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Gere(whatthe)nuk

Today I’d like to mention a severely goofy animal.

I became acquainted with said animal and its goofiness a few days ago when I did this colored pencil drawing from a photo reference.

Bizarre ungulate

You thought meerkats looked pretty darn silly, right? Examine if you will the gerenuk.

According to its wikipedia entry, Litocranius walleri, or Waller’s Gazelle, is native to East Africa, and the name “gerenuk” is a Somali term meaning “deer made out of rubber bands.”

I was looking at and drawing gazelles, antelopes, and deer – once again trying to find essential shapes and perfect a sort of caricature of the things that make them look so sleek and fast. It turned out I didn’t have to; nature did the work for me. I mean: gerenuks are sort of pretty – so thin and streamlined that they look like pixies. Also, sort of ridiculous. Look at its stick-outy ears.

This one, by comparison, is Grant’s Gazelle, Nanger granti.

Less-bizarre ungulate.

My search for reference photos also led to a quirky resource: ultimateungulate.com. Everything you could want to know about hoofed mammals is here.

Plywood Elephant

For almost a week now my plywood sculpture has been “done,” that is, finalized in its shape and appearance. In the past, when (if) my projects reached this stage, I tended to smile at them approvingly, put them in a corner, and forget about them. I’ve never been good at the proper “follow-through:” presenting them to the world. I want to be more professional this time. Specifically, I intend to set it up nicely, photograph it, and then attempt to sell it.

The Object is wide and deep but not very tall, because most of the plywood pieces are layered or joined parallel to each other. I plotted the Object’s shape on paper in a manner not as three-dimensional as it could be. Thus it has two stable positions: lying on a table or affixed to a vertical surface.

I think I want to put it on a wall, but neglected to include any means of doing this in the construction. So, I’m sticking some more pieces to its back.

I meant to upload these pictures of the Object in its final shape before I finished the surface. Raw, sanded plywood is pretty, but I think the grains – and more importantly the “strata” – look even better with the shellac finish.

The last picture is a sketch I drew earlier in the project.

Artist: Shaun Tan

I’d like to mention a guy who makes cool things.

Shaun Tan is an Australian artist who writes and illustrates children’s books, paints, makes films and plays, and who knows what else. He’s been doing this since at least the nineties, but I only found out about him last summer, when I was given one of his books.

There is a sliver of his work visible on his website, but it’s better on paper.

Sketch: Dogs

Today I’d like to talk about a cool-looking dog: the Siberian Husky.

I’ve been looking at and drawing animals recently, intending to accumulate images and techniques for MGC. Yesterday I tried to draw wolves, but I made them look like dogs instead. So then I drew dogs, trying to determine how to render them visually distinct from wolves and vice-versa. Ultimately I need to draw caricatures, like a cartoon wolf that looks more wolfy than a real one does.

Then I drew these two. Compare random pictures of the Siberian husky to those of wolves.

Is it just me, or does the husky actually look more predatory than its wild relative?

At first I wasn’t sure why I thought this, but then I guessed: because this dog resembles a walking shark.

…Not in detail, of course. But there are superficial similarities – most importantly the gray-on-top, white-underneath coloration. The dog’s fur makes it look super-sleek and fast, which both creatures, in fact, are. Even their eyes seem a little similar in black-and-bright color, but not in mood… husky always seem sad, while shark eyes always seem… open. And dispassionate.

No doubt wolves are actually better hunters. Still, there must be few tame animals who can boast that they still look as badass as their wild ancestors. In fact, do any others (besides, maybe, horses and falcons) qualify?

Artist: “cly5m”

Since I just talked about Seiklus, I should more explicitly mention its creator, “clysm” (actual name unknown).

This fellow is an artist interested in drawing, painting, video games, photography, and dreams. He seems most involved in photography lately, as far as I know. He seems like the stealthy sort of artist: I don’t know quite what he’s doing, but it’s probably cool.

I found his work through the now-legendary Seiklus and discovered that it’s all worth looking at. In addition, his website has various links to other inpirational – or otherwise interesting – things. Not the least important of which is a page of elephant jokes.

Game: Seiklus

Today I’m going to talk about a video game: Seiklus.

This game is an old favorite of mine (even 2003 is old in digital terms) so I’m very partial to it. My main goal here, though, isn’t to say “this game is cool and you should try it,” even though it is and you should. If you have a Windows computer and 15 spare minutes you ought to download it right now.

