PK 011: Ken Wong 鈥 Why Great Art Also Tells a Great Story

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A screenshot from Alice: Madness Returns

“It鈥檚 easy to get lost in the crowd if you don鈥檛 have something unique to share, so put some of yourself in your art!”

Ken Wong, a digital artist from Australia, is the art director behind such innovative games as Alice: Madness Returns and Monument Valley. His hugely successful projects with ustwo and Spicy Horse studios have struck a chord with people looking for a deeper, more meaningful alternative to the scores of mass-produced, ultra commercial games out there. But how did he get started? And how does he continue to find inspiration for exciting, fresh ideas?

Why Great Games Can Also Be Great Art

鈥淕ame design is a form of art,鈥 he explains, 鈥渂ecause all of the same skills can be carried over. Games can also be really meaningful and accessible. They can tell you a good story which gives you something to think about. It鈥檚 about much more than simply feeding our addiction to playing games.鈥滭/p>

Ken鈥檚 Journey From Fan Artist to Creative Director

Ken has carved out a name for himself in the games industry as a pioneering thinker and designer, but his introduction to this exciting world came about almost by chance. He took a BA in multimedia studies and was initially quite content to be a production artist working with Flash and putting websites together.

That all changed when he decided to make some fan art inspired by American McGhee鈥檚 Alice 鈥 a game published by Electronic Arts which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. Imagine Ken鈥檚 surprise when American McGhee contacted him personally to say how much he liked his work. 鈥淗e asked me if I鈥檇 like to so some designs for his new game,鈥 recalls Ken.

鈥淚 guess I was about 20 years old at the time, so I explained that I hadn鈥檛 done anything like this before but that I鈥檇 give it my best shot. I guess he must have liked what he saw because we continued to work together and then he helped me get my first job in the industry. I always tell people that I didn鈥檛 choose the games industry 鈥 the games industry chose me!鈥滭/p>

Ken feels incredibly lucky to have landed his dream job this way. He describes how many people work incredibly hard for years before they fulfil their ambitions, but that his lucky break came about when he wasn鈥檛 particularly looking for it. 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 really have the dream until the dream found me and said 鈥榓re you ready for this great opportunity?鈥 And then I did the hard work!鈥滭/p>

If this all sounds incredible, it鈥檚 interesting to hear Ken talk about his early dreams of becoming an artist. In his view, each and every one of us starts life as an artist, picking up pencils and crayons as a way of communicating their ideas. It鈥檚 only when we hit our teenage years that self-doubt and lack of confidence kick in and stop us from being creative. 鈥淚 think that鈥檚 a real shame,鈥 he explains, 鈥渁nd so I guess I鈥檓 just one of those kids who never stopped, even though I didn鈥檛 always have the confidence to be an artist.鈥滭/p>

Ken鈥檚 Advice on How to Stand Out From The Crowd

How did Ken go from creating fan art to becoming an art director? 鈥淭here are two ways to get noticed,鈥 says Ken. 鈥淵ou鈥檝e got to be better than everyone else, but you鈥檝e also got to be different. It鈥檚 easy to get lost in the crowd if you don鈥檛 have something unique to share, so put some of yourself in there. Don鈥檛 just copy the house style 鈥 add a unique voice to your art, a spark of ingenuity and creativity. Everyone has something to say and something to add to the team. Make that happen and you鈥檒l always have an audience!鈥滭/p>

鈥淟ots of my heroes are artists who became directors 鈥 people such as James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Jim Henson and Tim Burton. They all develop technologies to tell their stories. For me, a big part of being an artist is not what comes out of the hands 鈥 it鈥檚 what goes into the eye. It鈥檚 how you understand the world, internalize it and interpret what you see. You need to bring your skills of visual storytelling to the forefront.鈥滭/p>

A screenshot from Monument Valley

What Else Inspires Ken?

He says: 鈥淭he great thing about games is that you can tell stories that wouldn鈥檛 be possible in other mediums.鈥滭/p>

Throughout his career so far, he鈥檚 been inspired by the work of other innovative games producers, such as Gone Home (a short game about a girl who returns home to find her family have left, which Ken describes as 鈥渁 moving experience and a work of art鈥?.He also loves聽Passage by James Rohrer (which Ken says has real meaning and depth and awakened him to what games could be) and Portal 鈥 an innovative game created by students as an end-of-year project which rewrote the book when it was released six years ago in an industry dominated by long-form games.

This last title left a lasting impression on Ken, who cites it as a huge inspiration for his own Monument Valley.

Despite the games market being dominated by free or inexpensive titles which Ken feels don鈥檛 challenge people to think, he鈥檚 confident the industry is changing. He says: 鈥淚n 20 years鈥 time, I really hope people will be saying 鈥榦f course games are works of art!鈥 and experiencing a more rewarding gaming experience. The success of Monument valley validates some of my theories about game design. In making it, we took lots of financial and other risks, but it paid off. I feel as if we can do anything now and I really want to see where this adventure takes us!鈥滭/p>

In Ken鈥檚 view, the games industry doesn鈥檛 have anywhere near enough diversity at the moment and he鈥檇 love to see more females and people from different backgrounds getting involved. He feels this would create more originality and innovation for everyone. And, after all, isn鈥檛 that what great art鈥檚 about?

Listen to this week鈥檚 show and learn:

  • Why it鈥檚 so important to put your own personality into your work
  • Why taking risks is part of innovation
  • Why the games industry needs more diversity to adapt for the future

People on this Episode:


Mentioned in the episode:

Ken鈥檚 Website
Ken on Facebook
Ken on Twitter

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