The hellish art of 33 Immortals is seriously medieval

By Colin Campbell, Contributor
33 Immortals is an upcoming multiplayer roguelike from Thunder Lotus, the Montreal-based development team behind the much-admired Spiritfarer. Set in the afterlife, 33 Immortals is inspired by Italian poet Dante Alighieri's 14th century masterpiece the Divine Comedy, in which the author travels through the three realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Players team up with 32 others—hence, 33 Immortals—as they fight their way through the afterlife, working together to take down a host of powerful enemies. Thunder Lotus picked the number 33 because, according to Creative Director Stephan Logier, the Divine Comedy is divided into three sections of 33 chapters each.

So far, we've mainly seen the part of 33 Immortals set in Inferno, including at Microsoft's Xbox Games Showcase last summer. The frantic roguelike action of 33 Immortals is underpinned by an artistic interpretation of Dante's poem, a world of chaos and flames, of malevolent spirits, monsters, and imps. The art of 33 Immortals is a vital element of the overall experience.
33 Immortals Coop "We spent a lot of time looking at portrayals of the underworld, from antiquity to recent times. It's a rich subject to tackle, because there is so much religious art that has been used to inspire devotion and fear in people for centuries," said Thunder Lotus Art Director Estefania Tastan.

Painter and architect Giotto was a contemporary of Dante. They were both born in the 1260s, just two years apart. Giotto grappled with some of the great artistic challenges of the time—including perspective and drawing accurately from real life—while weaving in religious and mythical narratives.

"We dug into some of the landscape paintings of the time," says Tastan. "At this point, perspective was still in its early phases. Artists were trying to figure out depth, and how to place characters inside backgrounds. You see that the human figures were drawn huge, while walls and castles were comparatively tiny. I find that incredibly charming. It's so beautiful, and a huge inspiration."

Medieval paintings weren't the only inspiration for the look of 33 Immortals. "Tapestries and medieval manuscripts are filled with the most extraordinary details, as well as interesting patterns and color combinations," says Tastan. "They were limited in the range of available pigments and inks. Players might notice that some fabric colors are missing from the outfits that they wear in the game. These colors were very hard to produce in the medieval era."

While 33 Immortals is broadly inspired by medieval history and art, the art team's main focus has always been Dante. "We decided to stay closest to our source material, which is the Divine Comedy—and from there, how people in the 14th century saw the world and religion. That gives us a fascinating lens through which we create this world."

The team steeped themselves in Dante's work, seeking to create a world with which players could emotionally connect. "The Divine Comedy, and all of its themes, is very visceral. It's tangible," says Tastan. "As you go through Inferno—dark woods, forests, rivers of blood, and swamps of tar—you feel the hostility and danger of the place. It's punishing, but it's also a livable, survivable place."

The environments of 33 Immortals are not supposed to be mythical or transitory, but real. Players visit these realms with a clear mission in mind: to save their souls from damnation.

"The world has rules," says Tastan. "There's a higher order that shapes how the denizens of Inferno live there for eternity and how they adapt. That's kind of the experience that I want to paint, and it extends into the enemies you face, the items you pick up, the things that you see, and the weapons that you use."
33 Immortals Roger AttackThe team at Thunder Lotus working on 33 Immortals is not the same as those who worked on the smash indie hit Spiritfarer—which also explores themes of mortality, though in a gentler and more narrative-driven fashion—but they're taking leads from experienced colleagues.

"This team was brought in to work on 33 Immortals from the ground up," says Tastan. "But we worked closely with the Spiritfarer team, who shared their learning experiences. They exposed me to lessons they learned about managing the 2D art pipeline. I feel fortunate to have had such quality mentorship and honest, open communication, until I was ready to be on my own two feet."

The game development art pipeline begins with visual concepts, but the final product needs to work both visually and from a gameplay and technical perspective. "Color palettes and the transitions between colors in Inferno are different from each other, but they also have to coexist," she explains. "Trees, rocks, buildings, and so on are design pieces that stand on their own, but they must also work together like pieces in a puzzle that is constantly being assembled."

The difference in animation techniques between Spiritfarer and 33 Immortals proved to be a learning experience as well. "Top-down camera is an uncommon perspective angle for us," says Animation Director Nathan Dupouy. "Silhouettes are more squeezed. It’s more difficult to extract a limb from the body mass and have a clear, good looking posture. This angle combined with our semi-realistic art direction also asks us to create every character animation from multiple angles since it’s necessary to convey the direction of our player’s attacks in a good way. It multiplies by five the amount of work needed for one move in the game."

"Animation branching can also be a challenge, considering how every animation can start from and lead to different other animations," Dupouy continues. "It’s more difficult to achieve with frame-by-frame animations rather than puppet-based animations (like in 3D games) where you can ask for the engine to blend between the end of one animation and the beginning of another to avoid jarring jump cuts."