No, what I’m trying to do is to analyze this work from a designer’s perspective, to particulate its good qualities that we (other artists/designers) can learn from. If there’s anything more nerdy than playing video games, it’s this. Anyway, on to Seiklus…

Title screen of Seiklus

If you watch this opening long enough, an astronaut lands on the moon.

Like many independent games, this one was a labor of love, made almost entirely by one person. In this case the author is “clysm” (a.k.a. “tapeworm”). His website is autofish.net.

The title is Estonian for “adventure:” a word the author picked up in Estonia. It’s splashed in black-and-white across the title screen and, apart from a few prompts and the credits, it’s the only word in the game. This brings me to my first point on Seiklus’ virtues:

Visual Storytelling

Words are cool. Language is awesome. But “show it, don’t say it” is a rule that even a poet should agree with, and it’s one that Seiklus follows to wonderful effect.

In this game, the player controls a nameless white anthropoid figure. She first sees this stick-man sitting on a clifftop above the clouds. He is sitting with another figure, equally white and nameless but obviously female. Above them is a full moon in a starry sky.

Then big meteor falls behind the clouds, and the man gets up as if to look for it. As he approaches the cliff’s edge, another one falls – but this time the meteorite slams into the ground just behind him. It misses the man, but knocks him off the edge into the clouds, as the woman looks on in shocked silence. The view then cuts to a sunny meadow, where the player sees the man land unharmed in the grass.

Scene from Seiklus

His insect-like size may explain his resilience to falling.

I just described the entire exposition; the player then takes control of the man and can start making him walk around the meadow.

The animated scene is less than 20 seconds long, and telling a whole story so quickly is commendable on its own. Imagine a three-page-long comic book with no text: that’s a rough equivalent of the dramatic “space” this introduction occupies. It’s not a complex story – the actors aren’t exactly characters so much as symbols, and their surroundings are rather abstract. But for the game that follows, it’s perfectly sufficient, and here is why:

In order to be fun, a video game (or any game really) must provide the player three things: a goal, a set of rules or obstacles between her and the goal, and a motivation to reach the goal. In Seiklus, this introductory scene offers – to some extent – all three, but particularly a goal and motivation.

When a game handles story badly, it tells the player what she wants to do (ex: “You want to rescue the princess!”) and why she wants to do it (ex: “Whaddya mean why? Princesses always need to be rescued by heroes, moron!”) Sometimes this works – it convinces the player to believe it enough to participate. More often it doesn’t, but the game is still fun because there are other, alternate goals and motivations (ex: “No, what I really want to do is stomp on as many monsters as possible, and playing further reveals more monsters to squish. Wheee!” This is the reason many games don’t need narrative at all). And if the player feels no motivation to reach any goal, then the game utterly fails to be fun.

When a game handles story well, though, it doesn’t tell the player anything – it lets her figure it out instead. This rule holds in all story-telling media. Your favorite books and movies don’t explain everything the characters are thinking and feeling, but let you interpret and even guess a little (Of course if you have to guess a lot, with no suggestions, in total confusion, the story is a different type of bad).

As I said before, Seiklus’ simple story is revealed in 20 seconds and takes perhaps four seconds to fully interpret. But those four seconds count, because the player figured it out herself. “He is unexpectedly separated from her. She is distressed. He is in a strange place and can’t go back the way he came. I want to get this guy back to his woman!” In order to draw those conclusions, the player had to empathize with the characters and imagine things from their perspective – maybe for only 24 seconds – but it’s enough to make the rest of the game meaningful. 24 seconds of actual empathy is more than I find in some video games, more even than in some of the worse movies I’ve seen.

In this case the actors (that is, clysm’s animated sprites) deserve special recognition for this success, particularly the woman. The stick-man may be the protagonist, but he makes no gestures or expressions. The stick-lady makes the story work, even off-screen.

If her reaction to the man’s fall were too dull or rigid we wouldn’t sympathize with her. If it were exaggerated or melodramatic, it would look foolish. Putting such a perfect expression on an 8-pixel-wide face is commendable.

Opening scene from Seiklus

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress: miniature white lady from Seiklus.

