The world of Cozy Grove looks like the inside of a sketchbook. Its detailed illustrations, rich with color and varied linework, slowly fade from full color to muted, almost unfinished scenes. These are there for a purpose; the player is to bring color and life back to the island. But it’s also a technique designed to convey a sense of warmth and humanity — that this is a world touched by life.
Developer Spry Fox describes the game as “hand-drawn,” and that feel has always been a priority for the team. It’s a descriptor that plenty of games have taken on over the years; notable hand-drawn games include the likes of Cuphead and Spiritfarer, neither of which quite resemble Cozy Grove’s hand-drawn style. After all, in breaking down the term “hand-drawn” to its simplest terms, we get something that’s drawn by hand — as obvious as that sounds. Most games have an element of drawing, with artists that create textures, illustrate backgrounds, and model characters. A lot of games would qualify as hand-drawn, but only some choose to adhere to that label. What does it mean for a game to be hand-drawn? As it turns out, that’s different for most developers.
“One of our main goals was to make a game that looks like a beautiful sketchbook that gets colored by watercolor washes as the world and its characters evolve,” Cozy Grove lead artist Noemí Gómez told Polygon. “The whole concept affected how we approach the line work — we aimed for a crispy, ink-looking linework — and rendering — heavily textured rendering — in Cozy Grove to resemble traditional art.”
Cozy Grove is drawn using digital tools, like a stylus on a touchscreen tablet, but in a way that makes it look like it was created by a person using physical mediums: ink and watercolor. Its 2D objects and characters are specifically designed in a way to mimic the impact that a physically drawn line has. “As it turns out, there’s an aesthetic to lines,” Spry Fox co-founder and chief creative officer Daniel Cook said. “There’s something just very warm and personal about a hand-drawn line that varies ever so slightly in width, and where it ends and how it tails. We’ve had a lot of discussions about this: What makes a good line?”
Hand-drawn means a lot of different things to different people, and while I was doing research for this story, plenty of developers asked me: Does my game count as hand-drawn? For me, the answer was yes, if they thought it counted — it’s not up to me to decide. Here’s what everyone said.
[Ed. note: Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.]
Mundaun is unique in the way it’s hand-drawn. From solo developer Michel Ziegler and published by MWM Interactive, Mundaun’s art is modeled on a computer, with hand-drawn pencil textures drawn and scanned to the computer art. The resulting look is stunning — unlike any other game I’ve seen before.
Here’s what Ziegler had to say:
The first step is to create the 3D model digitally and doing the UV Unwrap, [which is a process that makes models flat]. I then physically print out the UV maps and trace them roughly on a lightbox onto a fresh piece of paper. Then I usually do a rough sketch pass on them, especially if it is for something like a face texture, where the drawing needs to somewhat align with the 3D model. Things like wood or rocks are obviously more forgiving in that regard. I scan the drawing and apply it to the 3D model, which is my favorite moment. I repeat drawing and scanning until I am happy with the result.
But I think I designed the game in the same way that a drawing builds from sketch to the finished thing. Being a solo dev allowed me to work on the game world and systems in an organic way, adding details, scenes, and elements as it felt natural. Everything was growing at the same time. The world, the characters, the plot, the gameplay. I hope the players can feel the same element of discovery throughout the game that I felt while creating it.
Drawing is my main passion. I discovered it rather late in life, but it did change the way I look at things in a major way. So whenever possible, I want to use that form of expression. I like unwieldy processes with an element of randomness. Whenever I first apply a drawn texture to a model, there is an element of surprise. It’s just too much fun to discover things that work by accident.
Before Your Eyes is played with the player’s own eyes — their real-life blinks, tracked by a webcam, control the story. Before Your Eyes skips forward each time the player blinks. The visuals are important; this is a game played with eyes, after all. Artist Hana Lee told me that having Before Your Eyes have a hand-drawn feel was essential: “[Before Your Eyes] waves between a dream-like setting and the real world, and I don’t think this could have been conveyed in an interesting way if the game had hyperrealistic graphics.”
The cozy atmosphere with the vibrant background colours would definitely not have been the same if it weren’t hand-drawn.
I’ve always worked in a hand-drawn style so I can’t really say how much it’s different from a game that’s not hand-drawn, but I think the process is quite simple. Low poly models work very well with the cartoonish side of my style, so it’s really about trying to get the general shapes right and how many polygons I can cut down on to make things as simple as possible, but also have them be expressive. Having character models be mocapped was a first for me, so that brought very interesting results where cartoonish characters were really coming to life.
