It’s Borderlands 3 week, and thanks to the folks at 2K and Gearbox we were able to fly out to LA to go hands on with the new game and meet up with the team that are behind this incredible-looking looter shooter sequel. Make sure to catch our hands on Borderlands 3 preview, but while we were there we also caught up with the game’s Art Director Scott Kester to talk visual design and how they stayed true to the series’ distinctive look.
TSA: It’s safe to say that Borderlands has a very distinctive art style. When you came at Borderlands 3, what were your thoughts on where you needed to be?
Scott: Well, it’s weird. As an artist I want to go crazy, and we did, we went a little too crazy initially, but we brought it back and said, “You know what? What people like about the game is the way it look.” We’ve got better fidelity now, we’ve got a better lighting engine now, Unreal Engine 4, HDR, better draw distance and just more stuff that we can put on the screen. Let’s just double down on what people know us for, let’s lean in on that and spend the creative juice not on trying to revamp something that we don’t feel is broken already, let’s just spend that creative time making stuff.
That’s kind of what we ended up doing and I feel we ended up in a spot that’s closer, honestly, to how we’ve always envisioned the way it would look. Even though to the public eye it’s similar (and it is), the amount of detail everywhere is a lot easier to parse and see now.
TSA: You can see in the presentation just the detail and the textures…
Scott: There’s just so much more. We pack it in everywhere!
I tell people, all that ink is hand done, none of that is procedural, every bit of it is me and a bunch of the other guys out here just going “Yeaaaaah!” inking the crap out of it!
TSA: With the release of the Borderlands Remaster recently, do you think that proved that the art style was so strong to begin with?
Scott: Dude. Borderlands 1 and 2, I worked on all of them – that was my first game, Borderlands, and I was a character designer on that – and looking at it again [in the remaster], I’m like, “They didn’t do anything!” As I’m working on it with them, I’m like, “What did you guys do? This looks the same!”
But I think it held up for Borderlands. It’s more of a monotone colour palette, but that’s where we were at. We’ve always joked that we found colour along the way.
TSA: For Borderlands as a whole, what do you look for when creating your imagery and your assets?
Scott: I think for me I’m an emotional designer. I like to see something and feel something.
On the vault signs, the white and black and red are very stark. I just wanted it to be like, just punch it, just really put it up. If it’s something like that and how it’s affecting Pandora to see the city, it’s what I want somebody to see and feel.
I just want to impact somebody. How do I feel when I look at a character, when I look at Amara, when I look at Zane or the Calypso twins, what am I trying to get across? To me that first read is so quick, the silhouettes, the shapes, the forms – and my entire team is so tired of hearing me talk about silhouettes! – it’s so important.
To me it’s that punch of character, personality and unabashed us [Gearbox], you know? The things that I’m allowed to draw here, I don’t think most companies would let me, and we just don’t really give a crap. We do it and say that’s what makes us us!
TSA: The new locations feel like you’ve really been able to stretch your wings. Did you look to any real inspirations for where you wanted to go?
Scott: Oh, absolutely! Obviously we have a lot of locations, there’s multiple planets, there’s multiple spaces – you kind of get a tease of it, but I can’t really talk about anything beyond what’s in the floor here and Pandora. Pandora is Pandora, and that was important for us to keep it homely, but you look at Promethea? Dude, my favourite movie and comic of all time is Akira, and so if I can get a little Neo-Tokyo in this, you know? I’ll sit there and be like, “Where are the Akira lights?” and everybody knows Scott means these.
Don’t let me go down the really dorky art path, cos I’ll start getting into the futurist architecture of the 1920s or the futurist manifesto. The shapes and forms of some of those artists were so ahead of their time and I feel like that we have a tendency to just go to Blade Runner…
TSA: I may have written that down… [laughs]
Scott: Yeah, it’s not going to get any better than that, but some of our influences were actually a little different!
