Redesigning Wren

So, here’s kind of the oldest “official” art of Wren. I say kind of, because older drawings exist, but they don’t survive.

Wren was created because I needed a lone wolf wanderer to explore a setting I had just devised by extrapolating from earlier stories I had told my siblings. The last set of stories I’d worked on with a lone-wolf wanderer had starred a reformed supervillain dude, so I wanted to change things up, make it a girl with zero tragedy in her backstory.

Wren canonically is a privateer. She got a scholarship to mystic knight school because she was competent and tiny (mystic knight armor is more powerful on small people because it has to devote less energy to covering them. Kinda like tiny people being sought out as jockeys in the real world). But she dropped out of mystic knight school. Her outfit was designed in the story to be pragmatic and something you might see on a wizard/pirate. In the stories, I didn’t get too specific. Boots. Belt pouches for holding her Aether Arts (which are stored as crystals). A couple of knives forged by her crippled brother. A bucklet, which is a glove designed for wizardry.

When I got around to drawing it, I of course went the exposed navel route because I was single and lonely. I am no longer single and lonely, but there it is.

The first time I converted Wren to pixel art sprite form, this happened:

All the details make it into the sprite. But it’s too much. It’s confusing and disjointed. Her jacket looks like it could be pauldrons or, you know, Cap’n Cruch cereal boxes glued to her upper arm. It’s not clear. So the character was simplified dramatically.

This outfit was significantly better to animate. Arms and legs are separated out and easy to see. It works for the same reason Mario wearing overalls works.

In my head, this was a streamlining needed for animation and because the sprite was so small. She still canonically wears the jacket. In fact, she probably wears a full on tank top rather than just a scarf around her bosom. As you can see in the first cover I made for a potential Wren book:

She’s a privateer who operates out of an airship. Well, an airboat anyway. Very steampunky. Look, I gave her goggles! The goggles aren’t in the sprite. Too much detail, make it hard to read.

Around this time, I also got it in my head that instead of making her a pair of daggers, her brother made her bucklet, and in fact, a pair of bucklets that have a built in ability to generate crystal swords. They serve the same purpose

Anyway, in the one story I wrote, Wren acquires a shevlar harness. It’s a suit capable of generating armor. Feeling less and less justified in drawing Wren as half naked, I started drawing her with the harness on instead.

In the stories, she’s not described as half naked. She’s not trying to show off her physique or attract a mate. (In the stories, she’s not even particularly attractive. She’s a 5 or maybe a 6. Mind you, she’s a 5 or maybe a 6 in a culture that isn’t morbidly obese like ours…)

She’s just out there with a houseboat hunting monsters and pirates for bounty. Presumably, since she runs her boat alone, she spends a lot of time in warmer climes wearing nothing from the waist up but a sports bra to keep her bosom from bouncing painfully as she battens hatches and trims sails, but also presumably she puts a shirt on when it get cold out or she flies to town for supplies.

When I realized I wanted to make a Wren RPG, I defaulted to the sprite-based design, though. For two reasons: I enjoy drawing half naked women, (who doesn’t?) and again, it’s well optimized for animation.

But, slowly building up was something of a crisis of conscience. I’m not trying to appeal to the coomers. Frankly, I don’t need to: if a Wren-based RPG takes off, they’ll generate their own art without my help. Also, I wanted the design to be fundamentally true to the character.

Wren is not discount Shantae. She doesn’t exist to be shameless. She exists to be a wandering do-gooder loner. I’ve focused on her because I like drawing her and my wife wants more stories about her and she is well suited to the micro RPGs I want to make. It’s kind of a perfect storm.

Sexiness in character design is also a bit of a tricky subject for me. I grew up Baptist (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do), but I’m not Baptist anymore. My current theology regards the old, ’80s Baptist prudery (Whoa! She’s showing navel!) as legalism worse than Rome’s, because in Rome you can actually get absolution. Indeed, we should not lust nor inflame lust, per the Sixth Commandment. But if putting sexy characters in stories is only and always violating the Sixth, then putting badass characters in stories is only and always violating the Fifth.

