Dying Light 2 Stay Human
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Interview: how Techland created the world and characters of Dying Light 2 Stay Human

This article is available in: French

Released last February by Techland, the videogame Dying Light 2 Stay Human sold 5 million units on its first month of release. The game features a zombie apocalyptic-themed open world and a parkour system.

We had the opportunity to interview a few members of the team behind the videogame:

  • Katarzyna Tarnacka – Environment Art Director
  • Dominik Wasieńko – Lead 3D Character Artist
  • Marek Musiał – Lead 3D Weapon Artist

We discussed the challenges faced by the team to create this sequel, as well as the environment design, the character design, murals and weapons. Also included at the end are a few tips for aspiring concept artists!

3DVF: Following the commercial success of Dying Light, Techland launched the development of Dying Light 2 Stay Human. From an artistic point of view, what were the main challenges of this sequel?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: The main challenge was to find which way we’d like to push this world further. There are many many aspects to that and we knew we didn’t just want more of the same. We established a few main pillars of the world during the pre production. For example Modern Dark Ages, World as a Playground, Choices and Consequences. But those are concepts, and figuring out which way, visually, to take them was a lot of work. During the first phases of the production we took those concepts in a few different directions trying to balance them in a way that would give us the results we were aiming at. Maybe a good example here is the exploration of Modern Dark Ages. Our first reflex was to recreate the feel of the world we think of when we think of middle ages. That resulted in a world that was rather depressing and unwelcoming and we quickly realized that it doesn’t go well with another pillar which was the World as a Playground. We did some consulting on how the world would be perceived and the results confirmed our concerns, so we modified our approach. That partially made us put more emphasis on the division of the world – ground belonging to the infected, being lost, and rooftops belonging to humans, full of life. That way we were able to keep both and the world became much more interesting in my opinion.

3DVF: What was the size of the art department team during the production of Dying Light 2 Stay Human?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: There are over 400 employees at Techland right now. The Art Department consists of over 40 people.

Techland / Kasia Mikulowska

3DVF: Dying Light 2 Stay Human is set in the city of Villedor, which is set in Europe. How did you approach this location, which features various districts?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: The first thing about setting is European architecture supporting in a very natural way the medieval or middle age style we wanted to include. It gives a broad spectrum of styles and architecture types to explore which was important for us not only for the artistic point of view, but also because of the gameplay. Having this multitude of form, shapes and scale available for us allowed us to provide many different parkour experiences for the players. Another thing is the fact that we know Europe very well, as most of our development team consists of Europeans. It’s always more natural to create the space we know very well than rely on references of places that we know only from travel. You can explore the designs more deeply if you know them accurately and grew up surrounded by them. It’s hard to catch up all of that experience and knowledge with just references or visiting briefly.

Techland / Anna Krzemien

3DVF : The Bazaar is an iconic location: an old church turned into the Survivor’s headquarters. Can you tell us about the design of this area?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: The Bazaar is actually my personal favorite of all locations in Dying Light 2 Stay Human. The idea itself came from researching middle ages and noticing how often we stumbled upon the Right to Asylum. It’s an ancient concept of providing a juristical asylum inside of a church. The custom is very old and was respected as early as ancient Egypt, later adapted by Christianity.

Techland / Emil Cegielski

Additionally through the years the Churches served as sanctuary in many different ways for example Roman style churches were basically fortresses, providing shelter in case of siege. 

Techland / Emil Cegielski

All of this inspired us greatly and we wanted to tell a story of a church serving as a safe space in an infected overrun world. We wanted to tell this story of semi-normal life happening inside the old building of a church, with surrounding gardens being used for farming. Using the vertical space of the church was a very interesting topic to explore and we had a lot of fun coming up with the living quarters in the transept.

Techland / Emil Cegielski

3DVF: First-person parkour is one of the main highlights of Dying Light 2 Stay Human. How did this impact the environment design?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: First person parkour in open world games is definitely a total game changer when it comes to designing the environment. It’s the number one thing we take into consideration when thinking about ideas, because the gameplay nature makes pretty much every object info a gameplay object. There are very few pieces of the environment that are inaccessible, that are just decoration pieces. We usually work in an established pipeline that allows us to provide good design that supports the parkour system. The first step is usually the mood concept art that helps us establish the key aspects of a given location. What we expect in terms of scale, narration, art and style. Once we’re all happy with the base ideas, and the mood is accepted by the directors we build a very basic 3d prototype that follows those ground rules and most importantly provides us with the gameplay. We check the needs in terms of possible paths, ledges, size and proportions of platforms etc. Once we have that and we’re happy with the gameplay and we know exactly what is needed we move on to the next phase, which we call executive concept art. This part is a very particular design, that captures the style and ideas of the mood concept but interprets the gameplay into actual pieces of architecture in case of a building for example.  

