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Bleeding Edge art and animation interview: Friendship is key

We had a chance to chat with Ninja Theory's Warwick Mellow and Aaron McElligott to discuss how they created the visual aspects of Bleeding Edge's world.


Bleeding Edge has some of the best character designs I’ve seen in a game in some time. While there’s an overlying theme of cybernetic body modification, each character takes a different and unique twist to the theme from Swedish heavy metal rockers with cyber-necks to dolphins in tanks, and even women who act like birds. We had a chance recently to sit down with Ninja Theory’s principal animator Warwick Mellow, and their lead artist Aaron McElligott to talk about where the concepts for Bleeding Edge’s world came from and how they tried to avoid being another dark, dystopian vision of the future.

Bleeding Edge's art style features a lot of vibrant colors.
Bleeding Edge's art style features a lot of vibrant colors.

Shacknews: Bleeding Edge has sort of a 90’s cyberpunk retro vibe. It’s futuristic, but in a way we thought things would be in the 90’s.

Aaron: Yeah. Inspiration for that came from a number of animes. We started initially with Ghost in the Shell and Akira, while the game was working out what it wanted to be. But, the more it developed, it had a more light-hearted and easy-going feel more than aggressive and nasty. The art we had been producing was a bit sort of darker, greyer, dystopian, so we needed to find something else.

There was another anime I really loved called Tekkonkinkreet and that had an amazing world. It was really artistically beautiful. All the buildings were heavily stylized; they had spray paint and graffiti, and it was very sunny with blue skies, that sort of thing. So it had a nice, warm vibe to it, but in the streets it had violent undertones, knife fights, stuff like that. So it felt like there was a kind of link, a little something in there with our game.

Shacknews: Yeah, I can definitely see the Ghost in the Shell stuff, especially with all the cybernetic augments that the characters have. That vibe definitely comes through. But there’s also a lot of neon and vibrant colors in this world, but that’s not really something that’s present in those dystopian animes.

Aaron: We generally like to, where we can, push away from that sort of normal approach to it, I guess you could say. I guess Games like Enslaved, which I think is another sort of dystopian world, it would have been quite easy to make it very brown or grey and uniform. But it’s like I remember Tameem [Antoniades] going, “No, we’re not doing that. Let’s find something else,” and then we had a big chat about it.

Shacknews: Oh yeah, everything’s like green fields everywhere and foliage covering up the disheveledness of the fall of mankind in Enslaved.

Aaron: Yes. It just requires a bit of additional thought. And I think that when you find a problem you want to solve, you never really go with the first kind of thing you come up with. You just need to keep poking it, and eventually something more unique will come out of it.

While Bleeding Edge takes place in the future, it's not necessarily a dystopian one.
While Bleeding Edge takes place in the future, it's not necessarily a dystopian one.

Shacknews: That’s awesome, yeah. The character designs in this game are really fantastic. They’re all really, really different, coming from different backgrounds. They almost feel like different genres of music.

Warwick: Yeah that’s a nice way to look at it. I like that.

Shacknews: It’s really obvious with Nidhoggr because he’s got that Swedish death metal look to him. And also a character like Gizmo reminds me of DEVO a little bit. They’ve all got that different personality to them. But they’re all part of a cohesive world; you can see where they tie together. Coming up with all these different genres, so to speak, that must have been a challenge. Was it always like that? Were they always so unique?

Warwick: I love the way you put it as different musical genres. I think it was something intentionally we wanted to do. I think we knew, because it was a multiplayer game, if all our characters were really similar, we run a risk of everything just being that kind of even-keeled brownness. People may like the characters but they’re not going to love them. So we really wanted them to be different. And that was in every facet; it wasn’t just how they looked, but it was also how they played, how they animated. So we wanted to make sure that every character was unique in its own right. The idea being, obviously in these multiplayer games people have to “main” someone. The hope is that someone would find a character in our lineup that they completely fell in love with. You know, whether it was the subculture they belonged to, so as you say they love hair metal as well, so Nidhoggr is their guy, or if it’s purely based on the gameplay, they just love the way that Gizmo plays, sort of more of a Ranger. It was very intentional from the get-go.

Aaron: Yeah. We wanted to pad them out enough so that someone could find their personal protagonist within the list. But they also provide different levels of kinds of augmentation. So when we think of the characters and the augmentations they can have, like what is the possible stretch we can do? So Gizmo, I know she’s got tiny augments on her hands, but really it’s more like an exoskeleton style. And then you’ve got all the way up to someone like Miko which has nanotech kind of running through the body. So it’s fun coming up with those ideas and how they perhaps can be used in a character.

Warwick: We like to think of the augmentations being an extent of their interests and their personality. The idea that, if, in the future, augmenting your body was as easy as getting a piercing, what would you do to yourself? Nidhoggr’s a great example of loving heavy metal and wanting to headbang more effectively, so augmenting his neck. Making himself look more like a skeleton, without having this beautiful neck, he’s not going to get that stiff whiplash post- concert. Just little things like that we thought were really clever to put in.

Shacknews: We were talking earlier about Cass. I love the animation on this character. It totally reminds me of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. And you told me she’s actually based off of, what, I’m sorry, I already forgot the name.

Warwick: It’s called a cassowary. So it’s a terrestrial Australian bird. Australia has loads of dangerous animals. We just happen to have the world’s most dangerous bird. So it’s terrestrial, it lives in the rainforest, and eats nuts and fruit and stuff like that. But it’s been known to attack people at different stages when it felt threatened. And it is kind of this missing link animal; it’s like a dinosaur.

Aaron: It looks like a dinosaur, yeah.