Add on top of this the fact that the Social Justice religion has turned to prudery that would make a Puritan blink, and I don’t want to de-sexyify Wren. I want to spit in the eye of my ideological enemies, as long as I can do so at no expense to the story.

And then, making a JRPG with navel in it is a good way to get retweeted by Mark Kern. I probably should ignore that, but can I?

Yesterday, I had to go sell jam at market, and my crisis of conscience reached a head. By the time I got home I was resolved to redesign Wren. I decided my chief guiding light would be character itself. I needed to find an outfit that was true to the character, but still optimized for animation.

I tried just making her wrap a tank top.

Image

It didn’t feel right. I considered that Wren must spend 90% of her time on an airship, working and living by herself. I considered that Wren, often as she faces human foes, faces therians, with power levels that make the differences between humans largely irrelevant.

And I kept coming back to this sprite:

She’s got a pugilist look. Lady boxer kind of thing going.

The design works. It’s consistent. It makes sense. But does it make sense for Wren?

Let me consider the mechanics of her world. The setting is early firearms. Swords and guns and light armor are the norm. Pistols are single shot, but devastating weapons, but not much use against aether shields. However, inside towns, chaos fields are erected that repel therians and prevent the efficient use of aether arts. The average adventurer is going to favor one or two pistols, a smallsword as a sidearm, maybe a spear for genuine combat, and everything is going to be as enchanted as possible, to give him a fighting chance against wild therians.

Wren is not the average adventurer. She is a wizard in her own right, able to manipulate aether directly and to craft her own Arts. But pistols and a smallsword still kind of make sense. Pugilism kind of works anyway for her. Not as a serious tool against man and beast, but as a backbone for an energy based fighting style. Using aether to DBZ foes.

Maybe she just likes boxing.

Maybe her wizardry is optimized for use with fisticuffs because there was a boxing class in college and she took to it like a fish to water.

So, in summary:

I had a moral dilemma weighing on my mind because my character dresses too much like Shantae. I thought about it long and hard, talked it over with my wife, considered some relevant theology and…

…Decided to make her shirt two inches longer.

This may not be where the journey ends, but at the moment, this feels right. I don’t know why. It’s such a tiny change. But here we are.

I love pixel art

Remember when I did this:

Well, try this one out.

Oh, hey, there’s a capdjack and Dr. Stump. Who’da’thunk?

From a business standpoint, HD art is way better than pixel art. No doubt. Customers love it more. Half the reviews you’ll get on a pixel art game boil down to “It’s not 1980 anymore, loser.”

It’s not entirely one-sided. If you are selling yourself as a retro revival, and leaning on the nostalgia button, pixel art can be a plus.

And it is more economical to produce. So, if your goal is to make a lot of games fast, or you are an indie studio, or you don’t care about sales, or you just don’t have the time or budget to do more for whatever reason, HD art may be the best corner to cut.

And this is the source of the “It’s not 1980 anymore” reviews. Gamers perceiving that they’ve gotten the budget option when they were owed the name brand.

From a personal standpoint, HD and pixel art are two different art forms, and I love them both. I want to make a hand drawn game, but I also want to make games where the hand-drawn-ness of the art doesn’t actually matter.

I mean, it matters for my bottom line. I just got an interview for a part time retail position, and I’m going to go to that interview in part because nobody buys my stuff.

Yet.

But let’s eliminate the profit calculation from the equation. Profit doesn’t strongly motivate me. It would, perhaps, be better if it did. My family would be much better off. But I have tried to change this, and it will not change.

If I do not stick with it, there is no game, and if my primary calculus is profit, I will not stick with it. What then of pixel art?

Well, to me, pixel art has a drastically different connotation than HD art. HD Art is bespoke. High effort. And that means the dev team diverted resources that could have gone into making more of the game.

Pixel art says freedom, depth, and breadth to me. Breadth because you can build a bigger world out of legoes than you can simply assembling each space by hand. Depth because the game developer is more likely to let me burrow into a tile, or throw it, or set it on fire, than a pen drawing or a 3D model.

