Monday, September 11, 2017

Geometry of light and shadow

One of the challenges of being a background artist in an interactive medium is that often a designer requires us to leave a large surface free of detail or clutter, so that characters can move around on it uninhibited. This means that backgrounds can sometimes look sparse and empty, which is fine in some cases, but often the urge to decorate, to break up those large areas is strong, and there's a number of ways that we can do that. Decorative floors are a good option, especially when using higher camera angles, as are things like rugs, changes in floor coverings, and the like. One option, which can be a bit less obvious, is to use lights and shadows to create shapes and silhouettes on those surfaces, thus breaking them up without actually relying on a change in material to do so.

A good, simple example is Barnett College from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Here you can clearly see the large, glass windows let the light in, which is broken up by the window frames, creating a bold set of quadrangles on an otherwise fairly plain floor. The variety this brings to the scene also helps guide our eyes - it's fairly natural to look first to the lighter parts of an image, and having such a strong highlight in the very centre of the composition helps to reinforce the darkness of the framing elements such as the foreground desk.

Another way lights can break up a composition is by use of rays, such as in this scene from The Koshan Conspiracy. Here the bold, curving arches of the ceiling are broken up by spokes of light, 'filling' the empty space these arches span with forms that, while not tangible, are certainly visible. Because they're translucent, the scene also manages to maintain the appearance of great size, where filling these same positions with solid supports would make the scene feel much more cluttered.

Strong shadows can add bold shapes in any situation. Notice the back wall in this shot from Black Sect, and how the flat plane is broken up by a nice diagonal cast by the shadow. This also helps to frame the shadowy figure in the foreground, by surrounding him with a lighter colour that's framed in by this silhouette on the wall, which follows his form quite closely. Another nice trick is how the arch of the furnace stands out nicely, and feels much hotter and brighter, because it's been surrounded by this much darker colour. As always, contrast and juxtaposition reinforces an element and makes it seem more powerful.

Another great use of silhouettes in light to break up a large area, and focus a composition, is in this scene from The Dig. Here the large, distant mountains are dissected by the looming shadows cast by neighbouring mountains. This adds some diversity to these large, fairly plain surfaces, but it also helps to separate the composition into three very distinct areas of value - the light shades in the top third, the middle shades in the centre third, and the darker shades in the bottom third. This clear division of values in the landscape also means that the bold silhouette of the wrecked craft stands out nicely by being an anomaly withing these value ranges.

This backdrop from Rise of the Dragon is another lovely example of adding variety to plain surfaces. Notice how the flat, square panels of the wall have nice curves given to them by the pool of light from an unseen light source. Without relying on any actual solid, material addition, the artist has given this composition a series of bold, rounded shapes that break it up nicely.

An even more clear example is this scene from Dune. The floor beneath the stillsuits on either side of the scene would, if not for the pools of light, be textureless, almost formless planes with no variety. The pools of light provide a strong indication of the angle of the floor and they also add ovals into a scene that's otherwise formed entirely of hard angles.

This scene from the Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel uses both light and shadow to add shapes to the wooden docks - the angled silhouettes cast by the ship's masts, and the edge of the building, break the sunlight up into areas of shadow, and then the largest area of shadow is broken up once again by the pool of light cast by the lantern. This ends up being a slightly odd effect, mostly because the lantern casts a light that's the same hue and value as the sun, but still showcases two examples of the idea in a single scene.

This scene from Simon the Sorcerer 2 relies on a large shadow to break up the large, plain section of roof to the right of the scene, as well as using large shadows to add depth and clarity to the roofs in the bottom left, despite the fact that these shadows don't seem to quite fit the lighting conditions of materials such as the tiles, which suggest a much more central, overhead light. Nevertheless, it's an effective, functional idea that frames the scene well, adds much needed diversity to the value range, and proves that a design consideration often trumps the pursuit of realistic representation when creating a backdrop.

