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Building The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena

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nder its original codename Riddick HD, The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena was just a five-level epilogue to prison break stealth-em-up The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Using technology invented for the latest consoles and The Darkness, Starbreeze’s proprietary take on the Top Cow comic series, it was the bonus track to a remastered classic. Picking up Butcher Bay’s story where it left off in 2004, it would make Riddick and his captor-turned-cargo Johns (the junkie merc from movie Pitch Black) wish they’d stayed in their cells.

Floating through deep space in their stolen shuttlecraft, asleep for the journey to who-knows-where, the reluctant bunkmates would drift right into the mandibles of the pirate ship Dark Athena. There, in a new maze of light and shadow, things would take a turn from dark to downright macabre.

Riddick HD had been run by a skeleton staff in the shadows of The Darkness for several months. But as that game neared submission and freed people up, Dark Athena started getting ideas. “I’d say the two main reasons for its initial direction were to release the game on a PlayStation platform and to add multiplayer,” believes lead designer Jerk Gustaffson. “According to the original plan it was supposed to end, after two-to-three hours, with Riddick destroying the ship.”

But now, with the blessing of publisher Atari, it grew, then grew again. Riddick’s escape from Dark Athena would lead to yet more misfortune, the tropical island city of New Venice becoming his home for an unscheduled second half. At the eleventh hour would come two more levels atop that: a tutorial set on a beach and ‘Alternator’, a transitional stealth level involving spotlights and giant warehouses. The campaign was now four times larger than originally planned.

Assault On Dark Athena is extra special because, Starbreeze being Starbreeze as it was back then, you’d barely guess it was an expansion pack. Granted, most of the NPC interrogations are tellingly packed into just a few sections earmarked for costly motion capture sessions. And yes, it’s a slightly misshapen campaign. But the production values are stellar, the rendering methods ambitious, and the art style as distinct as any sequel’s should be.


Perhaps the game’s topsy-turvy origins – it was originally supposed to end at the final game’s halfway point, just after this showdown – explains why a less satisfying, less personal gunfight actually wraps things up.

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n pirate captain Gail Revas it also has an outstanding villain. A cool, calculating owner of dreadlocks bordering on a mane, she’s just as feline a predator as Riddick himself. A spartan upbringing makes them spiritual siblings, and her underdog backstory makes her a sympathetic rival. But the path she’s taken, from pirate slave to matriarch, has also made her a monster. The Dark Athena is her baby, a reaper of colonists and spacefarers for use as lobotomised black market drones. Only in the Riddick universe, you feel, would these sutured zombies with their mechanical clucking be sold as mining company canaries. It even disgusts Riddick, the baritone Vin Diesel monologue tells us, violating the one thing he believes in: death.

It’s this creation of an antagonist greater than the galaxy’s most dangerous man that really defines the Riddick games and movies. The art of Dark Athena, then – and it ain’t easy – is to turn ship, captain and crew into the same kind of organism as Butcher Bay; the swarming menace of Pitch Black; or the Necromongers, the pro-death zealots from The Chronicles Of Riddick movie. That it pulls it off despite being conceived as a mere coda to another game is, for lack of better words, a very Starbreeze thing to have done.

A child of the demoscene, Starbreeze was a studio defined by its engine and the coding of its own John Carmack, Magnus Hogdahl. That’s now changed, of course, since his departure and its switch to using Unreal Engine 3. Those final years of the Starbreeze Engine and Ogier toolset saw it put to esoteric use, first with the holistic virtual photography of this game and then with a bloomed-out, Mission: Impossible-style escapade disguised as a remake of Syndicate.

No other game has attempted to mimic a movie camera quite like Dark Athena, and you have to wonder if any ever will. Ambient occlusion, film grain, aggressive colour-keying, depth of field effects, motion blur, dynamic exposure, and the most audacious black levels since, well, Escape From Butcher Bay collide to quite controversial effect. Not so much on console where it has room to gel, but on a PC monitor… ouch. Pixel and framerate pedants beware.

Nevertheless, by sticking to the principles of Butcher Bay, a game released during the FPS golden year of 2004, Assault On Dark Athena isn’t just a sequel, it’s a treasure. The use of state-of-the-art performance capture felt next-gen ahead of schedule. So nuanced are the performances in that one delineated section that when the conversation turns vile – in one case sickeningly so – it’s hard not to take it personally. A thirdperson switch to the unflappable Riddick can’t shake the feeling that someone’s just spat in your face.

