'Concrete Genie' Isn't Just for Kids, Says Director: "There's a Lot for Adults to Digest"

Concrete Genie Game Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Sony
"Bullying isn’t something that stops once you leave school," developer PixelOpus' creative director Dominic Robilliard tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Nearly two years since it was first announced at Paris Games Week in 2017, developer PixelOpus' art-fueled action adventure game Concrete Genie has launched on the PlayStation 4.

The second title from the San Mateo, Calif.-based studio centers on a young boy named Ash, an introspective doodler, who has the colorful pages of his notebook stolen and ripped apart by a group of bullies and scattered throughout the small, fictional town of Denska. Using a magic paintbrush, Ash must collect the wayward sheets from his art book and overcome various puzzles and challenges with the help of "genies," paintings that come to life and interact with the environment in various ways, dependent on how the player chooses to draw them. 

The concept for the game (and the main character's name) came from a single painting done by PixelOpus VFX artist Ashwin Kumar. "The concept was a little boy being bullied and painting these huge characters on a wall. He was imagining they were sticking up for him. That was the first image ever created for the game," PixelOpus creative director Dominic Robilliard tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Those elements of an artist, the bullying and painting these living characters in the wall were right there from the very first day." 

Unlike its first game (2014's Entwined, which was, as Robilliard puts it, a "student project" in many ways), Concrete Genie was a much more ambitious undertaking from the get-go. "When we finished Entwined, we sat down as a group and agreed that we really, really wanted to grow our ambition with the second game," says Robilliard. "We came up with a whole bunch of ideas, of which Concrete Genie was one, and one thing that became abundantly clear to us was that every single idea had some meaningful concept or idea at the heart of it."

Concrete Genie features a unique gameplay dynamic as players are offered a variety of options to construct Ash's genies and bring them to life. Artistic expression is a big part of the experience, but building the mechanics behind the magic was no easy task, particularly for a team of only 20 individuals (at its max — often, during development, the Concrete Genie dev group was only 10 employees).

"The whole world you see was built by two people on our team," Jeff Sangalli, art director, shares. "What became evident was that to make sure the city itself didn’t become too large of a character or too big in scale to overpower the story of the kids. This story is really about Ash as an artist and the kids in the neighborhood." 

The game sports two very different aesthetics, both of which tie into its narrative. Denska is at times drab and oppressive, drenched in soggy grays and muted blues, but also vibrantly hued once Ash, aided by his genie pals, breathes color back into them. "We were really inspired by stop-motion animation and particularly the way lighting hits a practical object," says Sangalli. "We did quite a bit of pre-vis, as 2D stills, but also traditional hand-drawn animation to make sure that we made each brush stroke feel like it would come to life. Our main goal was to make anyone feel like they had that feeling of creativity and celebrate making artwork."

"We knew just from the very beginning that if we were going to take this on we’d have to make sure we had something meaningful to say about it in the gameplay," adds Robilliard. "It’s not just Ash’s artwork that the bullies are ruining in this game, it’s your artwork."

The game's release was delayed a number of times as the team worked to get everything in order; tweaking this, adding that. "It took us three attempts to get the painting mechanics where they are now," says Robilliard. He credits Sony Interactive's Worldwide Studios, of which PixelOpus is a subsidiary, for allowing them the "extra time" to get the game where they wanted it.

One of the features added was a VR component. Concrete Genie offers two VR modes: a narrative-driven experience with one of the characters in the game and a free paint mode with multiple different locations from the main story. "Everyone very quickly made the connection of ‘wouldn’t Concrete Genie be awesome in VR?’ because of the painting mechanic in it," Robilliard says. 

Unfortunately, the team was too small to handle the development of a VR option at the time, so they brought in some help. "Jeff and I reached out to some old friends of ours we used to work with, Jeff Brown and Dave Smith," says Robilliard. "We brought them in and showed them the game and they came up with this amazing pitch of what would it feel like to step into one of your paintings and go into the world of the genies and carry on painting in full 3D all around you. We loved that idea so much that we asked if we could hire them and build a team around them."

The free paint mode allows players to step into the world of the genies themselves and let their creative side run wild, something the PixelOpus team is anxious to see from their community. "It's one of the things we're most excited about," says Robilliard.

"It's even been fun to see our own team members use our tools to make their own genies," adds Sangalli. "How you paint the genies affects the personality that’s revealed. They run different animation sets, they have AI where they interact differently with each other."

Despite the young age of its protagonist, Robilliard and Sangalli feel that Concrete Genie offers a story and gameplay experience that appeals to all audiences. "Bullying isn’t something that stops once you leave school. There are different flavors of it in all walks of life, all different stages," says Robilliard. "While, yes, we think kids will get a lot out of it, we think there’s a lot for adults to digest and take in as well."

The key, Robilliard believes, is engagement, not only with the narrative and its deeper themes, but also with the game's puzzles and interactive painting mechanics, all of which work in concert to tell a more engaging story. "That’s what’s great about games as a medium," he says. "You can help people understand something from a different perspective by experiencing it firsthand."