Gravity Rush: The Franco-Belgian Tradition, via Japan

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Gravity Rush series is its aesthetic.

As we noted last time, director Keiichiro Toyama’s desire was to create a game that, while still recognisably Japanese, incorporated elements from other locales in order to create something that, in theory, would be universally appealing across the world. The Western influences he chose to focus on were the Franco-Belgian artists of the bandes dessinées tradition.

The Franco-Belgian influence is particularly apparent in the first installment, while the second, in keeping with its much larger scope, draws more broadly on influences from across Europe. Let’s take a look at the specifics of how Gravity Rush got its distinctive look and feel, starting with a bit of background on Toyama’s main influence from Franco-Belgian comic books: an artist named Jean Giraud, better known to some as Mœbius or Gir.

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An image from “Mystere Montrouge” by Jean Giraud (2001)

Jean Giraud was born in a Parisian suburb in 1938, and did not have the most straightforward of upbringings. Not only did he live through World War II — becoming a rather sickly and impoverished child as a result of the food shortages in France at the time — but he also suffered through his parents’ messy divorce.

Desiring escape from a rather drab existence in a France slowly rebuilding itself after the war, Giraud frequently found himself in a local movie theatre which appeared to have something of a preference for American Western B-movies. This naturally caused Giraud to develop a love of the genre, and once he started formal training at Paris’ Duperré School of Applied Arts in 1954 he found himself naturally drawn to producing Western comics.

His teachers at the time did not approve; it would be another 10 years before Lucky Luke creator Maurice de Bevere (better known as just “Morris”) and fellow artist Pierre Vankeer would publish an influential series of articles in Belgian periodical Spirou that would cause Francophone culture at large to regard comics as “the 9th art” — though it’s worth noting that Morris’ original use of the term was seemingly intended somewhat sarcastically. In the mid-50s, meanwhile, comics were still regarded as having a somewhat negative influence on modern French youth — and Westerns in particular were enormously popular with said youth — so it’s unsurprising that Duperré’s faculty at the time were not keen to indulge Giraud’s fancies.

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A frame from King of the Buffalo, a 1958 work illustrated by Giraud.

Giraud’s first commercially published works came in 1958 with a series of humorous Western shorts for the magazine Far West. His style at this point was recognisably influenced by popular Belgian comic artist Joseph Gillain, better known as Jijé — and, in fact, Jijé would later become Giraud’s mentor.

Jijé, in turn, was strongly influenced by Tintin artist Hergé’s distinctive style from the early-to-mid 20th century, later dubbed ligne claire (“clear line”) in 1977 by Joost Swarte, a Dutch cartoonist who made use of a similar style. Ligne claire’s most distinctive characteristics are the use of strong lines of uniform width, flat coloured shading without hatching, and downplayed contrast. It’s also known for strong use of colour and obviously “cartoonish” characters appearing atop realistic backdrops.

Giraud didn’t confine himself solely to the ligne claire style, however; over the course of his career, he experimented with a variety of different styles, often adapting different variations to his various pen names. When he signed his work under his own name or simply “Gir”, he’d use a brush; as Mœbius, meanwhile, he’d use a pen.

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The distinctive style Moebius works such as Voyage d’Hermès — particularly the detailed but flatly coloured background — can clearly be seen in Gravity Rush.

Giraud’s work, particularly in his later career, was sometimes compared to that of the “new realists”, a 1960s artistic movement exemplified by the idea of its members seeing the world as an “image” from which parts could be taken and incorporated into their work. New Realism encouraged the use of real objects to reflect the reality of the time and place in which the work was created, and was described by the movement’s founder Pierre Restany as “poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality”.

Throughout Gravity Rush, Toyama and his team have drawn a variety of inspirations from Giraud’s whole career, not just a single work or period. Toyama describes the core concept of Gravity Rush as specifically being inspired by a Mœbius work that featured people floating in space, but it’s very apparent that he has a broader appreciation for how Giraud’s style evolved and changed over time.

One of the most noticeable and distinct features of the original Gravity Rush’s look and feel is the way that distant scenery fades into a low-contrast coloured haze, but the outlines of buildings and some details remain visible. This is a clear homage to the uniform lines and low contrast of the ligne claire style favoured by Giraud in his early work; indeed, it gives the in-game graphics — particularly the backgrounds — a look strongly reminiscent of Hergé, Jijé and Uderzo (of Asterix fame).

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This image, from one of Gravity Rush’s cutscenes, is strongly evocative of Franco-Belgian comic book art.

The second game’s more detailed graphics de-emphasise this heavily stylised aspect of the artwork, but elements of it still remain. Monochromatic outlines of details are still clearly visible as scenery disappears into the distant haze, for example, but much more apparent in Gravity Rush 2 is that other immediately recognisable feature of ligne claire visual art: cartoonish characters on realistic backdrops. In this case, the effect is achieved with cel-shaded characters that reflect the lighting of their environment using a strong, hard contrast between light and dark, and highly detailed, realistic environments packed with interactive, destructible physics objects. The latter aspect in particular gives Gravity Rush 2’s environments a strongly dynamic, realistic feel rather than them feeling like immaculate dioramas.

