became our main documentation. Many places in the game are real locations we visited.
In terms of other art works, what are your biggest influences and what about them in particular has affected you?
It may be difficult to give a general answer, so let’s focus on our biggest influences for The Coral Cave:
Low tide, Loguivy, july 1897, Henri Rivière (La Bretagne, aquarelles inédites, Equinoxe, 2004)
Henri Rivière is a French Artist from the 19th/20th century who was heavily influenced by Japanese ukiyoe. We discovered his work when we were living in Bretagne, a region Henri Rivière truly loved. He traveled all around Bretagne to paint watercolor sketches of landscapes. Later, he used them to create splendid woodblock prints which are some of most beautiful combinations of Japanese and French art.
His watercolor sketches are a huge influence for us: The Coral Cave was only beginning when we bought Rivière’s sketchbook and we spent lots of time flipping through it. His sketches look very modern because of their composition and their vibrant colors. We also like the thick lines (while watercolor artists usually try to have invisible lines) and the omnipresence of water.
Bretagne is the only region in France which reminds us of Japan (because of its folklore and nature) and Rivière’s work is the best depiction ever made of its mystic and stony shores.
Pastoral: To Die in the Country, Shûji Terayama (Art Theater Guild, 1974)
Shûji Terayama was an avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director, and photographer from the 1970s. His films had an incalculable impact on our work. They are an explosive blend of creativity, experimentation and freedom . No word can explain them. There are more crazy ideas in one Terayama shot than there can usually be found in an entire film. And, at the same time, his films are so personal, often inspired by his own childhood.
It’s difficult to tell how much he has inspired us since our entire vision of Japan has been contaminated by Terayama. At first glance, his films look like pure fantasy but they are not. The Japan he depicts still exists and it can be found. We traveled twice to Osorezan, the Mountain of Dread, where “Pastoral: To Die in the Country” was shot. It’s a desolate volcano, one of the most sacred places in Japan. Parents come to contact the soul of their dead children. We’ve seen huge crows in the smoke, quarreling over kid snacks left as offerings. We’ve heard a mother screaming the name of her lost daughter over the sulfuric lake. And a thousand jizô – childlike figures of stone – were watching us with their enigmatic smiles.
When you enter the world of Shûji Terayama, there is no turning back. The link with childhood, the reconstruction of reality through dreamlike memories, the phantasmagorical imagery of the old Japan deeply influenced the creation of The Coral Cave.
Mirai-chan, Kotori Kawashima (Mirai-chan, Nanarokusha Publishing, 2011)
There’s a subtle scent of Terayama in Mirai-chan, a charming photobook. Probably because it takes place on the island of Sado. Harsh climate and troubled history: it was a place of banishment for important people (poets,artists and even an emperor). The contrast between the vivid small girl and the very old house where she lives, surrounded by ominous landscapes, made a strong impression on us.
What interests us here is this juxtaposition of a very young girl from today and an ancient mysterious world. She may look out of sync to the reader but Mirai-chan simply lives there. Everyday life can be an adventure. Just open this book and stories will start to take shape in your mind!
The Song Thief, Daisuke Igarashi (Kaijû to Tamashii, IKKI Visual Book, 2012)
We don’t read lots of manga because many tend to focus on the characters’ faces, the rare backgrounds being there only to indicate where the scene takes place. We do believe that people’s emotions and life are connected to the place where they live and to the nature around them. Daisuke Igarashi draws everything with the same sensitive line, elegantly connecting humans and nature. He truly believes in this link and put it at the center of his stories. Even in the middle of the city, no one is independent from nature. Our eyes are closed and Igarashi’s stories are all about opening them.
End of a Trip, Misao Shimizu (Kâchi-bai, Art Box Gallery, 2002)
We came across Misao Shimizu’s paintings in a second hand bookstore in Sendai, in August 2012. We were spending a few days in Ishinomaki, a city that had been terribly damaged by the tsunami the year before. In our way to attend a small matsuri (a traditional festival) on a sacred island, we walked across devastated areas. Entire villages wiped off the map. It deeply affected us. When we opened Misao Shimizu’s book in that bookstore, it instantaneously brought us back to the warm ambiance of Okinawan islands. Somehow, it helped us to handle the sadness.