A fairly subtle use of light and shadow shapes is this scene from Gabriel Knight, which shows dappled sunlight patches on the ground around the tree and on the path and hedges. This is a nice way to add diversity without being overwhelming, and the fact that the focal area of the scene is a white painted building, amongst a very green scene, means the light isn't necessary to guide the viewer's eye too much.

A very similar composition from Quest for Glory 3 shows a much bolder use - here we see a scene exit in a similar spot, but here it creates a large, bold area of highlight on the ground, which adds a number of things. Firstly, it helps centralise the composition's focal point, so that our eyes are drawn clearly to the middle. Secondly, it breaks up the plane of the ground nicely, adding variety into the large area once again, without the need to add physical obstructions. Third, it helps to lead the eye into the scene exit, helping to show us where we can walk - always essential in the genre.

This scene from Kyrandia 2 does a particularly nice thing with its silhouettes - the surface of the quicksand catches the shadows of the tree and the hand beautifully, making wonderful shapes in the negative space around them, and even covering a good two thirds of the sign, breaking up a fairly small surface nicely, adding to the rich detail already present. What's particularly nice is that above the shadows cast by the hand we see another shadow in the quicksand, without any need to show what's casting this shadow - a hidden shadow source, as it were. This helps to isolate the lit areas to a specific zone, and also to help the hand and the key it's clutching to stand out, as well as creating distinct regions in the surface of the quicksand.

An especially wonderful use of light and shadow to create and accentuate geometry is this scene from Full Throttle, in which a hidden light source from the left, shaped by a hidden shadow source, shines onto the large, flat section of ground, centralising the composition and breaking up the plain surface once again, while a hidden light source from below lights the faces in the distance, and uses the shadows from this to accentuate the structure of these. This shows light both creating its own geometry on a flat surface along with the traditional technique of light showing physical geometry in the distance - a wonderful, powerful use of light and shadow that evokes an excellent atmosphere.

Light, then, can bring geometric forms into a composition where there would otherwise be just a flat surface. Doing so can add diversity, focus, and balance, and this makes it an exceptionally useful technique, particularly in a genre where we're often required to use these large, plain surfaces in order to accommodate the needs of a designer. Any artist faced with a large wall, floor, or other large, empty space and is having difficulty filling it with detail would do well to keep these ideas in mind, and will find them very effective tools to have at one's disposal.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A look at graphics: framing an interactive painting

My writings over on Adventure Gamers have been mostly about directing the player in various ways - whether in feeling or focus - so far, something I think is especially important to consider as an adventure game artist, and this month's article is no exception. This month's topic, of filling up the rest of the frame, is something I have struggled with, wondered about and tried to figure out for years, and hopefully my thoughts on the issue will make some sense.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ten gorgeous adventure game scenes from the pixel art era

I was delighted to be asked to select 10 classic adventure game scenes and talk about why I love them over on PC Gamer, and the article is now up. If you're interested in seeing some of my most favourite scenes from the genre, and why I love them, head on over and check it out!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Composition in thirds

A common practice in both photography and art is to mentally divide the composition into both vertical and horizontal thirds when arranging elements, and using these thirds to loosely inform the placement of certain elements. It's common to see objects of interest placed around the intersection of two of the lines, for example, or to set one's horizon line along one of the lateral lines. This scene from Beneath a Steel Sky shows an interesting composition in which the vertical divisions in the composition run roughly down the first and second thirds lines, dividing the picture up evenly, and the placement of the walkway is along the second horizontal third.

The junction of two thirds is an excellent placement for the cockpit of this craft in Space Quest 4 - it's clearly the most interesting object in the scene. We can also see that the landscape is nicely divided into thirds vertically - the top third is sky and distant rock formations, the middle third is the flat path we walk on, which basically doesn't push beyond these lines, and the bottom shows the supporting rock structure and other stony features.

In this scene from Full Throttle we have two focal points - a door that we have to get through and a fuel tower in the distance that we're trying to reach. Here both are placed on opposing thirds - the tower on the intersection of the first thirds, and the door on the second thirds. This balances them both nicely - putting both on one side of the image, or both at the top or bottom would make the scene's weight feel shifted away from this even placement.

