Illuminated Design: The Art of The Night Cage
The art of The Night Cage is stark, arresting, and a major factor in the immersive experience of playing the game. Unlike many other games, the art was not developed afterwards but was integral to the overall design – as a central part of the design process.
The Night Cage is a game about darkness in a literal and a philosophical sense. Players are prisoners trying to escape an ever-changing maze that is made and unmade by the dim light of their candles. It's a co-op, existential horror game, where players must work together to find the keys to their self-made prison before their collective wax runs out and they are trapped in the dark forever.
Of the games’ components, the tiles are easily the most important. They represent the observable geography of the maze, the claustrophobic corridors, horrific monsters, and the means of escape. They are the anchor for everything in the game and the lens of this artistic discussion.
During the first month or two of the design process I spent my spare time making weird vector-y tiles with a laser cutter. They all had to be discarded as they completely failed to convey the feeling of the maze.
Above all else, the art had to communicate that beyond the limits of your own perception, nothing else exists. It boiled down to two principles:
With these principles in mind, I started working with scratchboards, black paper, and black backgrounds on my computer. This way, any sketching I did would more immediately behave like light in a dark space rather than shadow in a light one.
We were left with the question of what we do see. Setting it underground felt obvious, but we wanted to go further than that. The first fully realized version of the maze had walls made of grasping tree roots. It was very witchy and creepy, but it implied that the maze itself was alive. This contradicted the game’s central solipsistic theme.
We also ruled out any obviously manmade structural systems. Those came with the baggage of feeling like a haunted house or a dungeon crawler- the spiritual opposite of The Night Cage.
The breakthrough was inspired by low light photography. Sensor noise is the grain that appears in pictures taken without enough light. Human eyes have it too. Look at a blank wall in a dark room and you'll see it.
I made a stippled set of corridor sketches and called it "Lonely Dirt" because of the way the texture added a sparse, loamy quality to the walls. Then I made a set called "Lonely Dirt Wide," to bring out that texture, and realized that was a mistake. Having corridors scaled up in relation to the tiles they were on made the maze feel small and almost cartoonish. So, I made "Lonely Dirt Narrow."
It sounds like a trivial adjustment, but the reduced scale of the corridors on the tiles changed the entire feeling of the maze in aggregate. Until I showed Chris and Ross these drawings we'd assumed our prisoners were walking around the maze. The narrow look spoke to us, and we knew that they were going to crawl instead. The Night Cage was now a series of oppressively tight and hopelessly long tunnels.
Considering how colorful and rich most modern board games are, it was a little frightening to commit to a sparse design space like this, but minimalism gets to the heart of what makes darkness scary: less information leaves more room for imagination.
By contrast, the keys and the gates needed to be objects of hope in an unknowably sinister setting. We moved to the idea that the keys and gates would be familiar, yet grotesque because they are a distorted product of human observation.
The not-quite-human skulls won out and provided a ghastly reminder of the stakes, should the prisoners fail to escape.
The monsters were one of the biggest design challenges of this process artistically and mechanically. The greatest threat in the Night Cage is the inevitable darkness, but the monsters needed to embody why we should fear it.
Any monster with a pre-existing mythology or a discernibly animal anatomy was quickly ruled out: terror springs from the unknown. The many iterations and sketches that followed are indicative how hard it was to define these existential threats.
I'm particularly proud of what we created with our primary monsters, which intimidate without even attacking the prisoners directly. They're called Wax Eaters and they're after your light.
It's no accident that the Wax Eaters' swirling, grasping hands can also be read as the coiled spring of a trap. Those uncanny hands and fang-lined maw are all you’d ever see before being plunged into darkness.
The design of the advanced monsters took the same stylistic cues, but with visible forms modeled on their behaviors.
The Pit Fiends are almost like an event, so we only see a malevolent pit forming before they disappear.
The Keepers attack in three directions and persist in spite of the darkness, so we see more of them, including an unguarded approach to the keys they’re clutching.
The Pathless, being a more wraithlike and horrible version of the Wax Eaters, combine sharper edges with an oily fluidity.
The ghostly Omens that proceed the Dirge are the only tiles that take a distinctly first-person perspective, because they never go on the board. Instead, they sit alongside the board like a portentous hallucination.
The Dirge is an oversized nightmare that takes up 9 tiles when placed. For most of the game, it waits in the darkness beyond the board, staring at us with burning eyes. Then it erupts suddenly from below giving us just a glimpse of its titanic face before leaving an enormous pit in its wake.
The Prisoners. All of this work is meant to reflect the experience of being one, but let us be clear, they are not characters. They are vessels for the players to embody.
The personal connection between player and prisoner continued to need space for the imagination. That's why their faces always stayed simple and masklike with just a brow and the bridge of a nose. It's a face defined by the shadows where a player might find their own features hiding.
However, player tokens take the shape of candles instead of a meeple or other avatar of ‘self’ on the board. Having the player move a candle on the board turns their hand directly into a Prisoner's hand.
In spite of its solipsistic conceit, The Night Cage is a game about working together. The greatest horror in the game is the possibility that you, personally, could let the other prisoners down at the critical moment.
The Night Cage is coming soon from Smirk and Dagger. I hope that if you happen to take our candle in hand, a fuller appreciation will be illuminated by it. And we certainly hope you make your way out.
Chris Chan is a New York based art director, game designer and illustrator of The Night Cage.