First revealed at Paris Games Week 2017, Concrete Genie is all about letting your artistic creations flourish amid a space that seems intent on extinguishing them. Developed by PixelOpus, your fictional hometown serves as the canvas to restoring the once lively streets that have been corrupted by a strange force. Helping you are your new friends in the form of the energetic Genies, who will bring color back and a newfound sense of identity back to your home. Nearing its October 8, 2019 release, we had the chance to both play the game and speak with director Dominic Robilliard about the creation of this colorful adventure.
The story focuses on an introverted and lonely teenager named Ash, who spends his days drawing in his journal while hanging out in the seaside town of Denska. Though it was once a thriving place, it’s now a depressing locale plagued by a large number of young delinquents. Ash finds himself at odds with a group of bullies who tear apart his journal, scattering the pages across town. He eventually discovers a new outlet to explore his artistic talents after finding a magical brush, allowing him to conjure up enchanted graffiti and beings known as Genies. With his brush and Genies in tow, he’ll take to the streets and rooftops to restore Denska, pushing back the darkness that has crept into town.
Throughout its opening acts, Concrete Genie wears its influences to classic kids adventure films on its sleeve. With little to no adult supervision, young teens explore and cause mischief with reckless abandon–giving way to a conflict that only they can resolve. Ash can use his artistic talents to create vibrant and detailed landscapes across the walls of the city, which help him communicate with the Genies and open access to new areas. The contrast between the vivid graffiti and the depressing seaside town creates unique visuals that lead to some stunning moments where your work slowly brings the decaying Denska back to life.
It’s an endearing concept, driven by a spirit that many films and TV shows in a similar vein, like The Neverending Story or the more recent Stranger Things, run with. Speaking with Robilliard, the director went into Concrete Genie’s origins and how the setup focuses pretty heavily on the game’s anti-bullying message.
“When we started this second game [following 2014’s Entwined], we had a decent amount of time to explore different concepts,” said Robilliard. “Originally the idea of Concrete Genie came from our VFX artist Ashwin Kumar, which is why our main protagonist is called Ash. The very first image was of a bullied small boy who was drawing these large characters in the wall and imagining that they were sticking up for him. The theme of bullying and the idea that art can help cope was always there from the very beginning. Those two things just inspired everybody, and it really took off. That was the beginning for us to explore art as a gameplay mechanic, and to let people express themselves.”
At the heart of Concrete Genie are the constructs crafted from the enchanted brush. When facing the side of a building or a different structure, Ash can pull out his brush to paint grass, flowers, trees, and a starry sky across the surface. The more art you place on the town’s key areas, the more the darkness will dissipate. There’s a lot of room to experiment with these drawings, and I found it to be quite entertaining to stack on layers upon layers of art. Ash’s sprawling landscapes add an impressive ambiance to the environment, turning the depressing and drab alleyways into vibrant nighttime galleries teeming with detail. These drawings are also the catalyst for your Genies to spring into action.
Ash’s greatest allies are the Genies. They not only help him overcome various obstacles, but they also liven up the town with their inquisitive personalities. They’re also entirely of your own making. Along with creating landscapes to free up the city form the corruption, the brush can conjure genies, allowing you to select from a variety of different body types and attachments. You can get creative with your Genie–and of course, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. While drawing the body of my Genie during the early sections, I accidentally placed the horns and tail on the opposite end. Instead of the game telling me I was doing it wrong, it rolled with it. The resulting Genie, a smiling bright red creature with a tail on its head and antennae around its rear, felt like a creation that came from the minds of Jim Henson or Tim Burton.
As you explore more of Denska, tagging new walls and finding lost pages from your journal, more of the town’s history will be revealed. The bullies that taunt Ash also have distinct backstories, and Ash discovers what set them on such a destructive path. Concrete Genie presents different areas to explore that progressively becomes more intricate as you head further into town. Though it’s not quite a Metroidvania-style game, there is an incentive to backtrack to earlier areas once you have acquired some new Genies and abilities. While there are a lot of puzzles to overcome in Denska, most of them seemed a bit one-note–centering mostly around creating an object in a spot to get the Genie to open a door elsewhere. I did enjoy seeing everything come together after finishing a complex tag. I was always surprised by what I could create with the painting mechanics, and it’s easily the game’s most exciting feature.
“We worked really hard never to judge your painting,” said the director. “One of the reasons that we have the lights as a mechanic for gauging your coverage is that it’s encouraging you to paint in specific places. We never tell you what to paint or how to paint them, and we never say whether your artwork is good or not. That’s completely up to you. So using paint to push back the darkness that could actually be on the walls, creating more of an environmental aspect, was a theme that we wanted to explore. It suddenly became this very natural fit that this beloved hometown idea that Ash is trying to save and rejuvenate from this environmental disaster that has befallen it. It all just fit together really well, and it gives you this nice baseline for the progression of the story, and it mirrors what’s happening to Ash as well.”
However, it’s not just drawing that you can do with your brush. Eventually, Ash will confront monsters that spawned from the darkness. You’ll have to use the brush’s elemental attacks and light to subdue them. As we transitioned from the game’s more relaxed and free-from drawing structure, the combat felt a bit jarring to jump into, but it’s certainly an interesting twist for the game. It works well given where the plot leads, but it still felt a bit lacking if somewhat unrefined compared to the flexibility of the drawing mechanic. Still, given that it’s pulling heavily on tropes from ’80s adventure films, I’m interested in seeing how it will develop alongside the painting gameplay.
I was struck by Concrete Genie’s attention to detail when it came to its location, and how in-depth the drawing mechanics were. It left me curious to see how far you can stretch Ash’s artistic skills, and just where the story will go next. It’s got a modest feel throughout, but I was impressed with how more grand it became after the closing of the first act, which gave me the sense that this adventure could go places that you’d least expect.