Feature image: Antonio Gil is a Costa Rican video game developer and visual effects artist. Photo taken in Guanacaste, Costa Rica by Elizabeth Lang.
Antonio Gil’s Art of Video Game Design and Visual Effects
Antonio Gil is an award-winning Costa Rican game developer and visual effects artist. He was born and raised in San Isidro, located in the Heredia province in Costa Rica. He has been deeply immersed in the world of video games since before he can remember.
“I’ve been playing video games since I was three years old. I learned to play video games before I learned how to write. That’s not an exaggeration,” Gil said. “My mouse was a ball, a trackball. That’s also the reason why I’m left-handed. The mouse couldn’t reach my right hand. So, I was [always] using my left hand. I learned to use the computer before writing.”
Gil's early exposure to video games spearheaded his lifelong fascination with the field as an artistic discipline, which he defines as an interactive and experience-generative art form. His constant exposure to video games throughout his childhood and adolescence sparked an innate interest in understanding that there were people behind the creation of these games.
“As a carajillo (child), I played games with the PlayStation 1. As a teenager with the PlayStation 3, and I always saw that. It was like diay, I want to participate in these high-quality games that have all of this effort and content behind,” Gil said.
That interest and pursuit of life in being part of the creative process of some of the world’s best video games led him to study at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia. There, he obtained two BFAs with a focus in Video Game Design and Visual Effects, and currently, he’s also pursuing an MFA in Visual Effects at SCAD.
His professional and artistic pursuits have always been gravitating around video games in one way or another, whether it’s studying them or developing them professionally from a commercial and independent perspective. Gil’s career began in 2014 in Costa Rica, working at the local studio Fair Play Labs, and from then on, he has quickly escalated on an international level – while on an OPT or optional practical training permit granted to international students in the United States – with major global game development companies such as Microsoft and Sony.
Playing with “Halo” and “God of War”
With Microsoft, he worked at 343 Industries, part of Xbox Game Studios, and was home to the Halo Universe. And now, you might be wondering what Gil’s role has been with “Halo.” He entered the game’s production phase as a visual effects artist tasked with generating a visual effect when the automatic rifle (AR) shoots.
“The AR is a weapon that has a legacy. It’s been there since Halo I for the original Xbox from 2001 or 2002. So, the moment when I was working with that effect, it was an effect that had almost 20 years of interpretation in culture,” Gil said. “In that case, what I did was speak with the designers and developers and ask them what our needs are for this effect.”
At that time, Gil was going through an intense collaborative process, which is an essential part of the art of creating video games. The designers and developers asked him to generate the visual effect for the gun’s shot. There, he needed the shape and color to be perceptible from the maximum distance when the shot was fired.
“Since it’s a multiplayer game, I need to be able to identify with what I’m being shot with in order to make concrete decisions. That way, there’s a dialogue of: ok, they’re attacking me with this weapon,” Gil said. “That lets me know that I’ve got options x, y, and z because I know the limits of that weapon. In the case of Halo’s AR, it’s an orange six-point star [effect].”
It's not as simple as it sounds. It is quite a complex, technical, and mathematical process that Gil has to delve into in order to generate the visual effects he's asked for. In the case of "Halo," he finds the complexity in generating this particular effect because it's quite complicated to create an art effect that is faithful to the reality of a gunshot.
“In the real world, if you see a gun shooting, the flash is not perceptible before the human eyes. It’s usually a stain, but we can’t allow it to be just a stain in a game where I need to identify how I make my decisions,” Gil said.
The complexity of deciphering how to recreate reality in a video game was not the only time when Gil encountered that challenge. He went through a similar process when working in the award-winning game “God of War: Ragnarök” from Santa Monica Studio, which is a first-party studio for Sony Interactive Entertainment. In this case, he was asked to generate the visual effects when creating geysers.
“I did the water columns. When creating the geysers, you had to take in mind the design; first, you have to respect the different [water] states because you can freeze them. There was one where if I turn off the geyser, it doesn’t disappear,” Gil said. “There’s a bit of the water stream there, and the base is frozen. Then, the water stream falls naturally. That’s done like that so that the player can perceive a transition between the [water] states. That the geyser is frozen or unfrozen.”
Aside from his work with “Halo” and “God of War,” Gil also worked in 2023 with Naughty Dog studio, which Sony Computer Entertainment owns.
The Math and Technology in Visual Effects and Color
Yet, you might still be wondering how Gil achieves these different visual effects and what his artistic process is to create visually aesthetic works that come through as specific details in the game. His process entails creating textures and particles from a very mathematical and technical perspective. It might come through as a simple aesthetic portrayed on the screen, but behind the scenes, it’s a fascinatingly complex process.
“I generate textures mathematically. There’s a type of noise called a perlin. The Perlin is a noise texture that’s generated mathematically, and what it does is that it gives you patterns in a grayscale,” Gil said. “I could send an image, and a Perlin can be used. Since it’s a grayscale, the color is a mathematical value. White can be considered as one, and black as zero. I can use a perlin pattern to generate water waves, for example. I can generate waves from Perlin textures.”