Guiding us through the game’s art direction will be staff from across the production. Art director Mattias Snygg is now a freelancer; the others famously left Starbreeze to found Machinegames, stamping their authority on reboot Wolfenstein: The New Order. They are: Jerk Gustaffson (lead designer on Dark Athena), Tommy Tordsson (lead writer), Jan Andersson (cinematic artist), Jens Matthies (art director on Butcher Bay and consultant on Dark Athena), and Kjell Emanuelsson (additional art director).

From left: Jens Matthies (consultant art director), Jan Andersson (cinematic artist), Jerk Gustafsson (lead designer), Kjell Emanuelsson (additional art director), Tommy Tordsson (lead writer).
DET:

How did you arrive at the distinctly nautical look of the Dark Athena herself?

Mattias Snygg: Deep sea marine creatures inspired much of the look of the exterior, but also the interiors and some of the costume design for the characters. The feel of materials; you can imagine the carapace feel of a crab in some of the armours. We were trying to entertain ourselves to a large degree, come up with something that hasn’t been done to death. And Riddick is such a larger-than-life character anyway that it sort of fits. He needs stuff in his world that can stand up to him. You really need to get these shrimp-like giant spaceships to try and eat him just to level things out.

The ship was the first thing, and it followed that there would be vertical shafts, a lot of shapes like that. But not a lot of the levels are like that if you think about it. A lot of that comes from your perception, because you’ve seen the ship and so you expect it. A lot of that happens in the head of the audience.

DET: That establishing shot of Riddick’s ship adrift in space is epic and yet incredibly economical, to the point where just about everything in it is a 2D plane sized precisely for 16:9. It’s charming how games hark back to theatre and early cinema when it suits them.

Snygg: That was added very late because we felt something was missing from the introduction. The stuff that follows – the 3D part, the actual intro – we spent months and months on. It was in development almost as intensely as the rest of the full game because it was so long and complex, and we had a lot of technical problems pulling it together and making it look good. So we spent all our time just trying to get that to work, getting these characters to walk around, talk in sync, have all their facial capture work correctly. But we’d missed a beat when it came to setting the scene. So, we added that at about the same time as the crash scene, when Riddick crashes on the planet. That was another one where we knew we needed something but it just kept falling down the list of things to do.

It kind of goes to show how often, when you go for the more realistic or ‘correct’ solution to a problem, all you really need is a screenshot and maybe a couple of stencils and a 3D object close to the camera. If you start thinking about how to convey cinematic moments from that direction – “How can we mock this up?” – then add complexity, you can save a lot of long nights. Depending on the technology, of course.

DET: Gail Revas must rank alongside Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Joker as one of the best-embedded villains in some years. She’s inseparable from the Dark Athena, not to mention uniquely ambiguous in her ethnicity.

Kjell Emanuelsson: The discussion was that we were going for a strong and somewhat rogue force. Hence, we gave her dreads and facial features leaning a bit towards a rough beauty rather than a classic femme. We also tried to work in the overall design from the ship into the helmet design and incorporate as much as possible from the environment design. We still needed her to pop a bit and that’s where the red colour came in.

Snygg: She’s a very competent female character in a genre that’s usually very macho. And she stands up to everybody, even Riddick. She’s tough but she’s not trash; she’s a little bit more refined than some of these other guys she’s bossing around. At the same time she’s running an operation that’s very crude and nasty and hostile to life. There’s a lot of components to her persona, what she projects and what her business is. Something is a little bit off with her. That was intentional. There’s something about her eyes and the sheen of her skin that’s different from the other characters, and she’s set apart.

The direction was quite straightforward. But then it’s always about getting that to look how you want in-engine. During production that character went through a lot of iteration and so did everything else. There’s a lot of technical things, like getting her hair to behave somewhat dreadlock-like. These things shape a lot of aesthetic decisions. And whenever technology puts a limit on what you can do, it can open up areas of possibility. That happens quite a bit and videogames and it’s always exciting.

Tommy Tordsson: Since we didn’t get to spend that much time in-game with the most important character besides Riddick, to get her story told we needed to channel it through other agents. And in this game, what better way to do it than through the ship? One of the storytelling benefits of making a stealth game is that all the sneaking gives us the time and attention of the player for telling stories.

