Finding The Balance Between Cute And Horrifying: Cult Of The Lamb Interview With James Pairmain Art Director

After playing Cult Of The Lamb, one thing that stood out to me, and I’m sure everyone else,  was this incredible mixture of dread and cuteness in almost every element. Our main character, the Lamb, is the perfect example of this, so when given the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with James Pairmain, Art Director at Massive Monster, regarding Cult Of The Lamb, I jumped at the opportunity.

Justin: So what’s the plan always to kind of strike this mix of the cute and macabre?

James: I think we’ve kind of always had quite a cute sort of cutesy cartoony art style to all our previous games. With adventure pals, one of our previous ones, we had a lot of people saying that it’s a kids’ game. And I think that may be limited our audience to a degree. So we always wanted to bring in the horror elements and a darker side to layer on top. But while still keeping our eye on our signature cartoony style was a plan early on when we landed on the theme of cults and the kind of idea of starting a cult with worshipers and then having the kind of dark world that you kind of got to explore. That juxtaposition really started to sort of pop.

Justin: Interesting. Okay, so were there any designs that leaned too far one way or the other?

James: Definitely. I’ve always leaned towards the more cute and colorful stuff. So there’s definitely a struggle early on. So I would draw things, and then Julian and Jay, the other two directors, will be like, it’s too cute, make it eviler, and more monstrous. So we kind of had a bit of push and pull there. But we kind of realized we didn’t want to go too far down the gory or gruesome, and we tried to find the balance. And we wanted it to be a little bit more grounded in reality. So some of the bugger inspiration were, of course, the film Midsummer, and also Wicker Man, and those kinds of pagan, Wiccan, folklore vibes. So we do have the kind of rituals and curses and sort of magic stuff, but we wanted it all to sort of fit within that kind of pagan, very naturalistic direction. So yeah, we were very kind of very wary of going to far into that sort of demonic, gory, gruesome, monstrous designs. So we kind of ended up basing everything around animals, which went well with the themes. So it kind of made sense for the monsters; you also fight to be animals, but the kind of monstrous twisted version of those. And then, when you fight the mini-bosses and beat the bosses, you recruit them to your cult. And they get a little bit cuter.

Justin: speaking to like the bosses, like you mentioned, after we beat a boss, it turns into basically like a cute version of that boss. So did you find yourself designing both of those simultaneously? And was there one that was more difficult to find that balance with than the others?

James: So not initially. That was an idea that I think came at sort of midpoint in the project. So initially, I was just doing the monsters and the bosses. So then, at that stage, it kind of started bearing in mind when designing the monsters. In reflection, it would have been nicer to tie the follower and monster designs to different animal types. So once we decided that, the programmers would come up with prototypes for the bosses, see what was fun to fight, do the art over top of that, and consider how they would look as a follower. 

Justin: Did you have a favorite character, creature, or boss that was your favorite to design?

James: I love all the Old Ones. I think Kalamar, Who’s the third boss, the boss of the water area, where he has lots of tentacles. And those four bishops were a bit of a collaboration between me and Julian, the creative director. He designed those four bishops, and then I did the mini-boss version. So it was quite cool to sort of bounce ideas between the two of us, and he did this weird sort of squid thing, and then I liked the idea of him sort of hiding these massive tentacles underneath his robes and then having all these multiple arms that will have different weapons in it. So I think that was one that I really liked, and it came together nicely and was super fun and tricky to animate as well.

Justin: Okay, so you’ve managed not only to create all these NPCs and bosses that run the gambit from adorable to terrifying. There’s also this whole customization of the cultist that you can do. Did you kind of just go to town with animals and creatures that you wanted to see in the game? Or did you kind of look at it look at and go like, Okay, someone would want, for example, a cult full of fish people and unicorns?

James:  I wanted to make as many people happy as possible. Everyone’s gonna want their favorite animal. They’re gonna want their favorite animals occultist. So I kind of looked at a few lists of like, the most popular animals so obviously, we got to have cats and dogs and pigs and, you know, the famous animals. We don’t have any birds yet. I want to do some birds in post-release because that’s definitely something I’ve seen requested quite a lot. 

Justin: Do you have a favorite animal in there?

James: I really like the pig. I like simple woodland ones. I like the fish because it’s stupid seeing the fish running around with a humanoid body. Do you have one?

