Jesse Gillespie: Art in Board Games #36

Jesse Gillespie: Art in Board Games #36

Editors Note: Just for a bit of context before we get going, in this interview with Jesse we'll be focusing on games within the Hand of Fate series. These are card games where you are working your way through randomised dungeons before fighting a big boss and the gameplay uses customisable decks.
They first started life as video games, with the original in landing in 2015 and a sequel in 2017. This led to a tabletop version which was funded last year on Kickstarter, breaking the Australian Kickstarter records for fastest fundraising ever.
As the Kickstarter copies are shipping in the next month or so, now seemed like a great time to find out more. Retail copies will be available in the second half of the year.

Hi Jesse, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do? 

Hello!  Thanks so much for having me on the site!  I'm a freelance illustrator and have lived in rural Minnesota (USA) for most of my life.  Minnesota is about 50/50 winter-summer; it likes to trick you with lots of mini-springs and mini-winters.  We're on about our seventh psych-out right now and most of us are near-homicidal.  Winter is great for all the things I like to do: reading, music, drawing, playing games and watching movies.  Nerds like me gain a lot of hibernation weight around this time of year, but my D&D bard is fit as a fiddle.

Though it's fun to call myself a "freelance illustrator", art-job-wise I've been almost solely connected to the 'Hand of Fate' fleet of products for the last few years, and have felt so incredibly fortunate to have found that place.  Or rather, that Defiant Development found ME and have stuck with me this long.  Before that, life took me all over the place career-wise and passion-wise, but never with art as a primary profession.  I've always been a serial "try-er": fascinated with life and dabbling in everything from woodcraft to music to religious philosophy to art, but never really producing much of note in any of those areas while most of my energy went into holding down "real jobs" to support a family.  My first love in life is learning; first about people, then about everything else.  That gets processed into many different modes of creative output which only become an external reality if you're driven.  I've always struggled with being driven.

You're currently working on Hand of Fate: Ordeals, a deck-building card game which was a big hit on Kickstarter last year. Before we get to that, you were also the artist on the original videogame (Hand of Fate). So what do you remember from your time working on that project and how did you get involved? 

I spent my whole life struggling to muster up the motivation to "get serious" about a career in creating graphic novels with little success until I found myself on a very quiet night shift position which allowed hours of "just-do-anything-to-stay-awake" time.  I had time to draw more, but procrastination and laziness was still such a demonic force in my life I finally decided I needed more accountability to be regular about building my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.  So, in addition to beginning to intentionally network more with the comic community in Minneapolis/St. Paul, I started an accountability blog.  I didn't know who'd see it other than my spouse and a few friends, but the night shift gets very lonely and at the time the internet seemed like a place full of connection-making possibility.  So I just started drawing and posting, drawing and posting, and developing a large-scale graphic novel concept.  One of these posts came up in an image search by some folks in Australia developing indie games for mobile: Defiant Development.

I got an email from them asking if they could use a little brushwork sketch I'd posted as a loading screen for their first large-scale mobile RPG: 'Heroes Call'.  This was one of the most exciting moments in my life.  I ended up doing several more images for each levels loading screen, and that was it.  My work was so niche that I doubted I'd find another game gig like it.  To my surprise, a year after Heroes Call was published they contacted me again, asking if I'd be able to replicate a medieval engraving style of illustration for a deck of faux-tarot storytelling cards they were building a new game around called "Hand of Fate".  It was going to be another mobile game at first, but as the project grew in scope it moved to PC and console development, which was exciting to say the least.  (Seeing screenshots with my art in Game Informer, opposite a splash-page of the Legend of Zelda, was also one of the most exciting moments of my life.)  When Hand of Fate was released in 2015 it was VERY pleasantly successful and Defiant moved directly on to a sequel. 'Hand of Fate 2' was released at the end of 2017 and has been rocking hard ever since; we're piling on new DLCs with tons more content every month.  Both professional review sites and customer feedback have been amazingly rewarding and encouraging; we're all so psyched!  