As you get to experience that planet, you’ll get to see a lot of diversity and not just the nicer side of it, but the crappier, more industrial side. That’s just one section of the game, but we could talk about the others, where you’ll see some swampy locations… I love just art and places. I’m the guy that, when I go on vacation, I’m taking reference photos of everything. We wear our heart on our sleeves, but at the same time, it’s important to not look at other games. […] I look at the real world, I look at real objects and say, “Hey, let’s take that weird industrial machine and turn it into a building!”
TSA: With the mini-bosses and big bosses that you’ve got coming in, some of things shown in the gameplay reel look pretty wild…
Scott: I can tell you there are a lot more of them, and they’re a lot more ridiculous! I can’t really get into the specifics, but I love bosses. I’m a child of the Atari 2600, but my true love happened on the NES, and it was the bosses! Matt Cox, who’s here, he’s just our boss guy – we have creature designers and boss guys – and we have so many more in Borderlands 3. Some of them are really cool, some of them are stupid.
There’s a character in there called Gigamind, which is my definition of really cool and really stupid all at once, and I love it!
I think we’ve got a better range of it, from creatures to humanoids to things that defy both of those terminologies.
TSA: How does the enemy and boss design work creatively between the narrative and the art?
Scott: It’s really interesting, because sometimes we [the Art team] change the narrative, and sometimes the narrative changes us. So we have an idea and they have an idea, sometimes they align, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes we fight before one of them becomes the ultimate idea.
It’s really important that, from the story that’s being told, what I’m trying to do in this game is really put a lot of situational set dressing in that helps. When you play the demo, I hope there’s areas that you can see where you’re going and it supports the mission, so it’s not just obtuse missions with obtuse levels that are strung together. We’re trying to do a lot of visual storytelling, a lot of leading and foreshadowing and stuff. There’s a lot of crap that’s going to go over people’s heads or misses the mark, but we’re trying to do that and we’re trying to do it with character, personality and just fun. It’s not just stoic and “we’re so cool” because we’re not, we’re just a bunch of goofballs that want to make something that looks badass but is also entertaining.
TSA: With the new technology and stuff, how much further have you been able to go compared to the previous games?
Scott: Oh, it’s been awesome. We can put more stuff on screen, we can make bigger, brasher environments. We got to the point where, because our zones and areas are so big, even Epic are going, “You probably shouldn’t do that!” They’re surprised with what we can do with their engine, because it’s such a jack of all trades and we love it, but we’re pushing larger scenarios, push more enemies on screen, push more enemies doing more unique things that communicate and talk to each other. We weren’t ever going to try and make it like Dynasty Warriors and put a hundred enemies on there…
TSA: [laughs] It could be good?
Scott: If anybody is here and they have a line to Koei Tecmo? I will be there! I will make that game!
But we never said we were going to do that, we’re trying to support the missions, the experience and the story. We also knew the way that the guns work, and what we can do with the guns is way more in depth than we’ve done before. We have a ridiculous amount of things in the game that do a ridiculous amount of things. That sounds stupid, but I’m constantly surprised by the craziness, the coolness and the sheer stupidity of my peers and what they’re putting in the game. It’s almost like we’re trying to one-up each other.
The Gigamind character is one of those, and you’ll see, we just leaned into it and said screw it. It’s kind of dumb but it’s really cool.
TSA: Do you think that’s the whole ethos of Borderlands?
Scott: Dude! Irreverence, entertain people, make them cringe a little bit, but then make them laugh. [laughs] We kind of went back to Borderlands attitude of, “Oh, you know what? We’re going to blow people to pieces.” It cracks me up. I know it makes people cringe, but it’s done in an Evil Dead 2 homage of ridiculousness.
Pushing the envelope and entertaining at the same time is really fun. I joked that we have a Paul Verhoven mentality that is rooted in RoboCop and Total Recall. In this totally irreverent Starship Troopers way, where it’s serious but it’s so tongue in cheek.
Borderlands 3 releases on PS4, Xbox One and PC on the 13th of September. If you’d like to know more about the game you can check out our hands on preview and stay tuned right here for further updates as we find them.
This coverage came courtesy of a dedicated event for which 2K Games provided travel and accommodation.