Video Game Sketch Inspired by Kenshi

This write-up is going to be about a post-apocalyptic sandbox style video game called Kenshi. But it’s also going to be about sharing art that you’re not entirely satisfied with; when it doesn’t turn into what you imagined. This post, and the game Kenshi itself, actually remind me a lot of what I wrote about Pillars of Eternity in 2019 and to a lesser extent Dragons Dogma in 2018. Art inspired by games, in my experience, often ends up being harder than I initially expect. I think it’s because usually a piece requiring some artistic imagination is challenging for me. Before we talk more about the artwork side, I do want to discuss this game a bit.

I actually came across Kenshi when I was browsing around Steam. I don’t know what algorithm made it pop up, but I imagine it was somehow because of Pillars of Eternity. To sum the game up, Kenshi is basically a game about survival and choice. It’s a true sandbox game, in that you can do pretty much whatever you want. You select a starting scenario, which sets you up with varying levels of money, friends, equipment, and locations. Then you’re dropped right into the world as a pathetic weakling at the mercy of Kenshi’s harsh environments and people.

There really isn’t much of a story; it’s completely player driven and your tale sort of weaves itself as you play. But the background is that you’re trying to make it in a world that has experienced at least one major apocalyptic event. The original devastation was probably based on a somewhat vague, ancient conflict between robots (called skeletons here) and humans. You’re left in the ruins of that once great civilization, with a few major factions to deal with such as:

  • The United Cities (group of cities in the slave trade),
  • Holy Nation (religious fanatics),
  • Sheks (sort of like Klingons from Star Trek),
  • Skeletons (run down left over robots),
  • Tech Hunters (obsessed with relics from before the apocalypse)
  • Anti-Slavers (obsessed with ending slavery at any human cost)
  • Western Hive (friendly ant/bug-like mutants)
  • Southern Hive (unfriendly bug mutants)
  • Flotsam Ninjas (opposed to the Holy Nation)
  • Bandits
  • Cannibals
  • Swampers
  • A bunch of other small groups like Shinobi Thieves, Reavers, Traders Guild, United Hero League, Nomads, Manhunters, Crab Raiders, etc.

The first time I played, I picked a “Nobodies” start, which let me create five hungry weaklings and plopped me in the middle of a wasteland. As I usually do in games like this, I made characters based on my family plus a robot I named after a cat. Within the first couple of minutes, we were all wiped out by a roving band of malfunctioning robots. I reloaded, then we were captured by Reavers and enslaved. Eventually I had to take a break to figure out how I could actually play this game without dying right away.

One of my favorite starting scenarios, “Guy and His Dog.” You’re dropped into the ruins of a town with a stick, some rags, and a dog. Try not to get enslaved by the United Cities or eaten by cannibals!

After some research, I found it was recommended to find a city called Hub to learn the ropes. Hub has a lot of “Hungry Bandits” around, who are (in theory) easier to handle. I finally made it to Hub, but had to sacrifice our robot, who permanently died, to get away from some enemies. Eventually, I learned that early on, it’s best to run from enemies and try to bring them near city guards or other factions to see if they’ll fight each other. Which they usually will, fortunately. I’d let the strong folks fight, then loot the losers and sell or use their equipment. Eventually, I started getting in on the fights too and slowly got stronger.

It’s a very tough system, but over time I found myself thinking about the history of my characters. I’d gained allies, experienced battles and adventures, and realized this all added up to it’s own story. Eventually, in my first play through, I built my own stronghold and destroyed one of the slaving factions after an all-out war. The complete flexibility has made me start the game over several times just to try something a bit different. Another great thing about the game is the built-in mod support through the Steam Workshop; if there’s an aspect you wish was a bit different, you can often find a mod that changes it. I basically sorted by “most popular of all time” and downloaded most of the first couple of pages.

An example of how the combat works. Here, my small party of fairly powerful fighters charges into a bandit base and pretty much wrecks them.

I haven’t really talked much about actual gameplay mechanics; it’s a mouse and keyboard driven game, but I’ve been playing with a now-discontinued Steam Controller. You control characters by pointing them toward objects or people to have them interact (attack, steal, pick up, build, repair, bandage, etc), but you don’t actually press buttons during battles. There is still some micromanage if you prefer in terms of positioning and selecting which bandit to smack.

So, that’s the game in a nut shell. I’ve always loved sandbox-style games, and this is a really great one. Because I’ve played it so much over the last few months, I felt like this might be a fun one to sketch. In a similar situation with Pillars of Eternity, which I mentioned in the intro, I did a basic sketch of my adventure party (my family characters) just sort of standing around in a village. I didn’t want to just replicate the same thing again, so I decided to try something different. This time, I went with an action scene comprised of some varied characters. I added a robot (skeleton) party member, a fan-favorite hiver named Beep, and a few other characters in battle with some Shek warriors.

It’s a bit different of a scenario this time. It’s good to try different things artistically, but as I alluded to already, the result really wasn’t what I’d hoped. Here’s the final sketch:

In my mind, this was supposed to be a really chaotic battle with some good character details. In reality though, I just could get there on the character detail side of it. Perhaps the characters are too small to get the facial characteristics down, or maybe it was simply a question of technique. The hiver character at the top left is actually not too bad. Likewise for the robot; he does pretty decently resemble the “skeleton” characters in Kenshi. The humans though aren’t very good, and you can’t make out real facial details.

I also sort of botched the scenery and background details. One of the issues I had is that Kenshi’s environments are pretty bleak and graphically it’s just not a beautifully rich looking game. So I didn’t have much I felt I could pull from, and when we’re just left to my artistic imagination, that’s a recipe for a letdown. That’s not to say I have a poor imagination; I actually think it’s fairly robust overall. The issue is when it comes to connecting imagination to my drawing hand; it’s just not there! It’s a very weird paradox. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations for this one, though. I mean, it turned out okay I guess. Just not what I had in mind!

As I was finishing the drawing, I briefly considered not sharing this at all. It’s an impulse I’ve discussed before on this site. It’s pretty natural when you aren’t totally happy with artwork to want to bury it and forget it ever happened. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to share failures (or semi-failures) alongside your successes. No one is perfect, and even if you don’t think you learned something from a failure, it’s possible someone else could learn from it. So, I try to share the weaker pieces with the stronger ones.

I did not take many progression photos as I was working on this; only four actually. Maybe because there really wasn’t much depth to creating it. Just some basic color fill, shading, and blending. But here’s what I was able to put together in terms of progression:

Well, that’s all for Kenshi, at least in terms of drawing. I’m sure I’ll be playing it again soon, considering the current COVID-19 coronavirus social distancing and quarantining going on right now. I’m already working on another unrelated portrait and this one is coming along a bit better I think. More to come on that soon!

3 comments

  • The drawing has action in it, which is in itself a success.

    • Thanks man – that’s true, at least I did convey action! Although it’s not quite what I hoped it’d become, there are some positives here. And it does sort of align with the art style of the game itself.

      I hope you’re doing well during the current pandemic insanity, Steve. Weird times for sure.

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