Sleuthhounds with Style

July 3, 2015

Sleuthhounds is an extension of the Cubes comic “storyverse”. As such, when I started work on the first Sleuthhounds game, The Unlocked Room, I wanted the artwork in it to resemble the comics as closely as possible. That game was a good first step, but only a first step. In particular I was never completely satisfied with the backgrounds.

The backgrounds in The Unlocked Room exhibit what is known as “aliasing.” Images on a computer screen are made up of a grid of tiny squares called pixels. Since these pixels lie in a grid it’s not possible to simply create straight lines at arbitrary angles. When a line is drawn, its pixels must fall in whole rows and columns. Think about filling in the boxes on graph paper. If you have to completely fill a box you can only create smooth looking lines that are horizontal or vertical. All other lines give rise to “jaggies” where the line looks a bit like a staircase.

To illustrate the point, here’s part of one of the backgrounds from The Unlocked Room with a blow up showing this aliasing.

[Aliasing in Sleuthhounds: The Unlocked Room]
Aliasing in Sleuthhounds: The Unlocked Room

When you look at the black lines you can see that they’re jagged, not nice and smooth. However, a quick check of any Cubes comic strip will show that the line work is not jagged. This was a look that I wanted to replicate in The Unlocked Room but it never quite made it to the top of the to do list before the game was released.

The main reason the backgrounds didn’t end up being “antialiased,” so that the line work would look smooth, was that I was still discovering the process of making an adventure game. There are a lot of requirements when it comes to the backgrounds. They need to make apparent the areas that players can interact with. They need to have special areas defined to indicate what parts a character can walk in front of and behind. They need to have more special areas to indicate how characters should be lit as they walk across the room (after all, you wouldn’t want a character fully lit if they were standing in a dark corner).

With so many technical requirements involved in creating the background for a room, it means that any changes made to that background tend to be very costly in terms of how long they take to do. It’s not simply a matter of changing the artwork itself. Since I was figuring out how to integrate all the different technical parts together I wanted to keep the backgrounds as relatively simple as I could so that the inevitable changes would not be so costly.

Fast forward to my work on the second game. Now the technical requirements (and the process needed to meet them) are known. That gives me a lot more freedom in constructing the artwork. As well, with the second game I started by putting in placeholder quick sketches, like the following.

[Placeholder Background for Sleuthhounds 2]
Placeholder Background for Sleuthhounds 2

Having the placeholder backgrounds was extremely useful. It allowed me to play more with the layouts of the rooms so that when I came to implement the final artwork I had a list of changes that needed to be made. Having this list in advance has made it much easier to make the changes than would be the case if I had to do them to already completed artwork.

As a result of the experience I gained on the first game, I was able to tweak the production process such that I could produce antialiased artwork that was much closer to that seen in the comics. Here’s part of one of the finished screenshots from the second game to show the difference.

[Antialiasing in Sleuthhounds 2]
Antialiasing in Sleuthhounds 2

You’ll note from the blow up that now the line work isn’t simply a thin black line. Instead, it’s a softened line that spans multiple pixels. When seen at normal size, these softened lines appear much more aesthetically pleasing than the jagged lines seen in the first game.

I’m quite pleased with how the artwork has evolved from the first game to the second. That evolution was the result of the lessons I learned on the first game. And I’ve learned lessons here on the second game as well. When the inevitable third game rolls around, I expect to apply those new lessons to it and make the backgrounds even better.

For now, my focus is finishing the art on the second game as its release draws ever nearer. I’m not quite ready to announce an official release date but I am ready to announce an official title. Be on the lookout for Sleuthhounds: The Cursed Cannon, coming soon to a Windows PC near you.