Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Below the jump we will discuss old paradigms of adventure gaming and even older computer hardware, attempt to update a decidedly botched portrait and pry underneath it, at the concealed humanity of it all.

Before your PC could show you thousands, or millions of colors on the screen at the same time, it could only show you 256 colors. Some of you remember that technology having the name of 'VGA'. Some even older computer users that are reading this remember that before the VGA 256 indexed colors on screen, we had even less on personal computers (at that ancient time called 'IBM compatibles'). We had 16 colors on screen maximum on an adapter called EGA. Let's not get bogged down in the technical details of why and how, just setting a scene here.

Those 16 colors, most of them very garishly saturated and bright were not initially selected by the hardware designers with video-games in mind. They were selected so they could stand out against each other for word-processor and spreadsheet programs for which personal computers were meant to be used. However, like any computer technology the wide public ever got their hands on, they appropriated the machinery for entertainment. EGA was certainly a step up from the older CGA hardware that only allowed 3 colors from a very limited selection on the screen at one time. And even with CGA people attempted detailed graphics on the screen, most to sell computer games. Let's forget about CGA right now though and focus on EGA.

When EGA adapters were relatively novel, there was a flourishing computer game company named Sierra. They effectively had created the genre of graphical adventure games. Games in which the player's reflexes were not taxed but instead they were confronted with curious - and often sadistic - riddles which they were required to solve using collected items together in improbable ways, in order to be rewarded with a storyline, characters and hopefully a degree of pathos . Some of you reading this are more or less familiar with what I'm talking about. For those that the description doesn't spark any memory, perhaps a few pieces of graphic will:

All these games used the EGA palette, as you can see. Middle tones were faked by dithering in a checkerboard pattern between two colors. The effect is really noticeable in our sharp monitors today but back then they were much more inexact and blurry, there was a lot of pixel color bleed that they took advantage of to fake the appearance of so many as 64 distinct colors. In essence these games looked a bit more realistic back then, at the expense of crispness and sharpness. I prefer to see the dither patterns, personally, there's something charming about what they're attempting and the separate effect they're achieving in sharp monitors, which is of a curious grainy texture where pixels never let you forget they're pixels.

I grew up with these games and their art style informed everything from the stylization in my own comics, to the mostly calm 1-point perspective camera angles I use down to my selection of color. Furthermore besides a comic artist I am - perhaps it's fair even to say predominantly - a pixel artist. I draw graphics in restricted modes with few colors, preselected palettes like this EGA one or even more restricted ones, I revel in the power of the single pixel and the perfectly formed pixel cluster. My passion for this sort of odd digital art is difficult to explain to laymen, so excuse me if I don't go out of my way right now, the purpose of this article is different.

I help run Pixelation which is a critique art message board specifically geared towards helping people learn the craft of pixels so that they can help themselves discover the artistry of them also. At Pixelation, it is common for a person trying to help to edit the work of another for purposes of demonstration and for a visual aid in explaining what could be fixed and how. The edits are not taken by the original artist as they are and used, they are encouraged to use the edit as a reference point and help themselves to better their original version. An edit by a kind-hearted peer is the most useful piece of constructive critique an artist can get. I owe the few things I've accomplished as an artist to being exposed to the internet critique community and especially Pixelation almost 7... 8 years ago, as a teenager then. A very crucial age for getting your head out of your ass. It helped me swallow my pride and forget my rationalizations for when I made mistakes and just roll up my sleeves and get better by iterating my artwork, getting critique, doing it again until I was happy and the people that helped me ran out of 'crits' (which is lingo for pieces of critique). I'm not as reliant to nitpick critique today as I was then because I aim at more holistic effects with my artwork as a 25 year old than then as a 15 year old, but to get from there to here my bible scripture was CRITIQUE.

We're going to do a bit of critique on the blog today, I hope the readers that were hoping for a comic will not mind. I think the analytical process will be fascinating for most of you if you give it a chance however. I will spare you the really technical jargon, instead we'll be looking at the aesthetic aspect of a picture that belongs to one of these old Sierra EGA Adventure Games. Here it is:

This image belongs to the game 'Codename : Iceman'. It is one of the lesser known titles that even those of you familiar with Sierra Adventure Games might not be familiar with. You can see how it plays here. Please for the purposes of this text, do take 30 minutes out of your time and watch the first few episodes of that play-through on youtube. Especially the third one (I think) which features the girl above. If you haven't played a Sierra adventure game before it will give you a familiarity with both the mechanics and aesthetics of the games of that era. It might not be a terribly good game but it does convey these things successfully.

I tend to find the art in it very hit and miss. I think a couple of my favorite Sierra graphic artists worked on some backgrounds and sprites in Iceman (the same that made the top image from the selection of game shots above, with the tree. That's from Quest for Glory, my favorite computer game on the whole). Some of the art is of a high caliber. Other bits really are not, like the image right above which we'll be dissecting.

