Recently, oprainfall sent some interview questions (courtesy of 505 Games) to the Creative Director of Indivisible, developed by Lab Zero Games. This creative and colorful mash up of various genres may already be out for some platforms, but since oprainfall is waiting to review the upcoming Switch version, we felt it might be interesting to talk with the person behind the artistic vision of Indivisible.
During our e-mail interview with Mariel Cartwright, Indivisible‘s Creator Director, we talked about art, Indivisible and Skullgirls, her provisionally-approved presentation at Game Developer’s Conference 2020, and much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say.
Operation Rainfall: Could you please introduce yourself?
Mariel Cartwright: My name is Mariel! I also go by my middle name Kinuko, usually online. I’m an artist and animator, and the Creative Director at Lab Zero Games. I’m probably best known for being Lead Animator on Skullgirls, and I was most recently Creative Director on Indivisible.
OR: When did you discover you liked to draw, and what were your early drawing experiences like? What has inspired your growth as an artist?
MC: My earliest memories of drawing were when I was around 5 or 6, though my parents say I started even earlier. The first thing that really got my gears turning was receiving a Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog when I was 6 – that led to a years-long Sonic obsession where I drew mostly Sonic and friends. Japanese media was always a part of my life as well, so I’ve watched anime from early on. There are the obvious ones like Sailor Moon, [Studio] Ghibli films, etc – but Project A-Ko, Ranma ½, and Oh! My Goddess were also big influences. I think the stuff I drew was a pretty direct result of my upbringing; my dad was a Disney animator, and my mom is Japanese, so in a way I’m just a natural product of that environment.
OR: Both big projects you’ve been associated with, Skullgirls and Indivisible, involve lots of action and mayhem, what drew you to those projects in particular?
MC: I definitely enjoy drawing action; I think I like drawing bodies in various difficult poses in general, and I love the challenge of trying to animate those motions for gameplay. It definitely matters too that I was at the right place at the right time – I joined Skullgirls in its early days just to help on something cool, and I’ve worked with essentially the same team since. I’m definitely open to working on things that aren’t necessarily action-based, but I do particularly enjoy the unique challenge of helping make something that’s exciting to play.
OR: Donald M. Murray once wrote “All my writing -and yours- is autobiographical.” What of yourself do you see in your art?
MC: This is a hard one! I don’t really know. I guess I just draw what I like – cute girls, some horror/gore/weird stuff, etc. I don’t think my art necessarily speaks to some deeper self expression; I usually sit down and think, “I want to see a slimegirl” and then make that happen. There are definitely artists who are able to pour their souls into their pieces, but I’m not one of them. I just like making and seeing the stuff I like.
“I think what I find most rewarding about any production is helping the team put together something awesome.”
OR: Your latest project is called Indivisible, where you have stepped into the role of art director, what is Indivisible about?
MC: Indivisible is a weird hybrid Metroidvania/fighting game/RPG that stars our protagonist Ajna, as she initially sets out seeking vengeance for her father’s murder, and then learns that there’s more to her true self than she previously knew. Over the course of her journey, Ajna meets and befriends a bunch of Incarnations – certain people with innate powers – who travel with her as she learns more about the world and herself.
I call Indivisible’s genre a weird hybrid because there’s nothing else quite like it – traversal in the world is like a platformer/Metroidvania, whereas battles are RPG-like but with the momentum of fighting games. It’s kind of a lot, but I think we made it work in a way that’s completely unique to us. I think you just have to try it to see how it all plays out!
OR: What made you decide to step into the role of art director? How has your prior experience as an artist informed your new position?
MC: The art director role was kinda presented to me – I think I had shown I was capable of being a lead from my time being Lead Animator on Skullgirls, so the team felt it made sense for me to take on Art Director for Indivisible. In the end, I actually got the Creative Director title because over the course of the game’s development, I was Art Director, Lead Animator, and Head of Story – and it became easier to just bundle them all up into Creative Director, ha.
The important thing about being any kind of art lead is that it’s not necessarily about being the best artist – in fact, you often don’t want your best artist to become the lead, because then you basically lose your best artist! What’s most important is to be able to drive your team toward a unified vision, which means organizing, collaborating, communicating, etc. It’s a very different skillset, and one that I’m still learning. I’ve always been one to step up when I see inaction or disorganization though, so I think a combination of that and being an artist led me to where I am now.
OR: As art director for Indivisible, what did you most enjoy overseeing/contributing to the production of the game?
MC: I think what I find most rewarding about any production is helping the team put together something awesome. Indivisible is a much bigger game than anything I’ve tackled previously, so it was challenging to make so many different moving parts feel like one cohesive product. I had to be involved in, or at least be privy to, most parts of the game and make sure they all played nice together. It can definitely be overwhelming, but I love working with a team and finding ways to make everyone’s contributions and ideas matter while still achieving a singular goal.
