In this article, we would like to introduce you to our art direction creative process. For this cause, we decided to pick our very special internal art project that features Cossacks, Molfars, Ukraine during the times of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, and the diversity of Slavic mythology.
The Last Molfar is a concept of a story-driven game based on Ukrainian folklore and mythology. The protagonist, Askold, is the last Molfar who must rebuild the Order of Molfars and take revenge on those who destroyed it. Together with his companion-spirit the Guide, Askold travels around Ukraine to find gifted children, helping locals along the way, removing curses, making (his) justice, and unraveling a mysterious tangle that should lead him to his archenemy.
This whole project was a synergy and collective effort of artists, game designers, managers, and art directors. We decided to go beyond a mere idea and concept and create a whole written story. This allowed the team to avoid strict specifications and utilize our creative potential to the fullest. The key contributors to The Last Molfar project are:
- Sviatoslav Vasylyshyn, Game Designer – developed the story and lore for The Last Molfar project.
- Iana Vengerova, Lead 2D Artist – analyzed feedback from the team and directed the art process.
- Taras Susak, 2D artist – the creator of this stellar art.
First, Sviatoslav developed worldbuilding, characters, and plot for the game. We were inspired by the games from Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher series but also wanted to create something unique and inherent to our culture. Cossacks, molfars, and the whole diversity of Ukrainian mythology formed the basis of the story. Then, with a few dozen pages of lore and plot at hand, our artists started searching for the perfect visual representation of the game’s characters:
Askold, the Last Molfar Himself
The son of a Cossack ataman and a healer, Askold began to show supernatural abilities from childhood. He talked with spirits and was not afraid to walk in the forest alone, where others wouldn’t dare to make a step. Askold saved his father from death when he was brought home barely alive from the battle, stopping the bleeding with his abilities. This frightened his father and mother, they forbade his son to show off his powers, because he could be marked as cursed by locals and the whole family would become exiles.
Time passed and the boy grew up. His father trained him to use weapons and loaded him with both combat and domestic tasks in the hope that exhausting exercises would not allow Askold’s mind to be distracted by something else. But the boy, who has not yet tamed his supernatural abilities, began to stray into increasingly dangerous thickets of the spirit world in his dreams. Over time, the forest, which was friendly to him began to show hostility. Askold started to have delusions, sleep badly, and whisper strange things in his sleep, and his voice was not of human. One night, ventured too deep into the spirit world, Askold freed something that should never have entered the world of the living.
“Your son dances with the spirits,” said the witch doctor to the parents, “they will take him with them if you do not teach the boy how to distinguish the bad from the good.”
The parents decided to call someone who knows how to help. The father sent for one of the Molfars with a request to save the boy. Just arrived, the Molfar immediately saw great potential in Askold, as well as a great threat to the world if his abilities will not be controlled. He took the boy away from his grieving family to Molfar Grove.
Cossacks are usually depicted wearing snow-white shirts and light red baggy trousers (sharovary), but we decided to step back from the stereotypical image. Our goal was to create a memorable and unique character while maintaining that resemblance to Ukrainian culture.
For Askold, we decided to choose less saturated colors for clothes, which at the same time would emphasize the hero’s high social position. He wears rather expensive clothing and carries a good saber and other valuable ammunition.
With this base, our artist began to work on different silhouettes of the hero, looking for the necessary pose, costume, and feel of Askold.
Then several more elaborate options were made:
Among them, we chose one of the most suitable images for the intended game character (left one) and moved on with it. Several color variations were selected for him, as well as slightly modified clothes to avoid symmetry and make the image of the hero more recognizable:
In parallel with this, our team was looking for suitable facial features for the hero:
We needed a young and hot-tempered character who does not look away, is a little pushy, and always gets out of difficult situations with skill or cunning. Therefore, the sixth option became the favorite. Many options for hairstyles and beards have then been made for him:
After searching and comparing different options, it turned out that the first sample was the ideal candidate. This is how the final image of the protagonist Askold appeared:
Askold’s weapon is a saber, popularly nicknamed “Blood Honor,” because of his ability to control blood. By piercing the enemy with a saber, Askold could clot the blood in the opponent’s body and kill him instantly. When Askold cuts someone with his blade and uses his ability, the rune on the hilt begins to glow with a bloody flame:
However, no matter how OP this ability is, it’s useless against spirits, because they (obviously) have no blood. And unfortunately for Askold, he has to fight with them very often.