Gravity Rush can also be argued to reflect the New Realist movement that Giraud’s work was often associated with in his later life. While obviously fantastic in nature as a whole — we’re talking about a game about a girl who wakes up in a floating city and discovers that a cat full of stars lets her shift gravity at will — there’s a pleasant feeling of mundanity about many of the environments that Kat traverses over the course of her adventure.

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Gravity Rush 2: hard-edged shadows, cel-shaded characters and realistic backdrops combine for a very distinctive look.

Despite being a city flying high in the sky, the first game’s setting of Hekseville has a very strong feeling of being traditionally “French” thanks to its architecture, its layout and the people and places you find within. Even the distinctive music that accompanies Kat’s exploration of each district adds to this feeling: the use of instrumentation typically associated with French music (particularly French interpretations of jazz) gives the game a very strong sense of time and place. It’s obviously a setting that is very much based on reality, but with a few fantastic elements added to the mix. It is the very essence of Restany’s “poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality”.

The series doesn’t unfold exclusively in realistic environments, however. Both games feature forays into “rift planes”, where the fantastic elements are heavily played up in various ways. Sometimes Kat may be traversing gravity-defying caves with lava flowing everywhere; other times she may be in a peaceful-seeming space filled with giant mushrooms, flowers and lily pads; at others still she may be foraging around floating, abandoned ruins of an ancient civilisation. In keeping with the New Realist ideas, however, even the most fantastic of these environments feature recognisably realistic elements to keep you at least partially grounded in reality.

Indeed, a significant part of the first game’s main plot involves recovering missing parts of Hekseville from these rift planes, which leads to some extremely memorable moments as you emerge from, say, a pipe full of lava only to see the bizarre sight of a distinctively French-looking plaza unassumingly hovering in front of you in the next chamber.

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Gravity Rush 2 features a photo mode that includes optional Instagram-style filters, many of which play up the comic book-style look and feel.

Gravity Rush 2’s larger scale also means that its aesthetic has a broader scope. While Kat does revisit the very French Hekseville later in the game, the early hours unfold in a community of airborne “houseboats” inspired by less affluent Asian and South American regions, while this is followed by a lengthy stay in the city of Jirga Para Lhao, a city featuring influences from the extremes of rich and poor seen in places such as Italy, Spain and, again, some South American and Asian regions — particularly Hong Kong in the latter case.

Once again, despite the obviously fantastic nature of a city split into four “layers” floating in the sky — the poor people in houseboats at the lowest level, then the marketplace and skyscrapers of the commercial district on the next level up, then the richest of the rich living in their extravagant mansions above that, then finally the authoritarian government far above that on their enormous military airship — there’s a sense of realism and authenticity to the game’s depiction of Jirga Para Lhao. It feels like a city that is very much lived in and works just as a city in our world would, assuming the roads were replaced by vast expanses of clear, open air.

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Gravity Rush 2 is just as stylised as the first game, but in a different way; it eschews the obvious homage to Giraud’s work seen in the first game in favour of an almost hand-painted look at times.

Like its predecessor, Gravity Rush 2 also makes effective use of music to give its environments a strong sense of time and place. The distinctive dance beats and brass-heavy instrumentation heard in Jirga Para Lhao’s marketplace district give a strong Latin flavour, further emphasised by the mournful solo guitar that accompanies a visit to the less fortunate in the fleet of houseboats beneath the city proper. Meanwhile, the rich district, high above the hoi polloi, is accompanied by an absolutely glorious piece of saxophone-heavy muzak of the ilk you’d expect to hear in the elevator of a high-end, exclusive department store; the sort of place where most of us wouldn’t be able to afford a single napkin, let alone anything more substantial. The image this music produces in our mind is absolutely perfect to reflect the elitist, snobbish attitudes of the people living in this district.

Interestingly, probably the least apparent inspiration on Gravity Rush as a whole is Toyama’s native Japan — although Japanese influences are clearly present, particularly with regard to character design, and they’re especially apparent in the graphic novel-style cutscenes that punctuate major story beats.

There’s even a bit of a twist on the usual formulae here, too, though; dark-skinned heroines such as Kat are relatively rare in anime and manga, and blonde hair such as Kat’s is usually reserved for secondary characters as a means of reflecting a sense of “foreignness” or “otherness”. Here, though, she’s the protagonist, the central character. There are some narrative justifications for Kat being represented as something of an “other”, particularly as the people all around her tend to err on the “white” side of things, but this doesn’t change the fact that, as a protagonist in a Japanese work, she’s a relatively unusual figure — and, as we’ll explore later, a particularly memorable one for much more than her skin and hair colour.

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Never get between a Gravity Shifter and her bed.

Gravity Rush and its sequel are noteworthy games for many reasons — perhaps most importantly for simply being fantastic all-round experiences — but, from an artistic perspective, it’s especially fascinating to see a work so keen to evoke a particular style rather than conforming to established popular conventions, particularly when those conventions — those of Japanese popular culture — are so immediately recognisable.

In Gravity Rush’s case, this bold experiment paid off. While the games’ overall style is, as we’ve discussed, strongly derivative of previous works in the non-interactive visual medium of comic books — and deliberately so — it’s this very style that causes it to be so distinctive in the often risk-averse world of video games, particularly first-party titles put out by companies such as Sony. There’s nothing else out there quite like Gravity Rush — and even putting the high quality of the two games aside, that’s a good reason to celebrate them.


More about Gravity Rush

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