I'd like to mention here that this dissection is not meant with any disrespect for the graphic artist that made the original image. There are various considerations that we should take into account that would explain its various shortcomings, least of which is the possible lack of talent on behalf of the graphician that sat down to do this. Think about how limited the tools were at the time this was made, think of the memory limitations (at the time even using many of your 16 colors at the same image meant it took more memory), think about the time pressure to get it done and move on to the next asset in a decidedly graphics-heavy Sierra adventure game. I do not intend to mock the artist for his bad image, I sympathize very much. The purpose of the edit I am going to attempt below is to reach the potential inherent in the image and then discuss that potential in earnest. Furthermore, my edit doesn't invalidate the original because there are other merits in what could be considered a clumsy or ugly image. It could be said that by looking at ugly art people learn the most about themselves.

Let's look at it again and steel ourselves, though.

It's very clear this was an image made from photographic reference, though the end result is probably not very similar to the photo its based on. I would expect that the photo comes out of a fashion or swimsuit catalog in the early 80's. It's not a trace, as there weren't any digitizers at the time, at least affordable to Sierra. Perhaps a tracing grid was used but I doubt it because there's some extremely odd eyeballing mistakes like the thickness of the neck that could only be explained by using a very wide grid.

The image was probably made in the background editor in the Sierra SCI interpreter. This means that it wasn't made pixel by pixel. Instead try to think of this like very early and limited vector assembled art. In order to save floppy disk (remember those?) space, full-screen graphics (as opposed to the moving sprites and placed objects in the rooms, which were made pixel by pixel) were made with triangles or straight lines filled with a flat color, or a dithered combination of two colors. What was stored was the trigonometrical data of how the engine would recreate these vector graphics on the fly, when you entered a new room. Some explanations here
(scroll at the bottom and check how this emulator is reusing the vector point data from the games to rebuild the graphics at a higher resolution than the intended one). As any of you with an inclination towards understanding technology would have guessed, it's much handier to store and compress basic math procedures that set up a room than it is to store the 8-bit color value of every pixel in a 320x200 screen (that's 64,000 pixels on every screen, folks). The drawback is that the background image pixel art, *as* pixel art, is unrefined, geometric and little attention is paid on the pixel level, which is after all where the magic happens.

Look at the image again with this knowledge. The strands of hair are line-tool straight lines, no attempt is made to use intermediate colors in the 16 color set palette to smooth them towards the black. The shadows are either flat triangles of brown on top of the lighter (and pretty garish) skin color, of they're triangles made of 50% dither of these two colors. This image was made with vectors, it was made fast and then the artist moved on on whatever else he had to do that 12 hour crunch day.

To put this in context here's some women from the Leisure Suit Larry series:

This is vector mode too.

As is this. The artist took the time and care to place single pixel level detail in the speculars. All of these are photo referenced but you can't underestimate the craftsmanship here now that you understand the tools involved

Scenery is vector mode, girl standing in awkward sports illustrated pose in front is sprite mode, because she animates. You can spot sprites in Sierra screens of that time as opposed to vectors because they animate, because there's usually little to no dithering on them and because there's a lot of single pixels placed on them, most of the time.

As we can see the tools, though difficult to work through do not mean the art has to necessary look like the girl from Iceman (let's call her Mandy for now). So back to our image:

There's so much wrong here and EGA so underused it has been crying out for a revamp by a pixel artist with more time on his hands than the Sierra artist had for a while now. So I went ahead and edited this extensively, first for anatomy, then for color usage and finally for characterization and ambience. Keep in mind I worked pixel by pixel and not in any fake-vector-mode so this image would have a hefty memory cost in an original Sierra game of the time. Whether that would be worth it or not is up to the developer's discretion.

I stress that I am not using hardware capacities they didn't have available at the time in my edit. This is the exact same palette, only I'm using all 16 colors and dithering and mixing as required.

In the process of touching this up I started to wonder about the story involved in the making of this as I'm given to being a comics artist and all. The game Codename: Iceman is a pretty base experience of being a secret agent, perhaps a bit on the pedantic side, not so much James Bond as you'd expect. The atmosphere it's going for is that late eighties Tom Clancy cold-war zeitgeist. Shallowly thrilling and action-oriented while deeply puritan and conservative, not to mention completely politically hypochondriac, bankrupted by the internal pressures of the paranoid cold war-game that was going on at the time.

As such the game plays out in a very telling two-scene format. At first you're just relaxing at your vacation, you play volleyball, you swim, you dance with and then sex up this girl that hits on you (that's our Mandy right there) who COVERTLY SLIPS YOU A MICROFILM IN HER EARRING. Then it's all spy thriller baby. You suit up, pump up and go pilot a submarine around the world trying to rescue a president US ambassador from some vaguely defined terrorists. It's worth watching the play-through linked about in youtube just to follow the zeitgeist.

This woman, Mandy, then, is completely disposable not only insomuch that our protagonist has sex with her and then never sees her again but in that she's explained away as a secret agent, herself playing you with the microfilm business. No awkwardness there, man. It's all part of The Great Game. Anything potentially human and ambiguous is swept under the rug for cold war certainties and decisive-action-or-people-die.