This shot from Quest for Glory 3 shows a similar idea but in an opposite configuration - the placement of our hero is around the bottom left third, and the placement of the throne and its occupant is centred around the top right third - even wrapping around it in an L shape that leaves most of the top middle third free to show the throne. Notice also that the pillar runs along the left third - in fact, the whole image feels like it's rather neatly divisible into thirds.

In this shot from Space Quest 5 we can see something similar - not only is Roger's face placed right on the top left third, but the surrounding landscape appears to have been composed into neat thirds. The right third has an organic pillar running down most of the way, ending two thirds of the way down, the bottom left third is take up almost entirely by another organic pillar's descent, and the middle third is reserved for the distance (and another figure, in a different colour).

This backdrop from The Dig also has stone features dividing the scene - the left and right thirds taken up by tall stone structures - as well as a sky that takes up the top third, but also here the centre third has been lit up warmly compared to the structure around it. This entire scene may have been actually drawn with a grid of thirds, so neat is the composition.

I get the same feeling from this scene in Kyrandia 2 - not only is the haystack placed around the bottom left third, but the top of the stack fills the middle third, the bottom (and its shadow) the bottom third. The top left third seems to be all cliff and trees, with the top left third trees and sky, and the top middle third a mix of all three in an interesting way. The path exists in the bottom third, with a fence running right along the third line, and the forest on either side of the middle third changing right around the third lines. It's not possible to know for certain if this was drawn with a grid, but the image certainly benefits from the clean, balanced composition.

This shot from Simon the Sorcerer feels the same - the owl on the top left third, and the land, trees and sky around it divided neatly into thirds. Each third here, too, feels like it's own little micro-composition, making this composition somewhat reminiscent of the layouts of traditional landscape painters, even if the actual execution is more whimsical here.

The same is true here in King's Quest 6 - each third of this scene seems to contain a very specific element - the sky in the top left, then a small plateau in the top middle and a more distant forested hill in the top right. The middle left has a wrecked ship and stones, then a short cliff and path, then the curving edge of the path and a shrub. The bottom left is sea and wreckage, then the main stretch of winding beach, and then finally a grassy mound in the bottom right. It's fairly neatly divided among these thirds, despite the shapes still feeling organic and varied.

Something I particularly like in this scene from Willy Beamish is how lighting helps divide the composition. Notice how the tree on the right side of the image is in shadow in the top and bottom thirds, and lit in the middle, how the fence is shadowed in the right and left thirds, how the shadow of the centre tree's canopy sits right along the third line. Probably my favourite feature is how dynamic features cut off the bottom third - fence and bushes in the bottom left, shadow in the bottom middle, and flowers and wheelbarrow in the bottom right. The bottom third feels like it's been divided extremely neatly along this line, but the varied nature of the shapes and features doing this dividing means it feels much more natural.

This scene from Full Throttle uses lighting nicely too - the bottom third is dark, with the division along the third line being highlighted in the warm yellow coming from a light source that stops around the left third division. It's a simple trick, but helps to define this section of the composition nicely, and does so in an unobtrusive way.

It's interesting how very organic forms can be grouped into neat compositions, too. The rounded hills of this section of King's Quest 6 seem very loose and rounded, but when viewed against a grid of thirds, it's clear that they have a clear, fairly even cutoff point along the first third line - almost as straight as the stone pathway that ends right along the second third line. Notice here, too, how the knight pieces group with the sections of fence to block in the left and right centre thirds nicely.

One last point of interest to me is the idea of how we view a composition. In the standard gameplay view of Dune, it's clear where the scenery is and where the interface is - and here the composition can be considered to be divided up into thirds extremely neatly. The bottoms of the banners, the floor, the pillars - it's all divided up quite squarely, with the interface not part of the scene.

