To connect the game’s levels, whipping up in-game cutscenes directly from the developer's scripts with a 2.5D vibe and pinpointing the perfect style that totally vibes with the cutscenes
Cutscenes are a crucial piece of a gaming puzzle. Sure, they might not be the whole enchilada, but in Payday 3, skipping these scenes could mean missing out on some intel.
With the scripts straight from the game developers and a deep understanding of how pivotal cutscenes are to the game's storytelling, we dove headfirst into the twists and turns of the game. We needed to feel it, get into the minds of the characters, grasp their motivations, understand their relationships and discover some skeletons in the closet. Only then did we delve into detailed directorial scripts, using plans, lighting and artistic techniques to showcase all those critical details.
As we got into the groove, it became clear that we should take inspiration from Nolan's “The Dark Knight” with its calm yet intriguing shots. In Nolan’s movie, every detail matters. He doesn't distract the audience with unnecessary special effects or camera movements. Everything is carefully placed and every character perfectly fits into the scene. After a few iterations, we decided that each cutscene would have a limited number of shots, but each shot would be meticulously crafted for composition and atmosphere. Even the longest cutscenes only took about 10 shots, each one carefully thought out to make it crystal clear to players what the focus was and what was going down. The result? A graphic novel-style storytelling experience, bridging the narrative gaps between the levels in the game.
When hashing out the visual details of the cutscenes, we pitched an idea of infusing the narrative with a noir vibe. Take a closer look at those cutscenes, you'll notice faces mostly obscured by shadows, creating a distinctive noir style. It's like you see people, but they're hidden in the shadows, this adds a detective-like, mysterious and intriguing touch to the story.
The play of light and darkness reflects the classic noir style of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski's early works… That's why we aimed for intense shadows. The lighting was contrasting and focused, akin to theatrical performances — slightly artificial, but when put together, it all worked in favor of the game's atmosphere and identity.
Bright, vibrant colors were inspired by the new gameplay in Payday 3. The game underwent a significant visual upgrade from the previous installment and we wanted to embrace this innovation. That's why we moved away from the muted tones associated with noir and opted for a vibrant palette and harsh color contrasts catching the eye. Let’s take “John Wick: Chapter 4” as an example — it's noir, but with such amped-up colors that you get it's a modern take on it. We applied the classic noir principles but splashed in bright neon hues.
As for the characters, when we started working, we had models for the main gang members, but the secondary characters sometimes came to life through collaborative efforts with the developers. A standout moment was introducing the American rapper Ice-T into the game. His appearance was a significant and delightful surprise for our team. It was amusing to place the iconic musician in the criminal world of Payday and he truly fitted right in, as if he belonged there.
One of the most time-consuming and crucial aspects was creating the locations. If a place existed in the game, we used a build by reconstructing the interior. However, if the script called for an original setting, our first step was to create mood boards with references to the suitable locations. These could include scenes from movies, real photos of New York diners and even contemporary art. Then, our artists illustrated and reproduced them in Unreal Engine 5. The next steps involved bringing these locations to life. Since the 2.5 D style lacks dynamism, we had to work on animations and additional effects. When we speak of animation, there was a funny moment during the animation of ventilators in some of the cutscenes. The requirement was not to animate people; the camera should be the only thing in motion. When the ventilators appeared on the screen, we hit a snag. The scenes where the characters were inside a building seemed static, but to add movement to the scene, we included subtle movements in the windows of the buildings across the street — small details, but they brought everything to life. The bulk of the cutscenes came to life predominantly through the animation of natural elements like dust particles, rain and glares.
It was a fun ride, and we were happy to craft a slightly animated retro novella set in the Payday 3 universe.