On Monday we talked with classic game designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island) about their new title ‘Thimbleweed Park’. If you missed that interview, check it out here!
One of the biggest appeals of a title like ‘Thimbleweed Park’ is not just the retro feel of the game design but also the classic artwork. I grew up on games like Maniac Mansion, Loom and the Monkey Island titles, so I was pretty excited to learn that original background artist Mark Ferrari was returning to work with Ron and Gary on ‘Thimbleweed Park’. His work, whether I remember it from a classic game or it’s one of these pieces from ‘Thimbleweed Park’, immediately transports me back to sitting in front of my 286 as a kid and trying to solve endless puzzles. Obviously, it was a pleasure to talk to him a bit about not only the old days but his new work with Ron and Gary.
How did you get involved in Thimbleweed Park? What drew you to the project?
I worked with Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick years ago at Lucasfilm Games back in the Loom/Monkey Island days, and had the time of my life there. Games were FUN to work on and to play back then in ways that I have not seen SO much since ‘computer gaming’ was reduced to dashing through some 3-D hallway shooting, punching, kicking and blowing up whatever one encounters. The games we made back in the late 80’s involved quirky storyline and character. They incorporated generous amounts of humor, discovery, puzzle solving, and creative storytelling. I have often mourned the general passing of that kind of game.
When a friend called my attention to Ron and Gary’s Kickstarter project, I took one look at their hilarious site video and was instantly transported to 1987 all over again. I became a backer immediately. When Gary Winnick found my name (somehow) on the list of their thousand-or-so backers, he called and asked ‘if that was really me.’ :] We had not been in contact for some time. After catching up a bit, I made it clear to Gary that I’d kill to do some old-school pixel art for their commendable venture, (Not a person, of course. I don’t kill persons as a matter of policy—even for a chance like this. But a squirrel maybe… or a small invertebrate, certainly). Happily, they fell for it.
Have you worked in 256 color art recently or is it something you’d left behind? What do you see as its appeal in 2015, for you at least?
I have not done much serious 8-bit art for quite a few years. I did some nice 256 color cycling backgrounds for the last GBA Spyro game, (‘Spyro: Eternal Night,’ I think) back in 2008 or 2009—just as the platform vanished, sadly. But the very tools we used to create that old work no longer really exist. The industry standard tool for 2-D art in the late 80’s was Deluxe Paint 2 by EA (D-Paint). I’ve still got a copy—that won’t run on any of my current operating systems. The closest viable 8-bit tool out there now that I’m aware of is Pro Motion by Cosmigo, which does some things better, and some rather important things, (important to me at least: stencil and color cycling management) worse than D-Paint did. Largely, I had left 256 color art behind along with everyone else—until recently.
In the past few years, however, there’s been a pretty astonishing resurgence of interest in ‘old school’ 8-bit art—and gaming—as anyone who’s been paying attention will likely have noticed. I think kids who grew up playing the games we made in those days may be running the business now. Perhaps the novelty of twitching through airless, poly-scapes just shooting everything has finally begun to wear thin. Maybe they miss seeing digital art in their games that wasn’t all drawn by the same ubiquitous set of algorithms. Maybe they find themselves wishing for game ‘art’ that conveyed a wider array of color, atmosphere and personal artistic style—even if you could see the giant pixels, and couldn’t move through it in much more than two directions. Remember when you could look at a computer game and tell which company published it—or even which industry artist had drawn it? … Well, no. You probably don’t. But perhaps today’s nostalgic 40-something digital gamers just crave a little less ‘machined slick’ and a little more ‘grit and texture’ again. It happens to musicians all the time, doesn’t it? A young, green band breaks out with a gritty album that grabs an audience viscerally. Then they’re grabbed in turn by corporate handlers who groom and polish all their texture into smooth compliance with ‘top industry standards’… And that audience finds themselves wishing for something with that old, crude but very living je-ne-sais-quoi that ‘big time success’ seems to suck out of everything. Maybe that’s happening to games now.
Whatever it is, I have been wishing aloud—and publicly—for years now that someone would do just what Ron and Gary are doing, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
What are the challenges in working in that style? Do you start with a bigger, more detailed idea and scale back to the more digitized look or do you work up from it?
The biggest challenges—for me at least—have been finding ways to DO that style using current 2-D art tools, and getting my head back into the ‘pixel by pixel’ mindset that 32-bit tools have so effectively overwritten in my head over the years. One thing I’ve already re-discovered is that the pixels themselves ‘art-direct’ much of the content. There is a very definite threshold of content detail and complexity that just can’t be exceeded at this resolution. Drawing an egg ‘D-Paint style’ is a very different activity from drawing an egg at 300 dpi in Photoshop. I draw a scene now the way the pixels will let me do it. And it often takes some time to figure out just where that threshold is in any given scene. I am already starting to anticipate it again, however.
At this point, of course, the ‘big, detailed ideas’ are mostly coming from Ron and Gary. I’m just one of the piano players. :]
How much room do you have on this project to add your own style and flourishes?
Well, beyond the constraints mentioned above, there is the fact that Ron and Gary are very definitely going for a style in homage of the specific look and feel of ‘golden age’ 8-bit computer games here. Much that we could do—even at this resolution—in terms of rendering and lighting effects, for instance, may be restrained, or omitted all together, in order to capture and preserve the ‘retro’ look and experience of the game. There was a very definite ‘line and flat color’ style to those old games that made them stylistically unique. That said, they have certainly been interested in and responsive to ‘style’ possibilities I have brought to the table so far during the ‘story-board’ phase of this project. They still seem very much in the exploratory part of this endeavor—still figuring out exactly what they want the game to look like, and how best to achieve that. So we all wait to see where the dart lands.
What pieces in your gaming work are you most proud of? What are your biggest challenges in creating them?
If by ‘my gaming work’ you mean over the past thirty years, there is a fairly well known collection of color-cycling fantasy landscapes I did for a small selection of now-defunct clients back in the late 80’s and early 90’s that I still regard as the pinnacle of my 8-bit achievement. A last flowering before the fall of Rome, so to speak. You can find a link to lots of those here:
on the 8-bit game art page of my website: www.markferrari.com
The biggest challenges to doing such work now are the absence of D-Paint, and the fact that each of these scenes took weeks of obsessive work to finish—with a younger man’s energy and mental agility. Will I do more? Can I now? … Perhaps we shall see… :]
How about on Thimbleweed Park specifically, are there any big screens or set pieces you’re looking forward to tackling?
I know this will sound wincingly rah-rah, but honestly, pretty much all of them. I have enjoyed almost every wireframe mock-up I’ve been asked to do so far more than the one before. Ron and Gary have done their usual great job of coming up with an absurdly interesting and humorous little town (Thimbleweed), brimming with quirk and unexpected juxtaposition that’s at least as much fun to conceptualize and draw as I’m sure it will be for players to explore. Not sure how many ‘specifics’ about any of this I’m supposed to get into publicly yet. But so far this experience is all the best of what I recall from working on games like Secret of Monkey Island. We laughed a LOT in those days. And then went back to making it all look really cool. What’s not to like?
How would you describe the visual style for Thimbleweed Park? What have you added to it over the process of putting it together?
To the extent that Thimbleweed’s visual style has actually been determined yet, I think I’ve probably answered that already. As for what I’ve added so far… Just another measure of genius, of course. 😉 And perhaps another helping of laughter.