OR: Was it hard coming up with the many different characters in Indivisible? Which one is your personal favorite, and why?
MC: Each of our Indivisible characters started with an individual contributor, so getting the variation wasn’t hard, as the ideas came from several different people. The more difficult part was taking all those ideas and making them into one cohesive cast! There were way more character ideas than we were able to fit in the game, and as we didn’t start with a more macro, holistic view of the cast, we had to come up with even more ideas to balance everything out. (For example, Ginseng and Honey were created later because we realized that no one came up with a healer.)
My personal favorite is Razmi, who I think is also our most popular character. She’s a sour, sarcastic shamaness that almost never has anything helpful to say. I relate to her a lot – she often speaks what I’m thinking but never say out loud, haha.
OR: Is Indivisible mostly a linear experience? Or is there a variety of side quests and optional content to explore?
MC: It’s generally pretty linear, with a few areas where it branches out before coming back to the same point. There are also optional sidequests to recruit additional party members. This was definitely something we struggled with – Metroidvanias are, by nature, a more nonlinear experience, but the story we wanted to tell was incredibly linear. I think we struck that balance, if a little imperfectly, with the structure we came up with. But as with anything, there are ways we could have made the experience better in hindsight, but I’m still very proud of where we arrived.
OR: Nintendo Switch fans are mostly used to waiting on game releases. Having said that, is there anything new you can tell Nintendo fans about Indivisible to make the wait until its upcoming release a little bit easier? Is it a direct port, or might it have unique features?
MC: The Switch version will be a direct port, and it’ll be one of the best versions of the game yet. I think it’s typical now that people wait to play certain games a little while after release, so any issues get squashed before they jump in. By the time Indivisible comes out for Switch, it’ll be a very solid and balanced version, and definitely the version I personally think people should be playing.
“As a studio, I think we definitely specialize in games with quick-paced, action-y gameplay – so we’ll probably continue down that path with beat-em-ups, another fighting game, etc.”
OR: Aside from being the art director for Indivisible, your [Game Developer’s Conference] Core Concepts proposal has been recently granted Phase I approval. Was this your first time submitting a session proposal to GDC, and what was it like putting together your proposal? What are you planning on talking about and what track is it for, if you’re granted Phase II approval?
MC: I think this upcoming talk will be my sixth at GDC! But interestingly enough, those times were part of the Animation Bootcamp, which is run by an amazing crew of game animators who invited me to take part (and I highly encourage you to look it up; a lot of the Bootcamp talks are free online and all wonderful). This would be my first time going through the formal submission process, save for a talk I did at GDC China.
My talk is about the art of Indivisible, and it’ll be for the visual arts track. I have SO much to talk about; it could easily span several hours, had I the opportunity… but I’m going to be focusing on the process from starting our initial playable prototype to finishing the released game. Since we released a prototype after the first three months of work, people can see very clearly how much our art was lacking at that point. I think what we ended up with is beautiful though, and I’m very excited to share with people how we got there. Here’s hoping I can pull it off!
OR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you worked on Risky’s Revenge with WayForward. What specifically did you have a hand in designing, and what was your experience like working on the game? Would you consider working with them on future Shantae franchise games?
MC: I don’t believe I worked on Risky’s Revenge, actually! I had a small part in Half-Genie Hero, and I’ve done some general illustrative work for Shantae that was more promotional material. On Half-Genie Hero, I was responsible for some of Shantae’s key poses and early animations, but I wasn’t on the game throughout. I love Wayforward though, and continue to work with them when I can take on a bit of freelance work. They were one of two studios that approached me while I was still a student, and were a huge part of launching my career in games.
OR: So far, Lab Zero Games has done a fighting game (Skullgirls), and they now have made an action-RPG (Indivisible). What other genres do you anticipate might be tried next? Are there any genres you and Lab Zero absolutely won’t touch?
MC: As a studio, I think we definitely specialize in games with quick-paced, action-y gameplay – so we’ll probably continue down that path with beat-em-ups, another fighting game, etc. (Our design lead Mike [Zaimont] has a fully playable puzzle game he made for fun, though, so maybe we can explore that too.) For me personally, I’d love to work on a dating sim or horror game. I’ve had a few ideas brewing for a while, but we’ll see if I get the chance to dig into them further.
As for genres we won’t do, you’re probably not going to see an FPS from us anytime soon, but maybe that’s about it? As long as we can make games that are hand-animated and feel great to play, we’re definitely open to explore.
The images were courtesy of Lab Zero and WayForward.
Awesome featured image courtesy of Brandon Rose
I want to thank Mariel Cartwright for spending the time to answer our questions.
Have you picked up Indivisible yet? Or are you waiting on the Nintendo Switch release?
Let us know in the comments below!