I want players to experience unease, fear or anxiety – I want this space to feel real and unified.
One of the earliest developers to join Dead Thread Games, John Davies has never been one to back down from a challenge. Like any other game in middle of production, We Went Back has had its share of quandaries but John’s persistence and outlook on game development has allowed him the flexibility to find solutions as a tech artist, “Being able to directly influence what the player should be focusing on is awesome.” John does this with a variety of methods, from choosing when to emphasize gameplay over narrative or when to allow sound design to influence the player. He admits that it’s a delicate balance, “Knowing when to change who’s the current star of the show takes a lot of communication between design, art, sound and engineering.” Thankfully, that communication is something John easily facilitates.
Originally from Torrance, California, John found inspiration for We Went Back in work of Paul Pepera’s pieces such as Charlie and Baker. He notes that while their aesthetic styles are not exactly the same as We Went Back, he finds useful lessons in the way Pepera utilizes composition, shape language and repetition. He also cites Remedy’s 2019 release of Control as another influential reference for their use of industrial, retro and militarized visual design elements. John notes that, “The direction we have for We Went Back has always had to weigh variables throughout production about just how lived-in the environment should be.” He also feels that having a light, but convincing base level of wear and tear on each asset helps the overall pipeline.
The main goal of the environment team has always been to unsettle the player and to world build.
While John was influential in adding a strong aesthetic presence to the game, he admits that there were challenges that took some ingenuity and creativity to solve. The game’s rotunda-shaped environment in particular was difficult and placed squarely on John’s shoulders to solve, “The hardest thing about this environment is that the hallways are asymmetrical and curved,” John states, “This makes designing the base layout of each rotunda section pretty challenging.”
Picture 1. Rotunda geometry concept by John Davies.
Picture 2. Rotunda geometry assets by John Davies.
The solution John found came by approaching each section of the rotunda in three steps. First, he figured out what would be on the inner and outer walls of the section to make sure the design didn’t feel dissonant with other elements it would be connected to. Next, he used the existing geometry to measure out what area the assets the rotunda would fill. Finally, he’d create blocked out grids to generate the assets from. At times John would refer to concept art for assistance, but he still saw that there were moments he had to just grind through the task, “This step becomes really compressed – I have to go through a tedious and sometimes restrictive process of creating assets from those pieces of geometry.” Despite the tedious nature of such work for John, the result was extraordinary. Because of his work, We Went Back has a fully shaped rotunda that by virtue of John’s design immediately connects with and intimidates players – the reaction John had been intentionally aiming for all along.
When asked what drives John’s passion for the project, his response is immediate, “The main goal of the environment team has always been to unsettle the player and to world build.” This goal became evident as Doug Bowser of Nintendo visited Dead Thread Games to preview the game two weeks ago. As he was guided through the game’s environment, John’s rotunda design was on display front and center. Yet John’s goals are for all those who choose to pick up the game, “I want players to experience unease, fear or anxiety – I want this space to feel real and unified.”
To follow John Davies work or contact him please visit his ArtStation.