If you ever need an argument to reinforce the idea that games are art, the works of Michel Ancel are a pretty good place to start looking. One of the game industry's most recognizable developers, the energetic 39-year-old has been the driving force behind the quirky Rayman games, the stunning-for-its time adaptation of Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, and the subversive, critically acclaimed commercial failure Beyond Good & Evil.
Above: Rayman Origins' Senior Game Writer/Lead Story Designer Gabrielle Shrager
(left), and Rayman creator Michel Ancel
His latest creation, Rayman Origins (due to release Nov. 15) appears to
fit neatly into Ancel's rebel oeuvre: it's unapologetically 2D,
brilliantly animated, endearingly goofy and fun in an old-school,
friends-on-the-couch way. In other words, potentially amazing, but
something of a gamble at retail (especially considering the heavy
hitters it's up against this November).
When we last played Origins back in August, we had a rare opportunity to visit Ancel's Montpelier studio – and more importantly, to sit down with Ancel and his collaborator, Gabrielle Shrager, for a conversation about Rayman, Beyond Good & Evil (and its sequel), and Ancel's thoughts on the current state of the industry.
In making Rayman Origins, how has the reception for other previously 3D games
that went back to 2D, like Mario, Sonic and Mega Man, influenced you?
Ancel: It’s funny, because we started Rayman Origins a long time
ago, in fact. We have been experiencing these [development] tools since like three years
ago. While we were doing the first tests – this was for different projects, I
hope this [other] project will proceed shortly, it was a 2D project with multiple
players. And then we saw LittleBigPlanet, we saw Mario coming, and we were
like, “OK, it’s time for us to redesign our game.”
My feeling is that LittleBigPlanet did the first official
move toward playing four at the same time. But in my memory, it’s more the good
old Bomberman games, or all the tennis games, the 2D tennis games. You were
able to play four and five with Bomberman, or even eight on the Saturn. I don’t
know, there was one console, it was crazy.
I think it was 10 on Saturn.
And it’s just… it’s not an innovation, it’s just like if we were remembering
that 2D makes possible this kind of thing. 3D, you have the camera, it’s very
hard to contain the players, or you have to split the screen in 10. Can you
imagine? But here in 2D, you have this overall view, and you can make people
interact with each other. So I can’t wait to have games where you can play
Of course, it’s difficult. Maybe everybody comes with his
controller, and you can play. With this engine, you can play 10 if you want.
There’s no limits, just input limits. But it’s just that it was fun, and we
just realized that the technology moved too freely, but this old fun is now
moving back to 2D, it makes old things able to come back. And with the HD
screen, it’s better.
Above: Concept art decorates the walls at Ubisoft Montpelier
how easy it is to drop art assets into the game, are there a lot of incidents
where artists have come up with something cool or interesting for the game that
you want to find a place for? Or is it more, “We need this sort of thing for a
given area, so create something along those lines?”
a real bad answer for these things. (Shows us the art pictured below.)
These three artworks show differences. That one is an artistic view of the
ocean. We said “We want you to draw something in the Abyss, but whatever you
want. Surprise us.” That one is more a variation of the same place, with
different colors to create different moods, like pink, orange and blue.
But that one (indicates the art below) is more an order, because we wanted straight
shapes for the gameplay. We wanted something to hide the secret passages. So
it’s really an order, but sometimes we have this concept art, we have the
feeling that this should be in the game. And so we have that reverse way of
thinking, like, how this can be really interesting in terms of gameplay? So we
are both finding ways to converge in terms of creative process.
Shrager: It’s not always function that leads the dance; sometimes
it’ll be the graphics.
really interesting, because it’s always a balance between surprise from the
artist, or ordering things, and you know what you want. But you know, one
person told me one day, “With the artist, you must not order. You must
inspire.” Inspire the artist, more than ordering things to them. And it’s
funny, because if you inspire the artist – like, not ordering things, but just
saying “this is the Abyss, this is a place where everything seems to be hidden,
but at the same time it seems peaceful,” then the artist can try to imagine
things and evolve to create different things. Therefore, you have seen the
level inside the dragon – it’s the same guy who did these two. Here, it’s more
anemone. The interior of a sea anemone.
so it’s the same kind of idea. It’s recreating a surprising environment for us.
While we’re on the topic of inspiration, what kinds of things do you draw upon
to come up with the ideas for these games?
know, here we live close to the sea. It’s funny, because you can’t imagine how
many things are in the sea, just behind you. Because I live just three
kilometers from here, on the border of the sea, and I used to take my scuba
diving suit… and you’ve got octopus, you’ve got some kind of giant fish, some
very big fishes. Sometimes you can see sharks,
you’ve got squids, and it’s a world that looks simple, but you can
imagine a lot of things, and there are maybe more than what you can imagine. And
I think that in a game, it’s very interesting to retrieve the sensation of
exploring something, and not really being able to know what’s coming next. And
that’s the kind of things we want to bring to the player.
Michel taught me something very important, because sometimes I would come in
with art done by other artists. And he said “No, Gab, you don’t show the
artists other artists’ art. You want to show them something, you describe
something in nature, or you can show photos, or real elements from the real
world. But if you show them another artist’s interpretation, you’re just going
to influence them, whereas they have their own creative vision. And that’s the
way I think that Michel also gets completely unique environments and
characters, because he doesn’t ever say,
“It’s like this person,” or “Have you heard of…?” It all comes from something
inside him, and inside us, and inside each of the artists.
So would you say most of your inspiration comes from nature? Are there any
other games or pop-culture works you draw inspiration from?
think, looking back now at all the things we did in that game, it’s really…
when we worked on Beyond Good & Evil, it was more political things,
political situations, you know. It was the period of the Iraq war, and September
11, and it was a very terrific period in terms of propaganda and things like
that. And the game is really close to this environment and situation. Rayman is
more, I would say, close to nature, and the fact that when you were a kid, you
were always discovering things.
We don’t remember those periods, but when you are two,
when you are three, everything is new, in fact. And maybe as a very, very young
kid, you see someone in the street, and the face of that person, very old
person, can be like a monster, you know? These people talking to you, you don’t
really understand the language, you can’t imagine how much it’s influenced you
as what you are now.
Some people say, “no, supernatural things, this is not
good, this is not rational.” But we always live in an irrational world, because
we don’t understand the world exactly as it is, especially when we were kids.
Imagine when you go back in a place, when you were kids, you had the feeling
that the place was giant. When you go back when you’re an adult, the size is
normal. So that means that when you’re a kid, you thought giants were existing.
I think Rayman is really influenced by all these
sensations. As adults, we still have sensations like that with the ocean, or
with weird creatures we can see with microscopic vision. So that’s the main