We tend to think of music as a purely auditory experience, but it's hard to deny the visual aspects of some of history's most iconic musicians. Michael Jackson had a white, studded glove. Gorillaz has animated personas. Daft Punk has robot helmets. KISS had makeup. What we see in our media can be just as important as what we hear, even if it's the music that gets the majority of our attention.
Crypt of the NecroDancer is a game that mixes roguelike structure and design with rhythm-based controls. As heroine Cadence, players move and attack to the beat of a soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky that's so infectious and lovable even the dead can't resist its charms – skeletons, zombies, ghouls and more shuffle to its pulsing beats and wave their hands/bones/tentacles/claws in the air like they just don't care.
The game has earned much attention and praise – Joystiq's own David Hinkle wrote that it "represents everything that I treasure about the indie games scene" – but Crypt of the NecroDancer is more than music and monster-bashing. It has a talented art team behind it, dedicated to giving those who play the game a world they'll want to see as much as they want to hear it. NecroDancer features a pixel art style that is the collaboration of two artists: Ted Martens, who creates the low-resolution sprites that Cadence battles as well as the game's environment and items, and Jesse Turner, who interprets Martens' art and upscales it into a more detailed, higher-resolution work.
The creation of an in-game asset such as an enemy begins with game designer Ryan Clark, who describes what he wants to see in gameplay. "Ryan designs a zone and he'll come up with a bunch of different enemies and put that up, we all give our two cents or come up with our own, but largely they're Ryan's ideas," Martens explained. "Then he codes what he thinks will be fun gameplay for them, and once he gets that zone close and the character types are getting nailed down, then I go through and I change his placeholder monster art and come up with whatever I think would look cool for it."
Although Clark oversees the game's art, he doesn't often request changes, and when he does, they're based more on feel than look. Clark held up the game's skeletons as an example; although he liked what Martens had created visually, Clark wanted the creature to have a "tell" that would signal to the player they were about to move or attack. The skeletons were made to raise their arms when they moved and Clark was satisfied.
Once Martens has finalized the look for a monster, it goes to Turner, who puts his own spin on the sprite to create a more detailed look.
Interpreting low-resolution pixel art is nothing new for Turner; he's been doing it since he was a child. Turner told Joystiq one of his favorite parts of gaming were the games' instruction manuals. "Whenever there wasn't one, I would get so bummed out that I would start drawing the enemies I'd run into," Turner said. "I'd hit pause on the game and draw what I thought they looked like."
"What's neat about that process is typically, back in the day, if you look at stuff from like Yoshitaka Amano, he did high-res, beautiful watercolor paintings. Then they would take that and crunch it down into the pixels. What we're doing in NecroDancer is actually like the reverse. It's starting out with Ted's pixel stuff and then it comes to me, and I'm kind of crowbarring my take on it. It's super fun."
Turner isn't always playing follow the leader, however. Sometimes the creation process is reversed. Many of the game's bosses, for example, began as sketches from Turner, who would churn out six or seven ideas per boss. "I'm not a very good 'quality artist,' I'm a better 'quantity artist,' so that's kind of how I approach design work. I make enough crap that eventually something sticks," he said, laughing. "It's a shotgun approach."
If the team's art output and collaboration is a gun, NecroDancer's Death Metal boss is a bullseye shot. The monster, a Grim Reaper-like figure with a massive speaker on his chest and microphone attached to his iconic scythe, is a play on words in several ways: His theme music is a fast-paced death metal beat, and his design is based on the stereotypical Grim Reaper (aka: Death) visuals with a metallic shield and costume accents. Death. Metal. Death Metal.
It's a striking and original concept, thoughtful and thematic. And despite being a visual asset in a game getting attention for its music and gameplay, it's an important piece of the game's overall impression. The Death Metal boss – and indeed all of NecroDancer's art – are the studded gloves, the cartoon personas, the robot helmets, the KISS makeup of the game world.
"People do react really well to the art when we put out stuff," Clark told Joystiq. "It's just that when people hear the concept, it's hard for them to not get overwhelmed by the wackiness of the mash-up and the music."
"We wanted to make it look like a true roguelike, which I think it does."