Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Power of a Single Image

It is amazing what one piece of Art can accomplish. The image below by Yoshitaka Amano is one of my  favorite pop art creations, although I had not seen it in many years.

It was created as a piece of concept art for Final Fantasy VI in 1995, and depicts the heroine of the game, Terra Brantford riding on a machine called Magitek Armor as she is about to spearhead an invasion of a remote coal-mining town.

"Terra Brantford at Narshe" by Yoshitaka Amano, ©1995 Squaresoft Inc.

I love Yoshitaka's style: it is an incredible fusion of Art Nouveau, Pop, and fantasy with signature flourishes all his own. I have taken pains to import a couple of his art books, which my son and I have wiled away quite a few hours appreciating.

And, as I have said on twitter and in previous articles, while fans of fantasy role-playing games may not be familiar with his work directly (except, perhaps through Speed Racer or Vampire Hunter D) they most certainly have seen his influence on other artists like Wayne Reynolds, who defined the visual feel of Eberron, Pathfinder, and Cthulhu d20.

Action Tableau for "Sharn, City of Towers", by Wayne A. Reynolds, ©2004 Wizards of the Coast

With his strange costumes, ornamented technology, crowded backgrounds, and vivid splashes of color, Yoshitaka Amano has a real gift for creating Fantasy Art that is genuinely fantastical - he does not try to recreate medieval Europe with a twist of magic or monsters, but instead, creates a world where magic, strange technology, and monsters are have dictated the shape of the world. A World with the kind magic expressed in Dungeons & Dragons would look nothing like Medieval Europe.

I think one of the greatest tragedies of the video game world is that the limitations that the technology in the early days, until around 1999, made it impossible to see a world that really looked anything like Yoshitaka's creations. The limits on graphics forced the developers at Squaresoft to take Yoshitaka's work on Final Fantasy and reimagine it as something far more conventional so that it would be recognizable when rendered in 640 x 480 pixel sprites.

Thus, we see images like this

"Terra on Magitek" concept art by Yoshitaka Amano, ©1995 Squaresoft Inc

Rendered, into sprites like these:
Terra Sprite from Final Fantasy VI, ©1995 Squaresoft Inc.

As I started replaying Final Fantasy VI recently, I found myself thinking about the disconnect between the concept art and the final game.

With so little resemblance between Yoshitaka Amano's concept art and the final creation it is easy to totally divorce the works in your mind. The heroine of the piece above could be anybody and exploring a strange world that might look and feel nothing like the one in FFVI. And that is quite freeing when you stop to appreciate his art 

As I was revisiting the concept art for Final Fantasy VI this piece suggested to me a very different world. One with Weird Science at the helm, where lavishly dressed and beautiful knights ride on clockwork horses as they serve as a barrier between masses of people who live and work in ramshackle and crumbling machine cities and the dread sorcerers and wicked fairies in the world beyond. Ruled over by holy Emperors so remote that they don't even know what goes on in the day to day lives of there vassals.

I let this idea wash over me in a lengthy daydream, and came up with a setting, a player character, and a few adventure concepts. Before I knew it, I had created a whole Campaign World in a daydream while appreciating that piece, and a few of the companion pieces.

It so happened that I was looking to build a very particular campaign: one playable on weeknights in 2 hour fits using 5-room and 1-page adventure material on a one-to-one basis with my wife. It would use pre-generated characters to cut as much time as possible from anything but play.

From this one painting, I now have a full world (at least in broad strokes) for a player to explore. You can read the initial campaign pitch here, if you are interested.

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