Point & Click

Retronator Photo Review

I will admit I was pondering for quite a while if I should discuss the circumstances under which I found the subject of this feature. You see, Point & Click by Andrew Scaife is an art book with a collection of modern recreations of TV shows as though they were point & click adventures from the 90s. And somebody had a problem with it.

Point & Click, Andrew Scaife, artworks from 2014–2016

When you open the book you would see Jesse Pinkman and Walter White trying to crank a battery in Breaking Bad—except they are inside a (fake) adventure game powered by LucasArts’ SCUMM engine with the familiar nine verbs and inventory slots.

4 Days Out (Breaking Bad), Andrew Scaife

I find this completely heartwarming, both as a fan of Breaking Bad and of LucasArts adventures. Double the power!

But the pixel art community wouldn’t be what it is if some of the more purist members didn’t think Andrew’s process results in bad pixel art. Wacom—everyone’s beloved graphic tablet manufacturer—published two tutorials written by Scaife. In them he explains his technique where he starts like everyone else, taking a low resolution canvas (320 pixels wide), drawing a sketch and blocking in the basic shapes.

The difference from the ‘pure’ approach is that he then uses pressure sensitivity on his tablet pen to create shades of colors. He also uses layers with modes like multiply and overlay to paint in the shadows and highlights. Here is the result:

Infected (The Walking Dead), Andrew Scaife

When I look at this I see a delightful recreation of one of my favorite TV shows (The Walking Dead), thinking how awesome would it be if this was an actual point-and-click adventure. The style takes me straight to the 90s!

Full Throttle, 1995 (top-left), The Secret of Monkey Island, 1990 (top-right), Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, 1992 (bottom-left), The Dig, 1995 (bottom-right), LucasArts
The Secret of Monkey Island, LucasArts, 1990

You can see that LucasArts graphics was not really that much different style-wise from Andrew’s work. I find he captures the feeling pretty well.

However, it isn’t really the same. Let’s get a bit technical. Both Andrew and LucasArts adventures use the same low resolution at 320 pixels wide. Where the difference lies is that he takes advantage of the full range of 24-bit colors we have available today. The VGA mode mostly used back then used 18 bits per pixel to store the color information. 24-bit images use 8 bits for each of the red, green and blue color components, giving you 256 shades per channel, while VGA used 6 bits per channel, giving you only 64 shades. When all three 8-bit RGB channels combine, we get 16 million color combinations (256³), while VGA was stuck with 262 thousand (64³). This makes it impossible for VGA games to have very smooth gradients without a technique called dithering where you use a checkered pattern of two colors to create the illusion of more shades than you actually have. It’s quite easy to spot in many Monkey Island backgrounds.

The Secret of Monkey Island, LucasArts, 1990

The fact that Andrew takes a modern painterly approach using all the shades available is enough to throw some people on the defense of what pixel art is. But I would argue that his approach is in fact exactly what artists back then would have done if given the power of today’s computers. Mark Ferrari came up with dithering at LucasArts while working on Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (and later put into use in Loom) because he was sick with the limitations of 16-color EGA and dithering pushed it to the fullest potential. In essence, he was using the technology to the best of its extent, just like Andrew is with his technique. While it doesn’t produce pixel art as defined by places like Pixel Joint, it produces remarkably well-captured feeling of 90s adventure games.

Infected (The Walking Dead, top-left), Shadow Games (Spartacus, top-right), Exodus: Part 3 (Lost, bottom), Andrew Scaife

Given that Scaife’s tutorial was published on Wacom’s site, they were quite delighted to point out he uses pressure sensitivity — it’s one of the things that makes a graphic tablet more powerful than a mouse. Yet this is the thing that makes some people cringe because it doesn’t optimize the use of color (trying to keep the color count as low as possible).

On a side note, a couple of years ago during the Game Developer’s Conference I was sitting across the table from Dan Fessler when (over some random debate) I pondered that there’s no use for pressure sensitivity functionality in pixel art. His eyes sparkled and he demonstrated to me what he later published as his HD Index Painting technique.

Basically, it allows you to use anti-aliased and soft brushes, pressure sensitivity, blending modes and much much more, while still preserving the low-bit look associated with pixel art.

HD Index Painting in Photoshop, Dan Fessler, 2014

As we go into the future we will inevitably see new approaches that break conventions and challenge definitions of our scene. Is pixel art still pixel art when you put dynamic lighting on it? Is Dan’s art still pixel art if he uses Photoshop magic to turn a 24-bit image into 18-bit? And can Andrew’s tutorial create good pixel art with modern digital painting techniques at low resolution?

Chardee MacDennis — The Game of Games (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Andrew Scaife

In the end it’s about whether the art accomplishes what it’s trying to do. Andrew wanted to recreate the feeling of 90s adventure games and he does it successfully (in my eyes at least, but also by the reception of his work among gamers).

Imaginary Enemies (Orange is the New Black, top-left), Out of Gas (Firefly, top-right), Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency (Mad Men, bottom-left), Top Banana (Arrested Development, bottom-right), Andrew Scaife

He’s also successfully paying tribute to great TV shows as the book features select quotes from episodes, as well as cleverly picked inventory items and action sentences that will offer many smiles to the hardcore fans of the shows.

The One Where No One’s Ready (Friends), Andrew Scaife

In the end it’s up to you, the viewer, to decide for yourself.

To me, Andrew’s book was a delight to buy and even though I don’t know where two thirds of the 37 scenes in the book come from, the other third (the ones featured in this article as it happens) fills me with joy, both by remembering my favorite TV shows and by wondering what could be. I even have to thank Scaife for introducing me to a TV show that I thought looked cool seeing his artwork and immediately ended up with a Netflix addiction to it.

To close off, a really cool feature is that a couple of the images in the book can be seen animated using the augmented reality app Aurasma. This is a recording of what you’d see on your phone:

Fool of Love (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Andrew Scaife

Here’s another one from Firefly with a Monkey Island Stan influence.

Out of Gas (Firefly), Andrew Scaife

Firefly+Monkey Island? Yup, I’m in love!

In case you are not a pixel purist and would love to get Andrew Scife’s Point & Click book for yourself, visit the Comicsy store where it’s available for 12 pounds plus shipping.

You can also visit his tumblr to see some of his scenes in digital form and follow where his art journey takes him in the future.

Thanks for reading! I like to act on opportunities to insert some eductional content into my articles so I hope you enjoyed this discussion about color bits and 90s adventures and modern pixel art approaches. Retronator Magazine is supported by pre-orders of my own point-and-click adventure Pixel Art Academy where learning is at the very center of the gameplay. Feel free to check it out and keep the pixels going.