As for 2D assets in the game, I did everything digitally but I stuck to using brushes that have rough edges to make them quite literally look hand-drawn. I used a rough marker brush for most of them so that they still fit with the general style of the game, and for some animations I used one that leaned more towards oil paint and gouache.
I feel like hyperrealism often breaks expression and vibrancy, and if the game leaned more towards this side I think the story would have had a much heavier tone, rather than a whimsical and more hopeful one. I think many characters, like the Ferryman for example, would not have worked if he were a realistic, anthropomorphic coyote.
Considering this is a game you play with your eyes as well, we’d like players to try and focus on every detail we put into every scene. There’s something fun and interesting in every nook and cranny of the game that gives the characters depth and personality, and by having these be simplified in a hand-drawn style, they’re much easier to take in.
If Found… was one of my favorite games of last year, and I loved the mechanic of erasing. The game, created by developer Dreamfeel and published by Annapurna Interactive, is about a queer woman in Ireland in the ’90s. It’s basically a journal based around a specific time period in Kaiso’s life.
It was heartbreaking to erase the lovely drawings from artist Liadh Young — but that pain was essential to the story. Young started a diary of her own for inspiration, doodling and scribbling to fill out pages that were scanned to create the game’s final art.
Young described If Found… and the process:
The story is mostly told through Kasio’s diary. Through drawings and text she records her surroundings and her own emotions during this period of time. To give the diary an authentic feel the art of Kasio’s diary was drawn in pencil on paper and scanned in. I drew hundreds of pages for every little piece of art in the game.
We wanted the diary to feel as realistic as possible. During development I also started my own diary similar to Kasio’s and it helped me get into the mindset of what Kasio would record in her daily life and how she would draw certain subjects. I found when keeping a diary, you would draw yourself as a scribbly mess, draw your friends with the utmost care, and doodle mindlessly around text when you were thinking about other things.
While reading the script I would sketch moments as if I was filling out a diary page, kind of following Kasio’s stream of consciousness. These sketches would sometimes then be fleshed out into more refined illustrations, but we scanned and kept every single drawing in the process! Later these extra sketches and doodles would occasionally also become part of the collages and get used in unexpected places.
I was given a lot of free rein in the style of the art and composition of the images. I think that freedom to draw in my own style made the art of If Found feel very personal. I think it emphasized that the story was illustrated by the protagonist, Kasio.
When director Llaura McGee and I were brainstorming for If Found, the idea of a diary came quite naturally due to our shared interest in zine culture, indie comics and my preference for drawing on paper and in sketchbooks. We set out to make a game that combined a sketchbook, the unique erasing mechanic and a narrative. The game was built around the art direction, rather than the other way around.
I think one interesting way the art influences how If Found is played in the erasing mechanic. You have to erase the drawings to progress the story, and apparently some people struggle with erasing Kasio’s memories, especially the happier ones!
DrinkBox Studios will release Nobody Saves the World “soon-ish,” and I’m eager to see more of its colorful cartoon art style. From the developer of Guacamelee!, Nobody Saves the World is an action role-playing game with art that looks as interesting as the gameplay. And, according to DrinkBox Studios concept lead August Quijano, it’s hand-drawn:
I think people use “hand-drawn” to mean that the art was created with traditional animation techniques, e.g., using pencil and paper, flipping through drawings with a lightbox, and maybe as far as inking and coloring each frame by hand. But, technology has allowed us to make stylistic choices and have options, so most of the games have some “hand-drawn” component and it makes the definition murky.
We now use monitors you can draw on with a special pen into an animation software. It’s all drawn digitally by hand, but might not be considered “hand-drawn” by some because it’s a paperless process.
Having just finished creating a few games with characters that used a very polygonal style (e.g., Guacamelee! 2), we found ourselves wanting to do something different, so we began exploring different styles. We were exploring linework that could convey some sense of “grossness” like Ren and Stimpy, or Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, but integrated into a world similar in feel to the early Zelda games.
Artist Noemí Gómez described Cozy Grove as “adult cozy,” a game that’s cute and warm but, ultimately, has serious themes. The art style, which has a little more punch than a game like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is a key factor in how it’s perceived.
We like to define Cozy Grove’s style as “Adult cozy”, to achieve this style we took a lot of inspiration from Ghibli movies, especially when it comes to the whole vibe and atmosphere. Another big inspiration was Over the Garden Wall, which I think captures and balances the cozy and spooky vibes really well. Style-wise you can clearly see references to Don’t Starve’s art style.