33 Immortals' historical and mythical milieu is also being leveraged in the game's individual character animations. "I think it's very interesting to take this cultural background and allow it to inspire us to find something different," says Dupouy.

Not everything from history translates well into animation though. "For example, some of the religious hand gestures and poses are very precise and particular, but they can look weird for people that don't know what they are about," he adds. "We have to find ones that support the gameplay, while adding something to the lore and the meaning of these moves. But that process helps us find more unique poses."

The animation also serves to encourage 33 Immortals' core loop, which is player cooperation. "The monsters and the environment are very harsh," says Dupouy. "We want players to get that feeling of working together on collective goals. The way characters and monsters are animated helps players figure out that they can support each other."
33 Immortals River Of Blood
Monsters and devils generated fear and awe among those who saw them in medieval times, but they are much more common in modern art and entertainment, especially in video games. How does the art team create monsters that feel different from the kinds of enemies we've all seen many times before?

"Inferno is a place of punishment, and I think we still think of medieval ideas about punishment as severe," says Tastan. "We wanted to portray punishment as being an affliction that has been forced onto these creatures, and whose anatomy adapts, because of it."

"When we were researching medieval culture, punishments came up a lot, and they were pretty gruesome," Tastan continues. "Bodily mutilation is a part of the Divine Comedy, but other punishments in the poem are harder to visualize. One example is in the Circle of Lust, where you are basically trapped inside a giant tornado for eternity. That's very hard to capture in monster design. So we worked with those medieval punishments that were both era-appropriate and appropriate to the game and its monsters."

The story of 33 Immortals also includes visualizations of major characters from the Divine Comedy, including Dante himself, Charon (the ferryman of the damned and guide into Inferno) and Beatrice, the woman Dante is said to have loved all his life.

"We wanted to stay true to how we imagined these characters in their time and place," says Tastan, "But we also wanted to modernize them so that they accorded with our values today. Dante is often portrayed historically wearing this red outfit with a red hat. It's kind of plain, and looks a little like pajamas to us, so we felt that his dress needed to be elevated. We also wanted to add small details that told stories about him, like a little brooch he's wearing which references his Italian and Florentine heritage."

"Charon went through the same process," Tastan continues. "He is usually portrayed as this mysterious figure in a dark, heavy cloak, with his face concealed. But our Charon is completely different—he's dapper. He's a merchant with a good sense of humor. He's cunning and funny, and so his clothing reflects that sophistication and wit. I love Charon and I'm very proud of him."
33 Immortals Charons Store
Speaking of favorite characters, what parts of Inferno do the team regard as their favorites? Tastan opts for the Temple of the Morningstar. "It's close to my heart, because during the earlier phases of development, when we were researching Romanesque architecture, we were figuring out all of the buildings and the churches that we wanted to put in the game. I really immersed myself into researching and learning as much as I could about this subject."

"Our level designer had actually studied architecture, and he would hold workshops to teach myself and the artists the nitty gritty of what went into medieval architecture. Why were there so many arches, and why were they built the way they were? What were the foundational and technological issues we should consider?" Tastan continues. "And so we tried to bring this learning as much as possible into the game. They allowed us to add stories and references to the in-game architecture. Plus, churches are very beautiful."

Dupouy opts for the Forest of Sorrow, because it includes trees that are shaped like people. "It makes me wonder what happened to this person? Were they turned into wood as a punishment—and, if so, what did they do? Perhaps they are being punished for suicide, which was considered as an immoral act by the medieval church. So it's an example of creating a visual mystery within the game's environment that makes you think about this world."

"The Forest of Sorrow is also where my favorite enemy lives—a Harpy that feeds on the leaves of those people-trees," Dupouy adds. "The Forest has red leaves, and although it's a sad place, it has an almost peaceful vibe. It looks interesting and it's a departure from the cliches you often associate [with Hell]."
33 Immortals Harpy Sketches
For Tastan, the experience of making 33 Immortals will always bring back fond memories of poring through medieval art and literature, looking for ideas and inspiration. "Some of the little cryptic images in manuscripts stay with me. It's fun to puzzle out what they might mean—you know, a rabbit holding a shield and sword. We don't know exactly what the artist was thinking at the time they were drawing. Perhaps they were just having fun," she says.

"But at the same time, looking at these images made me realize that people haven't changed all that much," Tastan continues. "The artists were working with their imaginations, just like us. They were drawing things that they had probably never seen in real life—like an elephant. They were drawing crazy, crazy things and that's something we can identify with, and we can use as inspiration. It's been very, very fun."  

33 Immortals releases soon on the Epic Games Store.