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

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 A screenshot from Alice: Madness Returns

“It’s easy to get lost in the crowd if you don’t 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

“Game design is a form of art,” he explains, “because 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’s about much more than simply feeding our addiction to playing games.”

Ken’s 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’s Alice – a game published by Electronic Arts which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. Imagine Ken’s surprise when American McGhee contacted him personally to say how much he liked his work. “He asked me if I’d like to so some designs for his new game,” recalls Ken.

“I guess I was about 20 years old at the time, so I explained that I hadn’t done anything like this before but that I’d 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’t choose the games industry – the games industry chose me!”

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’t particularly looking for it. “I didn’t really have the dream until the dream found me and said ‘are you ready for this great opportunity?’ And then I did the hard work!”

If this all sounds incredible, it’s 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’s only when we hit our teenage years that self-doubt and lack of confidence kick in and stop us from being creative. “I think that’s a real shame,” he explains, “and so I guess I’m just one of those kids who never stopped, even though I didn’t always have the confidence to be an artist.”

Ken’s Advice on How to Stand Out From The Crowd

How did Ken go from creating fan art to becoming an art director? “There are two ways to get noticed,” says Ken. “You’ve got to be better than everyone else, but you’ve also got to be different. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd if you don’t have something unique to share, so put some of yourself in there. Don’t just copy the house style – 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’ll always have an audience!”

“Lots of my heroes are artists who became directors – 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 – it’s what goes into the eye. It’s how you understand the world, internalize it and interpret what you see. You need to bring your skills of visual storytelling to the forefront.”

A screenshot from Monument Valley

What Else Inspires Ken?

He says: “The great thing about games is that you can tell stories that wouldn’t be possible in other mediums.”

Throughout his career so far, he’s 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 “a moving experience and a work of art”).He also loves Passage by James Rohrer (which Ken says has real meaning and depth and awakened him to what games could be) and Portal – 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’t challenge people to think, he’s confident the industry is changing. He says: “In 20 years’ time, I really hope people will be saying ‘of course games are works of art!’ 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!”

In Ken’s view, the games industry doesn’t have anywhere near enough diversity at the moment and he’d 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’t that what great art’s about?

Listen to this week’s show and learn:

  • Why it’s 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’s Website
Ken on Facebook
Ken on Twitter

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