When talking to a character, however, the scenery is obscured. This seems to bring the interface into the composition, with the actual scenery just being a framing device. This being in mind, I like to think that we can measure the composition of a scene across the whole interface, not excluding the bottom section, and of course we can see that the most important part of any character - the eyes - is right on the top left third here. An interesting consideration, if nothing else.

Thirds in composition aren't a perfect way to get a strong layout, nor are they a necessary tool, or even usable in every composition. They are, however, visible in many, many scenes, and a great way to help balance a composition out evenly. Rather than adhering to the 'rule of thirds' for every composition, I think it's mostly important to be aware of them, and know that many artists do use them, and that their use has helped artists with their compositions for centuries, yet still remains effective today.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Purple-green colour schemes

One of my absolute favourite colour schemes to draw with, green and purple complement each other in a mysterious, otherworldly way. Green is a fairly common colour in nature, with purple being more of a feature colour, seen mostly in things like flowers. Seeing the way artists play with the combination, though, is always fascinating, and there are some great examples of this colour scheme.

Because purple feels somewhat opposite to the warm yellow light of the sun, it makes an excellent shadow colour, which suits scenes filled with lush, richly lit foliage, such as this scene from Quest for Glory 3. The purple shadows really help the greens to stand out. Especially interesting here is the leaves in the foreground - though they appear greenish, these are actually a mid blue - only appearing greenish because they're placed with such dark purples.

Another use of a purple among sunny green is as a nice feature colour to mix things up, as seen here. The leaves are nicely balanced, with the large patch in the top right corner evened out by the smaller patch on the left hand side, and a few smaller, individual details down in the bottom right corner. These work particularly well to break up the dominant greens, and add some wonderful variety and colour into the background.

In less sunny scenes, such as this one from King's Quest 5, the greens become less sunny and yellow, and shift to much bluer greens. The purplish blues seem to tinge everything, from shadowed sections of the path, to stones and foliage. This makes for an excellent gloomy feel, without losing the feeling of being in a forest that greenish hues bring.

Another approach is to have the sunniest greens in the background, with the nearer greens less bright, as shown in this scene from Shannara. Here the purples are just the merest hint of a rimlight on the left sides of the trees - it doesn't feel as dark and gloomy as the ominous King's Quest 5 example, but isn't as sunny and cheerful as the Quest for Glory 3 examples, either. A nice middle ground, suitable for a deep forest, without being too sinister in tone.

This scene from Gateway 2 still has a bright sky shining through the trees, but here it's a bluish purple. This light source means that the cool greens of the foreground leaves are well matched, in a very cohesive and beautiful colour scheme. The effect is still of a bright light, but less sunny and a little less friendly as well. Particularly interesting is that most of the darker colours are greens - an interesting subversion of the normal trend to make purples the darker colour in a scene.

This area from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis does the opposite - instead of putting a bright, glaring purple in the distance, we get a rich, deep bluish colour, with a large, shadowy mountain jutting up above us, and the greens are relegated to the grassy areas. This is more a case of the materials informing the colours, but the lack of the yellowish greens in the grass, coupled with the very deep purple sky, give a feeling of a heavy, overcast day.

Sam & Max Hit the Road takes this to a fun extreme, here with a much more pink purple in the sky, and a very angular green feature in the foreground. This works for a VR simulation because the exaggerated colours make sense - It's easy to accept the massive, purple castle on the hill when it's delivered to us as part of a simulation. The greens and purples here make for a very nice complement, colours that might not work so well in a more realistic environment, but feel great here.

Fate of Atlantis also uses very warm purples in places - here the purples are being lit by lava, and so glow red in the planes where the light hits them the strongest, with bluer shades off into the distance. The green highlights really jump out here, and give the device an otherworldly look; the fact that this is an ancient machine running on mysterious energies is really represented well with the unnatural lighting from below and the presence of green lights - not a common feature in nature.

