Playable Profile: Vencenza
Hello and welcome to another Playable Profile! I had the absolute pleasure of talking with one of our Senior Concept Artists, Vencenza! She and I dug into all the fun (and not so fun) parts of being an artist, what it’s like working in games, and more! Have a read below to meet her!
VioletLight (VL): So why don't we start off with a pretty simple question, why don't you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your role at Playable Worlds?
Vencenza (V): I'm a Senior Concept Artist at Playable Worlds, which means I'm here to guide the game’s aesthetics. I'm partly a designer, I'm definitely an artist. My role is to draw out the world and figure out how it looks.
VL: What got you interested in art and how did it kind of end up being your career? Did you imagine that you would end up in games?
V: I started drawing when I was very young. When I was seven, my family got really into Magic the Gathering, and it was full of amazing illustrations of fairies, landscapes and monsters. Learning that people could draw that way was amazing to me.
From there, I got into comics, video games and movies. My grandfather recorded movies. He had almost 5000 tapes, with four movies on each one. Every night after dinner, we would watch movies and cartoons. Movies really connected me to the whole world of entertainment and media.
At first, I didn't think of it as a career. I just wanted to participate in that community, to be part of the magic that helped people relate to each other and told the stories that encouraged and promoted common ground. People across the country could share the same cartoon or video game. I was more interested in finding that common ground through art and story than I was in the fine art aspect.
I was planning to be a zoologist. But while I was in high school, I realized I was drawing in all of my classes. After school, I read comics, watched TV, played video games. When I was with my friends, I was drawing characters from video games and TV shows. I was drawing fan art and stories (especially for Mega Man). I decided that one day, I wanted to design a character that someone else makes fan art of. My career goal is to design something that someone loves so much that they spend time on it, they relate to it and they make the character their own.
So, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator, but I wanted to work on a team. I knew video games were made by teams, so I went to a concept art website. I participated in that community, got to know people, and figured out what the job entailed. I fell in love with the concept art skill. I love drawing and I love the constant learning - games are changing so quickly! Concept art fulfills all of that for me. I get to work on a team, be part of a community, and make cool things.
VL: Have you ever thought about doing character art or something else like 3D design, that kind of thing, or is concept art where you feel like you truly thrive in the elements?
V: I’ve thought about doing comics or a visual novel game on my own. But I loved drawing before I fell in love with concept art. There are a lot of people who do 3D and photo bashing and all sorts of crazy fun techniques. It’s really cool, because it's a speed thing. I never want to tell people like oh, no, you're not actually making that image. You're cheating. No, that's not true at all, but for me, I loved the act of drawing. If concept art goes towards 3D, maybe I'll become an illustrator. [laughs]
VL: What do you think is the biggest challenge as a concept artist in games or in general?
V: There's a balance, because you have to know your client's expectations and assumptions. Say you get assigned to design a creature. And the client says, “I want this creature. But, can you make it big?” Okay, what does that mean to that person? Physically big? Intimidating? Scary? What does it do? How does the game look? How does it interact?
So it's a lot of figuring out what's in their head, and getting them to figure it out. You have to ask the right questions and invent as you go. You have to stretch. If they've seen something before and they've hooked on to it, try to stretch their definition to create something original. For me, the hardest part is figuring out the sweet spot between generic and new. If you do “too much” new, the client won’t accept it. There are expectations, and sometimes the client doesn't know what they want. So you ask questions, and you're creating sketch after sketch, which end up as almost conversation starters to get them to think about what they need for whatever you're designing. A bulk of the upfront work is just getting someone else to understand their own project. And that’s a frustrating place to be! But it happens when you freelance for illustration, it happens in games, it happens all over the place because no one person has the full vision. So you run into that communication issue and navigating that can be challenging.
VL: Yeah, I can imagine!
Do you want to kind of go through your process about how you start a new project?
V: A new project starts with a lot of questions. Design has an idea, and they say “Oh, I want environments in the game.” Ok, great, what does that mean? They're designing a narrative, so they’ll say “Well, the function of this environment is, the player is going to land there.” Cool! So the player starts there. What does the player need to know when they start? Are they gathering resources? Are they exploring? And together, you break down the function of the thing.
The most important thing isn’t if it looks cool. It's the function. It's the visual communication part. It doesn't matter if this thing is a teleporter if no one can tell it's a teleporter. For environments, it's breaking down the mood. What do I want the player to feel about this place? What's its history and its role in the story of the game? Once you have that, you sit down, do a bunch of research, talk to the team, and generate ideas to get inspired to ask more questions.
Once you have ideas, see what other people on the team have done, figure out the assumptions about a place and the odd combinations. Then, I do doodles and thumbnails. Rapid fire ideas from different angles and aspects. I normally do left, right, and center. Center is the safest option, left is extreme one way and right is extreme the other way. This helps me get a sense of what people actually want. It's a conversation starter, because I’m looking for those assumptions, for what people are gravitating to and how far you can challenge that.
From there, sometimes I do a sketch, but oftentimes I just go to finish from thumbnail. If it's a character, I'll go to sketch. If it's a landscape, I'll just go to finish.
VL: Do you have a favorite part of working in games versus other mediums?
V: My favorite part is still giving people ways to connect, stories to relate to and the ability to sort of rewrite their own stories about themselves. But the thing I love most about the actual process of working in games is the ideas that get bounced around. People are willing to have ridiculous and silly conversations, they're willing to embrace odd topics. I love nerds. And I love passionate nerds. The game industry is full of passionate people who love their subject and will just infodump it on you. And I adore watching people that way. Getting to play with people in that idea space and getting to see people really love what they do is why I keep working in games..