As far as memories of my time working on both games go, I was in the role of "freelance artist", and as such was on the other side of the planet from all the action.  There's an attitude of impersonal, professional detachment you need to slip into when connecting with the commercial world, which is a very ungainly and awkward thing for me to do under normal circumstances, but when the studio you're contracting with is filled to the brim with diverse, intelligent, passionate creatives who seem to cultivate a vibrant, highly interactive and bonding work environment, it's difficult, to say the least, to remain a silent, professional partner on the other side of the planet.  With Hand of Fate being my first large-scale freelance gig, it was both exciting and frustrating to have what to me was a dream job, but what was to the studio just another freelancer overseas.  However, especially as the second game developed, my interactions with the studio became more... interactive, and we've become a lot closer as a team of individuals.  2017 was a really nice year (though to this day I've still only met about 4 people of the thousands who've actually played our game)!

As the first game wrapped up and we began work on the sequel I was suddenly going through an indescribably nightmarish divorce, and there were a few points where I completely lost my ability to work, through severe depression and stress that were unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.  There were a couple of crisis points where Defiant nearly had to let me go for lack of output, which crushed my spirit further since that activity was one of the few bright places in my life for a long time.  But bless the Aussie hearts of Morgan Jaffit and friends: they stuck with me and were amazingly generous in those crisis moments, though rightfully frustrated with my inability to keep work and home separate.  We pushed through and eventually, the skies began to clear.  I look back on the work from those years and it seems like every brush stroke and ink spatter holds some little story of personal struggle, tragedy, or triumph.  My art director at Defiant, Shawn Eustace, allowed me a ton of freedom in interpreting story card requests, and unbeknownst to him there are cards I chose to inject humor and lightness into when my day was painfully absent of it, or some little bit of cartoony pathos and sadness when that's what I needed to vent at the moment.  They're just weird little cartoon cards, but there's a lot of my heart in them.

We've talked about the videogames, could you tell us more about how did you get involved in Hand of Fate: Ordeals, the tabletop game? 

*deep breath*  ...SOOOO, in the middle of development on Hand of Fate 2, early 2017, some friends of Defiant's in the Kickstarter board-game biz (Allen & Alistair of Rule & Make, and game designer Michael McIntyre) started working with them to develop 'Ordeals': an attempt to mirror the unique cross-genre style of the video game in a table-top system.  At first Rule & Make were just repurposing a bunch of my art assets from HoF1, with a gorgeous color treatment and supplemental art by their art director Ian O'Toole.  But as the game started SMASHING through Kickstarter stretch goals (it broke records for fastest Australian Kickstarter) and the project became insanely complex (and brilliant), I was actually asked to come in and divide up some of the card art jobs with Ian.  I kept with my comfortable old black & white HoF work on my side of things, but I eventually was also asked to develop box art, bonus player mats and other little odds and ends.  That the game looks so atmospheric and sumptuous, though, is all due to Ian's amazing graphic design work.  I've learned a LOT working with him, Allen and Michael.  It's felt like a real "level-up" life moment.

That's the beauty of collaboration, getting to share your experiences and grow as individuals because of it. So what do you think are some of the key lessons you've learned?

As a creative-type it's hard to submit to editing, but I've learned to appreciate and trust the suggestions of skillful art directors with an overarching vision.  It helps you see with unfamiliar perspectives, which isn't just a good thing for business but a core piece of being an effective human being.  As I've been trusted with a lot of creative freedom, I want to be able to trust back, and it's always rewarding to do so with a good team.  Another great thing about collaboration is how others' skills can completely transform your art in ways you never imagined.  On the video games the 3D and FX work of people like Emma Koch, Chris Webb and Dan Treble ( added stunning visuals that I could never have created on my own, and make me look a lot cooler than I really am.  Working with Ian O'Toole has taught me a lot about the cohesive board game visuals and the subtleties of color use and texture.  Before becoming a part of both teams I'd never imagined that kind of collaboration, and the growing quality of my own output owes a lot to my teammates' gifts, direction and encouragement.  As I look to the future, I only know that I can't predict what unknown knowledge I'll gain, but I know I'm looking forward to it.

How has working on this project differed from your previous work and are there any aspects of it that have challenged or surprised you?

The main difference in working on Ordeals after the video games has been in thinking in new card shapes.  I've always enjoyed the challenge of conceptualizing dozens upon dozens of storytelling requests to fit into a rigid, vertical, rectangular shape.  My Ordeal cards have been even narrower, so it's an even squishier challenge.  After so much work in that 'card' mode, working on the box art has been awesome: so much space, and it's mostly character portraits, which are a blast!  Because of the easy shift from video game cards to board game cards, there's been little that's been "surprising", though I will say that working with Michael 'Barantas' McIntyre has made for some well-needed lolz.  Oh!  For one of the Kickstarter goals I got to design bonus player mats for the cards to go on!  That was super fun and totally unexpected.  They went through a few iterations, and though the final designs are great I love these experimental ones, too!

