21st Dec 2019

Nomada Studio was formed by Adrián Cuevas and Roger Mendoza, who had previously worked for larger studios making AAA games, after they met visual artist Conrad Roset. The trio began building a skilled team that combined experienced developers with artists of differing disciplines from the world outside of video games. To create their first game, the gorgeous GRIS, Nomada constructed a gameplay concept around Conrad’s artwork and enlisted Berlinist to create original music.

Since art is the heart of GRIS, Special Reserve Games pulled out all the stops to craft a beautiful limited physical edition, including a 176-page, full-colour, hardcover art book, art cards printed on archival paper, and sheet music for the GRIS piano theme by Berlinist (also on archival paper) — along with all the other gorgeous goodies you’ve come to expect from SRG.

We talked to Roger Mendoza and Conrad Roset (separately, since Roger had to translate for Conrad) about the process of creating GRIS and the importance of making videogame art real through crafting physical versions.

Explore the Reserves

Special Reserve Games: How did you and Adrián meet Conrad and come to found Nomada Studio?

Roger Mendoza: Completely randomly, one day we were at a farewell party for a friend, and we met Conrad there since a friend was also celebrating another birthday at the same bar. We started chatting and he had this idea for a game that started in black and white and you get colors back.

There was a funny moment at the time. Conrad is a renowned artist in Spain. He's done many advertisements and exhibitions. But I didn't know of him. He was showing me his art on his cellphone and I was like, “Hey, you could do this for a living!”

His pretty humble response was, “Yeah, well, thank you, that's what I'm trying to do.” I didn't know he was so well-established. The next day I was a bit embarrassed.

SRG: At what point did you get into the idea of a game that explores grief?

Roger: The game evolved a lot. At the very, very beginning, our first thought was to make one of those infinite runner games for cellphones. But then we decided we wanted to see the art on a big screen, and moved to console.

Since we had this concept of starting in black and white and getting colors back, we needed to find a story to wrap it around, that the world looks broken then you start seeing the world differently. We talked to a psychologist, and he helped us refine the idea.

SRG: Can you explain your initial attraction to Conrad’s art and the “colors” idea?

Roger: What really attracted me is that when I saw Conrad’s early concepts for the first time, I thought, "There's nothing like this. I've never seen this in a game before. This is something new.”

SRG: How do you go from a piece of Conrad’s art to actually creating a game environment based on that art?

Roger: One of the first things we did was sit with Conrad and say, "Okay, this Photoshop concept art that you do is amazing. Tell us what Photoshop techniques you're using to make sure that we can do the same in real time." For example, he uses a lot layer blending. The first thing we did was program all those Photoshop behaviors in Unity.

At the beginning there was a bit of a learning curve, because Conrad had never worked on games before. I might ask him to make a flower for the background, and he would send me this huge 1 GB Photoshop file with crazy resolution. There was a learning curve for us all, because we had to learn a lot of Photoshop stuff and he had to learn how games work, doing assets, memory constraint, and so on.

Conrad was doing watercolors in real life and we would scan them to use in Unity. Almost everything you see is done in Photoshop digitally, but the textures that we use are actually scanned. They're real watercolors, to give it a little more of a handcrafted feeling.

SRG: So, when people get this art book, they will be seeing actual material you were using to create the game?

Roger: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. It's a huge art book. It's really big. There's a lot of concept art, photos from notebooks, cool pencil sketches, animation frames, things from level design, character design, from every area of the game. Because all our animation was done frame by frame, when you see the frames all together that’s one of the things I like the most. Seeing how the character transforms into the cube for example, each frame next to the other looks super nice.

SRG: Was there ever a point where it seemed like you had hit a wall, and thought maybe you would have to give it up, or it wasn't going to work?

Roger: Adrián and I have been working on games for 10 years, so we know when something is difficult, we know when something is way too ambitious. We didn't want to go for an open world multiplayer game. We were clear that it was going to be a short game, it was going to be very polished, so we made some decisions at the beginning that paid off.

For example, there's no text in the game, there’s no dialogue. That means that, not only do you not have to do it, you don't have to hire a script writer, but you also don't have to care about localization. That was huge for us because not only were we able to save money, but it also makes sense with the game. Because our idea was to make the art shine, the art is king, put the art upfront. We didn't want a block of text appearing in the middle of that. But that also helped us keep the scope under control.

