Living Worlds for iOS / Android

Yes, we’re building a mobile version of the Living Worlds, bringing a classic series of dynamic pixel art scenes (from 25 years ago) back to life on modern devices! I figure it’s time to say little more about what that means, and where it all comes from.

The Way It Was

Back in the early 90s I worked on a personal organizer app called Seize the Day. It had a calendar, a daily journal, address book, etc., but the thing that really made it special was its “Living Worlds” art.

Computer calendars have never been terribly pretty, missing as they are the glossy monthly pictures of their paper counterparts. We aimed to change that, in a way that could only be done on the computer. Our goal was to create a little world for each month that would be “alive”; the sun would rise and set, clouds would move across the sky, sometimes it would rain or snow…

In those days, this was a very ambitious task! Software shipped on floppy disks with very little space, so video or even traditional animation was out of the question. Our artist, the amazingly talented Mark Ferrari, had some ideas, though. He had already had good luck using color cycling to create naturalistic environmental animations with very small storage requirements. He reasoned we could take that further and also shift the colors throughout the day using nothing but changing palettes.

If all that sounds like voodoo to you, it’s no wonder; we haven’t had to think about color palettes and color cycling for decades! Take a trip with me now, back to the computer graphics world of the early 90s. Back then, a typical monitor was 640 x 480 pixels, and capable of displaying only 256 colors at any one time. Every pixel on the display had to be one of those 256 colors. You picked the set of colors you wanted and stored them in a “color palette”, and each was given a number; 0 for the first one, 1 for the next, etc. Then every pixel on the screen was designated with one of those numbers, like a giant paint by numbers canvas.

If you wanted to change the image on the screen, you had two choices: change the number for one of the pixels (so it would be colored from a new location in the palette), or change the color of one of the palette entries (so all of the pixels with its number would now be a new color). Computers were slow back then, so changing the numbers for all of the pixels took some time, but changing one of the palette entries was super quick. So, if you could pull off, say, a rushing waterfall with nothing but palette changes, you’d get nice fast animation and it wouldn’t take much space on the disks: win-win!

So, Mark created a set of base images with color cycling to animate things like waterfalls and such. He also created a set of palettes that went throughout the day, so just by changing palettes the same image would look like sunrise, noon, sunset, night, with plenty of subtle changes throughout. You can see the light coming up in the east in the morning and setting in the west in the evening, all with the same pixels (the paint by numbers) but a progression of different palettes.

In addition, to spice things up, we managed to fit in a few overlays with their own special palettes. This allowed us to add effects like snow and rain, as well as little details like smoke rising from a house. All of the animation in those overlays was still done via color cycling; they were basically just a little pixel patch the got laid on top of the regular image once, and then the color cycling did the rest.

If you’re curious to learn more about color cycling and the other techniques Mark used, he’s written up an informative Q & A. He also did a talk at the Game Developers Conference where he goes into his pixel art and color cycling techniques in depth:

When we released the app, the response from people who used it was quite passionate! They loved these little worlds, and really connected with them. Years went by, though, and computers changed. Seize the Day no longer runs on modern computers, but I still get fan mail from people who think fondly of those animated scenes. Meanwhile, someone made GIFs of them, and they periodically tear their way through the Internet.

A few years ago, Joseph Huckaby, one of the original developers on the project back in the day, figured out how to convert the old source images into something he could use on the web and created a demo with the base images (but none of the additional overlays, nor the sequencing from the original app).

The Way It Shall Be

I’ve now taken the work Joseph started, and have re-created the Living Worlds, with random weather sequencing, and all of the original overlays. I’m in the process of packaging it up as a standalone app for iOS and Android phones and tablets.

The plan is to release this app on January 1, 2019, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original. The first release will include just the first month: January. We’ll then update the app with a new world for every month of 2019. It’ll update the scene to match the time of day, but you’ll also be able to swipe the screen to time travel throughout the day.

My hope is that this app will be a way for a new generation to connect with this unique period in computer art, as well as an opportunity for the original fans to reconnect with their favorite worlds. I personally love setting it up on an iPad and just letting it run throughout the day, like a living photo frame or a window into another world. The scenes draw you in, suggesting stories, and rewarding quiet observation.

I hope you’re as excited as I am about bringing this classic work of dynamic pixel art back to life! Stay tuned on my Patreon, on the Living Worlds Twitter, or sign up for the mailing list. We’ll also be adding more info to the official site as we go.

Originally published at