Between an occupied City 17, conquered Berlin and infested Dunwall, Viktor Antonov has crafted compelling worlds which seamlessly blend the fantastic with the bleakly real, and are among my favourites in gaming.
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Industry Spotlight is a feature where I gush over the work of some of my favourite designers, artists and musicians.
I am a massive, massive fan of Viktor Antonov’s work. That much is probably evident in the fact that I’ve bothered to write about it. I hope the reasons for this become clear as I discuss it.
Born in Sofia (Bulgaria), Antonov’s background is in industrial design. Transportation, specifically.
He transitioned over to entertainment industries relatively soon into his career. His credits stretch all the back all the way to 1997’s Redneck Rampage. Humble beginnings, you might say.
Since then, most of his time has been spent in videogames. He attributes this to the scope of freedom its creatives enjoy, compared to those in film:
“There’s more possibilities in gaming today for creative fiction, I believe than in film, having worked in both industries.”
Spotlight: Dishonored’s Viktor Antonov
Entering the industry during its relative infancy, he experienced a time where people’s roles were often indistinct and nebulous. An artist might be responsible for characters, maps, environments, cinematics and even a bit of coding wouldn’t be unheard of. This is in stark contrast to today, where responsibilities tend to be far more specialised.
Fantastic games in their own right. But there was one title in particular that would change his life forever.
Or at least, half of it… *sigh*.
Reaching a new audience
It was in 2003 that his work really began enjoying appreciation from a wider audience. The announcement of Half-Life 2 galvanised gamers who were and were not familiar with the series alike.
Its advanced (for the time) use of physics, facial animation and DirectX 9 pixel shaders, thrust the game into the spotlight.
And with it, Viktor Antonov’s stunning art direction.
I remember at both work and University, I’d often speak to others who shared my excitement for Half-Life 2. At the centre of those discussions, was this world which just looked amazing.
The promised level of detail in both the world and its denizens, was equaled by the power of the Source engine rendering them. There was just something about the look of City 17 that was fantastic yet grounded, oppressive but inviting.
It’s his approach to the underlying factors determining these characteristics, that elevates Antonov’s work. His aren’t memorable videogame environments, they’re simply memorable environments – period.
That’s all a question of addressing what lies beneath a world’s surface, rather than what’s on top.
Viktor Antonov – Designing living cities
The mechanical component
There’s a steampunk sensibility to Viktor Antonov’s work. It’s not overt, but it’s there.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of steampunk as an aesthetic. I typically find it to be a gaudish display of indulgent excess, surviving on the gimmick and charm of its execution moreso than the fundamental necessity of application.
True, the same could be said for any art style when executed with an emphasis on form, rather than function. Speaking purely in terms of my own experiences though, I’ve found this to be a flaw that steampunk is especially susceptible to.
When used as a fundamental blueprint for world-building though, I believe steampunk can be exceptionally charismatic. I think it’s most effective when the artist uses its mechanical considerations, as a lens through which to interpret the values and underlying construction of the world they’re creating. They make it a technological solution to its inhabitants’ daily problems and thus, an integral part of their virtual culture.
You’re using the lens to interpret the themes rather than simply depict them. With the latter, you’re dealing with the output, not the input. In this case, you invariably end up with a world where the art direction feels as though it’s been forced into areas where it doesn’t really solve a problem. It feels more like an aesthetic choice, than a tangible solution.
Solutions are what successful worlds are built on.
Mastering the infrastructure
How this all relates to Viktor Antonov, is very simple. He gets this principle right time and time again. He orchestrates a visual language of architecture, light and space, which communicates through whispers and screams alike, the core identity and functional methodology of a place, of a time. These are important components in making a place feel truly real, like it has an existence, a life outside of the player’s experience.
Raphaël Colantonio, co-Creative Director on Dishonored and Creative Director on Prey, describes this process in a very literal sense:
“Viktor works kind of like a historian. He proceeds with ‘what if’ scenarios.”
Dishonored Developer Documentary Part 2 – Immersion.
Antonov builds on this in the same interview, explaining how the narrative of a world is built in layers. The technologies used, how they’ve evolved over time, how events in that place’s history affected it. That these are considered in the genetic makeup of a world, means they inherently direct the aesthetic.
