AMA with Daniel Abensour, Art Director

A jovial discussion on building generative art systems!
August 12, 2022by Emily Burke

Happy Friday! We're excited to share our recent AMA (ask-me-anything) with Hidden Door's art director, Daniel Abensour.

This is part of a series of chats with team members and friends with backgrounds in games, literary publishing, AI/ML, and more. Be sure to join our Discord for the latest updates!

Could you introduce yourself, and how you joined Hidden Door?

Hello everyone! My name is Daniel Abensour and I'm Hidden Door's art director—which implies I have my little mittens deep in every visual matter we need to tackle. And somehow also dabbles fairly frequently in other creative matters with the team as we're but a handful of lovely people. You can see my very own stuff here.

As a lil' fellow, I didn't have the slightest clue about what to do when becoming the next Pokémon evolution of myself—so I decided to follow my childhood friend (shameless plug—he's now a comic book artist) and study art in Marseille in the South of France (yes, I am French by the way).

I realized it was pretty nice doing art and while I studied, I started to frantically illustrate—making a bunch of t-shirts for Threadless and Design By Humans. If you're daring, you can try to Google-excavate some of my old work under the retired nickname "Aphte"... Which means "mouth ulcer" in French. So there's a high chance of getting unappetizing pictures—so maybe don't!

Then, in a tremendously sudden ellipse, I went to work with some cool advertising companies (worked with Ubisoft among other things), moved on to kids' apps working at Toca Boca (in the process defining a lot of their still extremely popular IP Toca Life) and Sago Mini, freelanced for animation (I am responsible in other things for designing the eponymous dollhouse in Gabby's Dollhouse... if you have kids you might know), and working on my very own cartoon projects (one of them is currently being developed: you can check the pitch on this poorly hidden page of my website).

One day I was looking at jobs on Work With Indies and found the Hidden Job art director's ad—and a lot of the things they were talking about tickled my creative senses in way I didn't know was possible. Turn any world into an infinite story engine? Sign me up!

Also it was my one year work anniversary yesterday—and it has been a most excellent year!

Happy anniversary!!! You’ve certainly worked on a variety of interesting things. How does your work at Hidden Door compare to your previous experiences?”

Working on something as magical and complicated as what we're doing does require an entire new mindset on how to approach art creation, and how to visualize things.

I usually like using my knowledge from all the other projects I worked on when arriving on a new one to give me the conviction that I'm able to overcome any creative challenge... it has been harder this time around—but I have learned a tremendous amount of things in a short time!

Having lovely colleagues is what is familiar, I've been lucky enough in my career to always be surrounded by kind human beings, and Hidden Door easily perpetuates this tradition!

What are your inspirations for the art style of Hidden Door?

I have a plethora of things that influences me, although I try not to think about them too often to keep my personal creativity as intact as possible.

To list just a few: everything from Studio Ghibli, Masaaki Yuasa, Taiyō Matsumoto, Franquin, Anouk Ricard, everything from Studio Peow, Jim Woodring, Chris Ware, Tsutomu Nihei, Patrick McHale, Jesse Moynihan, Akira Toriyama, etc.

Hopefully that will scratch the influence itch! There's more, but I do need to keep a list handy so I can actually remember what I like!

How do you envision your audience, and has that evolved over time?

Thinking about where to sit in terms of brand perception and audience is always a... "fun" thing to crack.

Our desire for our product is for it to be as accessible as possible without excluding anyone, and my main example on how to pinpoint the art style would be to make it live in the same space as family-viewing type cartoons. Think Steven Universe, or She-Ra.

I'm always fine-tuning my perception of what I would desire—and also working with the team on which systems we might want to flexibly twist the art style in a way that could be darker, grittier, more artsy, etc.

What are some of the challenges in creating art for a generative game?

It is a complicated matter, involving a metric ton of modular systems that need to be designed to accommodate the most overlap between art assets, how the assets can read depending on the genres or story styles, and how far you can go without having to illustrate everything.

So our answer for that at the moment is building the biggest cork board you can imagine where we can virtually pin different visual bits and bobs on top of each other until you get the desired effect. My biggest goal to achieve is to create a process in which you can have simple, evocative art style in which production can be scaled easily by adding more people to the team.

This is the solution we have for now, which doesn't exclude thinking about other ways of offering visual variety to our users!

Think about an extremely exhaustive library of paper dolls, and all the parts you'd need to illustrate most things you'd want in a given story.

Wow! How do you even approach this? Are there methods you’ve developed to make this sort of thing easier?

In terms of art-making, I'm not doing anything incredibly advanced so far. Most of the magic comes from building controlled art systems that live hand in hand with the text generation. It's a mixture of smart iconic representation of certain things, overlap in interpretation, and reading into an illustration more than its basic representation, thanks to it being accompanied by text.