When you're approaching a new piece of art, say for example the box art for Hand of Fate, where do you start? Could you talk us through your process a little? 

The boxes (main and expansion) are actually kind of a fluke since Ian had already designed it based on more of a cobble-together reworked video game portraits/environments with a few new faces added, mostly modeled on 3D assets.  The skill cards have a more 'storytelling' approach, though.  Some of the skill cards are recycled from HoF2 art, but I've done many original cards as well.

- For those I first refer to our grand card spreadsheet, looking up the skill name and its effect, such as "Night's Kiss (after your Strike Bonus, destroy a minion with 3 power or less)".  
- The name implies a nighttime sneak attack, so immediately I think of sneaky ninjas and assassins and stuff.  The skill card art is very narrow, so then I consider how the concept of an assassin can be worked vertically.  

- Since an assassination requires the assassin and their victim, I begin sketching out ways they could both fit.  Then the prettiness comes in.  When I'm working on hand of Fate stuff, trying to find ways to work in pretty, medieval-y decorative details is of prime consideration.  Right away I realize that "...If the assassin is only hinted at, I can focus on the victim's back for backstabbing, which allows for the designing of a pretty chair!  Perfect!"  Also, a fun, curly chair and some nice courtly garb for the victim makes the addition of a dark, menacing sting of death from the rafters contrast nicely.  I also make sure the darkness of the victim's body makes the chair stand out, and the bright negative space above the victim makes the shadowy knifeyness stand out.  Black and white are fun.

- Speaking of prettiness, landscapes are fun to play with in this style.  Ordeals cards are so narrow it's tough, but I look forward to any chance to make mountains or foliage.  For every card there's a good amount of "how do I make sure to keep a rustic, medieval feel?"  Ordeals cards are my loosest, most comic style work since I want these usable skills to have a lot of energy and action behind their visuals.  They still need to feel like Hand of Fate though, so I'm always digging into medieval documents and illustrations to keep my brain fresh in the era feel.

- Before I get too detailed I do the final sketch on a template sheet with five other card sketches.  I work fairly small, which both forces a bold woodcut style and helps the final inks retain a bleedy crustiness, further helping the old-fashioned look.

- With a full sheet of sketches done, I get inking.  I sketch in blue pencil, since you can tell Photoshop to just get rid of it after scanning it all back in.  So much nicer than erasing. Sometimes, if I'm feeling rushed, I'll sketch and/or ink digitally, but I much prefer doing it all traditionally.

- Ink ink ink ink ink.  I use brushes.  A Pentel Pocket Brush Pen for thick stuff; smaller natural brushes for details.  Finish it off with little faux printing blemishes (just dots with a pen).  Scan, clean up digitally, and send to Australia!

- Sometimes revisions are necessary because I totally misinterpreted the whole thrust of the card and drew something crazy.  Then I have to draw a new one, while Mike makes up a whole new skill because he liked the crazy one.  (okay, that only sort of happened once...)

How has playtesting your art influenced what you create? What lessons have you learned and is there anything, in particular, you're more mindful of now?

To date, I've unfortunately never actually sat down and playtested Ordeals, being so far away, both in distance and time zone, from the devs.  I'm obviously communicating with them regularly, learning about the game through their discussions, and I've watched gameplay videos and read forum discussions with other players suggesting strategy and tweaks.  But I'm a very hands-on learner; it's difficult to get a real feel for the game from a distance.  

I understand its basic concepts and actions a bit, but Rule & Make only just recently finalized the physical rulebook itself!  All I really know is that I'm very pleased with the presentation of the art I've submitted.  Like the video games, I tried to add some humor and playfulness to what could otherwise be a very dry presentation, and I feel fortunate for how much freedom they allowed me in interpreting the "visual explanation" of simple things like 'lunging' or 'striving'.  

I love how the bonus player mats offer a choice of atmosphere for each player with the originals, and just the other day the complete box design was revealed which features some of my illustrations in really awesome, surprising ways.  That's been a fun aspect of collaboration with the other folks: just throwing lots of assets out there and seeing them pop up in unexpected places.

That's a lesson, definitely: As I mentioned earlier, you never know what awesome stuff another creative person can do with your own creativity.  And I guess "don't be afraid to poke your nose around and ask what more you can help with".  Allen and the others at Rule & Make have allowed me to worm into lots of fun aspects of Ordeals work after just letting them know I was open to it.