The parkour nature often forces us to figure out how to design ideas that sometimes are contradictory, which is actually a lot of fun and an awesome challenge. We became quite passionate about in the Concept Art team. 

Techland / Kasia “Kafis” Zielinska
Techland / Kasia Mikulowska

3DVF : Can you walk us through the design of Lawan, one of the main characters of the game? Rosario Dawson lent her face and voice for this character: is it easier to design a character inspired by a real actress/actor, or does it create new challenges?

Dominik Wasieńko: Lawan has a fierce, independent nature, and we were super excited to have Rosario Dawson as an actress to play her role. She was the perfect match for it and inspired us for new ideas.

The main challenge and goal for us when working on Lawan design was to establish an iconic look of her.

Lawan – Techland
Face, haircut modeling and texturing: Arkadiusz Jarmuła
Clothing 3D model: Katarzyna Bech – Przemysław Mirowski
Clothing texture artist: Katarzyna Bech
Concept art: Katarzyna Bech

We spend a lot of time depicting different ideas on concept art with iterations that lead us from a wide spectrum of different proposals to one that works the best for her. Sometimes it takes most of the time to get the right inspiration. We wanted to make sure that Lawan’s attitude and backstory is represented in visuals and individual elements.

Techland / Katarzyna Bech

For example, we thought that Lawan would need some cool graphic or other symbol that would tell something “between the lines” about her. So, we came up with an idea of an embroidered patch on the back of her jacket that depicts a special kind of a flower – Epiphyllum oxypetalum. This plant blooms only at night and it’s called ‘The Queen of the Night’ so, we thought that this would be an interesting metaphor of her as an aspiring Nightrunner.

Techland / Katarzyna Bech

3DVF: Can you also tell us about the design of Sophie, a member of the Survivors who would like to lead her faction?

Dominik Wasieńko: At the beginning we received a brief narration describing the story of Sophie. Who she is, what emotions the player should feel when interacting with her in the game.

The first step for us when creating character design is always making a lot of research and gathering references that would help us to establish the mood direction for the character. After that, the concept artist started to prepare the first sketches and ideas for Sophie, and we brainstormed with the character team on that.

Sophie is one of our main heroes. She is a delicate yet very strong character at the same time so we wanted to show glimpses of both her sides in visuals. We were going back and forth quite a lot with her to find the right visual direction that would make us happy. We were looking for some attributes in her outfit to show that she is ready to lead the survivors faction.

After concept art was ready we started preparing a 3D model, and also at this stage we were exploring further her face appearance to embrace all the characteristics that were provided in brief – being delicate , but very strong and charismatic at the same time.

Techland / Dominik Wasienko

We were checking in the game how she looks in dialogues, and also in perspective of the world we are in.

She also has brother Barney, so we needed to design them together, and check how they fit in the game when we are exploring their story. They are quite contrasting characters to each other so it was quite a challenging part.

3DVF: The game features 70 graffiti tags that can be found in the open world. What was your thought process when creating them, and what were your main inspirations?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: Graffiti, tags and murals are a natural part of every city. In developing an artificial city they are one of the tools to avoid the sterile feel of the environment. It’s quite a basic thing to add, but we wanted to push it a little further.

First of all we enjoyed deeply creating murals and graffiti for the original Dying Light, so we knew from the very beginning that Dying Light 2 Stay Human was going to be full of them. They provide a really nice outlet for the artists and we give pretty much full artistic freedom when it comes to street art. Every person on the team can create murals or graffiti if they have the skills, so not all of them are created by the art team. The murals vary a lot, some of them are commenting on the state of humanity, some of them depict our pets, some are part of long running jokes in our company or are easter eggs. We sometimes hide some secret messages in them or pay tribute to important people in the development team that we’re especially grateful to. The street art in Dying Light 1 was received very warmly by the players and we had this idea to make them a collectable item in the sequel.

Techland / Kasia “Kafis” Zielinska

Besides serving a basic purpose of making the city feel more real and natural and help with navigation, they are our canvas, a space where we can more personally connect with the players and create something very “ours”.