Mostly, as mentioned in another question—it's about building the right closet with a bunch of clothing hangers from which you attach your assets. You put big labels on your clothes to know which ones mean what, and you make the platform sort that out!

So are you actually generating art, together with generated narrative?

Yes, in a controlled way. We get our game to pick selected, handmade assets, and compose them in a way that makes sense to the text.

I'll digress a bit towards what I would think about a possible implementation of image generators to support an infinitely modular story, and how we could integrate that in our pipeline—but at the moment there are benefits in having a fairly human-heavy art process to create memorable art. Also feel free to summon one of our wonderful engineers over in our Ask-a-Dev Discord channel to get into the more granular answers!

As an artist, what’s your favorite thing about working at Hidden Door?

This is going to be a two-tiered answers with a layer of cheese—sorry about that!

First and foremost, the people. Hilary and Matt spend an absurd amount of time making sure the team is only joined by good human beings that have the power to always assume the best in their colleagues. Being a full-remote company tends to erase some of the lovely quirks you can feel while interacting with people in a real, physical space—but I've been loving every moment of it.

Secondly, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes it hits me with a spoonful of existential dread—but it also makes me feel like living in the future, and the right kind of cool science-fiction future! There are so many possibilities, and the more we narrow it down, the more exciting it gets. In a lot of projects, narrowing it down makes it feel like a portion of what was ideated... not this time!

What most excites you about the next few months?

I am most excited about people joining our team to compliment our extravagant assortment of skills and personalities, the collaboration we might make with creators who already have stories and worlds they'd like to share, and working with them in how to make their vision a playable thing.

I am also excited about making a ton of art and hiding a lot of little references and nuggets for the connoisseur!

On your personal site, you mention liking to “make cute things dark.” How do you balance a project’s distinctive art style with the emotion they're meant to evoke both on a macro (Hidden Door’s branding) and micro (the plethora of narrative choices) level?*

At the brand level, we're trying to be playful and inviting while trying not to look like a game company. We also have to look like a business that can be taken seriously, which means moderating a bit more the possible saccharine perception we might get from a simplified art style.

For the game, emotion will be driven by the characters and how they can react to their different stories—and a quantity of tools we can use to influence how to read the art in given circumstances: a tragic situation might switch to black and white, an emotional flashback might stereotypically tinted in sepia with a vague bloom, etc.

Additionally, we have scoped a lot of things but we're still progressing and arranging our perception of what is needed one step at a time! Designing a brand new thing can be fun like that, when you have to actual invent how to make something!

As for cute dark things, I hope we can tackle that at some point. I do like making happy psychedelic and slightly concerning things!

What’ the strangest thing you’ve had to create for Hidden Door?

This thing:

Unico Matt

When Matt is back for another AMA you can ask him about his feelings towards the Unico anime!

Also, technically I didn't have to do it... but it was done anyway!

With a game like this that never truly ends, are there any unique challenges you are looking forward to tackling as the narrative expands?

I'm personally extremely excited about how stories can evolve outside of the players' perception. I'm going to use purely theoretical context to illustrate it: think about cutting someone in a grocery line. The interaction is short, but the character you wronged gets flagged by the game. Many hours and adventures later—you realize that the enemy you're facing is the victim of your awful line-cutting action, back with a vengeance!

All of that is in the realm of the feasible, and I'm delighted about the stories that might be created this way.

What kind of feedback do you get and how do you use it?

A lot of the feedback was about how to aim the art style in a way that could be embraced by as many people as possible. Otherwise, I'm pretty much free of doing what I think would be good for us—with considerations of “what's technically possible at the moment” and “what makes sense for us to tackle within the framing of the systems we're building”.

[Editor's note: The rest of the feedback is usually "DANIEL THIS IS SO GOOD 😍 🤩"]

What opportunities do you see for blending genres within the art style, and do you have any ideas for specific genre blends that would excite you?

The formidable thing is that we're engineering our game in a way where you'll be able to mix tonally opposite things in the same story, in the style of "I want a romantic horror story set in a spaceship Alien-style".

I'm also pitching to the team right now the possibility to set a trigger to add a random genre in your story at a complete random moment... Kinda like in From Dusk Till Dawn!

Could you share a small sampling of concept art?

Yes, here are some insights about random visual things!

First, a tiny research on different character styles. I still really like the side ones, but it's definitely more complicated to implement as a fully-functional modular system (that we might want to animate in some version of the future 👀).

Older character sketches

Aaaand a lowres-ish Figma screenshot from not that long ago! We're experimenting with how color and style can change with genre or mood.

Color tests, experimenting with themes

Amazing! And thank you, Daniel.

Thanks/merci a bunch everyone! It was lovely chatting with y'all!

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