There is something magical in Misao Shimizu’s paintings. As if they were emitting light. A strange vibration filtering through a realistic depiction of Okinawan landscapes. This book follows us everywhere.
Primarily, you’re comic artists. How would you describe your personal styles and interests within this category?
We don’t have a complicated style. We like to keep things as simple as possible and stay close to the characters. As if we were standing next to them. Because of that, you won’t find ultra-dynamic angles, exaggerated expressions or movements in our comics.
Another important thing for us is to connect our characters to the place where they live. So we put a lot of attention in creating the backgrounds. It’s not about adding an insane level of details but to really care for each object, plant, or building. We draw places where we would love to live.
And, of course, it’s totally inspired by our travels. Even when we are in France, we never stay too long in the same place. We move every year to a new region so we keep looking at our environment with fresh eyes.
We met marvelous friends in the comics world, especially Josh Tierney from Spera-Comic.com who helps us a lot in all our projects (he wrote our short film and translates The Coral Cave to English). Sadly, in comics you have to deal with publishers. Their behavior hurts us so much: we almost gave up. Fortunately self-publishing An Irabucha’s Dream, our Coral Cave minicomic, has been a success. We received many heartwarming messages so we might continue making small independent comics.
The Coral Cave – An Irabucha’s Dream (Atelier Sentô, 2015)
After having made a film and comics, why have you now decided to work on a videogame? What are you bringing across from these other art forms to this videogame?
We were in a dead-end. We had many issues with publishers and we had no strength to start new comics projects. The short film was a wonderful experiment (working in a Japanese forest, with real people, adding sound and music, …) but we couldn’t imagine to stop drawing and painting.
At the same moment, 3 things happened:
- we played Machinarium and learned that modern videogames aren’t supposed to be made in photorealistic 3D by huge studios. Machinarium has been scribbled with a pencil on paper. And guess what: we have lots of pencils!
- we heard about game engines that do most of the programming and allow any artist to easily create their own games. We downloaded Adventure Game Studio and started reading the tutorials. It was easy indeed!
- we discovered the world of indie games where small teams can sell their game directly to the players without the need of a publisher.
So why not give it a try?
But be warned: we know nothing about making videogames. What’s game design? Art direction? Gameplay? No idea. Oh, it’s not a bad thing: we can do whatever we want. We can even use our watercolor box to paint the whole game on paper! Not because it’s an “art direction” but because we have this box and we like it. It followed us everywhere in Japan. It’s a link between those small islands we visited in Okinawa and the game.
Our process is not about bringing something from an art form (comics or film) to another (videogame). It’s more about using the same tools and the same inspiration to create diverse kinds of works.
Where did the idea of The Coral Cave’s story and characters come from? And could you give us a short overview of the game?
It naturally comes from our trip in Okinawa. For one month, we traveled to several small islands. At every new harbor, our first move was to pick up the island’s map. Those maps were hand-drawn, full of funny little details, and it felt like a game to use them to explore the islands. Later, back in France, when we were thinking about making a game, that playful experience in Okinawa immediately came back in our mind.
The story came later, little by little. It’s inspired by memories we brought back from our travel, people we met, nursery rhymes, …
Mizuka’s design comes from Koyuki and Sakino, two little Japanese girls. Their mother is our best Japanese friend and her name is… Mizuka! We discovered Okinawa thanks to her: she speaks a lot about those islands. But she lives in the north and never found time to travel there. So our idea was: let’s create an alternate version of her who would actually live in Okinawa.
When we go to Niigata, we spend lots of time with Koyuki, Sakino and their mother. Last time, small Sakino even got the exact Coral Cave haircut. The resemblance was striking!
You have an "Okinawa Diary" written by Ryoko Kokuba. How did this and Kokuba’s other work inform the The Coral Cave?
