Penarium is out. We spent over two years developing this game. I was the lead artist. It’s time to look back at the artwork and see what I did to illustrate a sadistic circus extravaganza.
The initial plan
Two years ago my friends came to me saying they wanted to make a platformer where the player was stuck in one screen. There were no enemies, the player had to dodge all kinds of deathtraps coming from the top and bottom. Also: It was set at the circus.
Honestly I wasn’t listening until I heard the word ‘circus’ and then I was instantly on board. I’m a fan of mystery stuff and the circus is one of those places that has existed before most forms of entertainment. The team’s inspiration was a feature film called Felix ‘The Cat, The Movie’. A 80’s cartoon full of experimental stuff. At one point in the movie the protagonist gets trapped into a circus led by an evil wizard. Specifically the audience was something I was told to look at. It’s a ragtag group of creepy soulless figures. The team wanted to see that scary not quite human audience back in the game. I was so on board with this. So on board.
At this point there wasn’t even a game title yet. Just a prototype which was an offspring of another prototype. A platformer where the top and bottom parts were constantly changing and where the player had to fight different kinds of enemies. I also made the mockup art for it.
But we started from scratch again. Here we were at the start of a huge complex undertaking. A videogame. Our biggest one yet. There were so many things yet to be done. Good thing people are not able to grasp the giant pile of tasks and trials that need to be solved in order to make something like this. I felt no burden at all. I just started at the beginning.
So what is the beginning? Colours! Colours decide flavour. At that time I wasn’t very good with colours so I figured I’d get that right first. What colours? There are billions of them. The lead I had was ‘old circus’ and ‘creepy’ so I dug back up a show I loved and had exactly those two ingredients; Carnivale, about a traveling circus in a 1930’s America. There was much to learn from this. We would later on in the project have discussions about what time and place Penarium is set and there is still no consensus. I myself like to place it in 1920’s Romania.
There’s no exact science telling you what colours remind people of a certain place or time. I just followed my guts, watched the show and froze the screen when a colour spoke to me. It could have been somewhere in the background. The colour of a tent canvas or a teapot. Then I’d make a ‘note’ of it by making a dot of that colour in Photoshop. Essentially ending with something that is both a palette and a mood board. This is not the scientific way.
An important question when doing pixel art is always whether or not to use outline. Having outline can increase visibility but it also flattens the grander picture. In all honesty I can’t remember why I chose to do most of the game without outline. It felt right at the time.
When people ask me about my inspiration for Penarium I say ‘Carnivale’ and the Insane Clown Posse . Twelve year old me thought that was the coolest thing. The sinister, occult universe they described in their songs always spoke to me and it stuck. Other games were Redneck Rampage for lovely sky and Blood. Which also had a dark carnival section. And then there was Dik Trom.
We wanted to create an unusual hero. One whose juxtaposition between his physique and his athletic performance would create a comical effect. This is a reference to the earliest days of silent movies when a certain genre reigned supreme: slapstick. Penarium is what you’d get if Laurel and Hardy was really brutal. In hindsight it’s mean, but at the time plus-sized male characters were more represented in cartoons and movies. Often for comical effect. The heavier person would always be the less agile, less tactile. There is however a Dutch book series in which gained popularity is the late 1800’s in which the protagonist was a heavy kid that was always up to shenanigans. This was a big contrast to the then usual obedient characters. His body type was more a display of rebellion than a comedic device at his own expense. I wanted to bring that back in Penarium.
But more importantly, we needed a character you felt sympathy for when he would die. There’s lots of dying in this game.Below is my first sprite where I felt we were on to something. I gave him a red hairdo because I have a friend who worked at a circus fair who also had red hair. It’s that simple. My friend’s name is Wilco but we call him Willy. And so the name for the game’s character was born.
I also looked at fabric. Denim was still coming in at the time but a brown pair of pants looked more suited for the time. The blue shirt was a colour straight from the palette. The bracer/suspender is a reference to Dik Trom.
I used the palette to start working on the background levels. I used wood, rope, canvas. All painted in the washed out dark reds and greens I learned from research. The early drafts were a bit too sinister. I painted a dark dark carnival but the team feared the skulls I made gave players the wrong idea. Another thing I noticed was that it was very hard for me to fill the set resolution space with pixels and that it felt too..mature. The team initially opted for a pixel art style because the gameplay resembled that of brutally unforgiving platformers from the NES/SNES days but the resolution we started in turned out to be too high to communicate that and too hard for me to fill up. It became too detailed. More so, the clear ‘broad areas of untextured colour’ style I used began to show its weak spots. We decided to cut the game’s resolution in half. This meant that I got only half a screen to fill and pixels would look even bigger in the game because it would always be rendered full screen.
That meant Willy had to be redrawn in half the size. It gave me a chance to adjust some things and etch his personality even more. There was less room for detail so only the traits that really mattered would make it through. Gone were the buckteeth and while I was at it I tried out some other ideas. The one I settled on had red hair and a blue shirt. It was just the simplest figure and felt the most ‘retro game icon’ to me. Also a striped shirt might prove more work to animate later on.
I was content with what I had until halfway into the project when we decided it might be a good idea to refine the design. The idea was to make him less square and more round. That’s when I came up with this.
This is Willy’s final form. Don’t you just want to give this kid a hug? He needs it. An idea that runs through the whole game is that the story of Willy is like the bible story of Job. A man whose faith was tested by God pouring a seemingly endless barrage of misery over him. God wanted to see when Job gave up, Penarium wants to see when the player gives up. We’re not just throwing around analogies here. I’ll get more into this in a later post.
Being almost the only two characters in the game I wanted a contrast between Willy and The Director, which during development I called Gonzo, though that is not his name in the game. On first sight The Director is everything Willy is not. He is the clear enemy and he is nothing like the player (Willy), Gonzo talks, Willy is quiet. Gonzo is tall and thin, Willy is short and broad. Gonzo has to look like obvious bad news so the cutscenes where Willy blindly follows him become even more frustrating.
Where Willy was easy to design the Director was hard. I struggled with the director because it was very hard for me to not make him look like V For Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes. The trademark signs of a circus director or ringleader are a long suit and a top hat and often a moustache. Add to that the required (boss’s orders) mask and it’s hard not to think of Guy Fawkes. I tried working without a moustache but that seemed to give the whole character less menace. I like him as a character but I have to admit most of his appeal stems from the resemblance to Guy Fawkes. It needs to be said that Gonzo was designed much later into the project than Willy and I had less time to work him out. I am curious after what would come out if I decided to redesign the character.
Character design is fun to do and having as much time as I did for designing Willy helped a lot. There are three more characters I’ll discuss in the future. One whose role was in the end reduced to a mere detail, much to my sadness. All that and more will be revealed in the following parts of Behind The Art Of Penarium.
Did I mention Penarium is out?