We created nuggets of story that you’d pick up from guards talking about her as you would sneak by, meeting the prisoners that she’s captured for bounty, or just from how the look and feel of the dark hallways you move through seem to have become one with her physical body. I think those moments are more subtle in how they impact the player, but more often feel ‘truer’ than explosive cinematic cutscenes because they are relevant to what you are doing in the actual game space.


Everything in this opening shot is two-dimensional but for Riddick’s listless ship. Nudge the camera even slightly in any direction and this stage of ‘theatrical flats’ comes apart, shattering the illusion.

DET:

If Butcher Bay is the galaxy’s Hanoi Hilton then Dark Athena is its Queen Anne’s Revenge, a monstrous scourge. They’re very different prisons yet somehow linked. How much of that comes down to things like materials and lighting?

Jens Matthies: The look of the Riddick universe is very heavy duty and functional. All visual design decisions lean towards the following principle: everything is built to sustain heavy abuse, and everything has sustained heavy abuse. It’s very much on the gritty end of sci-fi.

Snygg: It’s an aesthetic choice, and maybe it’s a little bit crazy. We really like the dark, rubbery, plastic feel and look of that place. The stencil lighting we used for the first game – and we used a kind of hybrid lighting for this one – creates such a stark contrast that it becomes part of that look. As soon as you start to blur some of the edges and create a softer impression, it’s lost.

Jerk Gustafsson: In the original Butcher Bay we only used dynamic lighting with per-pixel stencil shadowing. As this was very heavy on performance, we had a limit of three intersecting light volumes. In certain areas, with a lot of characters on screen, we could only afford to use two, making it very difficult to achieve proper lighting in big open spaces.

Being set in New York, The Darkness required more of those open spaces, as well as more natural shadows, so we added lightmap support for ambient lighting, combined with shadow-mapped and per-pixel stencil shadowing for dynamic lights. This is also what we used for Dark Athena. Unbreakable lamps usually included a dynamic light source and a lightmap light source, while breakable lamps (used in areas we wanted to be able to darken completely) only included dynamic lights. The larger outdoor areas, like New Venice, were almost only lit by light-maps.

DET: The layout of the Cargo Bay level was updated 374 times during development. How problematic is it when, in the shadows of a stealth game, your art and gameplay design are so inseparable?

Snygg: It’s always there in any stealth game that uses light and shadow. It’s the element you have to think about when designing levels. And it’s true: as soon as you move a thing, a physical barrier, you’re changing the paths that are taken during stealth. So, you’re twiddling those two knobs all the time, and it can certainly cascade. That scene in Cargo Bay has so many paths you can take compared to anything else in Dark Athena, and it became extremely complex in that area. But we spent a lot of time on it because it was also a test bed for everything we were building. It was one of the earliest levels we did, and any new feature would be tested in there, changing the geometry in the process.

It’s mainly three distinct things in that area: the first hub that you enter, where you get the overview of the whole layout; the actual map; then there’s the big crane thing at the end. We had those pretty much from the start, but didn’t know what those three things would turn out like in the end, how they would be lit. I remember drawing a concept piece where the cargo bay is almost completely black, and there’s this glaring light on the crane which looks quite dramatic. It worked as an image, but what you needed were these spotlights, these little gaps of light and shadow, across the whole area. It was the right call: to make it work in a way that was fun for the player, and so the AI could move and behave interestingly. You needed enough so that you could be seen, chased, hide and be lost.

DET: It wouldn’t be a sci-fi prison break without some illusory skyscraper of cells achieved with just a few actors in a room. Tell us a bit about Cell Block A, Revas’ ‘trophy cabinet’.

Snygg: This is where creative ideas and technological factors marry up and create something no one would have thought of to begin with. We’re using this technology where you have the full body motion capture and facial syncing, the whole deal. To be able to use that fully you need to have a somewhat controlled environment. We liked the idea of the hubs as a design element, to have a central point in the game where you get all your missions and return. And of course it works with the story. It makes sense. They’d have this place here and it’d be a scene where a lot of things would start to happen.

Matthies: We employ the full range of performance capture, meaning the simultaneous recording of body motion, facial movements and voice audio. The goal is always to reproduce the actor’s performance as faithfully as possible in-game. Because the physiognomy of the actor invariably differs from the in-game model to some degree, manual post production work is always required to accomplish this.

During a recording session such as this we always try to create as safe an environment as possible for the actor, so they are free to play the emotions of the moment. We encourage improvisation and will often make rewrites to the lines in collaboration with the actor.

