Handmade Tale Ni No Kuni and the Life of Artisanal Animation

Handmade Tale Ni No Kuni and the Life of Artisanal Animation
Disney recently re-released Peter Pan on Blu-Ray to celebrate the film's 60th birthday and — aside from the racist and sexist portrayals of Indians and mermaids — it looks like it could've come out today. That's the thing about hand-drawn versus computer animation — CGI is such a recent art form that yesterday's digital graphics can look hopelessly out-dated in a blink, whereas we've been working on drawing since the cave days. We got that shit on lock.

Videogames are by definition computer graphics, and so they've always suffered from the technique's constant evolution, making older games look obsolete even if when play remains awesome.

This will not be a problem for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, one of the most spectacularly gorgeous games ever made. Translated to "Another World" or "Second Country," it's a traditional JRPG about a boy named Oliver from '50s town Motorville whose mother dies tragically. After crying for three days, Ollie's tears turn his doll into Drippy, the Welsh-accented Lord High Lord of the Faeries, and the pair set off into a parallel fantasy world to try and bring her back.

The nuts and bolts of the game were handled by Level-5, the famed designers behind JRPG classics like Dragon Quest VII as well as hit DS puzzle franchise Professor Layton. But the game's look, from its sprawling pastoral vistas to its whimsically intricate detailing to its surrealist character designs, was art directed by Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki's famed hand-drawn animation house responsible for My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Indeed, the game looks just like one of Ghibli's artisanal animation epics.

This was the studio's first game project (apparently Miyazaki himself is no fan of gaming) and they contributed the pre-rendered hand-drawn animation cut-scenes, which were then recreated as closely as possible in 3D polygons for the gameplay portions. Ghibli staff also helped with storyboards, staging scenes and directing motion-capture actors.

"Fundamentally, animation is created by linking images, one page at a time, so it should feel sort of like a 'flip book.' In order for the images to feel hand-drawn, we adjusted the movements to be slightly choppier," Level-5 boss Akihiro Hino told Digital Spy, adding his developers spent countless hours "researching Ghibli animation" to emulate their cel-animated look. Moreover, they also recreated Ghibli's un-showy, quotidian directorial style. "Not only does this provide the viewer with a greater sense of realism, but the level of empathy is totally different."

Ni no Kuni isn't the first time videogames have tried to emulate old-school animation. That would be 1983's Dragon's Lair, though the Don Bluth-designed arcade classic was more like a choose-your-own-adventure TV cartoon. Given the technological constraints of the time, the cartoon graphics were actually what we'd today call cut-scenes and ran off a laserdisc with the gamer's reflexes determining which pre-rendered cartoon clip would play.

But subsequently, game makers developed cel-shading to try and give computer graphics a cartoonish look. While it worked for some, like the early-2000s Jet Set Radio games, often it provided the worst of both worlds or gamers rejected the aesthetic as too kiddie. That was certainly an issue with Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, though the Borderlands franchise and Sin City-inspired Mad World have since shown how cel-shading can be used for mature games, too.

It's only recently that technology has improved enough to make cartoon-inspired games actually look like cartoons rather than just inspired by them. To wit, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Sony's cel-shaded raccoon-burglar franchise was a hit on PS2, but never quite looked as much like Looney Tunes as it wanted to.

That's not a problem on the franchise's fourth entry, and first for PS3, which truly does feel like you're controlling a cartoon. In Sly Cooper's case, its hand-animated look lets the stealth platformer revel in the silly slapstick and absurdist physics we attribute to the animated art form. But it will also give the game a longer lifespan.

Gaming has spent far too much of the past generation obsessed with drab photorealism, even though stylized art direction is what has helped keep Nintendo's aged stable evergreen. Now that graphics engines can ably recreate the appearance of hand-drawn animation, perhaps older games will be enjoyed more often by future fans, just as older books and films are.

After all, Level-5's Dark Cloud from 2001 remains one of my all-time favourite games, but it would be a challenge to convince people to play it today because it looks so graphically dated. But Ni No Kuni will be just as strikingly beautiful — and thus convincingly playable — 60 years from now as it is today.