Category Archives: Penarium
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?
This year I worked on Mutant Gangland and Penarium and it was awesome. It was a good year for me. The following sums it up: ￼
8: Going to GDC for the first time. I guess
Boy, was I disappointed in GDC. It’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. People on social media will have you believe it’s the most joyful thing ever with their selfies and their inside jokes but that wasn’t my experience. Every evening was super stressful because there were parties all over town and I just always felt like I was missing out. It’s like new year’s eve five nights in a row. It’s not for me. I don’t even like parties. I did meet a few nice people and it was interesting to see a new city. I guess it deserves a place on this list because of how big an experience this was. Otherwise, I couldn’t find 8 significant moments. I’m also probably going again next year. Enough for the sour stuff. The rest of the list is happy stuff. I promise. ￼
7: Getting a new console
I know this is shallow but I just love unboxing game consoles. When I was 8 and got a NES on Xmas, I freaked out, ran out of the house and went screaming on the streets. Ever since then, I try to recreate that moment. It’s never going to be that intense anymore but unboxing a new console will always be special. During previous console generations I was not very big with money and only got a game machine after it had been out for years. Somehow I always missed noticing their releases but I was extremely excited about getting a PS4. Maybe so hard that I actually tricked myself into wanting it. I wanted a new new PS4 and I got mine. That smell of new plastic is amazing. ￼
6: Realising how much experience I gained over a year
Two years ago we released Paper Vs Paper, a game you probably don’t know because we did a crappy job at promoting it. We were fresh out of school and somehow had the idea that we could put it on the app store and email people about it until it started selling. That was naive. There was a moment when we were far along with Penarium where I though “Man were we a bunch of idiots when working on Paper Vs Paper”. Somehow that cheered me up.￼
5: Putting Mutant Gangland online and actually selling units
Mutant Gangland has become a very personal project I can fill up with everything I like about action figures, Robots, Ninja turtles, and apocalypse stories. I honestly believed that when we put the game on itch.io maybe ten people would buy it but it’s a little bit more than that. I often check out the names of people and it’s not just friends of friends anymore. It’s complete strangers thinking “this might be worth my money” and that feels like a signal that we are making a proper game here. It might sound superficial but I wouldn’t know if I was equally enthusiastic about Mutant Gangland if we sold 0 copies. But we do sell and I’m super pumped to make a big release in 2015. ￼
4: The moment Penarium pieces fell into place
At one point a game is just a bunch of moving objects and at another point it’s a game, a product, an orchestra of arts that together create magic. Sometimes the transition between those moment is unclear but in the case of Penarium it was when the sound effects and music were in. Our sound man is a wizard and when we loaded the game for the first time with audio we were very very happy. There’s something awesome about trying your game for the 100th time and finally, BOOM it rocks. ￼
3: Signing a deal with a publisher
WE knew that Penarium is a fun game but we actually rang quite a few doorbells with it and it took a while before they started opening. Then we started worrying. Not because our game might be bad but because the outside world had their eyes full of shit and couldn’t see how awesome it is. Team17 was enthusiastic from the start. We felt good about them. A nice bunch and a name I look up to. For us signing with a publisher was signing a treaty that said “look, we think your game is so good that we’re actually going to spend money on it. We trust you.” Also, I can’t wait to one day come home, turn on my console and buy my own game. ￼
2: Picking up drawing again
In 2009 I took concept art seminars. The huge amount of stuff you need to learn to become an artist scared the shit out of me. I decided I did not want to be a concept artist and focused on other things. Since then my sketchbooks became less filled with drawings and more with scribbles of game mechanics. It was a shame though. I loved the idea of Penarium right away and researched circus life and aesthetics. I had trouble transporting that directly to pixels. I just couldn’t get it right in Photoshop. That’s when I discovered my sketchbook again. Countless sketches of clowns, tents, monkeys, and directors came out. Not just that but also robots, monsters, and spaceships just for the fun of it. Now the year is almost over, the book is almost full and I often look through it feeling proud as if I reclaimed something I left behind for no good reason. Welcome back, Drawing.￼
1: Pitching a game to Nintendo
I can’t believe we actually got to present our game to a number of important folks from Nintendo. I look up to Nintendo and its people. We were quite nervous. The introductions were awkward as we gave them our business cards Japanese style (bowing, two hands) and the Japanese handed theirs western style (one hand, eye contact). We presented Penarium, they played it and seemed to like it. Then there was a round for questions from our side. I asked them if there was going to be a sequel to Advance Wars. They all laughed and then there was a silence. I think that’s a “yes, secretly”. One minute later a Japanese boss read what his translator wrote and it made him chuckle. I feel like this was the man who might know more.Business-wise this meeting did not leave a lot of ripples but for me it was significant in the sense that I presented my game to freaking Nintendo! Words like ‘Nintendo’ ‘Flappy Bird’ and ‘Angry Birds’ are things family and friends understand. They know I “make games” but saying “Uncle Joe, I just came back from a meeting with Nintendo” became my way of saying “look, I’m not playing around anymore”. I’m serious. I’m playing with power now. ￼
As for next year, I look forward to seeing my first game on a shelf when I happen to walk around in a store. It would also be great to finish Mutant Gangland although making games costs a lot of time. With all that behind, look here’s a new Penarium development log.