Kareem Ettouney

Imbuing gameplay with impressionism

September 16, 2020 / Interview by Jamin Warren | Photography by Vicky Grout

Kareem Ettouney is a British-Egyptian artist and creative director working between traditional and technological mediums. His painting, animation, and theater production background bring artistic expression to the forefront of the games he works on. Kareem co-founded Media Molecule, the creative team behind the Little Big Planet series. Media Molecule’s latest interactive release, Dreams, is a platform that allows players to create games, art, music, and more, with an emphasis on building community, creative education, and curation.

We recently chatted with Kareem about the link between games and fine art, the importance of emotional sensibilities in play, and breaking open tropes in the history of games.

Formation and family

Can you talk about your path to Media Molecule?

My initial training was at a fine arts university in Egypt. I studied interior design, then specialized in film and theater, set design, and costume design. Before I went to university, I was a freelance artist, graphic designer, and illustrator. I always like to say that my training began both in the practical and the theoretical.

My advice to younger artists is that it’s essential to have the applied aspects of art hand-in-hand with the academic. I worked for 10 years as a freelancer, which allowed me to jump between visual disciplines—from designing graphics for a restaurant, doing murals in hotels, to children’s book illustrations, to interior designs of houses. Then I got a gig in advertising and made storyboards. I did anything and everything that came my way for a long time.

I was initially attracted to cinema and production design, then came across the video game business. I was like, this is the youngest form of media that has a history in the 70’s and is still very fresh.

In the late 90s, video game art and videos started going into territory attracting a new breed, if you will. The first breed of artists that work in video games were technologists. They were the art that came out of algorithms and programming. But the type of artists that were starting to get hired in my time were more people from a wider range, and I was hired at Lionhead [Studios, a seminal video game studio started in 1997].

I had both British and Egyptian nationality, so I started applying for work in the UK. Lionhead attracted me because they were an out-of-the-box game company. I remember I was in my bedroom in Egypt, and I got a phone call from Paul McLaughlin—one of the greatest art directors I’ve ever met.

I had an interesting, colorful CV with lots of range and—but I had zero background in games and technology. But Paul had the insight to see—he said, let’s get this guy in and see what he can do. So I then got my foot in the door, and I was a concept artist. And over there, I met Mark Haley, who became one of my best friends. Many years later, Mark, myself, Dave, and Alex, two amazing programmers from Lionhead Studios and Siobhan, who worked at Criterion Studios as a producer. With Chris Lee, a business director, we all came together and decided to start Media Molecule.

Did you come from a creative family?

My dad is a super architect. He was the head of architecture at Cairo University, and he is an urban designer, architect–an amazing artist. So I grew up in the house with my dad drawing all the art books all the time. We both had the same [drawing] lines. I have a sort of shaky line that is very identical to his line. But I paint—I’m more expressive and more of an illustrative type of person, and he’s more individual.

Still from Little Big Planet

Being surrounded by art and architecture as a kid, were there creators that spoke to you?

Michelangelo is up there. [Gustav] Klimt and [Egon] Schiele and [Peter Paul] Rubens are all very important to me. Rubens’ [work] is more about the paint and the opulence of paint—the richest paint can ever get. From my geeky side, like I like Kent Williams. That’s more the comic kind of thing. So I always had someone from the illustration world in there.

I like the beginning of modernism very much. I like the point where classic ended, and modernism began. At that point in the 1900s, the camera was invented, steam trains were invented, and the World War began. Empires were ending, and humanity started seeing everything differently. When Klimt’s career first began, he was a romantic kind of mural painting decoration guy. He and his brother were making frescoes on walls that looked like they were from ancient Greece. And then that art deco thing transitioned very, very quickly into expressionism.

I really liked the relationship between architecture and human beings. I liked the ‘high’ design, but I liked the modern temperaments beginning to appear. I like the modernism in Schiele’s body, for example. You can see that he’s taking all the liberty, but he’s still looking at the life around him, and it’s not competing too much with nature.

