I try a new thing: Drawing On Computers!

I recently bought a Wacom Bamboo Graphics Tablet. It’s pretty cool. I also got my hands on Adobe Photoshop so I’ve been playing around with that for the last few weeks. Basically Wacom make these neato tablets (my one’s about A4 size) that you can draw on with these special pens that are powered by witchcraft or something. (Seriously, it’s amazing, it powers the pen with the electricity in your hand!) This post is more or less a first impressions review of the process of digital drawing.

The first thing I thought when I started into Photoshop was “hey, where’s the make-my-drawing-good-button?” Unfortunately, no such button exists. Or at least, if it does, it’s hidden like some sort of holy grail amongst the countless doodads and thingamobobs that litter the Photoshop interface. No, much to my surprise, drawing on computers will not make your drawings better. They will however make make your drawings easier.

See how I did the rain? Thank you, YouTube tutorial.
See how I did the rain? Thank you, YouTube tutorial.
One of my first attempts.
One of my first attempts.

I was really amazed at how much my first few attempts ended up looking like real sketches. It’s a bit disorientating at first to have to stare at a screen while you draw on a magic tablet and see your brush strokes come up in real time on the screen, but it takes a surprisingly short amount of time to get used to. And Photoshop really does make some things exponentially easier. Being able to resize and change parts of your picture without having to ruin it with rubber marks or correction fluid, or worse, just starting again, is a godsend. Also, being able to work in layers so that you can literally be colouring in under your contour lines is amazing. It’s crazy how old habits die hard, I did like 5 or 6 pictures before I realized I didn’t always have to work from light colours to dark colours, breaking the rules of painting has never been so rewarding.

Not bad, given I decided to draw from memory for some reason. I decided using Google images for a Pikachu drawing was cheating. Fans of the series will know that this is in fact, Sparky (remember? The first time Ash went to the Pokemon League? He came like 16th or something. Good times.)

So yeah, it’s fun, easy, tidy, and you can copy and adjust as many prints as you want. A solid investment overall, and it certainly does nothing to knock artistic integrity. It definitely takes a lot of skill, and I will say that Photoshop is tough to get used to, unless I’m just thick. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what it’s capable of, and I’m constantly accidentally stumbling onto useful things (what? There’s a tool that will draw straight lines for me!?)

I sure do draw a lot of well muscled men...
I sure do draw a lot of well muscled men…

Of course the next step is to find a practical purpose for it. I think making hand drawn (cyber-hands, of course) backgrounds and sprites for my future video game development endeavours could be pretty cool. Combine that with some slap dash tunes I could throw together in Fruity Loops and I may have actually found the one future career path that rewards haphazardly slapping together a bunch of half-learned skills. Progress!

I think this one's pretty good, minus the gimpy hand.
I think this one’s pretty good, minus the gimpy hand.

Twitter and Poetry

Howdy! I’ve just joined Twitter, making me one of the last people on Earth to do so. If you are also a Twitter (Tweeter? Twitterer? Twit?), you should follow me! @joshoclast  . Also if someone could explain to me how Twitter works, that would be lovely.Twitter_logo.svg

Last week I wrote an article on “The Poetry of Game Development”. It’s very good. Anyway, I couldn’t help noticing that the tag that brought the most traffic to my blog was “Poetry”, even though I didn’t write any poetry at all. So, partly out of the guilt I feel for conning poetry lovers onto my blog by using the rascally metaphorical use of the word “poetry”, and partly as part of a cunning scheme to increase my viewership, this time I actually will be writing about poetry. Or, more specifically, CYBER-POETRY!

Twitter for example (did you notice my foreshadowing?) is an interesting place for poetry to grow out of the interverse in 140 characters or less. Now, you may be thinking that Twitter is just a place for pre-teens to write about their Justin Bieber obsessions with atrocious grammar, and that’s mostly true. But here’s a cool twitter bot thing called @Pentametron. Basically it finds random tweets that happen to be written in iambic pentameter and groups them into rhyming couplets. Plus it sort of sounds like a Decepticon. It makes for some pretty cool reading, worth checking out!

Whew, I almost forgot about my obligatory pop-culture reference.
Whew, I almost forgot about my obligatory pop-culture reference.

Micropoetry is a whole new movement apparently, with all sorts of competitions and contributors from across the web working to make some slick rhymes in the shortest amount of characters possible. Haikus are growing in popularity on Twitter @twaiku. It’s definitely something that’s likely to grow and grow in the coming years, as brevity is becoming the key to expression. There are pros and cons I guess, but more people becoming in involved in poetry can only be a good thing.

If you missed it before here’s some code poetry. This is a form that I would definitely love to see more of.

The Poetry of Game Development

Over the past two weeks or so I’ve been diving into the world of computer coding and making video games. The program I’m using is GameMaker (the free version, which I got off steam) because it seems to be the easiest to start off with. It’s pretty fun, and it has its own coding language which let’s you take it up a notch if you want to get more advanced. I was also learning JavaScript from a very cool website called Codecademy which turned out to be very useful since the languages are quite similar and the learning curve for this stuff is so steep you could get a concussion if you ran headlong into it. Since I always revel in the opportunity to shite on about video games, here’s a list of simple observations I made that really surprised me, given that I had virtually no experience with any kind of programming beforehand. Maybe if you’re computerly illiterate like me you’ll find them interesting too!