Once he generates the textures, he relies on external applications such as Photoshop to create distortions. These distortions can then be combined with the initial textures, and once that is done, Gil can come through by adding the controls of color, size, scale, and transparency. He states that on a functional level, the final effect is done in the video game itself, but the individual portions are generated before with different applications.
Gil’s artistic craft is one that heavily relies on the use of technology. Video games inherently exist through technology and the creation of its art as well. It’s a very natural and organic relationship that goes unquestioned to create a world where the player is immersed in an interactive universe.
“What I find is that art being art, which is expressive, will always try to use new mediums. Ancient. Traditional. Classic. It’s going to be implemented as a tool for someone who wants to express themselves. So, I find that the relationship between art and technology is completely natural,” Gil said. “I think that they’re related in virtue that they’re realities in the world, and it’s not possible to separate them.”
An Ode to Costa Rican “Palm Dreams”
That relationship is inherently present in Gil’s craft, but he’s added an extra essential identity element: nature. At first glance, it might not make sense, but on a deeper level, it’s part of who he is as a person and as a Costa Rican. He comes from a Central American country that contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity and has a progressive culture in conserving its beautiful flora and fauna.
“Technology is a human invention. If art is human communication and technology is a human invention, nature is where humans come from. To a certain extent, I find that the social experiences and most of our lives are based on that: the resources that nature gives us,” Gil said. “It’s the experience we have with nature, and for me, that’s fundamental in the human experience. I see that technology and art usually will inform our relationships with nature.”
With that in mind, you’ll now clearly grasp Gil’s intentions with his independent video game “Palm Dreams,” which he created and directed for his thesis when obtaining his BFA at SCAD. It was the first project where he served as director in a group of 12 people, which ended up as a prototype. He states they were all in a very exploratory environment and learning space where he was interested in conveying and expressing his personal interests and experience.
Since he’s always been a fan of Nintendo’s “Mario” games, he wanted to explore a way in which he could innovate in the platform video game genre. That research and exploration led him to create a character that did not jump or run: the palm tree. This character serves the purpose of being an easy character to animate and a direct representation of Costa Rica’s tropical environment.
“The other thing with the palm tree was that from an environmental perspective, I like the idea where you can grow that palm tree in other parts by just throwing a coconut. So, the mobility is less. I’m walking with a character, and I control a projectile to move from point A to point B,” Gil said. “All of that was with the intention of creating something very personal. For it to be an experiment because it was my thesis project.”
The palm tree serves as a character with which any person from around the world can connect with, especially people from different tropical environments, whether it’s in Western Africa, Vietnam, or Thailand. Gil, along with the team, wanted to generate that connection and feeling of exploration and curiosity. His appeal in conveying his Costa Rican experience with nature also opens a bigger conversation in regard to representation in the video game industry.
“I wanted to create something that appealed to my experience as a Costa Rican because I feel that the video game culture is very centralized in the United States, Europe, and Asia,” Gil said. “I wanted to add to that conversation with something that was way much more real to my experience as a Costa Rican. The green. The beaches. I think this is all very valued in Costa Rica, and as an individual, I also value that a lot. That’s why I also didn’t create a violent [war] game.”
The lack of violence in his game is innately cultural in Costa Rica. Gil is from a nation that abolished its army on December 1st, 1948, and used the military’s funds to invest in the country’s health and education. He comes from a country with one of Latin America’s strongest democracies and a heavily pacifist culture. Given that, it does not make sense for Gil to create a video game that focuses on violence and war.
“As a Costa Rican, I was very drawn into making a game that appealed to the tico (Costa Rican) environment. I found it very strange as a tico to appeal to war violence,” Gil said. “I wanted to create something very personal to what my experience was like when growing up, and I didn’t want to trivialize violence in a Costa Rican context.”
Gil aimed to craft an immersive world based on his personal experiences that would resonate with his audience. He envisioned an environment that authentically represents Costa Rica's tropical allure, characterized by its idyllic paradise, stunning blue oceans, and lush green vegetation. In this setting, he explores the essence of life and its contrasts.
“A video game is designed, and nothing is an accident. In life, everything is an accident. In a video game, I’m under a designed structure where I’m able to achieve my goals almost by divine destiny. In the real world, you don’t know what’s leading you,” Gil said. “A video game is an abstraction of experiences. Life is way too big to be contained in a structure that is defined as a video game. You can’t live life as if it were a medium. A medium is human creation. Life is a series of coincidences in sequence.”
Gil’s “Palm Dreams” is a love letter to tropical environments. It’s an ode to Costa Rica, where we took inspiration to produce our short documentary, “A Love Letter To Costa Rica.” Stay tuned for our film set in Costa Rica’s beautiful and paradisiacal beaches.
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