Her hands are held to her mouth (or lack thereof) in speechless… worry? Fear? Shock? Whatever it is, she’s upset, and can’t seem to do anything about it. More importantly, she stands still in a static setting while the shot holds on her – and then cuts away. After that, we don’t see her for a long time, so in the player’s mind she is frozen that way. The man can be made to walk and jump on things, but the woman, far above, is going to stand on that moonlit cliff, biting her nails and holding her breath, forever. And no player wants that to happen! That stickman doesn’t just want to find his girl again, he’s got to!

The tiny matter of a few seconds and a little array of pixels makes all that difference. Which leads me to…

Graphics: Crude and Lovable

All of Seiklus’ graphics look like they were drawn in Microsoft Paint. I think that’s because they probably were.

Scene from Seiklus

A Real Man is not afraid to draw with a mouse or use yellow.

Yes, almost everything looks like it was scrawled by a child. It’s hard to explain why this so cool, because I don’t quite understand it myself. Of course it’s also cool to see pixel-painting that oozes technical prowess, but I think clysm must have taken just as much care to make the visual world of Seiklus not ooze technical prowess. I suspect he meticulously refined those graphics to make them look that whimsical.

It would be incorrect to call the graphics minimal, but they do provide the minimum sufficient amount of information. Every color, line, silhouette, or hard edge means something important, indicates a way the man can go or a thing he can interact with. Everything else is un-rendered, left to the player’s imagination. This is not unlike the way children draw.

Scene from Seiklus

How does a child show that something is HOT? With RED, that's how.

I like graphics that leave something to the imagination; often a simple shape or image sticks in my mind more than a highly detailed one. For example, I never had trouble navigating in Seiklus, because I clearly remembered every part of the world that I’d seen.

More imprtantly, such images are not easy to draw – at least by me. More often than not a graphic left intentionally un-detailed just looks accidentally unfinished and fails to stimulate the imagination. Not so with Seiklus. I feel like each part of this game looks just as it should, with no part ignored. Such consistency across such a large space is remarkable.

Dirt-Simple Exploration

To play this game, the player presses the arrow keys. Left and right make the man move horizontally. Up makes him jump or ascend a rope/chain/ladder. Down makes him descend or duck. There’s no reason to duck, though, because unlike many platform games this one has no enemies and no means of dying. And when he’s underwater, the man can be made to swim. That’s it: for the massive majority of the game, that’s all the player does. And for some reason, it’s fun.

Like the story, this is not explained (except in the readme file). But after playing for 15 seconds at most, the player will have figured out everything she needs to know for the rest of the game. If she takes the time to find all the secrets, the man gains another ability, but it doesn’t affect the fact that his main means of going places is by foot. And oh the places he’ll go, because in order to win the game the player must explore every part of the world and collect all the magic macguffins.

Again, there must be a goal, rules, and motivation. The goal is to explore the whole world; the rules are walking, jumping and climbing. So why would the player want to do these things? I for one wanted to see the whole world because it was all so darn cute, so more credit to the drawing and animation. There are several treasures scattered throughout the world that the player can collect. Some treasures do useful things (like allowing the player to see invisible platforms) and some are just cool (like causing a fish to follow the man wherever he swims). Exploration itself is challenging, but not punishing (by, say, death). And of course there is the quantifiable progress of collecting the little, floating, fuzzy, colored dots. When the man collects all 600 the magic door opens and lets him win the game.

Scene from Seiklus

The enigmatic piano is one of the trickier parts.

The collecting process, surprisingly, falls short of annoying. Several times I was aggravated trying to find the last two or three dots of a color, or solving a puzzle to access a certain area. But this was balanced by the excitement I felt when I finally succeeded. Ultimately this rule is tolerable because the dots themselves are cute – their fuzzy flickering made me feel like they weren’t mocking me, and they made a cool sound upon being caught.

Also, once again, the player is not told to collect the dots. She may collect 100 of a given color by accident, and only later notice that the corresponding light by the magic door is lit. Then, because she figured it out herself, a task that could have been: “oh, gee, time to get more dots” is instead: “say, I bet if I get the other colors I could light the other 5 lights!” Seiklus may look like a child’s landscape, but it respects the player’s intelligence.

Rockin’ Soundtrack

This game has a few sound effects and plenty of music. The music tracks are as simple as the graphics; in fact they are all module tracks. I’ve experimented with mod tracking but lack the skill to analyze the music much.

