Buttercup Feature

Telling a Story Through Visuals: Interview With Ninja Theory’s Aaron McElligott and Warwick Mellow

Ninja Theory’s upcoming Bleeding Edge is eye-popping and colourful. The world of which a small division of the studio set out to create is far from the dark and bleak world of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s even a step away from DmC: Devil May Cry.

Bleeding Edge while a competitive multiplayer experience fuses a sense of punk-rock with an anime and futuristic art style. It’s refreshing to see a game take liberties to create an experience that not only plays well, but it pretty to look at. Bleeding Edge also features a robust and diverse roster of fighters. Each is uniquely different. Due to the focus on the multiplayer combat and competitive nature of Bleeding Edge, a lot of the storytelling is being told through subtle cues via the art and character designs.

Sitting down with Ninja Theory’s Lead Artist Aaron McElligott and Principal Animator Warwick Mellow, I got to chat with them about the art style the studio chose, how diversity within characters matters, and how showing, not telling can be a strong method of storytelling.

Bleeding Edge Gameplay

Steve: Bleeding Edge clearly has a style. It’s unique and eye-catching. Was this the initial art direction you wanted to go in? Or did you find it along the way as you were in the early stages of development?

Aaron: A bit of both. When we first started the game, which was ages ago, I think the directors of the studio were very much into mocap and scan data and that’s cool. It’s working well for the games they’re looking at. People on the team, like Rahni Tucker, who came from DmC combat design and very game-y games. We also had Warwick, who is a super hand-key animator, very expressive animations––we wanted something in that area, so we started looking at animes like Ghost in the Shell and Akira while we were discovering the game.

Over time, as the game started to become more lighthearted and fun, we needed something else. There was another anime; Tekkonkinkreet. It’s an unusual one. It had a brilliant contrast where there are knife fights and high aggression, but the city is colourful and beautiful with heads on the building. There’s graffiti on the buildings, the sun’s out, that sort of thing. It felt like there was something in that and we used it as a jumping-off point and I did a few art tests based on that idea.

But we needed a character that the team could rally around as we didn’t know the direction we would go in. We had a prototype of Buttercup that was a more realistic or dystopian style, so we tuned her up. Warwick did the ZBrush sculpt of her even though he’s an animator and I did the build of her bike and her clothes––basically her augments and set the tone. We wanted the characters to be loosely based on real people. If this person existed, why would they augment themselves? It’s all based on enhancing your hobbies and passions.

I never wanted the game to become overly-sexualized. So she’s never going to be there in a skimpy bikini because it doesn’t add anything to the character. She likes motorbikes and got this rockabilly vibe with tattoos and is super confident. When she came along, the team thought it was really cool.

Steve: So the team picked up on that and it started rolling.

Aaron: Yeah, I think that was the start of it. We definitely got it wrong a couple of times, but she was the kick-off that hopefully sent us in the right direction.

Steve: The visuals from all aspects mesh well together. It seems like from an artistic standpoint, Bleeding Edge knows exactly what it wants to be. Did the studio ever feel like it was taking a risk when choosing the art style, or was this treated more as a chance to experiment and do things you weren’t able to in the past?

Warwick: After DmC, Ninja Theory let us take some creative risks. We have the model of “Indie-AAA”. Can we compete with AAA games in scale? We can’t because we’re small, but maybe we can compete with them in quality. The way we can hit that is by making smaller experiences but hit those impressive art bars. The cool thing about indie development, in general, is that indies are more likely to take creative risks because they’re not trying to capture an entire audience. They’re trying to capture a niche. In that way, being different and taking risks is something that makes your product more compelling.

We knew with this game––things are a bit different now being part of Microsoft––we always had the indie approach. We couldn’t compete with the massive games out there, but we can create something compelling enough visually that we might get enough people to notice it.

Aaron: We were passionate as well. I think when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you do a better job. I think [the founders] know that. Hellblade has a very different design. They trusted us to go away to do this and have left us to do it. I’ve worked in this industry for 25 years and I’ve never encountered anything like this. I guess the only scary part is you never want to feel like you’re letting the other side down. When they’ve done all this creative stuff and you have a go, there’s a pressure you put on yourself to make it stand up to other Ninja Theory games. It’s overwhelming at times, but hopefully, we’ve done something right! *laughs*

Steve: It seems like everyone can go in and pick one fighter that speaks to them or they relate to. How much fun was it creating this diverse cast of fighters?

Warwick: Totally a dream come true, especially as an animator. It was so awesome to have the freedom to come up with these core characters. It was all intentional. We knew that if all of our characters were just perfectly human, it wouldn’t work. We knew we needed to push proportions, style, and individuality. We wanted people to love the characters too. There’s a risk when creating characters that are so similar, people may like them but they’ll never fall in love with them.