Warwick: So she came about early on. At that stage, we weren’t really sure about the personalities of the characters. We knew we wanted to have augmented fighters, and we wanted a bit of a spin on it. So she came about, and it was like, “well how about augmented legs?” Rather than doing upper body, big arm, you know, what everyone thinks about, how could we weaponize the legs? It was just a throwback to, obviously the country I’m from, and where Ronnie and Gerald are from, but we just thought it was a nice something a bit different. Something you haven’t seen before, bladed feet.

And also, that fits the animation as well. It’s called zoomorphism, when you ascribe animal traits to a human character. So it wasn’t just that her design was informed by an animal, but also her movements, and that’s why she has twitches. It was just fun to do something that was a bit different but challenging, and she kind of worked out. She’s kind of cool.

Underneath it all Bleeding Edge is about friendship.
Underneath it all Bleeding Edge is about friendship.

Shacknews: There are little nuances too that I love, like watching Nidhoggr run through the scales on the guitar. I was totally watching the fingerwork in the loading screens for the character.

Warwick: Yeah. that stuff was all intentional as well. It’s hard to animate people playing guitar. But I just love the idea of him playing guitar, that he was some great guitarist. I mean, he could have just held the guitar like an axe, but it’s kind of more fun.

Aaron: Well it helps define the character. All of those little bits, it’s a lot of work to do, but it’s worth it. You know, it’s very easy to not do it, which is why you should do it.

Warwick: I think the subtleties kind of help to sell the personality as well. It’s those little nuances that make them more deep and meaningful, you know.

Aaron: People do notice it.

Shacknews: Yeah, you can come up with the most over-the-top character design ever. But how do you tell a story with just looking at a character?

Warwick: The initial development, after we get something from design, like “I’m gonna make a mage character” or perhaps “I’m gonna make a character that curses people.” or whatever, we then have to come up with an artist’s concept of that, an idea of who this person is. And we try and base it on real people, initially, and that’s the starting point. If this was a real person, 30 years in the future, why would they do this? Why would a person do this to themselves to get to this sort of standard of augmentation? We use that, and we try to think about the person.

Shacknews: Can we talk a little bit about Mekko, the newest character, and where that design came from?

Aaron: Interestingly, that was one of the very first concepts we had. When we started out, we were only six or seven people for the first year or so, and we didn’t have a concept artist. There was a guy that was working on Disney Infinity, and he was a really nice guy. He helped us out in his spare time, a couple of evenings he did some sketches. And he said, “what do you want”, and was like, “I dunno. I think like a Japanese style mech,” cause they’re pretty awesome, like if you think of the end of Ghost in the Shell, that’s what was in my head. Maybe driven by AI or something. And he came back with this thing, there’s a dolphin in this kind of mech suit.

Shacknews: Why not put a dolphin in it?

Aaron: And he says, “You know, dolphins are intelligent, he could drive it.”. Man, that’s random as hell, but it’s amazing. But we couldn’t use it at that time because we had no other characters. It’s just such an unusual start point, the game would have branched in a completely different way. So we just sort of shelved it; we liked it, but we shelved it. And the character range has become diverse enough, that every now and then we’ve got all these ideas sitting on the shelf, and you kind of pull it in and go, “it fits now, now’s the right time.”

Warwick: We had a hole in the gameplay where it was one of the ranged tanks, and we were like, “this could totally fit now,” and we put him in there.

Aaron: Sometimes we take the whole character, but sometimes we take components.

Warwick: Bits that we think are clever, that maybe become incorporated into another character.

Shacknews: That’s awesome. I love it when it all ties back into place like that.

Aaron: I think it’s like cream floats. If it’s right, it will resurface. If it’s not, it never will.

Warwick: And like all the good ideas have somehow managed to get in the game. Maybe not in their original form, but they tend to sort of manage to get themselves in there.

Aaron: And some die away, and that’s what happens. You just have to let them go. I think if you fight too hard, you’re just corrupting the game. The game will tell you what it wants to be.

Shacknews: Speaking of that, we already talked about how the characters don’t really seem dystopian, and there’s a real vibrance to them. That happens to coincide with the world as well. This definitely doesn’t feel like you’re living in a dark society where you have to fight for your lives, per se, you’re just out there having fun.

Aaron: I’m glad you picked up on that, actually. There’s two points in there. That Tekkonkinkreet anime I was talking about, and that kind of vibe and world, that was something that definitely felt good. But as the game went on, we realized we didn’t really want this to be… you know, when you see a lot of fighting games there’s this kind of face-off imagery, and it’s often very aggressive. I don’t think it needs to be that. I think you can do these things, and kind of have fun with it. And the idea just kind of clicked for me one day, it’s that these guys are just mates. These are friends. So the idea that you go to the park together, you play football, you shout at each other and whatever, get muddy, and at the end of the day you go home. But you go home together.

Shacknews: So this is just like hipsters getting together in a park to play dodgeball?

Aaron: If you like. If you’ve seen the key image, where Daemon has got a phone, they’re taking a selfie all together.

Shacknews: They’re all friends. It’s friendship. Is that the key theme of the game, is just friendship?

Aaron: It is. Yeah, they’re just mates. And we’ll have some upcoming content you’ll see soon that hopefully re-emphasizes that. I think you’re allowed to make “violent” games that aren’t that way, that aren’t evil. You can have fun with it without it being quite so mean.

Shacknews: Thank you so much for talking to us today! When is Bleeding Edge coming out?

Warwick: We have another Beta, on the 13 of March, and the game is released to the public for good on the 24 of March on XBox One, XBox Game Pass and Steam.

Blake has been writing and making videos about pop-culture and games for over 10 years now. Although he'd probably prefer you thought of him as a musician and listened to his band, If you see him on the street, buy him a taco or something. Follow him on twitter @ProfRobot

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