Zahraa Al Zubaydi and her animations
Stories & Ideas

Tue 29 Nov 2022

Episode 12: Creating art for videogames with Zahraa Al Zubaydi – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Art Craft Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview Representation Videogames
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

Learn about the process of creating visual art for games.


Amber Gibson: Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjuri people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne. I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples listening in.

Today we're chatting to artist, Zahraa Al Zubaydi, who is an illustrator for games and currently developing Pixelated, the game. We're going to talk to Zahraa about her pathway into the industry and her own creative process. Welcome, Zahraa.

Zahraa Al Zubaydi: Thank you. I'm really thrilled to be here.

AG: Let's start by talking about how you developed your skills in concept art.

ZAZ: I remember really enjoying anime and games, as one would as a child. One game in specific is called Touhou Project, and I remember being incredibly impressed with the visual style of the characters along with their backstories. So that inspired me so much to make my own characters, and as my interest grew in creating my own characters, my skill level also improved over time. I think one technique that helped me excel my art is by doing a lot of studies from photos, from real life, from other artists, to see their techniques and to change them into a way that becomes your unique style. I think one thing that artists don't stress enough when giving advice, is actually admiring and absorbing pieces of art. For example, absorbing all the lighting and all the composition and the colours, so that when you're making your own art, you're putting your mind through that same process of thinking so that your work is more meaningful rather than just drawing without thinking about it.

AG: Yeah. Awesome. And you also have practice with traditional oil painting, haven't you?

ZAZ: Yeah, I have, yeah. That was my origin. That's where I came from. My transition.

AG: When did you start drawing?

ZAZ: As early as I can remember. My mum actually saw that spark of interest in art and bought me some art supplies and it just kept growing from there. She believed in me.

AG: When did you segway into making videogames?

ZAZ: Funny story - I used to think that videogames just popped out of nowhere (and that) the computer made the games. I used to be the person who plays on the computer. And then when I was enlightened about the fact that people actually made the games, that was life-changing and I wanted to do it too. Of course, enjoying games and actually making them is actually completely different. You need to have that spark of passion to be able to go through the hardships and difficulty of making a game, but that's how it started.

AG: You are developing Pixelated, the game.

ZAZ: Yes.

AG: So you are the artist and designer. Can you tell us about the concept?

ZAZ: Yeah, so Pixelated is a narrative RPG. It explores belonging and identity. The main premise is that there are two worlds: a 2D world that is soft and painterly and a 3D world that's industrial and cold and dark. The protagonist is a cyborg that is... Her origin of her organic self is from the 2D world and her mechanical origin is from the 3D world. And both worlds want the same thing from her, so there's a bit of conflict and that's the main premise.

AG: It's such a great concept. What can you tell us about Pixel, the protagonist?

ZAZ: So the type of character Pixel is; I chose her to be shy and observant, and that works in the favour of the player because they then can experience and observe the world through Pixel. I decided that there's only one protagonist, because I remember watching a movie where the perspective keeps shifting from one character to another and it was really hard to bond with anyone, because I would warm up to someone and then the perspective shifts to another character completely. And at the end, I didn't really care for anyone. But I feel like having an observant character with their own goals and hardships, who observe other characters who have depth and multidimensional personalities; I feel like people would appreciate that.

AG: Cute. I'm really looking forward to playing it.

(Song plays)

What you just heard was a snippet from a track called Rush, which Zahraa composed. It's on her YouTube channel videos, but she's planning on hiding it somewhere in the game. So we are going to trickle snippets of Rush throughout this episode. When did the initial idea for the game start?

ZAZ: I remember back in high school wanting to create something that has good representation of my own country. I come from Iraq and it's always displayed as a war-torn, dusty, broken-down country. That was my initial idea. From that, I also wanted to explore identity, because one interesting thing that happens to me is that when I go to Iraq, people say that I'm an outsider, and then when I come back here, people ask me where I'm from, which I don't mind. I love telling people that I'm from Iraq, but it's just a really interesting concept to explore and I feel like a lot of people would resonate with it too. So a combination of wanting to create environments that are positive of my country and a bit about that identity, like complication. Yeah.

AG: Yeah, I was watching one of your YouTube clips and you were talking about the different visual representations of the hijabis.