For the game, we don’t do research. We prefer to stick to what we saw and experienced during our trip rather than looking for abstract information in books or on the Internet.
We met Ryoko when she was living in Paris. Ryoko always writes from her own perspective. She speaks about Okinawa through her childhood, her relation with her family, her grandmother. It’s difficult to say how much the “Okinawa Diary” influences our work on The Coral Cave. Since it’s hosted on our website and since we do watercolor illustrations for it, it became part of the same world. We don’t pick bits of Ryoko’s writings to put them into the game but their atmosphere deeply affect us and our work.
Let’s take one scene, any scene, in The Coral Cave – what’s the process you go through to make that scene from start to finish?
We’ll take a simple scene as example. This scene takes place in the forest. Like most of the game’s locations, this one is inspired by a real place we visited in Okinawa: Sueyoshi Park in Naha. Here is the watercolor sketch we made on location:
We love that place because it looks very ancient and mysterious. The forest is dense and only a few rays of light make their way through it. It was exactly the look we wanted for the entrance of the Spirit World. It’s a good base for the scene. We start with a few small sketches:
Then, we sketch the final drawing using ordinary copy paper:
We scan this drawing and put it in the game engine so we can test the scene. Is the character’s size correct everywhere? Mizuka will be taller on the left and smaller on the right as she gets away from the camera. In this first version of the scene, there was a size issue: the tunnel was too narrow on the right so Mizuka was too tall in comparison with the trees. We had to redraw the right part of the scene, rescan it, retest it in the game engine.
In other scenes which feature complex puzzles, we can keep working with the final drawing for months. It’s easier to fix a sketch than a painting! When everything is perfect, we use a lightbox and a 8B graphite pencil to copy the drawing on a strong paper (Canson C à grain, 224g):
We scan this linework at 300dpi and save it on the computer. Then, it’s time to color! We use a box of Winsor & Newton watercolors. It takes only a few hours to color a simple scene like this one. For very large backgrounds, it can take 1 or 2 days. When it’s finished, we scan it using our Epson Perfection V500:
Raw scans often look faded. We need to adjust the colors and the contrast. Since the graphite lines sometime disappear behind the pigment, we superimpose the scanned linework to enhance it:
Then, we add some effects (halos, rays of light, …) and load everything in the game engine to create the finished scene:
When we travel to Japan, everything is looking very mysterious and we have to discover by ourselves the meaning and function of many places and objects. This is the kind of gameplay we want to offer.
In The Coral Cave, you will observe the backgrounds in order to understand what to do. There will be no explanation. When you move the cursor over a door, you won’t read “Door” and Mizuka won’t comment “This is a door”. You’ll have to observe and draw connections to solve puzzles. You’ll play most of the game in your mind.
In a same way, there won’t be explicit objectives. No character will ask you to do something. Per example, the game starts on a small sandbank. You don’t know why you’re here. You don’t know who this little girl is that you control. No intro cutscene explains to you the story. So what do you do? There’s an island at the horizon. Maybe you can reach it. At your feet, you find a handful of corals and a carved stone. What does its design mean? Can you relate it to the landscape around you? What happens when you put the corals on the stone? Can you use them to create a path to the island?
You have to do the whole reasoning in your mind, looking at subtle clues in the backgrounds. At the beginning, maybe you won’t see the clues but you’ll gradually learn to spot them. It is also connected to the story: Mizuka finds herself in a strange dream and travels to strange places. She doesn’t know what to do and has to figure everything by herself.
Will the puzzles be challenging? The game probably won’t be too hard… but it won’t be a guided tour either. We’ve seen children solving puzzles very fast while some adults were stuck waiting for someone who would explain the rules. But we don’t explain the rules. They can be deduced and we hope it’s part of the fun.
How close are you to completing The Coral Cave and what platforms will you be bringing it to?
Since The Coral Cave is our very first game, it’s difficult to predict when it will be finished and we want to take all the time we need. Maybe in 2016? For the platforms, since we are not programmers, only Windows is sure for now. Of course we’d love to release on more platforms but we’ll have to do some tests before we can tell which ones.