As for the video games, I've been really pleased with the way the cards accentuate the division between the "card world" and the "real world" in-game.  There have been some moments after I find out how the cards are used which have made me go, "Oh, I wish I would have chosen a more serious/funny route, or more/less detail," etc-- there's a communication-point as a distant illustrator where you just have to cross your fingers and hope it'll work for the best.  But I have very few regrets; it's all worked to create a unique little micro-world nestled within the 3D action that I'm really proud of, especially in the sequel.  So many fun little stories and characters that only exist in the cards, and are the result of just brilliant conceptualizing from the development team.  There really is no other video game like it and I feel so blessed to get to be the conduit through which those specific concepts reach the player.  I draw each piece just hoping that there's a player out there who connects with something in the cards in a way that really enhances their immersion in the game world (video and board) and makes its memory that much fonder and warmer after they put the controller down or the box away.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

So much!  My current bathroom/bedtime literature is the third book in the "Lightbringer Trilogy" by Brent Weeks.  The first book is called "The Black Prism" and had me enjoying fantasy more than I have in years.  It's about color magic, and has a very "fantasy Green Lantern" feel to it.  I love the way the magic is handled in it, and it hits high marks for me on just about everything: world, plot, characters, writing style (serious plot, light writing).  Great atmosphere for Hand of Fate inspiration.

While I draw I like to listen to mood-enhancing, atmospheric music (or even those cheesy "sounds of nature" albums).  Movie scores can be great, like Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy OST, both Blade Runners, Cliff Martinez' scores (Drive, Solaris); I love moody electronica.  Recently played artists include School of Seven Bells, Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval, Royksopp, Washed Out, Radiohead, Sebastien Tellier, C418's Minecraft OST's, Björk, Joni Mitchell, Cocteau Twins...  It's all over the place.  Music is a huge constant in my life and an important part of my background. Oh, I almost forgot to mention this amazingly awesome podcast I discovered a few months ago: Mysterious Universe!!!  It's an Australian show about anything and everything paranormal and it is THE BEST.  I've drawn many hours away with Sasquatch sightings and Ayahuasca trips in the background.  SO GREAT.


As I mentioned before, I regularly peruse old medieval illustrations and illumination for capturing that wonky old middle ages feel, and I can't recommend enough checking out medieval engravers, painters and illustrators for ANYONE who's interested in just how transcendental pen and ink can be.  I'll gush about Bruegel the Elder, Gustave Dore, Hieronymus Bosch, and the Book of Kells to anyone who'll listen.  Golden Age storybook illustrators like William Morris, Kay Nielsen, John Bauer, Arthur Rackham and Ivan Bilibin have been hugely influential on my sensibilities.  But I'm also your average comic nerd and you can always catch me geeking out to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Battle Angel Alita, Excalibur comics, and anything Aliens or Godzilla.  SHIN GOJIRA.  Shin Gojira is the best thing ever.

My favorite board game, hands-down, is 'Caverna'.  I built a custom wooden case for it in an outpouring of pure geek love.  I've also made multiple homebrew wooden copies of 'The A-Maze-Ing Labyrinth', which I consider a classic treasure.  'Arkham Horror' is right up there, too (massive Lovecraft superfan).  I love co-op games; the least competitive gamer ever (ever since that fateful Monopoly board-flipping all those years ago...)

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?

Well, DLC work on Hand of Fate continues at a steady pace, which is fantastically awesome.  Privately, I love designing 'dream' board games and have never actually brought any past the concept phase, but my amazing wife and I have just begun a really serious attempt at putting one together that I'm really excited to shop around to whoever might be interested in it.  Nothing like Ordeals.  Way more dancing.  

I've got a comic book iron in the fire with a friend here in the US that I hope will see the light of day before 2018 is through.  But outside of Defiant work, the future's looking pretty open for concrete commercial stuff.  (This is me exaggeratedly winking at anyone reading this as I hawk my wares...)

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?!  That's my basic business page, but if you really want to dig in I vomit just about everything I draw into my DeviantArt gallery and there's all kinds of crazy stuff in there. I'm on Twitter and Instagram.  All that's on the 'gladladart' site too.  

With all that said, I just want to thank you so much for this opportunity.  It's my first-ever interview with anyone in the gaming world and it was really fun to do!  It's an honor to be on your site!

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