Getting beaten up by a frog, trading spleens with a hag, and watching a rogue party member commit cold-blooded murder before you can get a word in—all par for the course for any reckless Dungeons & Dragons adventure. At least, it seems, when the party of would-be champions and reluctant heroes of Baldur’s Gate 3 are at the helm.
Now close on the horizon, Larian’s upcoming RPG was given the cartoon treatment by irreverent geek culture parody troupe Mashed as part of the PC Gaming Show 2023. We’re used to seeing the haughty and high-cheekboned Astarion with the ever-belligerent Lae’zel and the rest of their chums in photo-realistic 3D. But maybe their second home is among the animated world's blocky colors and flat shapes. As Mashed's director of comedy and animation Tom Jenkins explains, taking the characters of Baldur's Gate 3 there was a case of simplifying their designs so the team could make them as expressive as possible within its animation style.
"Each character has their own distinct look and style," Jenkins says. "Astarion was slimmed down to help emphasize his class as a rogue, with large expressive features to emphasize his sarcastic and deadpan tone. Gale had a similar approach, but as a mage, we wanted to underline that magical foundation of his character, so we added a loose flowing robe that ripples as he casts spells and rallies the party, and small details like not being able to see his feet so he almost glides through scenes."
Jenkins breaks down the whole production process into seven steps, from creating an initial idea to fleshing it out with preliminary moving images and finally putting on the final touches. The script, he says, is the first element the team completes before work on everything else can start. "Once that happens, we get the voice actors to record their lines—and once we review, we then ask for re-records depending on the intent in the script and the energy and tone we want to convey."
After creating character designs, storyboards, and an animatic (a draft of the animation that locks down movements, expressions, and camera movement), animating begins earnestly. It’s done in three separate stages, starting with a rough cut. "It’s arguably the most challenging part of the animation, giving all the characters actual movement, defining the way they move, and their real key expressions," Jenkins says. "Then goes to clean up, which is refining and cleaning up the loose, sketchy rough animation into something a lot more refined, lip sync for the voice lines and basically what you see in the end, just without color." That's added before scene backgrounds, and sound brings the up-to-now mute characters to life.
"We bring everything together by combining the character animation with the backgrounds, and then also do visual effects," which could be anything from fires crackling, water bubbling, or any other environmental effect, Jenkins says. "Once all animation, compositing, and VFX are complete, we send the animation to our sound designer/composer who adds all the sound in the video," as well as the musical score.
With each character voiced by the same actors used in the game, and the script provided by Larian, the final piece doesn’t feel far removed from what you might find when trekking across the Forgotten Realms, even if it is a parody at heart. "While the game itself is serious and dramatic, games themselves run on game logic, which is fun to satirize and play around with in terms of its conventions," Jenkins says. "What you see play out isn't far off from the experience of actual players while they hang out together playing the game. So you combine that relatable experience with the characters' personalities and the D&D/RPG setting to hit a really rich vein comedy-wise."
It's exactly that kind of comedy that Mashed has taken to surreal places in the past, whether by turning Mario and Luigi into super-buff anime adversaries or creating a perpetually self-cloning Sonic. It didn’t push the Baldur’s Gate 3 crew quite that far, but Jenkins isn't done with the Forgotten Realms. "I'm looking forward to heading back into the world of Baldur's Gate with some mates as a bard, as (often terrible) one-liners and questionable singing are very on-brand for me." Sounds like he’ll fit right in.