ZAZ: Yeah.

AG: I thought that was really interesting.

ZAZ: Thank you.

AG: Do your characters embody those different designs and religious practices?

ZAZ: Yeah, so in Iraq there's a lot of different ways that the hijab is worn, and I'm focusing on Iraq specifically. In different cultures, the hijab is worn very differently and one important thing to note is that I can't just take one idea from an Asian country and put it into this Iraqi-inspired world. That'll confuse people. But, I'm doing a lot of research into different areas of Iraq and seeing the way that the hijab is worn. It's pretty interesting and I'd love to implement all of it within the game as background characters, as main characters too.

AG: Yeah, I really loved the Turkish... Beautiful.

ZAZ: It's beautiful.

AG: Designs, they're gorgeous. We have a few of your older designs here and you do have a few characters wearing the hijab, and then you've got four other women here that you've designed. Can you talk about that process of designing those characters?

ZAZ: Yeah. These are my very first designs, which might change over time. Currently, I have a lot of women who are wearing similar styles of hijab, which might change to make it more diverse in that sense.

AG: Yeah, awesome. Once you draw the characters, how might that change when you're actually in the stages of developing the game?

ZAZ: One important thing is looking at comparing the backgrounds with the characters and seeing how well they contrast together. That would actually determine what colours, the brightness of the characters, the silhouette - is it strong enough? One thing that I always do is I would paint the entire character with one colour to see if the silhouette is interesting and unique enough that people recognise what character it is without seeing the features.

AG: Cool. You've got also really bright colours in your landscapes and your houses. Lots of pinks and greens. Can you describe your process?

ZAZ: Yeah, so back to the representation of Iraq where it's very muddy and dusty and grey; I want to stay as far away as possible from that and show people a different side of a desert-y country that's been populated. There are plenty of colours in Iraq, surprising, but not much people know about it. So I feel like I'm going to bring in something different and new and give people another perspective. Because when they think Iraq, they think of a dusty desert. But yeah, I'm going to challenge that.

AG: Awesome. Yeah, the colours are beautiful.

ZAZ: Thank you.

AG: So what stage of development are you at?

ZAZ: Currently, I'm in pre-production, so I'm doing a lot of up-skilling in my own art so that I can create a stronger concept. From the mechanical side of things, we're exploring different mechanics that are... Because the theme is identity and belonging, there's a lot of connection that happens. So we want to explore string-related mechanics of connecting things, and yes, seeing where that takes us.

AG: What games, films, or books have inspired your game so far?

ZAZ: I think the initial thing that sparked my interest to make that game, was again, Touhou Project. I actually... I took ideas, actually wrote... Maybe stole, you could say, stole character lore, and I rewrote it so many times that it became warped and something completely unique, which I actually recommend other artists to do. Steal an artwork, change it up so much that it becomes your own unique work and then present it. I would say that my game is a cluster of a lot of different things that I've picked up along my years of consuming media and interactive entertainment. So I wouldn't pinpoint it on one thing. I usually try to take something positive from everything I consume, books, movies, (etc.).

AG: That's lovely. How do you describe your style of art?

ZAZ: Currently, it's soft, colourful, (and) wholesome. I think these are three words I would use. It can transition into another art style one day. I feel like an artist's journey is always going. There's never an endpoint. I've got no idea what I'll end up doing in 10 years' time.

(Rush plays)

AG: So we just heard Rush again and now we're going to chat to Zahraa about how she went composing the music for the game.

ZAZ: Yes, so this is a very humble little soundtrack that I put together after playing around with a software called FL Studio. I really like twinkly, soft, wholesome videogame-y music, and I want to implement it within my game. I would have to perfect it so that it fits the vibe a bit more, fits the Middle Eastern vibe, but not a cliche vibe, like cute-sy Middle Eastern. I'm interested to see where that will take me.

AG: Yeah, nice. And was it your first time composing?

ZAZ: I might have made a few smaller, simpler clips of music, but I would say that this was my first longer piece of music that I've made.

AG: Awesome. You've got so much initiative, learning all those different forms of art. Who would you like to play this game?