VL: Yeah, I 100% agree with that. I think that we just have a lot of fun and the feeling of being around your people can't be overstated. It's great.
Can you share a challenging or rewarding experience that has happened in your career?
V: The most challenging and rewarding was when I started teaching concept art. Guiding people, introducing them to the field, getting them over their fears and anxiety. There's a lot of talk about how game companies treat people, overwork people, etc. Art is a very hard field, particularly concept art because a lot of people apply, and there are very few positions available in any given company.
I teach concept art at DigiPen, and the challenge is watching people develop and grow and learn, but not being able to guarantee that they would succeed. Talking them through the surprising thing that is an art career, where you don't always end up doing what you expect, or even in a job that you knew existed. But I think it's worth it. It's rewarding when you help someone be confident enough that they're okay showing where they are. There's so much expectation and pressure put on the fact that you have to be at a professional level already if you're ever going to succeed. And then if you're at that stage, you're worried about the end product. And if you're worried solely about the end products, you're not focusing on the learning and the fun and the challenge of it. So you grind to a halt and you start becoming very self-denigrating. And it’s challenging to untrain people, because it's hard to hear, “don't worry about where you are now. Move on.” No one likes hearing that. Everyone wants to hear that they're going to succeed, they’re good where they are. So I'm training people to think about the end product, but to think more about learning and growing and pushing themselves further each time. In my classroom, I banned people from insulting their work. You're not allowed to call your work stupid. You are allowed to say you had difficulty with the perspective. You're allowed to give specific critique, but you're not allowed to say that it's trash. It's not helpful. You're just hurting yourself.
VL: Yeah, absolutely. Words have energy to them in a way, if you think negatively, then that kind of affects how you perceive yourself and motivate yourself. So I like that. That's really cool.
Now, here's a fun question: What is your all time favorite game?
V: I love stealth games. I like when the environment becomes the puzzle. I like platformers or puzzler games.
A puzzler game I absolutely adore is Baba is You, which is a fantastic little game that has practically no graphics work in it. You're this little critter and you're pushing around words that change the rules of the game. So Baba is You is the words that you have, but you can change like, Kiki is Baba. And then you have another character turned into a Baba and then you have to use it on the board that you're moving around simultaneously. So it's a very clever puzzler. And I have a great time with that one.
For platformers, I'm in love with the Mega Man series, but the older Mega Man games. I like challenging platformers, I like failing a lot. Is that awful to say? I love platformers where you die repeatedly, and you have to keep challenging yourself with pixel perfect jumping. I love that challenge. And I'm not a good gamer, so watching me play is terribly frustrating.
I love the original Thieves games and I really enjoyed Dishonored. And I’m super in love with the Elder Scrolls series.
VL: I didn't play the early Elder Scrolls, but I did play Skyrim. Well, I never finished it because I got sidetracked with all the side quests.
V: It's hard to finish Skyrim. I like it because I get to wander around and make my own narrative and be ridiculous. In every Elder Scrolls that’s allowed me to, I've been a lizard and I've collected cheese. It's a really weird goal, but it's because people were racist towards the Argonians, so I was like, Am I stinky? Why am I stinky? And I was like, Oh, it's clearly the cheese.
VL: Yeah, it's gotta be the cheese.
V: It's gotta be the cheese. So, I have to have an inventory full of cheese at all times. It's a tradition.
VL: What hobbies or interests do you have outside of gaming that you would like to share?
V: I read a lot, so I started my own book club. I read about four to 10 books a month. A lot of fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, some historical fiction and that sort of thing. And I love literature and entering new worlds. I think a common thread for me is storytelling.
And gardening I have a porch garden with about 21 plants. One day I'm going to have a gigantic yard that I get to plant.
VL: Okay, just one more question to round this out, and it’s one I ask everyone!
Do you have any advice for someone who's trying to get into game development?
V: Celebrate rejection. I know that sounds horrible, but getting in is really difficult. I used to hang up my rejection letters as a point of pride because I applied, I made the art that went into the application, and it was proof that someone looked at my resume and looked at what I made. So it became this collection of persistence, to prove to myself that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I once got so excited about a rejection letter while I was in school that my friends thought I had been accepted. [laughs] But it was because I didn't expect a friendly rejection letter and I got a friendly rejection letter. It wasn't a bot rejection. It was an actual HR person who said, hey, we like what you do. We just don't feel that your aesthetics fit our company.
VL: So I'm totally the opposite. When I have been rejected in the past, I get a good cry in and then I move on. [laughs]
V: I just tell myself they hired someone's nephew. I've gotten rejections from job positions that ended up closing because of budget issues, or what have you. It doesn't always have to do with you.
A lot of the time, if you can contact someone, and show them your work, they can give you a critique. Listen to them, fix what you did, and contact them again. They'll remember you. The key part here is that you don't just get a critique, you apply the critique, and you show them that you applied the critique. And it may be years from when you started contacting them and applying and working with them, that they actually have a position for you. But it's persistence and it's accepting rejection and figuring out what you get out of it. You should go for the passion or go for the money when you choose a career. Don't just fill a space.
VL: Yeah, that's great advice, I don't hear that very often. And I think that's really important to remember.
Well, thank you so much for chatting with me, Vencenza!
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