I like abstract impressionism, but I also like realism. Schiele and Klimt represent the final generation that still was as good as Rodin and Michelangelo—the classic-ness. But they had the temperament of modernism.

Global and cross-discipline aesthetics and influences

Do you feel like growing up in Egypt has impacted your sensibilities and how you approach your work?

My stuff is very colorful. Even when I give you my top five artists, they’re all western, but I actually have a vividness from non-western places. My colors are very Mediterranean. So I have a very vivid color scheme that reminds you more of colorful places like India and Egypt.

Aesthetically speaking, I like the eternity that lies in thinness. That’s very Egyptian.

Another part of Egyptian [aesthetics] that I’m really into is a type of stylization that is shape and graphic-based. Size in an Egyptian mural was about spaces, while size in the Greek was about perspective. So I definitely have some of Egypt’s symbolism, some of the shape-based, ‘thinness’ kind of thing. My colors are very, very warm and earthy and kind of African. But I have the anatomical obsession of the West as well.

Could you connect the dots between some of the work that you’ve done with Mark and Alex to kind of bring that sensibility to life in games?

Mark is a Renaissance man. Alex is a technologist who is very arty; a very sophisticated artistic programmer. Dave is an amazing programmer who loves games and the magic of animation—really, he’s an animator inside a programmer.

Siobhan is an encyclopedia of history, pop culture, and media and has a take on all of it that really is unique. And then you have me—I am the least technical person on the planet and still am, but I respect technology as a powerhouse. So it was a very arty group.

Little Big Planet was our first baby. We wanted to make a game-making suite that was nostalgic (and quite British, in a way) because of the DIY animations that were popular in the UK at the time. My contribution to that world was taking ideas of paper texture and then mixing metaphors, like trying to not make it just a ‘kiddie,’ cutesy thing. The rendering techniques that Alex had were quite Toy Story-esque. They had a believability to them, which met Dave’s physics and the physicality of the whole world. LBP became a fine art piece—you take combining my concepts with Mike’s rendering and luscious materials, and you get an artistic statement.

Dreams is the game I put a lot of myself in. I really wanted a 3D creation tool that didn’t feel like the others. I wanted it to feel more like art—where the way I define art is that your identity comes first and then your craftsmanship. Meaning that if you hold the pencil and you make a mark on the paper, it’s already you, like a signature. Your handwriting is yours, and then you practice to become good at drawing.

We wanted Dreams to be very similar to working in pastel or watercolor—to have a sensitivity, rather than only decision making. Most software is made of a sequence of decisions that add up to a certain style. But expression via sensitivity is all about feeling. When you play a guitar or a piano, if you press hard, the sound is louder—that is emotion rather than just a decision.

Did your experience working in theater has impacted the way you approach games?

Game worlds are very, very similar to creating sets. In games, you interact with them and expose them from more angles, while theater sets require many artistic choices with lighting. You can have one chair in the room and light it in many ways that make it feel like it’s on a ship and then in a bedroom, just by changing the lighting.

I find the relationship between set design and gameplay the most challenging part of video games. You’ve got a lot to draw from, but game interactions are simple, so they almost lend themselves to purist visuals. A play requires more of a literal representation. But game worlds are more like a very high production play or something, like Lord of the Rings. I feel theater naturally trains for the game design world, but the interactions in a play are very story-based. You know Hamlet will see the ghost of his father, while in a game, the interactions and the relationship between set design and game design are more complex.

If you look at films like In the Mood for Love or OldBoy, and you see the wallpaper even in the scenes are related to the scene’s emotion and the characters. In games, visuals are subservient to the interactions that are happening. It’s like, what’s going on in this room? I am opening a box and collecting a treasure. You can make it look like the Mona Lisa, but you are still opening that box and getting that treasure.

I still think that there are deep experiences out there. It might be interesting to see the relationship between interaction and deeper graphic representation. More programmers try to make ‘please-everybody’ kinds of games, but the independent game scene has shown us some very, very moving work.