Many of my favorite franchises became hollow when they switched to HD. Once upon a time in Pokemon, you walked into a town and it had only five buildings, but each of those buildings was something. Now, in Pokemon, you walk into a town and its practically festering with architecture, but each of those structures is just a hollow plastic shell.

And because the age where pixel art is required has ended, pixel art made now has a timeless quality to it. It’s not going to be more invalidated when displays switch from 4K to 32K.

Finally, I love pixel art for the same reason I love drawing cartoons instead of drawing realistically. It speaks. It gets in, says what needs to be said with no more elaboration than is absolutely necessary. It is laconic art, therefore it is witty.

At least, such is the stuff I tend to appreciate.

Digging into my Slip Box

So, I’ve been sort-of-kind-of bullet journaling, except on blank playing cards. The same ones I use in my Zettelkasten. And then indexing the cards in a manner like unto the zettelkasten.

Hilariously, even though when I took to Bullet-Journaling™ and realized I could combine techniques from Smart-Noting™, the idea to dip back into my deck and see how my current thought meshes with lessons from my past didn’t occur to me.

But last night, I started reading Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings, and today I decided since I was going to consolidate my notes from that and decide how I would proceed with my Candy Raid sequel from there, I figured I might as well break out the Zettelkasten itself and see how it all worked out.

And well I did. I have learned several lessons in the past that I was ignoring. As well as several lessons I learned recently As well as several lessons I learned recently AND in the past.

Here are a handful of lessons I decided I need to be daily reminded of. Some are good advice in general, others are tailored to my specific personality and style, and are probably bad advice for people who are not very similar to me.

  • SAY WHY. Even to children. Even to yourself. Nobody is motivated without a WHY.
  • COMMIT strongly but rarely, and CUT your losses swiftly when your gut says to do so.
  • PROVOKE yourself to action with challenges. Race the clock. Make bets with yourself.
  • The correct challenge is seldom the easy one. CHOOSE the challenge with the right amount of meaning and awesomeness.

So, heck with it. I’mma make a JRPG. Not an adventure game, we’re gonna get the combat right in. And instead of tinkering with a property I’m apathetic about, I’m breaking out the Naval Navel herself, the Girl Goblin, my wife’s favorite of my past creations, Wren Valen, the Flying Privateer!

“Wait, did she magically become a redhead halfway through?”

Yes. Hollywood has decided to blackwash all the gingers, and I have decided in return to gingerwash every one of my own characters whose hair and skin color is inessential to the character. This is why John Michael Jones, who is supposed to be a bog-average boy, is a redhead instead of having brown hair.

Obviously Jump the Shark is a shark, and Sera Mermaid was already published as a blonde. Most of my characters cannot be ginger for one reason or another. But those what can, are. And Wren can.

Allons-y!

Magic Beenz

I have recently noted that the Bunny Trail Junction comic is unfit for purpose. The purpose is to be a rapid prototyping medium that I can then take and publish, but also develop the ideas found in it into full-fledged games, comics, and storybooks. The reason it is unfit is because I put too much effort into it. Half an hour to an hour per strip, or more. I feel too invested in the result to just toss it out.

And I need to toss out a good portion of my work on BTJ. It’s random. It’s going nowhere. It’s a dead end. And that’s fine. Exploring dead ends and discarding them is good. Pouring so much effort into them that I can’t bring myself to discard them defeats the purpose.

So… unless my comic is simplified to the level of Cyanide and Happiness or XKCD, and I can toss off a single episode in 10 minutes or less, I might as well go straight to formula books.

And I am giving that a try, too.

But yesterday I sat down with a trio of books. A Clifford book, which is an example of a series that did quite well despite being well within my league, Animorphs, which is effectively a monthly pulp for young adults.

And Calvin & Hobbes.

I don’t want to abandon the Newspaper comic art form. I love it. Calvin & Hobbes reminds me of why I love it.

So.. simplifying my art style to the level of Cyanide & Happiness or XKCD, then…

D’Aww! They’re little beans!

I’m not sure this is an actual solution to my actual problem or this is going to actually go anywhere. But I like my little beans.