Disclaimer: if you do know anything about computers, please forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how true these impressions turn out to be the deeper you dive into this strange computery world. These are just simple thoughts I had that made me think all this tech stuff is more fun and artistic than I originally gave it credit for.

1. Everything is more complicated than I thought it was.

The first game I made on GameMaker was eloquently titled “My first game EVAR!!!” and because I cheaped out on the free version that won’t let you export to HTML, no you can’t play it. However, I can describe it to you in vivid detail.

I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!
I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!

Essentially there’s a little blob named Blinky and when you press left he goes left and when you press right he (can you guess?) goes right. It’s very artistic. Anyway, the first thing that struck me is just how damn complicated everything is. I mean, yeah, you can just say “when the left key is pressed, move left at 5 pixels per frame per set” or whatever but that’s a boring, uninspired way of moving. You get a much nicer, more fluid way of moving if you set it so that you accelerate up to a top speed, and when the key is released, you slide to a stop by playing with the friction settings. It’s really pretty fascinating. And to be honest, it’s that sort of macro stuff that’s the easiest to pull off, it really snowballs when you want to add a delay to a jumping animation so you can see the little dude bending down to ready himself. All of these things you take for granted when playing big budget games. It’s really the simple, nuanced things that make a game feel polished and professional that are the toughest to pull off.

2. Everything is way simpler than I thought it was.

I mean really, who knows how a video game works? For that matter, who knows how a computer works? I think I could give a pretty good rough explanation of how pencils and paintbrushes work, hell I could probably take a decent stab at explaining the camera, but the idea that all these letters appearing on this lit up screen in front of me is the result of some complex series of zeros and ones? On a scale of one to making sense that scores a grapefruit. It’s completely alien to me, but really once I started tinkering with the code, I sort of figured its all just maths, and not even particularly complicated maths.

I get it!
I get it!

I don’t know who invented the “if statement”, but whoever it was is the patron saint of compooter things. It’s a stroke of genius, you give the program a condition (like if the left key is pressed) and then the computer stares at it, and it keeps giving off zero, zero, zero, zero, and once it lights up and turns into a one, it executes whatever code you put in the if-statement (go left). It gets really cool once you have a string of them together. If the up key is pressed, and if the player is on the ground, increase vertical speed, if vertical speed is greater than zero, play jumping animation, if player is off the ground, set gravity variable, if player is on the ground, set gravity to zero, if vertical speed is zero, play stationary animation. There’s a really beautiful synergy to it, when all the different parts of the code come together and run smoothly. You get the hang of threading these things together really quickly and it’s very rewarding.

For science!
For science!

3. Your personality is inevitably going to come across.

I always thought that the real magic in game design came from the idea men, the storyboarders, the artists, the musicians. I thought the actual programming was a monotonous, mechanical process that was simply necessary to glue all the other bits together. Boy was I wrong. It’s really a lot like making music. You have a sort of rough idea of how you want the game to play but in the end you’re just pumping in figures and variables, play-testing, and seeing what feels good. You’re not going to program the perfect jump in one go, you’ve got to play around with it until it feels right. I found that it’s really the accidents that make for the best game experiences, it’s all about recognizing what works. A lot like how most of the major developments in electronic music have been people making mistakes, but realising that it sounds good, so they stick with it. It’s a lot more of an artform than I gave it credit for.Space Invaders

It sort of blew my mind when I realised that your individuality is inevitably going to come through in any bit of programming you do, no matter how generic. A lot like how if you got 50 people to paint the same tree, you’ll get 50 different paintings. If you get 50 programmers to make Space Invaders from memory, you’ll get 50 different games.

4. There’s art in games and games are art.

The late great Roger Ebert once butted heads with the gaming industry by saying “video games can never be art”. Honestly I think its a fairly ridiculous argument that pretty much just boils down to a semantic disagreement. Firstly, art has to be defined and secondly we need to decide if video games are “games” in a true sense. Neither are things I’m particularly interested in doing. I’m sure if games were called “interactive audio-visual works with peripherals for generating input” there would be no debate but because they’re called games we have to clash with critics (similar to how “comics” are stigmatised even when they’re not comical).

Anyway, I always knew that there was art in games. There’s concept art, narratives, soundtracks etc. but this is the first time I realised that the mechanics themselves can be art. I’ve spent a little time searching for interesting contemporary examples of people using technology in innovative ways to create poetry and it’s definitely something that will only get bigger in the future. I for one think it’s already there, there’s definitely a sort of intrinsic beauty to a block of functioning code, and there’s an amazing physical sensation you get from the visual feedback in a game. It’s amazing when a jump you programmed feels just right. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental!

The future of gaming is here.
The future of gaming is here.

Here’s some examples of some neat code poetry. And here’s a Wikipedia article on digital poetry. Lastly here’s a cool competition I found if anyone feels like making some digital poetry of their own.