Stills from DREAMS

The emotional worlds of Dreams

The direction that you’re pushing people in is to make things that don’t typically look like other games. 

Absolutely. There is a limitation of technology and tools that lead to a constrained palette. We’re widening that and have opened the game to be much more patterned with the history of art than just the history of games. 

In gameplay, the hero of the piece is the client—it’s the person who buys the game, the person who plays the game. They’re the ones controlling the interaction. The birth of games came from immediate interaction—in Pong, you move a straight line, and the ball bounces back. And then platforming began, and that was the genesis of games, like a big obstacle course.

The history of interaction has had the greatest influence on game graphics. Slowly, stories then began to find their way into games and magical worlds, more closely tied with cinematography, film, and animation. Interaction gets more interesting when you start seeing therapy or therapeutic type games like Flow. Things that don’t necessarily rely on mastery, but they have a mystery to it, and you’re compelled to be in that world. I believe and hope that the trajectory of interaction deviates from just ‘jump-across-the-lava’ kind of thing.

I believe form and function are one word. I think the relationship between game graphics and gameplay and the evolution of ‘what does gameplay mean’ has propelled a project like Dreams. I feel like our Dreams community as well, using the tools, because the best thing giving the tools to the community is that people can do whatever they want.

Still from Dreams

I believe form and function are one word. I think the relationship between game graphics and gameplay and the evolution of ‘what does gameplay mean’ has propelled a project like Dreams

So you feel like, with Dreams, there’s much more parallel across the different gaming disciplines.

Yes. When you think of browsing the Internet on search engines, we fluctuate between curiosity for knowledge and then voyeurism or wanting to see what others are up—comparative thinking and creative thinking.

The browser in Dreams allows you to see what other people are doing and get inspired by them. You can take some of the remixable stuff and then venture into creating something from scratch or customizing other people’s projects. So you can be all those things and because you can build all those things—disciplines are mixed.

In Dreams, our team saw games users created all about education. Then we saw other games about humor, storytelling, or a meaningful game created between a parent and their child. So definitely, when you have an ‘even’ toolset and also a community, you get to re-question these cliches of the industry.


The pedagogical dimension of Dreams

You’re asking people to express themselves creatively, which may not be a natural impulse when you step into a game environment. What are you all doing to overcome that reluctance by individuals who don’t think of themselves as creators when they step into a space like Dreams?

You have asked the ultimate question. We are doing a million things to tackle that problem. People have that stigma around words like creation and creativity.

For example, I go to a drawing club every week. If a new student is doing their first lesson, they will be very self-conscious and apologetic. It’s like, “I’m very rusty. I’m very bad.” This is the ultimate tragedy of all creative disciplines. Somehow, history has let us all down by creating words like talent and creative intelligence, which means that someone has it or doesn’t have it. I think you can invest in learning the guitar or drawing and learn it in a year or two. That is what we do in Dreams.

Dreams itself is a ‘Netflix of Games’ type of thing—you have an abundance of people’s creations to play and follow. If that’s all you do in Dreams, you will have 100 years of fun doing that. But then you can say, Hold on. I want to start making playlists of the things I like and show my friends my favorite zombie games, or, I want to show the most artistic, out-there games that I’ve found and put them in a collection.

As soon as you’ve done that, you’ve already done a creative act. We also have many tutorials, which again are the next step in showing people whichever area they’re interested in learning. 

The concept of remixing to make new forms is huge in Dreams. You take readymade things and make minor tweaks so that they become your own. So it’s a mixture of curation, self-created puzzles, tutorials, making, remixing, and retouching. 

The Dreams community shares their methodologies, wisdom, and techniques all over the Internet. Kind of like YouTube now—if you want to learn how to play the piano, you will find people who have not only simplified it but people who teach the same songs at all levels and in all methods and methodologies. You get to not only choose how to learn that song. You choose how to learn that song in that particular style, language, or pace. 

All these things combined, I hope, will address the stigma towards both games and creativity: “I don’t have it. It’s not for me.”