A third variant of this colour idea is evident in Fate of Atlantis, for yet another very different effect. Here the presence of stone walls is made more interesting by being lit by the eerie green lights, an interesting and mysterious change from the grey stone evident in earlier areas of the game. The purples in the shadows offset this nicely, and help some of the more interesting foreground details to stand out, while also making sure the mysterious feel of the lighting scheme is carried through into the shadowed areas.

For this eerie interior in King's Quest 5, a sickly green light does the same thing to an even greater degree, as offset once more by vivid purple shadows. Like the previous scene, the lighting feels unnatural and mysterious, and conveys an ominous atmosphere to the scene. The presence of blue sky through the windows is largely ignored as a light source, helping the green to shine unchallenged.

This shot from The Dig shows another striking example of green and purple used in an interior, but here roles are reversed, with the highlights shown in vivid purple, the shadows in dark, rich greens, and just a hint of warmer green highlights coming through the distant tunnel sections. This is a very unusual lighting arrangement - there's really very few circumstances in nature, or even in modern cities, where this precise colour scheme can be observed, and as such it looks very alien to us - a perfect colour scheme to use for when exploring an alien ruin as we are here.

Green light light can also look very alien when shown to be very vivid. This bizarre green glow coming from the rocky cavern in The Dig is mysterious and unusual, and the purple rocks, offset by very rich blue and purple features, make this entire scene very unusual. I feel this scene is slightly unbalanced - the strong green really has no other greens to offset it - but perhaps an awkward lack of balance in an alien world is something that could be considered a feature, rather than a flaw.

Here we have a shot from Space Quest 5 that shows us very bright green lights, surrounded with metallic greens and purples. The purple ceiling feels cold and metallic - a common look for science fiction corridors, and the green lights help to liven up the scene and break up the large metallic areas. This adds colour, without ruining the feeling of a technological environment, and also helps to balance the warm, green exit to the left of the scene.

This is another great example, with the purple metal corridors broken up again - this time by much more organic, alien greens. The effect is very different, without losing the dynamic of being in a science fiction setting, and the much darker, less saturated greens suit the organic forms much better than the bright, electronic greens of the previous scene.

One final, rather iconic shot here, showing a green chron-o-john hurling through the vortices of time. What sort of backdrop colour complements a green shape, and also best represents the idea of a mysterious channel through time? Dark purple, of course.

Green and purple, then, is an excellent combination, useful for many different situations - especially for magical, or otherworldly applications. Whether describing organic forms, the idea of future technology, or a combination of both, it's a powerful blend of two hues that has a range of applications. It's a very useful colour scheme, and in the right situation, can give a game's scenery a great sense of atmosphere and tone.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The 's-curve' in composition

An extremely common element in composition is what artists and photographers often refer to as the 'S-curve'. This is where elements of a scene form a sinuous, winding path through the shot, often going back into the distance, but not always so. An excellent example is the above location from King's Quest V, in which we see a staircase leading up in a winding path to a throne. There's a few reasons this looks so good - the curving s shape is much more natural than a straight set of stairs, it balances the element so it exists either side of the centre line of the background as it travels up, and it adds a sense of distance, making the steps feel further away, because the path is longer - the shortest line between two points is always a straight line, and by curving this line, the path is made longer. This makes for a much grander set of stairs.

A great example of this is this path off into the distance in Quest for Glory 4. Here the path winds many times, making the journey seem long, and also making the path feel precarious. Aside from distance, it also makes the path more visually interesting - a straight path isn't very exciting to look at, and doesn't feel very 'designed'. This feels more elaborate and stylish; it's an interesting feature by itself, despite the fact that it's just a pathway.

Even when we can't see the entire shape, the s-curve is useful, such as in this scene from Shannara. Here we can see just a single curve on the path, but the presence of the manor doorway in the distance suggests to us that the path winds back to the left (even though the door clearly opens onto grass). The detail of the fountain here provides a natural obstacle for the path to curve around, and acts as a nice layer for it to wind behind.

