Yesterday in a big mess of brainstorming I circled around the idea of making a prototype comic. Again. You know, the same prototype comic I made back in April. But for real this time, you guys.
Last night, before work, I did concept drawings for the characters. It happened that I had a printout of my pixel art mockup for my Wren game in my clipboard
And so I tried to match styles. Which, in turn, the pixel art is an attempt to match styles with the hand drawn art I’ve been doing, so…
I was very pleased with the result, and so I carried my brainstorm across in my 16x9x3 format:
I think that this comic format and my tendency towards cartooning are so suited one to the other that that’s basically what I should do. Just go back to making comic strips of anything I feel like, and hoping that I can eventually harvest fully grown stories off the comic vine.
The art style works best, I think, if the characters are a little more lean and lanky than the pixel art equivalent, but I think drawing to pixel to drawing design pipelines are worth considering.
But here’s another thing. I can produce 2+ strips a day in this format, even when I’m not making Beans. Meanwhile, the average update schedule at, say, Arktoons is once a week.
So why not be random splody and make comics of everything? When I have enough Hat Trick, I’ll ask Arktoons if they want it, and easily keep up a once-per-week upload schedule. When I have enough Jump the Shark, I’ll ask Arktoons… etc, etc, etc.
And maybe Arktoons will turn me down. But I think this is the way forward. I think it always was, even though most of the comics I produced in April and May were false starts. The nice thing about false starts is I can make ’em, then turn around and make the proper starts. It’s all good.
Bunny Trail Junction AKA Magic Beenz is back on the menu. But I think not beenz. The beenz were an experiment, and the result was “It’s aesthetic, but not what I’m going for.”
I’ve got a bunch of ideas whirling about right now. They’re not organized, and I’m blogging them because it’s better to have them out than in. This is going to take into account many of my recent adventures.
I’ve started doing a book about my ADHD. I dunno. Maybe it’ll be useful some day. I’m working in my Zoom & Enhance workflow.
Tonight, for grins and giggles, I did the page of me overlooking Anvor.
I have started working on the book because my mind is stuck on a continuous loop of how crap it is that I do not choose what to focus on or focus well enough to do anything. I am enjoying my new day job as much as one can. It’s a great fit. But I dislike having a day job. I have a list of almost 30 projects, and 5 or 6 of them would be guaranteed hits if I followed through on them.
I’m getting that frustration of wheel spinning again.
The ADHD book shouts out the big list of projects. After all, 90% of my problem is a million great ideas and zero follow through. And because of that, I keep getting reminded that more than one of them is financially quite viable. Aside from Anvor being… okay. Fine I guess. I would enjoy it… 8 Lives Left would kill, and so would Re-Tail.
The problem with being inspired to consider my problems is I get to wallow in my archetypical despair.
But perhaps now that I have an idea what I’m aiming at, I can get that fixed. Yech.
Who can deliver me from this body of death? Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Anyway, tonight’s process has got me thinking about the painting I’ve been going on about for the last three posts. I was unsatisfied with how the cartoon painting of Anvor came out. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s not great.
I think this experiment is failing. Well. I think this experiment is succeeding, in that any experiment which teaches you something is a success, and this one is teaching me that I don’t like the results of my digital painting.
After being intensely dissatisfied with the painting of Anvor, I decided to do a quick, small, study, where I dug up a photo from the internet and painted my own version, using the sloppy zoom & enhance methodology. Only I convert it to Wren. I decided to go full thirst mode on this, because the point was I wasn’t having fun or enjoying the outcome and so let’s paint something I will find pleasant to look at. Behold, study in blue and orange:
Thanks, but I hate it.
I think it’s a decent enough picture for a quick, impressionistic study made solely 100% for fun. I will probably include it henceforth whenever I make a great gallery of Wren. But I think that impressionistic brush paintings are not going to be it for me, and this picture was the straw that killed it.
Well, these pictures:
I just like these pictures so much more:
At the end of the day, I am still a cartoonist, and content so to be.
