This interview is a feature from our second printed zine, Issue #2: Breath.
Following its release last year, A Hat in Time has been embraced by players and critics alike. Lauded as a love letter to the fading genre of 3D platformers, it’s a welcome slice of nostalgia. While that would be enough to ensure the game success, its developers have filled every corner with their own innovations. Because of this, A Hat in Time was among the most memorable titles of 2017.
Thanks to strong visual design, characters like Hat Kid and her adversaries are already a part of popular culture. Much of A Hat in Time‘s striking style comes from Jenna Brown, its 2D Art Director. With her incredible passion and talent, Jenna was instrumental in bringing Gears for Breakfast‘s debut to life. But she has a long history with illustration, and boasts an impressive catalogue of personal work too.
In this interview, Jenna speaks to Secret Cave about the process of adapting to A Hat in Time. She also discusses how her craft has evolved, some of her inspirations and the struggles of publishing independent zines. This post features several examples of her handiwork, and you can see more here. Finally, we’re extremely grateful to Jenna for her fascinating insight, which you can find in full below!
How, and when, did you discover your passion for illustration?
Illustration has been an influence in my life since reading my first children’s books. I always loved looking at and taking in art whilst trying to replicate it within my own artwork. A specific turning point was when I watched Pixar’s Up for the first time, and it clicked that pursuing illustration/concept (especially sequential) was what I really wanted to do and make a career from. If I could come anywhere close to the level of craft within that film, and affect people the same way, I would consider it an accomplishment.
Who were some of the influences behind your work, outside of video games?
I’m particularly fond of artists I can find on Twitter for constant inspiration. Artists such as Lois van Baarle, Hans Tseng, Danette Beatty, Fellipe and many more! Beyond that, in film, Studio Ghibli are a staple in my inspiration folder — as is music. I try to keep my music taste as fresh as I can, and take in new content so I can avoid getting stale and see what’s popular in the current climate. My favourites currently are Stromae and BLACKPINK, two very different inspirations from different parts of the planet!
How much did you have to adapt your style for A Hat in Time? Likewise, how much did the game itself adapt to your approach?
The game was lenient at the beginning in how to approach the art style, which is both a blessing and a curse! You’re given the responsibility of really defining the games visual qualities, whilst also balancing what came before you and making it work with your own style. I did tweak minor things in my style, so Hat Kid could be consistent within loading screens, but due to me being the texture artist initially in the game, rendering style could be consistent to what I generally paint. It was very relieving!
One cool thing I was able to do because of my loading screens was change the way the Mafia looked. At first they had a style from the previous artist’s concept, but our director really liked how I rendered the character, so they adjusted it.
The downside now, due to being able to faithfully use my style in the final product, is that I’ll never be able to go anywhere without people highlighting it looks like A Hat in Time! I do deeply appreciate people being aware of my style now though. It’ll be a constantly humbling experience.
Which games visually inspired your personal art direction, and why?
We commonly get referred to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker when talking about the game, and that’s not far off in terms of texturing style! Wind Waker and Animal Crossing have wonderful stylistic texturing, and I would look at them for guidance. Since we painted a lot of our textures, as opposed to photo realism, I would look at a lot of PS1 games like the Spyro and Crash trilogies, as well as games like Psychonauts. We settled with a very specific cartoon look, and these games were able to achieve personality within their art direction. In future titles with the company, I’d love to push this kind of direction further!
What are some of the more surprising ways that 2D art is incorporated into gameplay?
A lot of the UI (user interface), for sure — we have a few missions where 2D graphics are pivotal to the act itself. For example, in “Picture Perfect“, getting polaroids of Hat Kid photobombing was integral to earning massive points, and in “Murder on the Owl Express” you gather 2D case files that contain pictures of your suspects. We could have fun with this and make characters look as suspicious as possible.
The gimmick artwork is almost everywhere! From the contracts for Snatcher to the flags in “Alpine Skyline” (to direct players to objectives), there are subtle ways that we work with game designers to ensure the player gets to where they want, or achieve a certain emotion. Another example is the part where Hat Kid draws over Snatcher’s contract, which is from our 2D team. We aimed to make it as cute as possible, and people really liked it!