I personally believe in providing a canvas for every developer that wants to use it. The tiny personal connection between the creator and the recipient is quite magical and whenever I think of my favorite, most nostalgic elements in games I usually remember such things. Small pieces of the game made by one or few developers just because they felt the need to do it or thought it was fun.

Techland / Emil Cegielski
Techland / Anna Krzemien

3DVF: Dying Light 2 Stay Human features dozens of maces, hammers, knuckledusters, machetes, axes, bows… Was it difficult to create so many weapons with various designs, while making sure that they all seem to belong together, that they come from the same world? How did you split the work between the artists, and which weapons/kinds of weapons were the most challenging to create?

Marek Musiał: With such a huge project as Dying Light 2 Stay Human, we wanted to create a wide variety of weapons that would not feel repetitive for the players. We wanted designs to be interesting and complex.

Techland / Grzegorz “Kozioł” Kozłowski (concept : Lorenzo Tosi)
Techland / Michal Kalisz

When designing weapons, we relied on the principle that they consist of elements generally available in our world and imagined where we would look for these elements during the apocalypse. We have developed rules that sorted weapons according to the materials used, the method of production and the style of use in the game.

After browsing through thousands of references, analyzing dozens of machines that we had no idea about, learning a lot of mechanical elements and processing techniques of various materials, I think that we finally managed to create the feeling that the game is full of unique weapons but still belongs together with the world of Dying Light 2 Stay Human.

Techland / Krzysztof Knefel
Techland / Krzysztof Knefel

3DVF : Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Techland switched to remote work during the production of the game. How challenging was it for the art team?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: We adjusted surprisingly well and quickly. I think everyone was quite surprised how smooth the transition went and became the new normal. There were few different phases to that and we all miss seeing everybody in the office everyday but we found a way to work fully remotely in a very efficient way. If I’d been asked 3 years ago if it would be possible to switch I’d say “no way”. But turns out it’s not that difficult and we found some positive aspects of that as well. Some of us thrive in different times of the day and working at home provides the possibility to use that. Personally I’m the most creative at the late evening or at night and home office gives me the freedom to tackle the most challenging topics at the time of the day I’m the most efficient at. Thanks to remote work we’ve been able to recruit some amazing developers and artists from all around the world that wouldn’t be able to relocate to Poland. I’m not sure if the pre-pandemic style of work will ever come back. I’m quite nostalgic for the full office but it feels so distant and unreal now.

Techland / Kasia “Kafis” Zielinska

3DVF : One last question: would you have any advice for aspiring artists willing to work within the game industry, for example as concept artists?

Katarzyna Tarnacka: The advice I usually give is strongly related to the parkour nature of Techland’s games but in my opinion and experience it’s important for every artist who’d like to work in game development.

Most aspiring concept artists I meet mainly focus their energy on perfecting their art skills. Which is obviously important, but when designing for games the concept part or concept art is equally important. Craft and skill is one thing, but the way you think, the way you identify and solve problems is crucial. The ability to accept the requirements, even if they go in the way of art, and the skill to navigate around them is irreplaceable.

The amount of incredible artworks that’s available on the internet these days is amazing, but it can build the wrong impression for aspiring artists. A lot of artworks I see on the internet described as concept art fit more into the category of promo art or illustration. Most of us post only the best of the best artworks, but the concept art is not always beautiful paintings. Sometimes problems are solved with quick sketches that have no artistic value. But they do solve the problem, they provide a concept on how to navigate a given topic.

Techland / Kasia Mikulowska

It’s important to correctly identify the problem to be solved. Sometimes the “problem” will be the simple lack of knowledge on how something will look – in that case we research, develop the design and render a beautiful artwork. But sometimes the problem will be of a very different nature, whether it’s technical restrictions, gameplay requirements etc. In that case the solution may not require a rendered artwork. It will require thinking, talking to people, using our imagination to think of a solution, a concept on how to tackle it. Then the presentation doesn’t really matter, the “solution” to the problem can be even a note.

The way you think matters just as much as the way you paint. And developing the skill to think in a creative and problem solving way is much more difficult to develop than artistic skills. Sometimes I’d much rather employ artists that think a certain way than people with flawless art skill, that I’m not sure if they can solve big problems. And since we’re on the topic: we ARE looking for concept artists!

Techland / Kasia “Kafis” Zielinska

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