We still did delay the game and told Devolver that we needed a couple of months more just to polish. And they were completely fine with that, because we told them way in advance. So in terms of production, it was always pretty good. Of course, we did hit some rocks.

One issue in playtesting was that people didn’t know exactly where you could stand and where you could not, what's floor and what's just art. That's something we worked a lot on, trying to make sure that the language was clear. We had the luck to have a really good level designer. He was an architect by trade. Again, never worked on games, but he was really good at helping us while keeping in mind that the art was always the ruler, the king of the game.

Another decision that we made, and we thought about it many, many times, was the fact that you cannot die in the game. It's very complicated to design a puzzle platform game where you cannot die and still make it challenging. Since the art was king, that made it harder. Sometimes Conrad would say something like, "Hey, I want a composition of rocks rolling and you have to jump from rock to rock." Well, what happens if you fall? Then we need to provide the player a way to go back to the rocks but without breaking the artistic compositions. You cannot just put some stairs in the middle of the rocks.

There were two or three times in the game when we wondered, "Should we just kill and respawn?" But in the end, we just pushed through. Worked around the problem, and offered different solutions for the players. We wanted them to be able to not die. We wanted it to be a journey and enjoyable, not frustrating, It may be more difficult or less difficult depending what you do, but you cannot do it wrong.

SRG: Can you talk about the sound design? How did Berlinist get involved doing the music?

Roger: Oh, it's crazy. Again, people who never worked on video games before, we just met them randomly through Twitter. Turns out they were our neighbors, which was very convenient.

I think it was Conrad, if I remember correctly, who saw a post on Twitter about them. And he just messaged them, "Hey, this is very cool what you do. Would you like to meet one day?" So, they went for a coffee and just made contact. Then, when we decided to start the game, we told Conrad that we needed some music composed. And he told us about Berlinist. "Yeah, I met this band who are really good. We could ask them." So, we connected with them, and found out that our studio was located literally two minutes from where they live. It was very convenient.

There were some scenes that we changed because of the music. For example, at the end of the red sandstorm the music was so good and so beautiful that we created a building afterward, expanded and developed the environment further than we had originally planned, just to accommodate more music. The music and art go hand in hand and are equally important for us in GRIS.

They're also very smart people, because we didn't really talk about this a lot but there's this concept of synesthesia, where different senses get linked. And Marco Albano, who is the main composer, had this idea about synesthesia with sounds and colors, since there's been studies about this for a long time. He did specific things composing along those lines, with certain chords linked to different colors.

Also, for the ending cinematic, we told Berlinist that we needed some music. I was like, "Just give everything." And Marco ran with that and told me, "Roger, don't worry. I promise you, I'm going to make people cry." I said, "Yeah, whatever. You're just overreacting." But he did. The man did it.

SRG: What's something that people don't know about Conrad?

Roger: While we were making GRIS he got a bit crazy about aquascaping and aquariums. So, he started his own aquarium at his own place. And started investigating this approach called Iwagumi, a Japanese technique for aquascaping. So, he started looking at that, and thinking of things for the game. There are a lot of moments inspired by aquariums directly.

SRG: What's something that people don't know about Conrad?

Roger: While we were making GRIS he got a bit crazy about aquascaping and aquariums. So, he started his own aquarium at his own place. And started investigating this approach called Iwagumi, a Japanese technique for aquascaping. So, he started looking at that, and thinking of things for the game. There are a lot of moments inspired by aquariums directly.

SRG: Is there anything you wish more people noticed in the game?

Roger: When you jump in the air and you change direction, there's actually an animation of changing direction in the air. Which almost no games do nowadays, I don't know why. And it looks so smooth and so nice, and nobody really notices. Maybe it's stupid that I care so much about this little animation, but I think it's my favorite animation in the game.

SRG: Is there something that might surprise fans to learn about the GRIS team?

Roger: Maybe the fact that most of the team never worked on games before. Something like 80% of the team never worked on video games before. We had a lot of artists because there's a lot of art, people who never worked on a game before but were super invested in it. I think that made a difference, because they didn’t have preconceptions about how games are supposed to work. They brought crazy ideas, and that's really valuable. That really made a difference for us.

SRG: What's the most rewarding experience for you that's come out of making this game?

Roger: Probably seeing my parents so proud. Also, there are a lot of videos online of people crying at the end. We've gotten a lot of emails saying “thank you,” because they were going through some terrible times and the game helped them.

Our interview with Conrad was translated by Roger Mendoza.

Special Reserve Games: How do you think it will feel to hold a physical copy of the game for the first time?

