Tom Mead is an artist and illustrator from Cornwall who studied 2D animation at Bournemouth Arts Institute and is now based in Bristol. He is working on a deep-sea exploration game called Silt with programmer Dominic Clarke. In this interview, he talks about moving from a fine art background into video game development, and what he thinks are some of the most visually stylish games.
How would you describe your game, Silt?
It’s a deep-sea exploration game where you explore the dark undersea world of a lost abyss, and there’s gonna be loads of strange surreal creatures there. The game is gonna be heavily focused on characters called Goliaths, which are dark dormant ancient beasts that are at the bottom of this abyss. So the idea is essentially to be sinking ever lower through these depths and interacting with all these odd creatures.
What inspired the game?
It was a series of watercolour illustrations that I had been doing, very loosely inspired by an artist called Jeremy Geddes, who’s an Australian oil painter. He’s a hyper-realist surrealist, and I have always been really into his work. I just started sketching things that were inspired by him, and it was characters completely lost in an abyss. And from there I met my programmer, who had randomly contacted me after seeing some of these drawings, and we started a project without anything more than a few of my drawings to go off.
What are some of your favourite games?
Limbo is definitely a huge influence. And recently I’ve been playing Cuphead, which is a 2D hand-drawn platform game. I’m very influenced by that, just because of the level of detail that goes into the game and how difficult it is. But honestly I actually prefer just to think of the ones from years ago. Final Fantasy 7 and 8 absolutely blew my mind when I was a kid.
Was their visual style anything to do with that?
No, actually it wasn’t. The visual style was… I don’t think it was supposed to be bad, but it was pretty, like, blocky. It looked dated. I mean, it looked dated then. Now it will look awful. But it didn’t matter, because the narrative was just incredible. So yeah, ironically one of my favourite games had terrible visual style.
What’s a visual style that you would like to see used more in games?
I’d love to see more experimental and abstract work. I think it’s pretty hard to do that, and that’s why it hasn’t happened much. But I’d actually love to see very flowing and ink wash based work. I did actually see that recently at EGX last year. There was a watercolour based game that was extremely textural, and had a really soft feel to it. It looked to me like a Charmin Ultra advert by an animator called Joanna Quinn, who has a very soft visual style. It was great to see something that looked entirely different. One that is equally beautiful and watercolour based that I have been very inspired by is a game called Gris. It’s a perfect mix of traditional and digital and is designed by an incredible Spanish artist called Conrad Roset. Who knows if it will ever come out though! Personally I’d like to try and do stop-motion puppetry within the games world. I think that’s gonna be pretty hard to achieve, but you can but hope.
What other games do you think have a great visual style?
One of my favourites recently is called Little Nightmares. It has a really dark style, very moody. It’s got an incredible European aesthetic to it. It doesn’t seem like it’s pandering to a younger audience, which I always really admire. I don’t really think that games should be just for a younger audience, and I know they’re not, but I would definitely love to see more dark, weird, surreal, and challenging games.
Have other games inspired you in the development of Silt?
Apart from the ones I mentioned before, mainly it’s just been the artwork that I’m normally into. I’ve definitely been just trawling Instagram for as much visual inspiration as I can. There’s a photographer that I’ve always been really really into called Joel-Peter Witkin, and his work is extremely dark. I’ve basically been influenced by him and an animator called Koji Morimoto, who has been my favourite artist for about 11 years now.
What’s your motivation for creating this game?
I think if I was really digging deep inside my thoughts and inspirations for why I’m doing it, it would definitely be: I want to create a game that someone plays and in 15 years they’re sitting in a pub, and they’re talking to their friends, and they’re like; “Oh my God, did you play that weird game from years ago?” That’s what I live for, almost, is just to overhear that kind of fanboy that I was, liking a project that happened to be mine.
What made you want to move from art into game development?
The main draw of getting into games was to create the world that I’ve always wanted to have for my artwork. In 2D animation, because I studied hand drawn, my technique is too detailed to be hand drawn without it looking really loose and messy and not the kind of look that I want. And for games you can texture a whole rig that can move like a puppet. So it’s a form of cut-out animation, which I could actually do in animation, but I really like the idea of having my work coming alive and also being interactive and playable. Basically, it’s a whole new platform that I feel I can explore, and I feel that the games industry is extremely receptive to very odd stuff, which is a big pull for me.
Why has it taken you until now to start working in game development?
Basically, I avoided games from when I stopped playing them obsessively when I was a kid. I’ve always felt that if I started playing games again that it would just take over my life, and that I would probably end up focusing on, ironically, designing towards games, which at the time I had never really thought was a feasible prospect. And now it’s turned around. I don’t really know why. I think my work’s just become a bit more accessible, maybe.
Do you think it’s something the game development community needs to be mindful of that capacity for games to “take over” a person’s life?
I would definitely say that it’s something to think about as a games developer, that you have that kind of control, especially with the virtual reality and alternate reality platforms that are going to be coming out much more soon. I think there’s a huge worry there that you could permanently damage someone. I mean, I’ve played my fair share of virtual reality recently, and it definitely has that effect. So I see as it gets more technologically advanced that people are gonna have to have restrictions, otherwise they’re just gonna get completely sucked in. In fact, I have an example, weirdly. I’ve got a friend of mine that’s really into virtual reality, and he actually has figured out that after four hours that’s all he can take, and the day after he has a virtual reality hangover, which is really bad.