Most surprising to me were Storybook extracts, which were added later in the development cycle to work like the Memory Vaults in Psychonauts. They added a whole new collectable to the game, and additional lore. That was probably my biggest gameplay contribution!
To what extent do 2D and 3D artists collaborate on a game?
Almost on every step of the process in terms of our pipeline. Once we’ve created mood pieces for the general level, 3D/Level designers will usually go in and do a block out of the level based on what we initially concept. Afterwards, we’ll paint over their block outs to give them exact concept and props so they can model them into reality. We texture what they model along the way, and then it’s all placed in our modified Unreal game engine. The 2D artists on our team usually work in engine with 3D too, for decal and prop placement, so we try to communicate very frequently with each other so both our workloads go smoothly and we stay on the right track. Thankfully, any issues tend to be minor headaches if they occur!
When you work remotely, communication is key. We all work online, as opposed to an office, so we’re constantly finding ways to improve our communication and ensure we can flow as much as an office studio. This means that the art teams are always in sync and have each other’s backs with feedback and ideas.
A Hat in Time‘s instruction manual is a pitch-perfect homage to those from the 1990’s and early 2000’s. How important do you think extra materials, like a manual or box art, are to the overall experience?
It’s such an overlooked part of the process these days, which is very unfortunate! I think modern industries find manuals too stuck in the past or childlike, but there’s an extra level of charm and personality to be had in a good manual. For example, many N64 titles (especially from Rare) would really push the humour in their manuals, and it was a great way to get extra enjoyment — just reading over all the pages and learning about your favourite characters!
There’s a sense of urgency these days with games to flash instructions in your face constantly in UI reminders and loading screens, instead of putting them in a manual. Manuals are more a relic of a pre-internet era, and I doubt they’ll ever return to our mainstream sadly. Their importance (especially in a digitally dominating sales era) is not that strong, but what they do bring is an extra touch that hardcore fans will always cherish. I will always appreciate the care companies have when they put the dedication in to replicate that experience with modern games.
What path did you originally see your art taking before A Hat in Time?
No matter what path I’d take, it would always follow a sequential route. I made a few narrative books in my university years, which I loved producing, so it would most likely take the form of graphic novels or comics. It may still do! I’m also a huge fan of linocutting and print as an art form, so I would have continued to explore that and possibly my own workshop. However, I never closed those paths in my mind, so if I can combine what I do in my daily job with what I want to explore I’d be really happy. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to eventually!
How have you developed as an artist across the course of the project?
It certainly pushed me in ways I never imagined. I learned how to render a range of objects, and problem solve within my art in concept and design. It challenged me to think outside the box, and taught me how to deal with physical limitations in the game itself. After this project, I feel much clearer in tackling larger compositions and environments, and in creating liveable, breathing spaces in my pieces. Prior to this project, I wouldn’t dare touch many complicated backgrounds! Now I relish them. I hope I can show what I’ve learned in personal pieces later this year. Most of my growth was kept secret in non-disclosure agreements!
You’ve been involved in several zine publications; is this something you still have an interest in? What is it about the culture you enjoy?
Zines are incredibly rewarding once you ship them out to customers, but until that point they are so stressful!! I applaud anyone who can manage the time and energy to keep a zine project going consistently on schedule. It was a huge undertaking to do, but I always jumped back in because the rush of adrenaline once you see the book in your hands is a feeling that is hard to replicate! If I wasn’t working full-time I definitely would host community charity zines again, but in the meanwhile I’d love to focus on my own.
With charity zines I enjoy the community and coming together for a common cause. Zines are a great way to get your voice or your art out there for others to experience and enjoy. There’s a culture of underground publishing with zines, and you get some really creative projects as a result. If you’re in the UK and want some really great zine publications, look at Gosh! or go to Thought Bubble in Leeds — great to talk to creators at that latter event also for advice!
What do Gears for Breakfast, and yourself individually, have planned for the future?
At the moment, our focus is entirely on getting the additional content out of the way. Beyond that, our future is looking pretty bright and, whilst I can’t share it explicitly, I’m really excited about it. Personally, I’m hoping to return to making larger pieces and personal projects that I can actually show publicly very soon! Hopefully a proper comic… or at least the groundwork for it!
This interview is a feature from our second printed zine, Issue #2: Breath. Click here for information.