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Inside the magical '80s art of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery
David Nakayama has been a comics mainstay for years, known for his work on Marvel Adventures: Hulk and package illustration for Hasbro. He's drawn covers for nearly every major property, from X-Men and The Avengers to Star Wars, but his talent and resume are broader than you may realize.
Nakayama is also responsible for all the art involved in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. The mobile game from Jam City and Portkey Games was the first to enter into the magical world J.K. Rowling created in an immersive way, setting the player up as the younger sibling of the discoverer of the Cursed Vaults. As the art lead, Nakayama was responsible for creating the looks of everything from the students and professors to Hogwarts itself.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Nakayama, who offered up an exclusive look at much of the preliminary concept art for Hogwarts and the characters we all know and love.
As the first (and for a while, only) artist brought on to the project, it was Nakayama's monumental task to take what was already written by the team behind the game and bring it to life. Not only that, but he had to figure out how it was going to translate to a mobile format.
"If you asked anybody what Harry Potter looked like, they're going to say the movie marketing art for sure. And it's very dark, it's a lot of black. I would say if you boil down the Photoshop histogram of it, it's like a 75% black," Nakayama tells SYFY WIRE. Looking at the film's advertisements, he and the team felt that it wasn't quite right for an all-ages mobile game. However, they wanted to have that sense of nostalgia, and so they opted to dial down the black but still make it something people would be familiar with.
To mimic the films would be too photorealistic, which wouldn't work well on a phone. "Part of it was figuring out how is the style going to be, what are the proportions going to be, how cartoony and how realistic," he says. The end result would be more the former than the latter. That said, the marketing art and icon art does still resemble the style of the original Potter movie posters. It's a conscious decision on Nakayama's part, to attach the game to the more familiar dark Harry Potter marketing to tie it in to the greater Potterverse.
Among the first characters actually created was the player's archrival, Merula Snyde. The proud Slytherin quickly became the embodiment of the entire game. Cartoony, but not outrageously so, and with a heavy dose of punk, perfect for the 1980s setting.
"It's baked into Merula straight away," Nakayama says. "That hair!"
The story essentially had to be set in the '80s, based on the continuity of Rowling's work. The 1970s saw the war between Voldemort and the Order of the Phoenix, and the 1990s was the era when the Harry Potter books are set. It was the only time period more or less untouched in the novels and films.
Nakayama says that originally the clothes were all themed around the era, giving Hogwarts a taste of punk and jazzercise culture, though now much of the clothing and accessories you can get for your character have turned into themed costume sets.
One character who has a particular style would be Madam Rakepick, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher during the player's time at Hogwarts, and an entirely new character. She is, consequentially, Nakayama's favorite.
"No one had the opportunity before us to make up a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. That was really cool. That was a really exciting opportunity. And her story is very interesting," Nakayama says. "Even on the very Potter side, they hadn't done that before. They didn't know how to work with an outside force to generate new characters. We were the first anything to do that. That's exciting."
Having this opportunity, Nakayama wanted to make sure to get Rakepick absolutely right, and that included her look. At first he went very steampunk, but the team wasn't wholly on board. Then he swung toward fashion chic, but they weren't quite feeling that, either. However, a combination of those plus a dash of Lord of the Rings and voila: Their curse-breaking Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was created.
"I think with Harry Potter, it has to be a little bit medieval," says Nakayama. "Once all that came in line, it started to work. We were feeling good about it and the character felt right. It felt like it could legitimately be a Harry Potter character."
New characters weren't the only major hurdles that Nakayama needed to clear. Creating Hogwarts as it was pre-Harry Potter was a task on its own, especially when it came to the common rooms. Given the source material, the audience was most familiar with the Gryffindor common room. Slytherin also appears in the media, but as for Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, there wasn't a ton to go on.
"Making each of these rooms in the game was a huge research project," he said. "Our team pored over all the films, plus internet sources such as Pottermore, to collect every reference shot we could. Then we'd try to retro-engineer the space in our concept art and, eventually, 3D models."
Also complicating matters was the fact that the look and sometimes even the location of elements in the castle grounds would change dramatically from film to film.
"There was also a need to stylize each location to match the look of our game, so we'd try to make the rooms instantly recognizable but also simpler and more streamlined," he says. "We actually had a rule of thumb where repeating patterns were always simplified down around 20%. So if a tapestry fringe had five tassles in the film, it might have four in our game, just for easier readability on a tiny phone screen."
They did have some freedom to create new rooms, especially in relation to the main quest of The Cursed Vaults. The Ice Knight's steps, which are meant to be akin to the Chamber of Secrets in scope, and the player's brother's secret room are just two examples. Otherwise, when there weren't major references, he was able to fully use his imagination, such as the ladder up to Divination, which was created from scratch with just the right amount of visual whimsy to match the class itself.
Diehard Potterheads might be excited to know that Penny, the sweet-natured, potion-making Hufflepuff was the original player character when they were building and testing out the game. Usually there would be some guidelines or standard for what the character would look like, but Penny is all Nakayama's creation.
"Characters usually started with a brief description from our original writer, Matt London. There'd be a brief mention of key character traits, maybe a suggestion of a visual," Nakayama says. "Penny was unique in that I just invented her look without any specific direction. If anything, she was just meant to be a pleasant protagonist who didn't look anything like Harry, Ron, or Hermione and could appear in our earliest art tests, pitch decks, and the like."
The diversity of this Hogwarts was a very important and deliberate choice on Nakayama and Jam City's part. It's been something the game has been consistently praised for, especially in its inclusion of natural hair for people of color as well as hijabs for Muslim players or those who wanted to play a Muslim character.
"There's always a need for NPCs to be memorable and unique, and including characters from all sorts of backgrounds gives us a rich, diverse, and interesting group for players to interact with," he says.