Demon Chic is a psychedelic hand-drawn RPG-ish iOS game full of bizarre and nonsensical creatures. It’s at the intersection of animated cartoons, a television sitcom, and the sketchbook of a madman. The three main characters are subjected to wild hallucinations of griffins, ghosts, demon cops, disembodied heads, walking tree monsters, hooved TV men, golems, and other fantastical monsters as they juggle mundane, real-world problems. The game bounces around between various levels of realism and rendering styles, full of surreal vignettes and mini-games that keep the player surprised, entertained, and often delightfully confused:
I spoke with Michael Frauenhofer, creative director and co-artist of the game, about developing the bizarre world of Demon Chic:
Uncommon Assembly: How would you describe Demon Chic to someone who has never seen it before?
Michael: It is a game that shifts between planes of reality, and hopefully looks like different people from different worlds drew it while on different drugs. Sometimes things look really “realistic” and sometimes they look like a weird cartoon and sometimes all the people turn into fish and things. I want to make a hazy candy disco world where people’s deeply painful feelings are still there, because those always are, but they’re much more likely to turn into giant terrifying birds with funky teeth than just sit and stew in the characters’ stomachs.
What was the inspiration for the visual style of this game, and for the unconventional subject matter in the game?
As far as the design of the characters, I gave Marika, Julie, and Elizabeth pitifully rough sketches/verbal descriptions and they managed to somehow always give me something that felt true to what I’d imagined but way snazzier-looking. For the sketch art I made, I sort of had to figure it out as I went along. Initially I thought it would look much more realistic in its use of color but realized as I was tinting my first drawing that it was actually easier to make it look like a sort of heightened reality than to “get it right” – I’ve always loved pastel shades and often wish the whole world were pretty pastels so I just tried to pick colors that made me laugh. A lot of the trippier imagery just popped into my head, but there are specific scenes where it was very theme-driven, and there’s one level in particular – with the guy with the eye patch and the lady in the plane full of pigs – that was sort of my little homage to the Suda51 / Metal Gear Solid / “Kill Bill” aesthetic of over-the-top ridiculous bosses with silly names.
For the subject matter of the game, my writing process has generally been to sort of choose a few themes that feel connected and let them stew in my head for a while, a month or two at least, and really try to pick apart how they all relate to and affect each other. I feel like most people are where they are in their lives because of a complex web of personal and societal forces all intermingling, and I wanted to try my best to preserve that complication and ambiguity in the writing/themes of “Demon Chic”. A professor I had once described characters in a story of mine as having a relationship in which they gave each other strength but also limited each other, and I thought that was fascinating and really wanted to zero in on that in future writing. These were the themes floating in my head at the time, so in a certain sense the subject matter was inevitable and inescapable.
What tools were used to create Demon Chic?
We used Cocos2d for our engine; for art we used Photoshop, mechanical pencils, and TexturePacker…
Can you describe the process, from conception through final asset, for the art in Demon Chic?
My goal with the assets I made for “Demon Chic” was to assembly-line the process as much as possible so as to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, so for the sketches of people I just took photos of friends who were willing, printed them out very lightly, and then rotoscope-traced directly onto the lightly-printed photos. This was amazing because it cut my drawing time in half and made sure I always got the proportions right. I’d then scan the drawings back in – if I printed lightly enough the original photo wouldn’t even get picked up, making it look like a freehand sketch once scanned – and tint/color them in Photoshop. As I made more and more art for the game I optimized and sped up the process by finding the right printer settings to strike a balance between what was printed and what was drawn – I liked the effect I got (and the time I saved) when I would, for instance, print a character’s hair and clothing wrinkles darker than the other lines, so that they would just scan back in, creating an end effect of “well I guess parts of that are definitely hand-drawn but some of that looks photographed?” that I enjoyed. I would probably feel sort of weird ever showing these images as capital-A “Art” things on their own because of the heavy reliance on tracing, but I sort of let myself swallow my art pride and just moved on since they are meant as parts of a game and don’t have to stand on their own merits as much. The sketching aspect is cool because it lets us do “special effects” that we couldn’t do like giving people duck bills or turning myself into a pig man, but most things I drew that weren’t rotoscoped humans are far less detailed for a reason and that reason is skill. Nevertheless I decided to just embrace that as part of the “different levels of abstraction” aesthetic.
The varying levels of abstraction seem to amplify the nonsensical nature of the subject matter. Are you trying keep the player confused?
Given that the primary trait the main characters share is that they’re all pretty much constantly hallucinating, there’s certainly a nonsensical veneer to the proceedings, but there is certainly an actual concrete reality to the situation, that there are these three guys in a house, with their set personalities, hopes and feelings. I thought it would be neater to connect their more fanciful imaginings to the things that were important to them in their lives, and sort of use the heightened reality and freedom of this hallucinatory visual plane to really ground everything symbolically. So while the game may jump milieus with each interlude, from the world of insects to outer space to a place where everyone’s anthropomorphized cats or fish, we made every effort to make sure that it all still hangs together and is all still constantly conveying meaning… At the end of the game, we want the player to sit back and smile and feel comfortable that they knew what each scene was and what it represented… So while there may be an element of confusion in switching visual representations so wildly throughout the game, the different levels of abstraction within any given plane of representation actually served as a great tool for communicating that grounding initial information, of okay, here we are, here’s who is who and what is what.
How important is it to you that Demon Chic have a unique visual presence?
It was pretty important… and I think it will be an important part of the game’s success, along with other things like the music and the story. However, our main goal during development was to just make it have a “good” visual presence, and in doing that the best way we knew how we ended up with something that I hope is both good and unique. I feel lucky that we are working on a game that it feels like nobody else could make, that has a unique vibe and flair all its own, but just as I feel like no one else could have made it, so too am I unsure of what else we could have made. We all had our job to make a game, we made a game, and this was what came out!
Thanks for talking with me about Demon Chic.
Demon Chic is currently available for iPad in the App Store. You can follow Michael on Twitter at @mfrauenhofer, check out the game’s official Twitter account at @DemonChicGame, and read more about the Beret Applications team and its journey at demonchic.com.