Making a game that resembles traditional art makes it difficult to create a fast and efficient work process as every asset was made with attention to detail (to also enhance the hidden object factor in Cozy Grove). Every artist working in the project had to put their artistic potential into the rendering of every individual asset to create this effect, while similar titles in the market go for a cell-shading art style for this kind of game. All in all, we had to work extra hard to deliver big loads of highly detailed pieces of art into Cozy Grove!
The art style was set pretty early on as well as the basic game mechanics but I think we got super attached to the characters very early which I think was one of the decisive factors that turned Cozy Grove into the heavily story focused game it is today.
Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends is coming to Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, and it’s based on the cartoonist Winsor McCay’s comic strips. That’s evident from the art style and animation: It feels like it’s been pulled straight from the era. Game designer Chris Totten spoke about the game:
For us “hand-drawn” is a way to experiment with bringing game art closer to other art forms (especially traditional animation, which [Winsor] McCay was an early pioneer of) and getting to explore animation history. We’re paying homage to the artwork of an important figure that set the stage for many of the processes we use today, so we wanted to get as close to his style as possible.
COVID-19 knocked out our ability to do a full in-studio ink-on-cels process of the kind you saw with Cuphead (or traditional feature animation in general), so we’re using the new 2D animation tools in the free and open-source digital animation program Blender. Rather than using vectors or anything like that, we’re still drawing the animations by hand with tablets following traditional animation principles like Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation, in-betweening (which McCay invented), and so on. To keep this process as “old school” as possible , we’re staying away from more modern elements of our animation software like armatures (“bones” put inside artwork to make it move), “puppet” animation (think Flash cartoons), or interpolation (draw shape A, then draw shape B on a later frame, and the computer makes everything between.) We’re doing everything we can with straightforward drawing.
Nightmare Fiends is as much a celebration of an important artist’s work as much as it is a cool indie game. Winsor McCay laid the groundwork for the comics and animation industries as we know them, which in turn had a lot of influences on games.
Triple Topping’s Welcome to Elk is a game that tells true stories told to the developer from memory. The stories were combined to create the narrative, and the art style reflects the magic and organicness of the story. It’s digitally drawn, using a specific aesthetic to give it that touch, though Triple Topping Games’ Murray Somerville said some textures were made with charcoal and white oil paint and then scanned into a library that artists pulled from.
“I think there’s something about seeing a physical mark that subconsciously communicates to a viewer the understanding that this was ‘handmade,’” said Somerville.
I think what makes me think of a game as “hand drawn” is something to do with seeing some evidence of physicality in the art making. I think there are quirks and personalized ways of mark making that make you visualize someone actually making that line rather than from a computer.
With Welcome to Elk, the game is based on true stories so we wanted the art to feel personal and capture that “hand drawn” feeling so it has a connection to the power of storytelling. Something which tells you a human made this, much in the same way we get from the way we tell stories to one another.
The way we did this is, we drew everything “free hand” — which isn’t anything profound, it just means that when drawing, everything from characters to backgrounds, we did with our hands and without using digital tools that would simulate more “correct” structure. So straight lines are never completely straight because they have been drawn by hand, same with shapes like circles — nothing is a clean representation but instead something which has been done to the best it can be by a human hand and eye.
I think it’s in the consistency of seeing these small imperfections, these small bumps and awkwardness that conveys a “hand drawn” aesthetic, because we can mostly all relate to the idea of trying to draw a straight line.
Code Romantic is a visual novel that teaches coding, and a lot hinges on the art. It’s a love story with unique, compelling characters from prettysmart games, with watercolor illustrations from Allyson Kelley. And it teaches you to code! Miko Charbonneau, founder of prettysmart games, and Kelley told me about the game and its art.
I would classify anything drawn by a hand either on paper or with a stylus as hand-drawn. However, we emphasize this aspect of our game because all of the characters and backgrounds were sketched, inked and painted by hand on paper. The watercolors are scanned in, colored, and made into character asset sheets. The face pieces are painted digitally by Allyson. Then I assemble them and animate them in Unity.
To me it’s like making a movie, you have to do a lot of pre-planning for every shot because it’s costly to re-shoot it later. I think it was worth it, though. There’s a natural aspect to seeing little pencil marks and hints of paper that brings it a human quality.