Hey! Beans is a play on beings! Oh! And it’s also a play on Jack and the Beanstalk, because these are magic beans!

I feel like I’ve hit something here.

Anyway, it’s my day off. I’mma play with my magic beenz.

Update:

I printed out a template that fits 4 on a page instead of 2. The idea is by forcing myself to work tiny, I’ll resist the temptation to get super detailed. But…

Ye gadz, is that ugly. And if I start applying filters or taking an actual brush to fix it in post, I’m missing the point.

So, I reluctantly tried drawing at the previous size, but using my pentel pocket brush.

I like it, and I don’t like it at the same time. I need to think about it s’more. But this stands a good chance of being the road I take.

Ideally, we make stickers of the beenz and we can just cut them out and plop them in and be done with it.

Image

But then, why aren’t we just doing our Sprite comic?

Captain’s Log 0210507.084

I’ve decided to storyboard a book in which Jump the Shark fights a giant robot on a volcano. Standard Kid’s Pulp formula faire, designed to be read to your kid in 7 minutes before bed, and yet be entertaining for all.

This is partly due to peer pressure…

Partly due to the fact that I’ve pursued my prototyping comic extensively for the last couple of weeks, and, stepping back, I’m not sure what I think of it. I think I’m investing too much effort for something I’m supposed to be able to take or leave on the cutting room floor, but not enough effort for something I’d like to sell.

For the last week or so, I’ve been assuming the comic is a resounding success that adequately pursues my goals while giving enough headway to my ADHD to avoid being confounded by it. But now I’m not sure. I want to trash or heavily revise two or three long-running storylines in the comic — and fair enough. It was designed so I could take it or leave it — but I’ve invested enough in the art that it’s a genuine emotional struggle.

Making a formula book is a good way to take a step back. It gives me the boost of adding another finished product to my lineup. It allows me to focus on all the lessons I’ve learned making books thus far, whereas more “serious” work, while incorporating those lessons, isn’t focused on them. It’s also a good dose of humility. I need to remind myself that my artistic pretensions are no substitute for skill, and what I want is not more important than what my audience wants.

And it’s an excuse to just have fun. The Jump the Shark books are me bullshitting for the sake of bullshitting for the entertainment of myself and my offspring. And, probably because they have that energy, people respond to them.

But frankly, there’s a part of me that thinks I should just make big ol’ children’s books. It’s the one win I ever get. I am inevitably drawn off that path, and yet whenever I step back on the path, things work out better. If I just stuck with it, I might see some proper success, too.

Anyway, I’m considering switching from a workflow of making these comics every day to a workflow of just building draft PDFs of children’s books. Maybe do a few pages of Jump the Shark, a few of Hat Trick, whatever strikes my fancy, all of them by the book and hewing to the formula (until such time as I have mastered the formula) and then produce whichever one is ready to go first.

In side news, I’ve been sculpting Crossover Arcade characters to fit in a toy voxel diorama world.

I really like this look. I want to use it for something some day. A book perhaps. But that’s… a lot more work between here and a finished product (although it will have the advantage that each finished book will make sequels exponentially easier due to asset reuse).

Bunny Trail

First order of business: got myself a name and a logo for my prototyping comic.

This is not the June 2021 cover. It’s a test. A mockup. Because the actual covers will feature this background, but with appropriate characters frolicking about. But this is a significant step toward that, AND it tells me what I need to know in my design process. And I think it’s nice to look at.

Captain’s Log 0210416.105: It Could Be a Bit More Awesome

Thanks to a retreat last weekend with my best friend, I realized that I’ve been focusing heavily on what is pragmatic in my constant quest for a golden workflow road.

No project is worth doing unless it’s full of awesome. Now, all of my projects have that potential, but I have not been specifically seeking that potential out. I’ve been looking for a way to do cheap and easy, instead of investing time.

I’m not sure how this revelation (which I need to rediscover from time to time) is going to shape projects in the immediate future. Awesome Moments itself may resume being my focus on the other side of the Weekend. However, we shall see.