Gustaffson: We decided from the very beginning to put ‘friendly’ characters in an environment where it would be natural for players to get close without being able to physically interact. This way we were in full control of the character performance and we always knew where the player would be located when activating a dialogue. Another reason was that we wanted to prevent players from playing around and trying to kill the characters. Initially we had bars on the cells, but as players could grab and drag drones into the cellblock and use their guns, we decided to use a force field – it didn’t feel as bad having characters behind a force field not reacting to someone shooting at them. It was however quite fine to keep Lynn [Silverman’s stowaway daughter] behind bars [in the ventilation shaft in the beginning of the campaign] since the player, at that time, did not yet have access to ranged weapons.


For the sake of clarity, these screenshots depict the game with most of its heavy camera effects and colour correction turned off.


Trust the Starbreeze of old to fish for the very darkest maritime analogies when creating the Dark Athena, every inch an armour-clad leviathan.

DET:

The history of melee games is rich in faces and blades, both of which are beautifully rendered in Assault On Dark Athena. How do you prioritise and accentuate those things?

Snygg: You need to be extremely selective. Riddick’s hands are insanely detailed in terms of polygon count, and so are all the weapons. All the weapon sides facing the camera are more detailed than anything else. It’s about figuring out which areas appear close to the camera and making those look good. And we tried to do that any way that we could.

Gustafsson: I think the most challenging part is to provide cues for the player that certain actions are possible – especially in the Riddick games where we always wanted to visualise gameplay and avoid HUD elements.

When approaching an enemy from behind we used a small hint animation where Riddick would raise his hands to indicate a stealth takedown was possible. This was a subtle and nice way to indicate an action without using a HUD. It’s harder to provide cues during melee combat. In Dark Athena we struggled with this for a long time. The solution we ended up with was a small flash on the player hands or weapon. Not a perfect solution, but it worked.

DET: Indeed, Riddick is like an ‘in-camera’ movie in its moderate use of special effects. It’s a very physical world that deals in what you might call ‘mechanical particles’ – things like sparks and dust. Deliberate?

Snygg: There’s always that pressure to add more ‘wow’ effects, but it was a conscious decision not to do it for this. Those effects take the game out of a real scenario and turn it into a fantastical joyride, and that can be jarring in even the smallest things. If you’re going for the cold, hard realism of the Riddick universe, you have to be very careful what you add. Two things we struggled with, where we had to break the norm, were the hurt effects and the glow thing that happens on the heads-up display, those little cubes. We have to convey those things but it shouldn’t feel too weird or artificial. You need to draw attention to things without drawing people out of that world. They have to speak the same language. Everything in Riddick is very larger-than-life, so in that sense very unrealistic, but it’s all concrete and metallic slabs.

Sci-fi films that do this efficiently are the ones that don’t make too much of their special effects. You might have an explosion but half of it happens off-camera – you only see part of the event. It’s less showy yet more impactful when you tone it down.

DET: The game used a very extensive post-processing layer for its time. How definite a plan was there for the effects?

Snygg: I think it was a lot to do with the tools that were in the toolbox at the time. For the first game it was really a stripped down rendering, and the same was pretty much true for The Darkness. The guys kept improving the engine and we had new cool things to do, and we always wanted to have the ability to get the more movie-like appearance.

Jan Andersson: Those tools made it possible to use a wide range of cinematic in-game effects, but we didn’t really have a plan other than to just make the cut scenes look as good as possible. During production we came up with new techniques to make the scenes more cinematic, but this was something that was invented and improved on along the way rather than something that was planned from the beginning.

DET: How about the depth of field? Games at the time seldom seemed to know what to do with the effect.

Snygg: When you get a new feature there’s a tendency to overuse it. You have the hammer and you see everything as nails. Our first and primary use of it was to enhance the melee combat. It was such a controlled thing from a technical point of view, this melee mode, that it fit perfectly for just turning that on, focusing the fight on that one opponent. It brought intensity to those fights. Beyond that we tried it in many different ways. The big problem you run into is that if you put it on everything, everything looks like a dollhouse after a while. For some reason it doesn’t have that effect in movies – cinematographers have depth of field for everything. But you have the dollhouse thing happening way too often in games. So we had this thing were it was used only in controlled scenarios when we knew exactly what would happen.

The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena, which includes an upgraded version of the acclaimed Escape From Butcher Bay, is currently available DRM-free via Good Old Games.

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An abridged version of this feature originally appeared in Edge Magazine.