I was excited by the challenge of bringing traditional watercolors into a digital, interactive environment. I wanted Allyson to work in the way she was most comfortable and I wanted the end result to have a lot of personality. The art definitely changed the way the game looks and feels! We were influenced by propaganda posters and romanticism landscapes, and Allyson combined these inspirations with her own style. Even though the game takes place over a hundred years in the future, there’s a nostalgic charm to the setting and the character designs that surprised me. The machines in particular took on a whimsical quality I couldn’t have come up with on my own.
Code Romantic is a visual novel with coding puzzles, so there’s not as much gameplay as other genres. The art definitely influenced how we chose to do animations and cinematics, however. We wanted to include as many different poses as possible, which led to the separate pieces approach with more animations and a more dynamic camera.
I think the biggest difference between Code Romantic and many other hand-drawn 2D games is how much we embraced the texture and messiness of a traditional medium. There’s a certain lack of control, or randomness, that you get from watercolor and ink that just don’t happen when you work digitally. With digital hand-drawn games and illustrations you either have to add in that messiness and variations or embrace the exacting smoothness.
But now there are so many great textured brushes that digital work can really look just like traditional work!
We started with a script and created storyboards. Front there we made sure the story was working and planned out what poses or game assets we needed. Most character poses and early game assets started traditionally and as the game progressed and new pieces were needed, the sketches were then done digitally to help speed up production.
Then they are transferred to watercolor paper and inked in either brown or sepia. I start with a yellow ochre wash, and then apply some basic shading in a purple gray mix. Then they are scanned in, cleaned up, and colored in Photoshop. The ochre wash helps all the characters and elements feel more unified while using Photoshop allows us to have a more consistent and controlled color.
Other games that rely on 3D assets would most likely start with the same initial concept and sketch stages then move on to modeling, sculpting, rigging, texturing, then animating. Recently though I’ve been seeing really fascinating 3D sculptures and assets that are blending watercolor pieces and textures into their games. It’s amazing!
Out of Line looks like a painting — a whimsical journey in a fantastical, mysterious world. Lead artist Francisco Santos explained the process:
For us, [hand-drawn] means that a game has a different and personal art style, close to a more “traditional” style found in paintings or drawings. But the overall “hand-drawn” feel in our game, also comes by merging all the different components of the game, including story, animation, VFX, music and sound design. Where all these parts come together and create the “hand-drawn” feel to the world.
In my opinion, a game that embraces a “hand-drawn” style is a game that takes inspiration and tries to match a more “traditional” style of art, much closer to a drawing, a painting or animation done in a non-digital medium. This also means that the process of creation is similar. A more creative and free process, but also a longer and a less flexible one where everything is “done by hand” created from scratch. But with the upside that in the end, the result will be something different and much closer to the artist’s vision.
In our game, Out of Line, every graphical part of the game tries to follow that direction. Taking close inspiration from Studio Ghibli films, short animated movies, modern painting movements like impressionism and expressionism, among many more.
It’s easy to get lost in the “hand-drawn” part of the style and forget the medium that is actually serving. So we have to keep reminding ourselves, that the art style approach we took has to serve the game first, making the game readable and enjoyable for the player to navigate in. But also has to be close to the artist’s vision and feelings. Giving at the end, something “hand-drawn”, different and refreshing to the player.
Toadhouse Games’ Call Me Cera is coming out in 2022, but the team released a vignette from the game called Good Lookin Home Cookin this year. Toadhouse founder Alanna Linayre said the game is about “two best friends running a food court during Ramadan,” while Call Me Cera, as a whole, is about making friends as an adult, and the art played into that.
Here’s Linayre on the hand-drawn art style:
I wanted the games to be hand-drawn for many reasons. I loved how it reminded me of picture books, which has a comforting, nostalgic feeling. But mostly, the characters in our games are messy and real, and I wanted the art to reflect that. I wanted it to have a human touch, since our visual novels focus on making healthy choices that allow Players to explore messy IRL situations. And I didn’t want the game to feel too precious or perfect. I wanted Players to feel comfortable experimenting and relaxing in the world we built. Lastly, many visual novels have a sleek anime look to them. I wanted to stand out and make it clear that what works in those might not work while playing ours.
I told our concept artist, who also did our backgrounds, to lean into the nostalgic and comfy picture book feeling. I told them to add as many loving little details as they could. I then asked our sprite artist to match that painterly style and color story, but to make the characters look more polished and cleaner than the backgrounds, so they stood out and were easy on the eyes. The combination gave the characters a natural focus, when laid on top of the more hazy backgrounds.
A negative side effect to my choices is that people sometimes assume our demographic is younger. We wrote the stories with 25-40 year olds in mind. However, after people play our games, we’ve been told our intentions become more clear.