Conrad: I hope amazing-amazing! It's incredible how far we have come thanks to the hard work of our team and the support of all of our fans. The opportunity to have a physical version of GRIS feels like a testament of that journey.

SRG: What was it like to play the game for the first time?

Conrad: It was a curious experience, enjoyable but not in the traditional way when we talk about videogames, because I already knew everything about it, more like visiting a comfortable and fond spot than a new experience. It was validation, combined with accomplishment and fondness! We did it, and it works!

SRG: What was it like when you first heard the music?

Conrad: We knew we made the right call deciding to work with Berlinist. I had already worked with them and was a fan of their music, but hearing what they created for GRIS completely blew me away.

SRG: What drew you to the initial idea for a game where the world’s colors are unlocked?

Conrad: I thought that it was interesting because not only would the progression work both in a narrative and gameplay sense, but it would also allow me to play with different palettes and aesthetics across the game.

SRG: What made you think that your art style would work well in a video game?

Conrad: I have always strived for a fresh aesthetic and style. I prefer going for abstract coloring and usually my work tends to be spontaneous and almost sketch-like. Maybe that wouldn’t fit with a more action-focused or fast-paced project, but I feel it complements very well GRIS's contemplative and dreamlike atmosphere.

SRG: Did you have to change your artistic approach in any way to make it work for the game?

Conrad: Yes! Working in illustration is wildly different. I had to learn to be efficient, and convey what I wanted without compromising performance. It was hard for me to get used to the fact that there had to be repeated assets and there were other limitations of the media, but in the end we managed to circumvent those difficulties or adapt to them and achieved a good balance between visuals and performance.

SRG: How did you come up with the idea for the trees that change from squares to triangles?

Conrad: We have a lot of artistic referents in GRIS, and in this case we based the forest on the work of Eyvind Earle in the woods of Sleeping Beauty, that geometric forest.

SRG: How did you settle on some of the animals in the design?

Conrad: The particular creature wasn't as important as the size and aggression of it. Though we liked the contrast in depicting, for example, such an inoffensive animal as a sparrow in a threatening manner, what guided the process was that the darkness was becoming bigger and more oppressive as the player progressed.

SRG: How did you come with your ideas for the game’s beginning animations?

Conrad: That one was pretty defined from the beginning. It was decided that a long fall had that "beginning of the adventure" feel to it, and it worked well to first depict a colorful world that was drained of color as Gris fell.

SRG: How did you come up with the ideas for the game’s ending animations?

Conrad: During the whole development, the final scene changed a lot, but the core concept was that of a goodbye, an emotive restoration followed by a departure.

SRG: Do you have plans to work on more games?

Conrad: Of course, right now we are still preparing, but soon we will be back with new ideas and projects. There's not much we can tell about that yet, though!

SRG: Would you consider making a GRIS 2?

Conrad: No. GRIS is a finished work, it's good as it is. There will be no sequel.

SRG: What artists are important to you, as influences?

Conrad: My two main references during my career as an illustrator have been Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. Though surely they haven't been the only ones, many of the forms that I consumed during my life helped consolidating my style, and those films and games are not exceptions.

References on the artistic side of GRIS come from games like Shadow of the Colossus, especially when it comes to architecture, or from Journey's minimalism, but also from outside the video game media: from Ghibli films (the wondrous characters from Spirited Away or Mononoke-hime [Princess Mononoke]) to Disney film's backgrounds, Moebius compositions, Theo Jansen moving sculpture or Calder's mobiles and a long list of etcetera.

SRG: Have you developed as an artist through making this game?

Conrad: Definitely. Any project I undertake is a new learning experience, specially a project as involved and with a scope as big as GRIS, which has taken three years and the effort of many people to complete.

SRG: What was the hardest thing about making the game?

Conrad: Coming to realize that the limitations and specifics of the media were completely different from my previous experience. Changing my mindset in that particular aspect has been hard, but I like to think that I managed.

SRG: What has been the most rewarding aspect of making this game?

Conrad: It was hard in the beginning, but for me learning to work as a leader of a team has been an enriching experience; as an illustrator, I have worked alone, pretty much always alone, and learning to delegate, coordinate and just generally work with other people has been invaluable.

SRG: What did you learn about yourself making this game?

Conrad: Related to the previous question, that I could, in fact, lead, be in charge of a group of people and trust in their work. Collaborating with such incredibly talented people is not something I take for granted.