Using Woodblocks to Reshape Video Game Art: An Interview with Incredipede’s Thomas Shahan

Not that long ago, critics debated whether video games qualified as art. Now, thanks in large part to artist and microphotographer Thomas Shahan, Colin Northway’s forthcoming game Icredipede, available for preview, many put the question to rest.

Shahan specializes in capturing the personalities of countless insects and spiders in his arthropod portraiture. His muses—Tabanus Horse flies, Damselflies, and Phidippus jumping spiders, to name a few—have been featured in National Geographic and Popular Photography, among others. Northway, an independent game designer and programmer, saw one of Shahan’s photos of a jumping spider on Wikipedia. Intrigued by Shahan’s art, Northway and his wife, Sarah, invited him to join the development team of Incredipede, a puzzle-game that follows Quozzle on a quest to rescue her family.

The aesthetics Shahan created in Incredipede elicit subdued beauty. As I watched the game preview, Quozzle morphed, swung, and climbed through scenes composed of organic shapes and simple color-palettes. And like Northway, I wanted to know more about what Shahan creates.

Recently, ICHEG caught up with Shahan.

Colin Northway described your woodblock prints as “rich, wild dreamscapes filled with monsters and exotic life forms.” He said it “was the world of Incredipede” as he imagined it. Were you inspired by a specific insect or idea when you began work on the game?

I guess my love for natural history and printmaking caught his eye and made me appear as a good fit for helping with the game’s art direction.

There wasn’t any one specific idea. I wanted to make the game entirely different from anything ever seen before. I know a lot of people fall into the trap of simply resorting to comparisons when they’re at a loss of descriptors, so I wanted to catch them off guard with something they hadn’t quite seen yet in a game. If I tried to make the game painterly, people would call it a second-rate Braid. If I made it too clean and sleek, it would just look like everything else. Games end up falling into familiar categories and clichés—I wanted Incredipede to be refreshing, visceral, organic, and just a little bit nasty. It’s a game about building life, and life is anything but clean and orderly—no need to play it safe. The best thing is to make an audience a little upset without going overboard and alienating them. I like pushing the boundaries of what’s accessible and marketable.

When you’re taking pictures, it’s just you and the critter. What was it like to collaborate on this project?

Working with Colin and Sarah has been wonderful. For my first time working on a videogame, it’s been fairly smooth sailing. They understand my motives and goals with the game’s art. Given that we’re such a small team, any and all ideas are considered, even if I feel like an artist stepping on the toes of the programmer from time to time. But just like actual printmaking, it’s the restrictions of a medium that sometimes foster creativity.

You have a BFA in traditional printmaking. How did creating computer-generated “woodblocks” differ from traditional process?

Just like actual woodblocks.

I started out with a rough pencil sketch to form my thoughts into simplified beings. Next, I inked in the lines to a semi-finished state, photographed the drawing (I don’t have a scanner), and then once on the computer, I’d “cut away” the light areas line by line with a Wacom tablet.

How has your work on Incredipede changed how you play, learn, or participate in other artistic mediums?

Quite a bit actually! I’ve dreamt about stories I’d like to tell—Bosch-ian hells and wild animals—and games I’d like to make someday. I don’t have the programming literacy to create a video game on my own, but I’ve definitely been inspired to continue illustrating the subconscious symbols and themes I have no other way of communicating.

Specifically with art, I’d like to think I have a bit of a heightened awareness of figure/ground relationships and how different thicknesses of line work together. These are all challenges apparent within actual relief printmaking, but utilizing these aspects in the context of a game was entirely new for me. Before Incredipede, I’d never worked on a video game and at times, it was quite a struggle for me to work with such restrictions and boundaries. Regardless, Colin did a wonderful job of helping bring life into my concepts and art.

Will you further explore games as an artistic medium?

If possible, totally! I’d like to think I have more tricks up my sleeve than just woodblock prints, too. If the opportunity should ever arise, I’d love to help turn other video games into something new. A game has the potential to communicate more advanced concepts than other artistic mediums as it calls on the viewer (or player) to interact and live within the creation of another.

At the risk of sounding embarrassingly spacey, I can only hope someday that we can visit the dreams of others.