We thought maybe it was better to push hard. Instead of a player liking all the characters, they might find one character they really love. As a multiplayer game, that was more important. Through playing the game, with characters they didn’t like too much at the start, they might notice things about particular characters and find merit for them.

Aaron: We had to create a range of characters where each character felt like a protagonist to somebody. We didn’t know it at the beginning that we’d have this roster of characters. It’s kind of something that developed organically. We would sit around, well, a pub and just talk about it. You could tell when you had a good idea because everyone would start talking about it. Before you knew it, we’d have 300 ideas that we’d tune down to about four. You have these moments of inspiration sitting on shelves and in documents.

That’s kind of how Mekko came about. He was designed within the first few months by a guy that was helping us out on Disney Infinity next door and was working on it in his spare time. I asked him for a Japanese mech or something like at the end of Ghost in the Shell. I got this dolphin in a mech suit back and went “Whoa! That’s rad, but what do I do with this?” It was a different design, but the idea was there.

Steve: There’s a lot of attention to detail within each of the fighters. For instance, the staples on El Bastardo’s torso, or the knit pentagrams in Kulev’s eye sockets. What are some standout aspects of these fighters that you’re hoping don’t go unnoticed?

Aaron: I’m impressed you noticed that.

Warwick: We’ve got impressive characters that don’t show all their cards at once. In a sophisticated character design, you can hide certain elements that can be revealed at a later stage. It created layers and depth to the character. Like El Bastardo, his scars tell a story. What happened in his past? Why is he missing an eye and have an eye on his hat? There’s a story there that while it’s not told to you, you can start imagining it. There’s a level of depth and interest.

Personally, I love that Nidhoggr has this jaw that splits open and has a fire-breathing mechanism in there. He’s got a skeletal neck that he can headbang with. Because the game is multiplayer and you’ll be playing with these characters a lot, it’s good that things are hidden. After hours of play, you look at a map and its environments and think: “Wow, I never knew it had that!”

Aaron: We never wanted them to feel shallow. We wanted them to feel like they have depth and backstory. We have other ideas about things we might…reveal later. As for things to notice, Gizmo has an exosuit and in the centre, it has a face in the back and that’s what changes into the hood when she activates the mech.

My favourite one is Kulev. We knew we would make a voodoo guy and thought about a voodoo doll, which is why his mouth is stitched up and the hanging strings and pins in him. That expanded into symbolism with snakes. I wanted him to be broken we one arm and Warwick suggested having the snake as the other arm. Then we thought about having the snake be the character. He sends these impulses to make this guy stumble about which is why he’s dragging himself. I don’t know whether you get it the first time around. You see a snake wrapped around a guy but there are those layers in a sense of that’s how he was created. It was a progressive thing, some of those ideas you throw away and some you keep.

Steve: Yeah, keep them in your back pocket!

Aaron: We have a lot in our back pocket.


Steve: Let’s talk about the maps for a second. They’re all unique and pretty to look at. Each has so many details thrown into it to make it feel like you’re travelling through a living world rather than a stagnant map. Can you touch on how the maps came together from a design aspect?

Aaron: Initially, it’s based on various parts of the United States. Daemon is from New York, he is the leader of the group. It’s set in the future with raised water. What we wanted to do is find elements linked to the characters. There needed to be a story in the environments and associated with the characters.

So you have Manhattan and it’s wrapped in a wall because of the rising water. They’ve isolated themselves, it’s kind of a rich part of New York with beautiful parks. But, these aren’t those people. They don’t have jobs, so what’s the world they live in? How have they been left behind? So they kind of hang out and play in these forgotten parts of the city. They’ve turned it into their home and designed it with graffiti. So we started with that, but we never wanted them to be evil people.

One of the levels, the sky temple one, that’s a posh part of town with a Japanese-style garden that’s been shut down. So they kind of nip in for the weekend, set up some stuff, play with it and head out. We just keep exploring with that. What if we had a level where you’re flying around, or are underwater? If the water is raised, what does it mean for buildings? If the water is raised, can we see the tops of the buildings? Can we make a level out of that?

We toy around and the same way you develop a character, you develop a world with an aesthetic or it’ll become boring. It’s why you go on holiday and visit these places because they’re visually appealing.

Warwick: Just like with the characters, there’s loads of stuff hidden on the levels as well. At first glance, you may not notice it but the more you play you notice that actually there’s actually some really clever stuff in there. We’re really looking forward to people discovering all of it.

Bleeding Edge releases on Xbox One and PC on March 24th, 2020.