Woke up this day to people bashing Shel Silverstein in a blog I follow. I endorse bashing Shel Silverstein. It is abundantly clear to me from his work that he hated little kids, and given that I, who enjoy writing for children, have to have a day job, it irritates me that a man who hated it made a career of it.
You know, making kids books is a good enough calling. It’s a freaking fantastic calling. It’s just about the best calling there could be. And yet, my mind is always on churn, looking for other things to do, or ways to complicate it, even though I make kids’ books just fine.
I dunno what’s next. Focus on getting the ADHD sorted. Maybe try to find a short path to feeding my family as I get there.
Awesome Moments awaits.
Despite the extensive 3D work I’ve put into it, I think I want to ditch using 3D rotoscopes for consistency because they stiffen my drawings in the same way painting does. I dunno. I suppose still using them as reference, but not for tracing might work out allright.
More studies, more practice, more refinement are in order. But less of A, and more of B:
And I need rest and spiritual counsel and prayer.
I feel like we took a detour that was needed to be sure of the road.
Then I decided to further test the process. See if I can make a book this way by storyboarding it with a rough drawing, but then progressively refining it into final art.
So I started small with a template designed to give me a 16×9 image and then show me where the pages will be in the final document. I drew a couple title pages for a therian bestiary.
This was very roughly done because while I have a little Wacom tablet I can use in my day job’s break room, Krita doesn’t like to acknowledge different pen pressures from it.
Perhaps I will get that sorted tonight.
Anyways, I got home and used my big, fancy tablet to refine it…
When painting, I like to start low resolution, something where my PC isn’t going to think five minutes before rendering a brush stroke. Here, I can abuse the power of computer graphics to its fullest. Guy’s nose is too big? Shrink it down. Hand is too far to once side? Grab a smear brush and push it over. Normally, I do this for sketches, then print them out and ink them, then scan them back in and color them. But in this particular process, I’m doing the whole picture this way.
When I’ve pushed the picture as far as it will go, I just double the dots per inch and go in and tweak it even more. So, the size in pixels quadruples, but the size in inches stays the same.
This is far as the process goes tonight. I have to go to work, which means I will not have access to the fancy tablet, only the one with no pressure sensitivity. But now you see why I call the process “Zoom and enhance.”
As you can see, large chunks of the painting get cut off in the book itself. But that’s fine. I’ve made sure the elements I want to be seen in the book are within the pages. I want there to be a 16×9 slice of every painting for me to throw on Twitter or wherever, or use as desktop wallpapers, and while it would work fine to take a slice out of the middle of the images, and have the excess in the book, it felt more right to work in 16×9 at the start and be conscious of where the page borders are within that.
The rough idea is: storyboard an entire book in the fashion of the first image. If I like the book, run a crowdfund, if the crowdfund funds, zoom and enhance until we’re at least 300 DPI on each image to create the final book.
I want (at the moment) to use this process on Awesome Moments book 1. Minus the crowdfund portion because, as much as I want the money, I don’t want the pressure to try and avoid offending my fellow believers in wildly different traditions than mine. Much as I like my Papist and Baptist friends, if I make a book that’s inoffensive both to Papists and Baptists, I will have failed to pass my faith on to my kid.
But I don’t care about peer pressure on any of my own stories. If Bob Snob thinks page 32 of Hat Trick can use more fireballs, I’ll consider his input and maybe even take it if it’s good. There’s no moral hazard really, there.
The thing that’s holding me back from diving in and finishing Awesome Moments in this fashion is I’ve done one and a half pictures with this quasi-impressionistic loose-brush Zoom and Enhance paint cartooning:
I need a larger sample of the style before I decide if it’s the right one for Awesome Moments. So, unless I get another idea, I’m putting that book on hiatus until I complete another (hopefully short) book in the new style.
The only think that my mind wants to move forward on right now, sadly, is the Therian bestiary, which is not short. But in the absence of inspiration to work on, say, Jump the Shark or Hat Trick, it’ll do. The point is to get the test done.