It’s easy for an art direction to become disconnected from the world it represents. The result can end up feeling like an advertisement for an idea the artist wants to sell you. It might look great, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a deep or compelling environment.
That’s more a question of using a visual style to encapsulate the idiosyncracies, cultural nuances and practical components that a world consists of.
This approach and thought process, is one I’ve emphasised to so many students, collaborators artists and designers over the years, because I believe it’s effective regardless of the medium you’re using.
But I’m just some loser who likes thinking about the hows and whys of successful design. To hear it advocated by someone who has made their living and success in these disciplines, is as inspiring as it is reassuring.
Viktor Antonov himself perhaps said it better than I ever could:
“All the pre-production that I do, I usually hire people with Fine Art degrees, are non-gamers and have never touched a computer, if possible. Just to get a level of detachment and work more on the infrastructure, not on the surface.”
Digital Culture, 2018.
Focus on the function
Antonov’s visual direction often feels more like a response to the conditions of a game’s narrative, instead of an attempt at shoehorning that narrative into a dictatorship of cosmetics.
The streets of Dunwall for example, decay under the rule of a fascist government. The cold, desaturated tones of the environment embody the collective spirit of its people, as they succumb to poverty and disease. When vibrant colour awashes the streets, it’s as the sun sets, a reminder that there is warmth in the world, but that it exists beyond the borders of this city.
The only other times colour is used in vibrancy, is in the propaganda of its corrupt government, the strange, supernatural world of The Void, or the indulgent parties of aristocrats whose class elevates them above the filth of the common man.
Then there’s City 17, whose all-consuming steel walls are literal and metaphorical extensions, of the occupying alien force’s gradual consumption and assimilation of our species’ culture.
This is a world where all that is truly human, all that makes us human is stripped away. We are broken down to our core components, making us less capable of resisting the masters who intend to occupy us. The city is naked to this onslaught as are its denizens, with the only thing capable of saving either is you – the player.
City 17 cannot fight for itself. You must fight for it and in doing so, inspire other citizens to do the same. The conflict is reflected in the ruin and rubble of city streets, as the sun sets on the story one last time.
It’s not real
In every case, Antonov gleefully walks a tight rope between what is and is not physically possible from an engineering perspective. Frequently, he will lean over to one side in particular, adding a sense of flavour to these worlds that is most specifically his. Part of me was surprised by this when learning of his background in Industrial Design, which I’d at the time assumed would need to be rooted in realism.
As he explains, quite the opposite is true:
“Industrial designers are formed and trained to make things that don’t exist and to make them appealing. It’s a very obvious relationship between science fiction and industrial design.”
Dishonored Developer Documentary Part 2 – Immersion.
That serves my ignorant ass right for assuming.
But this is evident even in projects that for whatever reason, didn’t end up seeing the light of day. What few videos and screenshots exist for the likes of Return to Ravenholm, The Crossing and Battlecry, showcase worlds that seem to verge on the impractical. Neverthelss, they only ever feel like they’re a fingertip away from being physically possible:
Grounded in real worlds
When speaking about the creation of worlds, Antonov places great emphasis on the specific details:
“Capture the specific, not the generic but very specific. That’s what makes a story interesting, the specific angle.”
Digital Culture, 2018.
He talks about how when people go to find reference photos, they will all too quickly look to Google. While this is good for getting a broad spectrum, it’s difficult to find something specific.
That we form memories around specific characteristics is no surprise and it’s a key factor in what makes Antonov’s work memorable.
There are places which might look like City 17 or feel similar, but what makes it truly memorable are the unique details.
Again, very specific. I measured the angle of the sun so that we have long cast shadows that capture the spirit of September, in a city. The humidity and the fog, so that we have a stark contrast between the old architecture, the soft romantic light and the brutal architecture behind.”
Digital Culture, 2018.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time travelling across Eastern Europe, over the years. It often surprises me just how much places I’ve visited feel like a game I’ve played before, or even vice versa. I even mentioned during Krupskaya’s Dawn of Shattered Silence Tour, how much of Antonov’s work I felt the presence of in some of the cities we wondered.
