I am Lorenzo Conticelli, Lead Environment Artist and Lead Animator at LKA, working on Martha Is Dead .
The journey to release has been a long one, we’ve been working on the game for the past four years and it is finally available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S!
For anyone who is new to the game, Martha Is Dead is a first-person psychological thriller set in Italy in 1944, against the backdrop of World War II. You play as Giulia, investigating the death of her twin sister, in a dark, tense, emotional story that combines real-world locations, historical events, superstition, folklore, and psychological distress.
Photography plays an important role in the game and I am here today to talk about one of the coolest things I have worked on! Rigging and making the photography equipment in the game behave realistically and animating Giulia to interact with it.
First, some context. Photography is important in Martha Is Dead because it helps the story unfold, captures missing details, reveals hidden truths and gives the player the creative freedom of taking their time exploring and photographing whatever catches their eye in the game’s beautiful Tuscan setting. You are still in the 1940s though, and photography was different then. Less immediate, but maybe more mysterious and magical, more linked to craftsmanship, where you had to predict the result and master each step, know how light, liquid, paper and films chemically react to each other. And you couldn’t see the result until you had developed and printed the photo you had taken hours (or even days) before. (And yes, the game has a fully functioning darkroom).
So, back to the matter at hand – what does ‘rig’ actually mean?
When you have a 3D object modeled and textured, one of the most common ways to animate it is to create bones/joints and controls. Imagine the joints are like human bones: moving one brings the muscles and skin attached to it, like a joint influences the vertices in space. Imagine the controls like a helping hand to manipulate multiple bones at the same time or control particular behaviours. This is valid for all 3D elements, both for organic and hard surface models. So, we need to create bones even for a door or a camera, like our Rolleicord model K3 camera.
In order to recreate it digitally we needed to understand how an old 1940’s camera worked. My background in photography helped me during this study phase, because I already know how the lenses, gears and shutter work. But the most useful thing was that we had a real Rolleicord camera in our office from the 1940’s. So, we could study directly from the model; seeing how one gear controls another, or how a small stick changes the exposure time. It’s really fascinating to me and was of priceless value.
We decided to recreate all of the possible movement allowed for the camera, so even if you don’t see it when Giulia uses it, now you know that the camera works like a real one.
The enlarger was a fun part. I underestimated it at first as it seemed simple, but it was a pretty complex rig. When Giulia pulls down the main light projector, it should remain in the same axis otherwise the projected photo will be displaced from the paper below. This was pretty complex due to the rotation and the use of a spring, but in the end, I was pretty satisfied with the result.
Keeping the camera on my desk also helped me a lot during the animation stage. Feeling it in my hand helped me to give a digital weight when Giulia handles it in game. Seeing how the hand grabs the camera, how the finger moves to reach a gear helped me to recreate the movement as naturally as possible. We decided to not use “mocap” (motion capture: recording a real actor’s movement with sensors on his/her body) for the hands and fingers. The results were pretty noisy and unpredictable when dealing with such small sticks and gears. Cleaning up all of the mocap’s animation curves and trying to keep the fingers steady in place time-consuming than hand keyframing (the traditional approach of saving a pose in a frame of the timeline, then posing the character in a different position, etc.). So basically, all of Giulia’s animations are made from scratch (with a lot of video references).
Check out this slideshow of how the animation of Giulia’s hand in the first scene at the lake works and what is behind it.
Martha Is Dead is out today and I hope you will enjoy using the photography equipment in the game as much as I have enjoyed recreating it!
THE GAME IS RECOMMENDED FOR AN ADULT AUDIENCE AND IS RATED ESRB M (MATURE), PEGI 18 AND USK 16. IT IS NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PLAYERS WHO MAY FIND DEPICTIONS OF MATURE SCENES CONTAINING BLOOD, DISMEMBERMENT, DISFIGUREMENT OF HUMAN BODIES, MISCARRIAGE AND SELF-HARM DISTURBING. Martha Is Dead is a dark first-person psychological thriller, set in 1944 Italy, that blurs the lines between reality, superstition and the tragedy of war. As conflict intensifies between German and Allied forces, the desecrated body of a woman is found drowned… Martha! Martha is dead, and her twin sister Giulia, the young daughter of a German soldier, must alone deal with the acute trauma of loss and the fallout from her murder. The hunt for the truth is shrouded by mysterious folklore and the extreme horror of war that draws ever closer. What will prevail? Unashamedly authentic voice acting in Italian. The first Indie game to launch using the native Italian language as the default setting – for full immersion into the story and the characters. From the creator of The Town of Light The second game from LKA, the award-winning developer of “The Town of Light” and specialists in reality based narrative games focused on tough subjects. Deep and dark multi-layered narrative Martha Is Dead is an exploration of loss, relationships and the psychological undertones of a dark period of history through the eyes of a young woman who seeks the truth, but who also has secrets of her own to hide. Explore a detailed recreation of the Italian countryside Freely explore the breath-takingly realised Tuscany countryside on foot, by boat, or bike. Grounded in reality, Martha Is Dead’s setting and historical context are inspired by real facts and places that have been faithfully reconstructed in true LKA fashion. Play with dolls Play with numerous marionette sequences in the mechanical theatre to remember repressed memories. Mixing folklore with superstition Unlock symbols and use tarot cards for unveil new aspects of the game and to summon the spirit of The Lady. A backdrop of War Collect newspapers, telegrams and listen to the radio to keep updated on what is occurring in the world during the war. Virtual photographic greatness Take pictures for the sheer pleasure of doing so, and also to progress through the story and discover more about the game world. A simulator will guide you through 1940s photography, where you’ll be able to developer your actual photos through a fully working in game darkroom! Authentic Italian music of the era Immerse yourself in a deeply evocative and atmospheric soundtrack containing underwater music specialists Between Music and their Aquasonic project; The Town of Light composer Aseptic Void and his moody yet spinetingling tones; and held together in true vintage style featuring reimagined versions of classic tracks including Schubert's Ave Maria, O Bella Ciao, with original tracks written and sung by Francesca Messina, AKA 90s disco star, Femina Ridens.