I was under the weather this weekend, and it had been forever since I made any progress on any of my projects. So I painted.
Painting strengthens my artistic skills by forcing me to exercise observation and translation of form and light in ways that my normal, casual, caricature does not. I prefer cartooning to painting. I am more pleased in general with my results when cartooning than when painting. But painting makes me a better cartoonist. And besides: despite my lack of satisfaction with the results, I get absorbed into the process.
And when I have a big project, and progress is slow, it helps to stop and do a picture that takes all day, so you have a finished picture you can point to and say, “hah! I was on this day productive!”
First I did this one:
Interestingly to me, this more realistic version of Wren grows less and less disappointing every time I look at it. The first instant I declared it finished, I hated it. But now, I kinda sorta think it’s okay.
It’s a little stiff. A little plastic. But not terrible for all that. Anyway, whenever I try one of these paintings, I proceed from an energetic, lively, cartoony sketch to a kind of plastic, stiff final painting. Observe:
The picture got more detailed. The picture got more polished. But it also lost something of the personality. By finishing it, I killed it. And not in a good way.
This is not a problem outside my painting These pictures are finished, but retain all the life I poured into the sketches:
So, in a fit of dissatisfaction with my study in yellow and orange, I thought I’d try an experiment on Sunday. Instead of trying to create a fully polished painting, I’d try to paint a cartoon. I’d use a rough brush, and force myself to keep things loose, and abandon the project the moment I had successfully expressed whatever it was I was going for.
This picture runs into the constant problem of Wren’s cartoon proportions looking too young/old. I tell myself that it’s a function of the style I’m trying to build/imitate..
But I know it can be done. Betty Boop has a bigger head than cartoon Wren, and yet nobody thinks she’s supposed to be six.
But other than the problems I willingly gave myself by creating a female half-goblin lead, I really like the style of working from vague to precise, keeping it loose and scratchy all the while. Wren’s face is clear, her hands and feet are almost gestures rather than paintings. The monster in the cave look comes across clearly, but I only put half a day’s work into the painting. It has the life and an energy that the study in yellow lacks.
This semi-impressionistic work is a matter where I have mixed feelings. I like impressionism. I like attempts to go in art where the camera cannot go. As I’ve said before, I like caricature and pixel art. On the other hand, I have a well-honed distaste for abstract for the sake of abstract, for deconstructive or worse, masturbatory art that has typified the notion of art in the West my entire life.
But one of the things I like about text rather than art is that the audience participates in building the world. You write, “short ginger,” but each audience member fills in the details of the picture himself. And making the art messier, more suggestive, more abstract, pulls some of this superpower of writing into artwork.
I think I’ve concluded I want to do at least one book like this. But I need to do more paintings like this to try and explore this visual space and decide what I like or dislike about it. I’ve discovered not a solution to my problems, but a passage that may lead to a cave filled with gold, but may lead to a dead end.
At the very least, this form of picture generation is honest. I’m not trying to hide what parts of the painting I cared about and which I didn’t. It’s right there in front of you.
But I can’t explore today. I’m sorry, Mario, but our drawing tablet is in another office.
The game world is in pixel art, the interface is in HD. I have decided this is acceptable.
However, my action system needs revamping from the ground up. In this particular gif, you can see it almost functioning properly, but it has two huge bugs. One is that the mouse doesn’t work on the radial menu once the choice menu is coded. Second is that the mouse doesn’t work properly on the choice menu either. I don’t remember either of these bugs plaguing the project I stole the code from, but I could be mistaken.
Another issue with my action system is that actions can call each other and overlap in messy ways. When you select something from the radial menu or the choice menu, the menu should go away, then the selected action should take place. But this doesn’t happen.
What I’m going to do is rewrite the whole thing so it operates cleanly. It’ll probably take me all week, but it’ll be worth it in sparing myself future pain.