Those existing within a world
I’ve spent a fair amount of time travelling across Eastern Europe, over the years. It often surprises me just how much places I’ve visited feel like a game I’ve played before, or even vice versa.
My favourite – The Royal Physician
From space to space
Choosing a personal favourite level or sequence from Viktor Antonov’s work, is no mean fete. Half-Life 2 and Dishonored alone boast more memorable, artistically strong segments than most entire game series.
Upon reflection however, Dishonored’s ‘The Royal Physician’ is an easy choice. It appears midway through the game, when the player is comfortable with the tools at their disposal and their character’s motivation. You are tasked with kidnapping one of the series’ central characters. Doing so means navigating a series of environmental and AI puzzles that become increasingly complex. Both individually and in how they connect with each other.
From a design perspective, it’s similar to the Clockwork Mansion featured in the games’ sequel. That one appears at a similar point in the narrative, providing the player with various options to interact with the games mechanical and artistic themes.
Those themes are diverse and interwoven, as are the components of the gameplay. Both also take place in memorable, vividly rendered environments that stand out against those of other games.
The importance of freedom.
The key difference between these two levels, is The Clockwork Mansion demands a lot of the player, intellectually.
If you want to explore every nook and cranny, you’ll be trying to memorise a lot of information. Intersecting corridors, crawl spaces, hidden rooms, a rich tapestry of geometrical variation and specifically your place within, demands a lot of the player’s memory. It’s an exhausting experience which though memorable in its own right, ends up feeling less organic.
Your priorities as a gamer become detached from those of your character. A conflict described as Ludonarrative Dissonence. The character wants to get in, get the job done and get out. The player want to see everything this space has to offer.
By comparison, The Royal Physician is far more forgiving and liberating.
It is far more cohesive in how it balances the needs of the character with the needs of the player.
This doesn’t come at the cost of gameplay richness. It’s no less open in terms of the options it provides. Nor is it especially rigid in how those scenarios connect. But by organsing them in a far more linear pattern, the flow of both the gameplay and the narrative give it a far better sense of pacing.
Your brain spends less time remembering how all those hallways interconnect and instead, allows you simply bask in the moments between the completion of puzzles. Here, the mechanical demands of the world giveway to player freedom in engaging with the gameplay.
The two are balanced wonderfully and so, Viktor Antonov’s artwork is able to truly shine.
Lost in a moment in time
There is some incredible variety in the art direction of this level. The architecture, the colour palette, the raw materials, they all speak to the same universal values, but represent different interpretations, responses and time periods relating to those values.
During this map you will wonder across streets, through people’s homes, traversing the iconic Kaldwin Bridge and dilapidated homes surrounding that of your target, Anton Sokolov.
Accessing his home is a puzzle in itself. There are so many options, each with their own pros and cons. None of them however, feel contrived or derivative. Every potential solution is one born from the infrastructure of the environment, rather than the will of the artist creating it.
The whole experience is one of incredible lighting, architecture and clashing cultures, frozen into layers of complex history. It’s an atmosphere that absolutely swallows your disbelief. You don’t need to suspend it, the world has done this for you.
Of course, this isn’t down to one man. It will have taken a team of designers, artists and engineers to iterate upon and fine tune this experience into something richly rewarding and organic in equal measure.
The fundamental DNA and rule set that those individuals work to however, is determined largely by their Director.
In this case, that’s Viktor Antonov.
If you’re new to games and interested in experiencing some of Viktor Antonov’s work first hand, you’d do much worse than starting with Half-Life 2. The game has aged tremendously well. It also boasts some great environment design and is very forgiving to newcomers.
The original Dishonored is a little more intimidating. Even so, it’s easily one of my favourite games of the last ten years and worth experiencing for the world-building alone.
Each game also boasts art books (Raising The Bar and The Dunwall Archives respectively) that are well worth your time. If you’d like to understand more about the creative process behind these games, these are worth picking up.
More recently, Antonov served as Art Director on ROKH, which wasn’t wonderfully received. I believe this has more to do with the gameplay and studio’s interaction with its community, than shortcomings in its art direction.
He is now Art Director for Darewise in Paris, France where he’s working on Project-C . I for one, look forward to seeing how this turns out.
Thanks for reading!