So, on a subjective note, I love the music in this game. Playing Seiklus was my first exposure to mod music, and for a while I was shocked by the seeming paradox: it sounds like videogame music, and certainly isn’t trying to sound like anything else – yet it’s music I want to listen to. Before I discovered XMPlay, I would start this game just to listen to “Rainy Summerdays.”

There is one track that put me off. “Believe In Yourself” is a very chirpy, enthusiastic tune – but it fills a dark, underground cave. I think I understand why clysm might have chosen the track: the game already has a dark spooky place and a dark volcanic place – perhaps the dark wet place needed a certain musical flavor to render it distinct. Nonetheless I felt it was the only instance where the environment didn’t perfectly match the music – or lack thereof.

The fact that the themes are so distinct makes it all the more powerful that some places are set only to gentle ambience. Or, in some places, total silence. Such lapses are almost surreal.

Scene from Seiklus

The spooky catacombs lead to a silent place full of... yeah, I don't know either.

Eye-Of-The-Needle Factor

I cheated just now and looked up some other, better articles to see if they could definitively declare why Seiklus is so good. It seems their final agreement is: it’s hard to say. This game can’t be judged as others are because it seems to break so many rules; it solves design challenges with such simple elegance that it’s hard to remember they were ever there.

So for my final point on why Seiklus is a good game, I’m going to ask you, reader, to imagine the number of ways – the vast mass of permutations – by which it could have been bad.

For example if, 6 years ago, you told me “hey, I know this computer game where you play a stickman and walk around someone’s MS Paint creation collecting hundreds of colored dots,” I would have said “golly, that sure sounds like my idea of a not-very-good time.” Of course, that’s what Seiklus is and – against common sense – it’s great.

After playing it, I might have said “oh, sure, now I see. A game about a little hero exploring a cartoon world full of cute pixel graphics. How could it go wrong?” Easily. Just because clysm made it look simple doesn’t mean it is. Seiklus is so spare, has so few elements, that a small change in one of them could unbalance and ruin the whole thing. If one stage were too long or tedious… if one aspect of controlling the character were sticky or unreliable… if one screen-worth of graphics were implausible or incomprehensible… if one sound effect, repeated throughout the game, became annoying…

Any of the above (and more) could have rendered the game unplayable, unfun, or totally forgettable. So although Seiklus is made to look clumsy, don’t be fooled – clysm threaded a needle here.

And then stitched a delicious cake with it. I’ll bet you didn’t know that was possible.

Inspirational

I’m speaking subjectively here, but I don’t think it only applies to me: Seiklus is an inspiration.

Through this game I was led to Game Maker, other independent games, and the whole idea that making one’s own videogames can be worthwhile. I knew it was possible in theory, but this was the first time I’d seen one that was original, beautiful, and, y’know, good.

Scene from Seiklus

If I can make it through the flying hippos, what can't I do?

But, as I said earlier, no part of Seiklus is boastful; no part of it oozes technical expertise. So, when an amateur artist like me first saw it I appreciated that it was very good, but I also thought “say… I bet I could draw something like that” or “I bet I could program that effect. It doesn’t look impossible.” Tough, but not impossible, and it encouraged me to learn and practice programming and pixel art. And art in general.

Conclusion

Seiklus is a very good game for reasons that are hard to quantify or qualify. Its simplicity is its strength. Those that play it seem to either not get it at all, or remember it with great affection – like a childhood memory.

Personally, I’m in the latter category. I appreciate clysm’s hard work and generosity and I like Seiklus a lot (as you likely guessed that by the above verbal lovemaking to it). I’m not a jealous lover, so I encourage you to play it too.

Artist: Anna Anthropy

Anna Anthropy a.k.a. auntie pixelante a.k.a. dessgeega

Anna Anthropy is a smart lady who likes to talk about videogames, digital art, and – occasionally – lesbian bondage.

More relevantly, she has decided on a career of, pretty much, making homemade videogames in her bedroom. That’s a pretty awesome job, and one that’s tough to establish. In some of her interviews, she talks about how she did it, or rather continues to do.

And since Miss Anthropy is a friend of humankind, she seems to encourage self-teaching in others. My favorite things on her website are her design analyses of video games. And, of course, the videogames she’s written using that knowledge.

I’m particularly fond of Under the House and her Knytt Stories levels.