In preparation for this, and because Unity 2020 still rubs me wrong, I tried downgrading my project back to Unity 2019. It did not go well. As expected, the project broke, but when I tried to use git to roll back to a working version of the project, it didn’t unbreak. I’m an artsy type. I’m probably using git wrong. But, eh. I’ve decided to start a new Unity Project in 2019, skip the fancy 2D lights for now (not essential to the game), and proceed from there.
Normally, I would find wheel spinning like this demoralizing, but for some reason I don’t this time. I feel like I’m doing what I should.
The navigation is done via the A* project, which in turn, feeds commands to the virtual pad…
Which is *not* how I did it before. Before, I just made the character walk in the direction you clicked, oblivious to any obstacles, and then the virtual pad fed commands to the “click on the ground” components.
What this means is I can reuse my old code for clicking on objects and creating dialogue, etcetera, but I’m going to need to tweak it to play nice with the completely revamped navigation system.
It should be easyish. But I’m having trouble getting started. Maybe because it should be easyish. I may push it eventually, but I spent yesterday getting the pathfinding up, usually a day off, and I only have a couple of hours before I need to clean up and head to my day job for orientation. So I’m letting go of making more progress on the game today for the moment while I get some thoughts down.
Also, I drew this last night. So let it not be said I have not made progress:
Sometimes I consider making a picture book that is just that: pictures. No words. But that is neither here nor there.
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.
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.
Yesterday, the beta version of Aseprite 1.3 dropped for Steam users. I use Aseprite to make pixelart animations…
…and Pyxel edit to make the tiles. Pyxel Edit lets you edit a tilemap with your tiles in it that gets live-updated as you work on the tiles, allowing you to very quickly make a very functional tileset.
Now you’ll note that not everything on the screen is my tileset. I like to dedicate layers to characters and objects so I can preview how the whole thing will look together.
Well, Aseprite 1.3 added tile features. And…
… they don’t hold a candle to Pyxel Edit’s. They’re a very good start. And I like these tiles better mostly because I made them with the lessons learned from making a tileset in Pyxel. But you can’t easily flip tiles. Rearranging your tile palette changes the tile map because the tile map stores the tile indices and doesn’t change them when you monkey with your palette. Oh, and you can’t export your tileset.
I’ll repeat that. You can’t export your tileset.
You have to build the image you want to be your tileset and export that.
That’s not 100% a deal breaker. Some people would rather export an image because it is more convenient to them to have the tileset arranged a specific way.
On the other hand, Aseprite’s general pixel art tools are, for the most part, way better, and the two programs do not gracefully copy and past art to one another. There’s a huge amount of convenience in saying, “You know what, I’m tired of working on the tiles right now, I’m going to tweak that tree.
I also added a third character to the mix and discovered that Wren was too short. When compared to “normal” people in the game, she will look like a child in a bikini. Wren is not entirely human, and canonically characters do assume she’s younger than she his because of her unusual height, but it was too far. So, I fixed that.
At the end of the day I don’t know whether I’m going to stick with my current, split workflow, or switch to an all-Aseprite workflow. The pros and cons of each workflow are dancing on a razor’s edge.
So, let’s do a quick mockup on how the game might look if we use pixel art for the world, but a high definition interface:
If I’m going to put conversation on the bottom of the screen, I might want to consider pushing the world design so that the action happens higher up. The top of the screen certainly is more spacious, and a more reasonable place to put interface. If I move dialogue up there, I’ll have to change the visual metaphor for the character graphics, maybe stick the face in a box. But overall, I don’t hate the look.
I was planning on making combat menus radial, bursting out of the player when the time comes to menu, but in my mockup test, it felt right to have buttons materialize under a character’s stat bar. But I’m not decided.
I need to try it out, see what works. At this point, the next step is to give Wren a walking animation and get gameplay up and running.
I’m sad that you can arrange a palette in uneven rows in Pyxel, but not in Aseprite. Ah well.
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.
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.