Justin: I played with my daughter, so she always made me pick unicorns. So I gotta go unicorns because that’s what she made me change almost all my people to. All pink unicorns made it tough to distinguish who was who at times. You previously talked about the inspirations that you had. Were there any others that you hadn’t mentioned?

James: We looked at a lot of different video games. So you know, I think one of the big ones early on was Stardew Valley. I think the idea of mixing roguelike and Colony simulator mixed with some farming aspects came from Stardew Valley, which I really enjoyed. So yeah, we played a lot of games like Don’t Starve. Oxygen Not Included, Rim World, and Stardew Valley, for the kind of base building colony simulate side. And then for the kind of roguelike side, we were looking at things like Binding of Isaac, Enter The Gungeon and Hades and all this sort of popular roguelikes sort of trying to take all the best bits out of all those games and sort of smash them together and make something that hopefully felt unique.

Justin: There’s a sense of horror with some of your actions. You’re choosing your characters to be the ritual sacrifice, and then there are some genuinely cute things you can do to boost your followers. How did you approach this two-tone world without it being too jarring?

James: Yeah, I think part of that is sort of having this cartoony style and these cute animals to sort of ground it all. And so no matter what horrific things you’re doing to them, it’s kind of okay because they’re cartoons, and they’re cute. Whereas if it was humans, it was realistic and would have felt more twisted. 

Justin: So our main lamb is like the perfect example of cute and terrifying. Like he could really be like a villain or hero in like any Disney movie. What was the main thought going into designing him, and I’m assuming he was always a lamb?

James: It wasn’t always! I mean, we went through so many different iterations before we even landed on the sort of cult simulator. Eventually, we kind of landed on the idea of starting the cult of woodland worshippers. And I think we knew early on that we really wanted the religious imagery that came along with that. So I think we’re thinking of what animals fit within that religious tone. And, you know, the whole idea of the sacrificial lamb. The working title for the game for a long time was the sacrificial lamb. And the intro where you’re sort of being sacrificed was a part of the game very early. We knew we wanted that. So I think we decided pretty early that the religious connotations of that kind of made it a solid choice for the animal. So there’s kind of almost two characters in one way. You’ve got this kind of cute, innocent lamb. But then you add this powerful dark crown to it, and you kind of add this evil side, and there’s this dark power that runs through it. So you can kind of switch between the good and evil, light and dark, which is a kind of theme that we’ve tried to run throughout the whole thing.

Justin:  I did notice an art book coming in early May next year. Are there any chances that we will see unused designs?

James: I mean, the honest question is, I’m not entirely sure l. We just gave them a big dump of all our art folders and a lot of old sketches and stuff. And then their designers kind of go and put it all together. So I’m looking forward to seeing what they put together. So it’s not something that the studio ourselves actually put together. So I’m sure there will be a working process of progress. There will be rough sketches and early designs. But I don’t know for sure exactly what’s going to be in. I don’t know how far back they’ll go. Because At one point, the game was about Girl Scouts.

And another point was about God, that lived on top of a floating whale. And there’s another where it was like a hell simulator. And we’ve got all these kinds of concepts, early ideas of the game, but I don’t know if that’ll be in there. 

Justin: Interesting. Do you have an idea of what’s gonna be in the updates? Have you started sketching or creating creatures for the updates?

James: No, not yet. I have an extensive list of followers, weapons, and all kinds of things we want to add to the game. And we’re constantly talking about how we can expand it. It’s definitely something that we really want to do. And we really like the idea. And we’ve planned from quite early on that it will be a game that we want to continue supporting with updates. This launch game is almost the sort of origin story of the Lamb. And we really want to expand it as much as we possibly can. And we have a lot of ideas and ways that we hope that we can do that. We definitely want to sort of add more depth and more things to do after you beat the story and more animal types and weapons and enemies and ways to interact with your followers, and more depth and random things that are going to happen to your cult. So I’m very excited to see what the game looks like in a year or two.

I want to thank James for sitting with me the day before Cult Of The Lamb was released. I can only imagine he is hard at work on whatever updates are coming to it, and I can’t wait to experience them myself.

Be sure to check out Cult Of The Lamb on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo Switch after you read the review I wrote for it. Spoilers, it’s a fantastic game.

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