In the mean time, here’s a workflow for making HD animations using Spriter & Krita:

Step 1: create prototype graphics at half size. Be careful about form and posture, and sloppy about everything else. The initial version of a character, especially if I intend to use character maps, should have out-jutty things designed to ensure each part takes up as much space as it ever likely will.

Here’s the Solar Guard, created for that exact purpose:

Step 2: Export at 4X size (that is, 2x the intended size; 4x the ‘sketch’ size) and animate in Spriter. Here, I am intending to shrink the graphic in Unity. By going to 4X size, I can allow for an amount of zooming without losing detail.

Step 3: Open the generated graphics in Krita and save them as *.kra files. Double the size once more, draw final quality art on new layers, then export it to a new skin folder at half size as png.

Apply skin in Spriter and see how it looks.

I may abandon shading on characters, in line with old cartoons where the backdrops were carefully painted and shaded, but the characters had flat coloring except in extreme situations. But I am content with this workflow and this art style.

I think after I’m done with Awesome Moments and in between books, I’m going to work on making a hand drawn game with Piqha. Maybe it’ll be an RPG. Maybe a platformer. Maybe I’ll work on both and see what happens. Maybe I’ll backburner Awesome Moments until my heart is in it again.

We’ll see what happens. But I need to feed my kid and the farm aminals.

Captain’s Log 0210312.064: A critical workflow lesson.

It’s Report Day. We got the cover art made:

Created puppets for the fallen serpent, and for the floating mountain/garden/ziggurat of Eden/New Jerusalem:

We also, in what is a super tedious process, made it through page 36 of transcribing the storyboards into Scribus. I’m becoming more and more familiar with the software, finding ways to make it behave. So that’s good. But this sucks and I never want to do it again.

This book is not the first book I’ve storyboarded, nor the last. Fortunately, most of the others are comic books, which wouldn’t use this process to begin with, and the exception is my Bestiary, which is still in tinker mode.

I settled on this method after my previous books.

Jump the Shark 1 was storyboarded on paper. Alphabeasts had no storyboard at all, just concept sketches for the characters. Death of Arthur was storyboarded on index cards. And Pirate Princess was written, with no illustrations, to test the Kids’ Pulp Formula.

The result was that for three books, I wrote to illustrations, and for the fourth, I illustrated to the writing. I was dissatisfied with both approaches. I felt I ought to write and illustrate at the same time, so that the words and pictures could be designed to support each other and edited at the same time. And thus I have done. In each case, I create a template with margin lines and some sample text at the target point size in Inkscape, then import this template into Krita:

Then I draw and write what I intend to draw and write in Krita. Krita’s text tools are not nearly so accurate or useful, though, so I do it with the knowledge that I’m just composing and positioning the text to get a rough idea of where it’s gonna go…

With the idea that for the first draft, I’ll import the storyboard image minus the text into Scribus, and type the text in. This is the step I’m on now in Awesome Moments 1.

Now, Scribus isn’t embedding the image data in the .sla document. It’s pulling it from disk. Which means when I finish the final quality image, I should be able to just save it over the storyboard image, and it will magically update in Scribus. Nice!

Problem is I can’t just copy and paste the text over from Krita to Scribus, and retyping everything is tedious as heck. I want to tear my hear out after two or three pages.

I think, henceforth, I shall be composing my storyboards IN Scribus. I’ll add the pages in the appropriate place, save a “storyboard image” that is nothing more or less than the template in the appropriate folder, then I’ll type the text into Scribus, and draw the art in Krita, saving over the template image as I go.

It is, alas, too late to do this for Awesome Moments 1. I am committed to see the drudgery through. But the pain will serve to strengthen the lesson.

Anyway, I become increasingly doubtful I’ll be ready to Kickstart even by the Equinox. I’m moving the target to April.

Tomorrow I have to do farmhand stuff during my normal creative block, and Sunday is for the Lord. I’ll try and make headway on the PDF draft today, and burn off my aggravation by sculpting things that will actually be useful for the campaign. But I have to allow that this may be the end of the progress for this week, and if I have more to show when I start up again on Monday, it’s a gift from God to me.

Frankly, the realization that I find this process tedious, and I could have composed the storyboards in Scribus from the very start is a gift.