From Haiku to Hokusai: How a new puzzle game was inspired by ancient Japanese art

Haiku Adventure is based on the traditional art of ukiyo-e, bridging together the worlds of classical art and digital video game art.

The country of Japan has always been synonymous with video games, along with stunning traditional art. Combine the two together and you get Haiku Adventures, a forthcoming puzzle game from Small Island Games who are based in England (and not Nippon).

The game lets you explore classically illustrated landscapes inspired by the ukiyo-e style of Japanese masters like Katsushika Hokusai (as showcased further down), each scene inspiring haiku poetry the user has to create to solve each level.

Small Island Games is made up of games artist Ceri Williams and designer James Morgan, who together will be bringing an exhibition showcasing the game and the paintings that inspired it to the William Morris Gallery this weekend in London - intriguingly the same place where Haiku Adventure first originated.

"Haiku Adventure started out as a conversation between Ceri and myself about the relationship between humankind and nature, imagining how that theme might be developed through a game," James tells me by email.

"We both loved games like Dear Esther, Proteus and Firewatch that allowed you to have these kind of solitary, meditative experiences with a natural landscape. When we visited a 2017 exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the William Morris Gallery all these ideas came into focus when we saw how the prints appeared to tell their stories by framing these perfect snapshots of the natural world and its phenomena.'

Combining haiku with Hokusai may seem like a natural blend considering their fame around the world, but, as James explains, the inclusion of poetry came from a far deeper notion.

"Through our research we came to realise that much of the Japanese folklore and Shinto belief system that infused these ukiyo-e worlds spoke to the same themes we wanted to explore - the idea of nature as a rich ecosystem of spiritual forces and how society is able to live in balance with nature by the worship of these spirits," he continues.

"Along this journey we naturally found ourselves gravitating towards haiku poetry as the poems would often crop up in the composition of prints as another way to framing these views of nature.

"We loved the idea of sharing that very human act of framing nature with the player - allowing them to compose their own haikus as a comment on or interaction with the scene. Slowly but surely our game wrapped itself around this idea of empowering the player to take on the role of a poet."

A less natural combination may be that of static, stately ukiyo-e woodblock prints and the flashy digital art of video games, but James disagrees, with the thrust of his argument being the main focus of the Haiku Adventure exhibition.

"Comparing modern games and woodblock prints through the lens of craft we see a lot of curious parallels," he reveals. "Both have collaborative development processes that require multiple skilled roles to contribute to the production of a single work.

"Then there's the powerful influence of publishers, the vital importance of reproduction and distribution, and of course the cultural and technological contexts that allowed these mediums to flourish.

"Where I see some positive divergence is in how modern video games have begun to open up in terms of accessibility to new creators and the increasing freedoms for smaller teams to self-publish and find their own audience through digital distribution platforms such as GOG, Steam, Itch and forums like Discord, Twitter and Twitch.

"Ukiyo-e was very much controlled by the publishers, or 'Hanmoto'," James continues, "who would decide what style of art to commission, which artists to employ and the final format the pieces should take. They led the development of that medium.

"In the past the same could have been said about games, however more and more it’s the indie scene that's been pushing things forward.

"Indie games seem to have an unending propensity to create new ideas, hybrids, mechanics, genres and more often than not it's the big AAA games that seem to follow the lead of the smaller trailblazing titles."

“Hokusai’s playful use of colour and form, set within an elegant, formal composition, captures much of what we wanted to emulate through the scenes of our game," James says (Hokusai, Fuji from the Seashore at Tago, 1830–33, Woodblock print, Presented by Frank Brangwyn)

Fittingly, the exhibition will be showcasing contemporary indie games chosen as a representation of games that buck against mainstream expectations, including titles like the Shakespearean Astrologaster, xenobiology-based In Other Waters, art deco mystery Over The Alps, dementia narrative Before I Forget and Victorian visualiser Strawberry Thief.

"We hope those new to video games might come to see games in a new light," James says. "We want to welcome the uninitiated to the creative and inspiring world of indie games that speak to the idea that video games can be more than just Call of Duty or Fortnight."

There'll also be a chance for visitors to see the original prints made by Ceri for Haiku Adventure, as informed by the artist's first-hand research in Japan.

"Ceri spent a lot of time studying ukiyo-e prints - their material qualities, artistic techniques as well as the process by which they are made," James tells us. "We found that details such as how woodgrain textures are transferred by the ink (a beautiful feature of these prints) bring another subtle level of detail to the images that is often forgotten in other reproductions.

"Originally Ceri painstakingly hand drew every scene using special brush pens to mimic the line quality of the ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He has always demonstrated a very keen attention to quality and detail.

"On one occasion when we were nearing an exhibition deadline he decided to throw out days' worth of drawing work in order to redraw everything from scratch.

"Despite my concern, Ceri was adamant that the new pen he had acquired better emulated some of the line qualities in the woodblock prints. In the end his perfectionist tendencies shone through in the final compositions and we’ve embraced that instinct of his ever since."

James: “The unique feeling ukiyo-e prints can evoke often resides within the tiny details. Here it’s the rain’s subtle linework that lends the composition a sense of movement and energy – perfectly articulating the vigour of nature.”  (Hiroshige, Shôno: Driving Rain, 1833–36, Woodblock print)

A noble endeavour - even though embracing ukiyo-e style through digital presents its own problems. 

"Our art style continues to evolve and improve as Ceri develops his techniques. Recently art production moved over to digital which has meant testing how we can retain the qualities of a hand drawn and then hand carved image while drawing direct to digital using an iPad Pro.

"This was initially a difficult decision but after testing we found that modern tablets and their application would allow us to maintain quality while greatly increasing our bandwidth to create assets, so ultimately the crossover made a lot of sense."

Visitors to the Haiku Adventure show will be able to learn about this process in more detail, along with the history and methodology of ukiyo-e.

"We want people to say they learnt something about the processes of ukiyo-e and game development, stimulated by the juxtaposition the exhibition frames between these two crafts separated by centuries," James hopes.

"By presenting the development of Haiku Adventure alongside the source material that inspired it, we can explore how the traditional crafts of the past can influence and enrich the art forms of tomorrow."

James: "Ukiyo-e wasn’t a static craft frozen in Edo period (1603-1868) Japan. Just as Urushibara revitalised the craft for a new century and a new continent, we hope that the medium of games can offer a new appreciation of ukiyo-e.” (Urushibara, The Pines c.1928, Woodblock print, Miss M. L. Balls bequest, 1960)

As for Small Island Games, James is looking away from history and towards the future.

"We are really passionate about developing games that convey a strong visual identity and imagine compelling worlds through original narratives. As the first title by Small Island Games we hope that Haiku Adventure will be the first of many games to develop these interests."

Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games is showing at London's William Morris Gallery from 26 February to 15 September 2019, alongside an exhibition showing how persecuted artists adapted their work during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Read next: Let these stunning pieces by Japanese master Hokusai inspire your next work

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