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How 2D video game Sundered used Harmony for style and story
Fleetwood Mac once sang, “Thunder only happens when it’s raining.” In the case of Thunder Lotus, it most certainly is raining — acclaim, sales and success, that is. The Montreal-based video game studio has produced two titles since its inception in 2014: “Jotun” in 2015 and “Sundered” in July of this year. Both were created in Toon Boom Harmony.
Thunder Lotus is one of the many studios benefiting from a video game boom in Canada. The country is the third largest development hub in the industry, after the United States and Japan. Video games contribute over $3 billion to the Canadian economy and employ over 20,000 professionals across 472 active studios.
Quebec’s multimedia tax subsidies have made it attractive to both local and international AAA game developers; French gaming giant Ubisoft has committed to creating 1,000 jobs and investing $780 million into the province over the next decade. Montreal has become the world’s fifth-largest video game centre, surpassed only by Tokyo, London, San Francisco and Austin. Facing fierce homegrown and global competition, Thunder Lotus founder, CEO and designer Will Dubé says something that gives its offerings substance is its style.
“For us, hand-drawn 2D is a huge differentiator — not many studios are doing it,” says Dubé. “It’s also a product of the artists on our team, who are Toon Boom-trained 2D animators.”
The studio had its humble beginnings at Concordia University’s District 3 startup incubator, where initial work for “Jotun” and “Sundered” began. Both 2D video games had help getting off the ground via crowdfunding on Kickstarter, and the former has had sales of over 225,000 units according to Dubé.
The narrative in “Jotun” is based on Norse mythology, whereas “Sundered” is described as “a horrifying fight for survival and sanity” in the Metroidvania style. The protagonist, Eshe, nomadically ventures through transforming caverns filled hordes of terrifying enemies. She acquires powers from possessed relics along the way, but at the cost of her humanity.
While “Jotun” was a hit, there were certain aspects Dubé wanted to improve on for “Sundered”. He preserved the hand-drawn 2D art style, big boss fights, and immersive storytelling and gameplay, but wanted his sophomore effort to be less linear and last longer. (“Jotun” was approximately five hours of gameplay).
Source: Thunder Lotus.
This was accomplished by infusing choice into “Sundered”, where the user can either resist or embrace the dark nature of the protagonist’s powers, which will ultimately corrupt them or not. This allowed for an extensive skill tree and branched into three different game endings, meaning play had a direct impact on plot.
To bring this vision to life, Thunder Lotus’ lead animator Alexandre Boyer felt it was only natural to use Harmony. Having been trained in the software at Cégep du Vieux-Montreal, a Toon Boom Centre of Excellence, he went on to use it professionally on large television and film projects. While he enjoys the creative freedom of working on indie video games, it does come with certain challenges.
“With television and film, you spend most of your time animating,” says Boyer. “There's a bigger technical aspect to video games that animators have to deal with like integrating animations into the game, tweaking animation transitions and working with engine physics.”
Plus, video games are an interactive media. While storytelling is still king for this sort of animation, it must share the throne with gameplay, functionality and user enjoyment. It’s a lot for one person to consider; Boyer is Thunder Lotus’ sole full-time animator, though he worked with a senior freelancer for both “Jotun” and “Sundered”.
Still, the protagonist in “Sundered” required 80 animations and took seven months to animate. Additionally, a single boss would take an animator a month and a half. Fortunately, the right tools facilitated the process and productivity. As Boyer explains, “Toon Boom is really good for us; the type of character design we like is always better when animated traditionally by completely redrawing the character on every frame.”
Source: Thunder Lotus.
“Unfortunately, that would take too long so we use all the cut-out and rigging animation tools that Harmony offers to speed up the process, while still animating frame-by-frame what we need to. Some of the stuff we animate is completely cut-out with no new drawings, some is entirely frame-by-frame, but most is a mix of the two,” he says.
During the production of “Sundered”, Boyer says the Harmony tools he experimented with most were deformers and Mesh Warp. Now, they have become a part of his toolset. When it came time to acquaint himself with deformers, Boyer turned to the Toon Boom Learn Portal, which he describes as a “great resource for tutorials.” Overall, using Harmony saved time and money during production as it reduced the need to redraw animations frame by frame.
Four months after the release of “Sundered”, the reviews are in: after a slightly bumpy launch, 91 percent of Steam user reviews from the last 30 days have been positive. As “Metro” says, “Sundered illustrates just how good a game can look using only traditional hand-drawn animation… [Its] gorgeous hand-drawn artwork is some of the best ever seen in video games.”
Dubé notes the game is outselling “Jotun” during the same time period, putting it on the fast-track for success. It has also had huge support from Sony, as it was released simultaneously on PS4.
While Thunder Lotus is still working on “Sundered”, it already has new and exciting things in the pipeline. Dubé tells us, “We’re working hard on some new projects, unfortunately nothing I can share too much about at the moment. However, what I can say is it will be cool and still in 2D, so it will be produced in Harmony.”
For fans of 2D animation, this will certainly be a game-changer.