The power of suggestion is evident, again, in this scene from Full Throttle, where the foreground path isn't defined clearly as a curve, but has markers that sit on it to form one. This acts as a natural continuation of the curve that leads back into the distance, and completes the s shape nicely, while also breaking up the elements so that we're not just looking at a single road.

This Discworld 2 shot has an interesting idea, in which the path veers all the way from the centre of the composition until its right edge is cropped by the edge of the viewing area, and then comes back into frame. The foreground barrel also feels like a slight continuation of this curve - it cuts in right on the sweep towards us, and then takes it back to the edge again.

The Dig has a particularly interesting version here, because it's an example of an s curved path that traverses the screen laterally, rather than back into the distance. Here, as with the other examples, it lends a great sense of a dynamic design, as well as a natural feeling. This means that the full height of the scene is used for playability, rather than just one small section, as is common with pathways that run across the scene in adventure games, and makes for a much more interesting scene.

The curving, natural paths we've seen can also be shown to wind around a column as shown in this scene in Dune. Again, this adds depth, interest, variety and an interesting sense of balance to the scene, despite just being a background element. Stairs like this are particularly nice because we get to see both the lit and shadowed side of a pathway, adding in some wonderful value contrast to the element - a common thing to see in adventure game art.

Even more rigid shapes can benefit from this sort of approach - the stairs to the ground in this Beneath a Steel Sky background aren't curved, but still make an angular shape that veers right, then left, similar to the curves we've been looking at. The effect is similar, without ruining the angular, technological feel of the background.

This scene from King's Quest V shows another approach, in which our curved path is balanced by the opposite curve of the tree above it, a nice complement to the shape beneath. When broken down into simple shapes, this curve is no different to the others - it's a dynamic s shape that balances nicely in the composition and adds a beautiful flow to the scene. It means that the scene isn't just a straightforward composition - it'd be simple enough to have a straight tree above a straight path, but this feels both more natural and more varied.

This scene from Sam & Max Hit the Road shows another interesting approach, where the shape of the curved path is continued by the curve of the fence beyond it. In thumbnail the two flow into each other, creating one big s curve that runs through the whole composition. The fact that they share a colour scheme probably helps this - they connect to each other quite naturally.

It's not just pathways that can wind off into the distance, either. This shot from Quest for Glory 4 shows a similar approach with the water and the land - the land juts out in curving sections that forms a nice, winding s curve as it goes off into the distance. Again, this adds a feeling of balance, of interest and of a natural environment. Water doesn't form straight edges often - it follows undulations in the land, as it does here. This is both more realistic and more beautiful.

This Space Quest 5 background is another great use of the s-curve, with various different winding forms in the scene all working together to make a wonderfully alien landscape. Particularly nice is how the curve on the left frames the curving shape in the centre, leaving enough space for us to see it clearly, before then ducking back behind it at the top. This is a cool example of different curves working in unison, complementing each other and accenting each other's forms.

Even the slightest s-curve add to a scene, such as the one in this Simon the Sorcerer 2 scene. It's just the mildest curve down as we follow the shape of the chimney, but it feels much more interesting than a straight drop down would, and gives a greater sense of depth. The black framing helps to accentuate the shape, too, showing us the curve that goes directly from one side of the centre line of the background to the other as it descends.

Even when there's no direct s-curve, the arrangement of elements can 'lead' a path through a scene in an s shape. This scene from Willy Beamish shows this - the closest element is the clock tower in the very far left, which then leads to the grouped mass of buildings to the right of the scene's centre line, which points to a fountain back to the left of the centre. The next prominent object is another grouped mass, back closer towards the centre, and then a lone, but clear, building back to the far right. Even though there's no actual path drawn between these elements, their placements mean they form an s-curved composition going back into the distance.

It's very common to see the s-curve in compositions of all types, and adventure game background art is no exception. It's a powerful device that can assist the artist in adding depth, variety and interest to their scenery. Whether shown by an actual pathway, or just the suggestion of a curving line through placement of elements, they're a fantastic tool to have in one's composition toolbox, and can really help to liven up or balance a scene.