ZAZ: I would say that I'd love anyone to pick this game up and play it. I would not gatekeep it from anyone, but I can't imagine a hardcore gamer who cares about high scores and smooth mechanics and stuff to really enjoy this game, because this game explores a story that tackles a specific theme that's supposed to connect on a deeper level to players. I'm basically creating a game that I would've loved to play as a teenager. So I want teenage girls to feel the same way I would've felt if I played that game as a kid.

AG: That's nice. Do you know when you think you might release it?

ZAZ: I'm not really sure yet, but hopefully before 2030.

AG: Yeah. It's a lot of work. And it's just yourself and another person?

ZAZ: Yeah.

AG: Awesome. What have been some of the challenges in developing your game?

ZAZ: Currently I'm within a challenge, because we need to find the flow and the routine to get work done. Currently, we're only getting work done when we have time. A member of the team has a full-time job, so she can only get work done when she could. I'm going to try to use production tools to get into the flow for me to be able to see the future timeline, because currently it's kind of blurred right now. And yeah, that's the main challenge I'm tackling right now.

AG: The production of games is very intense.

ZAZ: Yes.

AG: So you also work for GUCK part-time.

ZAZ: That's right.

AG: And then the rest of your time, are you developing your game?

ZAZ: Yeah.

AG: What advice would you give to a person who is a traditional artist, but looking for opportunities to enter the games industry?

ZAZ: That's a very excellent question because I came from a traditional background but I had to pick up the digital skills to be able to make games. One thing I would recommend is to invest in an iPad and download Procreate. It's a very practical investment, a bit pricey, but it's incredible what Procreate can do for you. It's like their drawing software. They recently released an update where you can paint 3D models on an iPad, which is incredible.

Art is becoming very accessible digitally. I think from experience, transitioning from traditional (art) to digital, there is one specific hurdle you need to pass. And it's getting over the weird texture of a very slippery surface when using a tablet and trying to learn all these keyboard shortcuts and tools. But as soon as you learn those, your brain will immediately adapt to a new medium, because you already have the skill, you're just transferring it from one medium to another and it'll get easier. It's just really hard at the start because; "ugh, there's no way I could do this. It's so difficult." Once you get the hang of it's pretty good.

AG: Yeah, it's interesting how you describe it that way. So do you go back to painting though?

ZAZ: Absolutely. One thing I'd recommend is to never stop traditional art, even after transitioning to digital. I use traditional art as a detoxing, sort of therapeutic activity because the screen can get very overwhelming and absorbs your energy.

AG: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people can feel that when they work with a screen most of their job. Did you study in fine arts or anything like that?

ZAZ: No. I would watch tutorials and get advice from YouTube videos and I would just... My sister's actually an artist and I was inspired by her. So I drew too. I think it runs in the family a bit because my auntie is an artist too, but I had an initial inspiration and I just drew a lot.

AG: You also create your own YouTube videos. Is that a marketing technique that you're developing?

ZAZ: Yes. It's a long-term slow technique in marketing and I haven't found a lot of Australian-based game developer content. There are probably a few out there - I should look harder. But my initial idea is to create a step-by-step of me going through my whole project to show people that everyone starts at nothing, and then slowly build-up over time and then end up releasing something. I feel like that would give students and anyone who's very new to the industry a bit of comfort to know that everyone goes through that process.

AG: That's good advice. A bit of a random one: if you were given 5 million dollars to create anything that you wanted, what would you make?

ZAZ: I would absolutely love that. (If) anyone listening to this podcast has 5 million dollars lying around, I'll gladly have that (laughs). I would actually use it towards my project. I would hire an incredible team of people. I think I already have a few on my mind who deserve to be part of this project. I will buy a very cozy studio, maybe on the fringes of the CBD, and we'll just continue making games for as long as we could.

AG: Lovely. What are you currently playing at the moment?

ZAZ: I'm playing Splatoon 3. It recently got released. It's really addictive and I feel like I just use it to wind down after a long day of work.

AG: That's all we have time for, so thank you so much for joining us, Zahraa.

ZAZ: Thank you too. That was awesome.

AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. Links to Zahraa's work are listed in the show notes for this episode. If you would like to find out about ACMI X or learn about upcoming guests, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.

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