A virtual reality hangover?
Yeah, he’s completely kind of brain dead for the whole day after.
Would you ever make a virtual reality game?
I’ve actually definitely thought about it, because I have a friend of mine who has a whole VR set-up in his art studio in London, and I asked him if I could go and try out this programme called Tilt Brush, because he had it. And I went there, and I started painting what I normally would paint, I painted a forest, in virtual reality. And it was a really odd experience, kind of walking through my drawn trees, and definitely got me thinking about maybe doing that type of thing one day.
What are some of the differences between the video games world and the more traditional art world?
The difference really for me is how accepting the games world seems to be of my type of work. Like I said, I’ve only dabbled in the games world for the past year, maybe two now, and the response that I’ve got for everything that I’ve been doing has been fantastic. I know it’s cheesy to say but it feels like it’s a big community, and that people want you to succeed. And I don’t entirely think this is true in all cases, but I don’t necessarily think that’s true in fine art. I think you could easily have a great show and then that’s it. It doesn’t really feel like there’s a huge amount of progression for what I do, within the fine art world. But with the games world I feel that there’s a huge scope for some serious progression and development of my work, which is really interesting for me.
Do you think there’s much overlap between Fine Art and video games?
I don’t think there’s as much overlap as there should be. Last year I was involved with a Friday Late exhibition in the V&A museum. I was there with a team of mine, and we were showing the visual development, so my work was printed on posters, and the game was played on iMacs, and video process of my work was displayed on a big projector in the main hall. I think shows like that more often would be really beneficial, because it merged the game world and the fine art world perfectly. I think it would be great to have more exhibitions up and down the country which focused on the amount of development that goes on behind the scenes of games.
What’s it like to make art where you live?
It’s good, it’s good. The scene in Bristol seems to be in a slightly transitional stage, so it’s quite interesting at the moment to be working in Bristol. A lot of properties that have studios in are being sold off as flats, and the studio that I’ve just had is being renovated as well. So there’s a lot of change, which I think is definitely a good thing for the art scene. I think if you don’t have that then things just get stale, which is never good for art.
Is there a lot of local support for art in Bristol?
I would say that there is local support for certain types of art. It’s a very random place, Bristol. If you’re into puppetry and theatre and animation, it’s brilliant. Games, not so much. And the fine art world seems to me to have absolutely died, which is a shame. It used to be bustling, about three or four years ago, and now it’s completely changed. Oh, and of course street art. But I also feel, and this is literally 100% just my opinion, that for street art Bristol is absolutely saturated. I mean, you get tour groups, now, of people looking at graffiti in Bristol, and I don’t know, I just feel that that’s really odd. It’s a bit capitalist.
How viable would you say it is right now for an independent creator like you to make interactive art?
I would say it’s much more viable than it used to be. I’m happy that at the moment I’ve got into this line of work at quite an interesting time, with a lot of technical developments happening. And I might be wrong, but I’m not sure in the past that there was as much support for funding. I’ve done my fair share of research to try and get fine art funding for art shows, and it’s not been easy, but I’ve been looking for games funding and I can’t believe how many options there are. It’s amazing.
Do you think that video games get more support than art does?
Well, I don’t think I’m qualified to have an opinion on it, but just from an outsider’s perspective, yeah, I think there’s a hell of a lot more support. It seems that because there’s so much money in the games industry as a whole, that there’s enough leeway for bigger companies to support younger indie game developers, whereas in the fine art world I’d be surprised if there’s as much money.
Is there anything more that you would like to see in terms of support for people making video games?
From my own experience, the funding platforms that we are gonna be applying to, every single one of them bar a few need a fully playable demo before they can go forward with any talks about funding, which is a lot to ask. I understand why, but it basically means that you’ve got to put all of the mechanics and a lot of the visual style in place to impress them to then get the funding, which is quite a hard way of doing it. The best I’ve found so far has been the Pitch Development Programme that the UK Games Fund does. That seems to be a lot more focused on people who are at an early stage of development with their games, which means that you can get funded much earlier on and be able to spend the time on it that you really need, which I think is a great way to go. So I’m hoping there’ll be more platforms like that.
Do you think that where you live has had any effect on your work?
I get this question quite a lot, actually, and I’ve never really known how to answer it, because I wouldn’t say that I’m influenced directly by my surroundings, at least visually. I definitely wouldn’t ever take anything from Cornwall or Bristol and put it into my work. But I also feel that having an inspiring arts scene around you really helps your work, and at least up until recently Bristol, for me, has definitely had that. So that has really influenced me and pushed me to want to be, in inverted commas, ‘a professional’.
So you don’t think there are any parallels between your game about getting lost in the abyss and being from Cornwall?
You could probably read into it like that. I mean, I’ve always been the type of person that likes to hear people’s different perceptions about my work. I don’t really necessarily like saying that; “This piece is about this,” if you see what I mean. I like the thought of people saying, you know, “I draw like this because I grew up in a forest in Cornwall,” which is true. So, you know, maybe we can at least say that the forests of Cornwall had a profound influence on my work.
Is that why you drew a forest when you tried Tilt Brush?
Follow progress on Silt at siltgame.com