Then I thought of the woman the Sierra artist was copying off of from. A model, probably, from a fashion or swimsuit magazine. I thought about how her smile is stilted and how her eyes are tired, how she probably had to hold that pose for minutes until some fashion photographer extracted the desired amount of misanthropic style out of what is, on her personal time, a human being. I thought of these things as I was editing and my piece started to reflect that subconscious process, I started making her eyes deader and I emphasized the kitsch even more than the original in its simplicity did. With the benefit of hindsight, the 80's were a very strange time. The garish EGA palette does kitsch almost natively.

Not only was I done trying to pretty this up (which was the original impulse), I was then actively trying to make it reflect the theoretical humanity in the original photo-shoot that was tossed aside in all this business of making a spy thriller adventure game and getting to the submarine and solving an international crisis. It became about the model and how much she wanted to be done with this gig and go home and eat in front of the television, deeply discontent yet working, working yet deeply discontent.

After I was done with the still image, I decided to go the extra mile and animate some minute aspects of this photo-shoot context in order to satisfy this internal storyline I had by then constructed in my mind.

Look at this for a while. Furthermore, look at a crop of just her eyes:

She isn't smiling. Hold that pose but don't hold that thought, when will this be over? When will he be satisfied? I feel ridiculous but if I accept what I feel then I've wasted my life. What am I doing here?

The header of this entry, before the jump is the frame when she's flashed in the face mid-blink, her eyes closed. It's hot and white outside, but it's a cold, lonely war inside. At that exact moment, I wonder what she was thinking.


PixelBeard said...

Enjoyed alot ^_^

RosenRed said...

Codename: Iceman, was the first adventure game I ever played, at a friend's computer (the first I owned, was Larry, but that was some time later)... Man you brought memories...

Though I've never done it, I can understand why would one limit himself to 16 colors, to pixels, to practically visit the past, in order to make art..

Helm said...

Nostalgia might be a part of it but not really for me anymore. It's just that few colors and pixel art and small resolutions are an extremely potent format through which to do some things. It cannot be matched by any other art form.

In fact most of the 'new school' tricks I used in remaking these are not nostalgia-friendly at all. They're techniques we've developed in Pixelation that aim at very developed goals, sideways from 'make it look like an old videogame and make the viewer feel nostalgic'.

Pixel art will eventually find its place in the minds of interested viewers as a separate type of thing to just 'early videogame art' both in scope and aspiration. It might take a while though!

Solar said...

Fascinating post Helm. It truly is the context that enlivens the art, more than the pixels or even the animation. I can only imagine how much effort went into editing this piece. Also enjoyed the metaphor for the header 'flash' pic. As to what she is thinking, probably 'I really don't want to sleep with this... *flash*... sigh' No idea of course but I sense nothing but sleeze from glamour photographers and I don't think women in such a business are completely free from exploitation. No personal experience, just a feeling.

My first foray into adventure games was the text based adventure zork 2 and the next oldest with pixel art was lucasart's 'loom' (VGA?). I don't know why but I missed out on a lot of the sierra adventure games, but I didn't have much access to a pc then and spent more time with consoles.

Working with limitations does seem to squeeze the best out of a situation, particularly it seems with games. My main examples are consoles with fixed technical specs. Toward the end of their life games would appear that really squeezed all they could from the console, graphically and technically. Examples from memory include solarjetman and super mario 3 on the NES, starfox on the SNES (hang on that was an additional FX chip so that didn't count) and metal gear solid on PSX. Actually I remember reading about ICO for PS2 being designed for PSX but held off to be put for release on PS2. Seem to remember some comment about the PSX barely being able to run it properly, but the tight design limitation actually created a fantastic looking game). Similar story with dual release of Zelda twilight princess on GC and Wii.

But enough console calling. The point is setting limitations even arbitrary ones seems to encourage the participant to analyse and explore a situation in more detail, discovering things they may have been oblivious to otherwise.

I'm not an artist and am not really that knowledgeable about the technical aspects of graphical storage and rendering but this post remains intriguing.

Keep 'em coming.

Helm said...

Took about 4 hours and another one for the text or so.

I think models behave as sleazy as photographers - I mean if I had to guess - and that they're both equally human and hurt by their lifestyle in the end.

Loom came out both in EGA and a VGA version. The EGA is vastly superior. Loom is one of the prettiest EGA games actually.

I should play ICO for more than 5 minutes some time.

I'm glad the post wasn't a failure for you Solar, who comes here for comics. They won't be often but in the spirit of covering what I do more routinely than just when I have a finished and done page, I will indulge my various other interests, as long as they're visual though. No music.

Solar said...

No music.Heh, I'm just waiting for your animated pixel comic with music. ;)

You know I'm starting to think that its a misnomer to ensure a blog remains strictly on a single topic. More important it seems is that it focuses on a common theme which in many ways I think your blog does; the presentation and discussion of your art, philosophy and ideas. Hmmm.