Along with the deadly effect of his ability, Askold also learned to use it to save people. He felt where blood clots formed, could disperse them, as well as stop serious bleeding and hemorrhages. The locals were infinitely grateful to him for this, although people were still afraid of him.
A molfar is a person endowed with supernatural abilities, such as a healer, magician, or folk magician. In this world, the molfars are represented by a certain order that keeps its secrets and passes them on to new students. Molfars serve as a kind of heavy artillery in the hetman’s army, although they are not directly subordinate to him. Their main goal is to serve the people of Ukraine, help them, save them from evil spirits, remove curses, and sometimes act as judges in disputes. It is believed that molfar is dispassionate and difficult to deceive because their Guide spirits can sniff out anything the molfar asks.
The locals both like and fear the representatives of the Molfar Order, because you can never know what’s on their minds. They can be both saviors and cruel enforcers of justice.
Molfar Grove is the base of the order. It is located in a cave in the middle of which grows the Old Oak – a magical tree that allows you to open a portal between the world of spirits and the living. Other countries do not know where exactly it is located, what the number of molfars is, and the full scale of their capabilities.
Askold gets to the Molfar Grove, where he meets the members of the order and becomes one of Master Molfar’s students. For ten years, Askold trains to master his abilities, completes the tasks of Master Molfar, and eventually attains the rank of Apprentice Molfar. Askold swore an oath by the Old Oak in Molfar Grove to protect the secrets and virtues of the order, his brothers and sisters, and serve humanity. As the future Molfar take their oath, Master Molfar performs a ritual that summons the spirits of the Guides to the Old Oak. For most students, this is their first encounter with the spirits, but Askold had traveled in those worlds before and already had one of them in mind. So when the spirits flew to the Old Oak, Askold already knew whom he wanted to link his path with.
Based on the lore, the artist began to sketch and look for the necessary feeling for this mysterious location:
At first, there was an idea that the grove was located in the castle/citadel, but since it is a secret place and no one except the Cossacks and the Molfars themselves know where it is located, we decided to make it a cave. Several color variations were also selected:
From this, we selected a suitable option and developed it to the final form:
A grim version of the environment was also developed, with consequences of what awaits the Molfar Grove in the future according to the plot. But more on that later.
The Guide Spirit
Taking the oath, Askold bound himself to the spirit of the Guide, as all Molfar do when they complete their training. The Guide Spirit is Askold’s faithful companion and friend. It helps in navigation both in the world of spirits and in the world of the living. The spirit serves as Askold’s eyes and ears – it can spy and whisper different thoughts into people’s heads. They are inseparable, and after taking the oath, the two become one: Askold is a sword, leader, and senses, while the Guide is eyes, ears, and knowledge.
For the image of the Guide, our artist got more creative freedom, since there was no clear description of what this spirit should look like.
We thought about different silhouettes and what a spirit might look like: that it might appear from the smoke of a candle, look like an old man, be in the form of a spectral cat or a dog, etc.
Among the favorites was the grassy image (left one), which emphasizes the spirit’s natural origins:
For the image of the grass spirit, we took the looks of needle grass as a basis, which by itself is very similar to the spirit, especially when it’s windy.
We also decided to add some animality to the Guide’s look, and since the spirit is Askold’s eyes and ears, the image of a hare was perfect. This is what the final version looks like:
End of Part 1.
The Last Molfar project is a big one, and it would be too much to fit it all in one article. In the next part, we will feature various bizarre creatures from Ukrainian mythology, as well as the antagonist of the story, who brought the Molfar Grove to ashes. Stay tuned for updates!