The Art of Vacuous
I really love pixel art, both to appreciate and create, but even back in 2014 when development on Vacuous began it was oversaturating the market. Much has been said of this; there is a wide divide between quick programmer pixel art and well-crafted pixel art. The latter is timeless and can still sell. Most of my work has fallen into the middle; beyond symbollic outlines and pillow shading, but still greatly lacking in discipline and understanding of the essentials of art. With Vacuous I wanted to do something different and, after some experiments with 3D, came to settle on a hand drawn 2D artstyle.
This was to be truly hand drawn. I wanted to take all of the sketches I had drawn out of boredom in some high school or college lecture and bring them to life inside a game. I could get a nice, crisp 1920x1080 image and have fun drawing all of the sprites by hand. Hand drawn graphics could also lend a hand-crafted look to title, giving it "character." So I hand drew much of the art for Vacuous. Not all of it of course; the backgrounds with their gradient colors and tiny stars had different needs that were meet with 100% digital tools. Other game objects would demand move defined outlines for gameplay purposes. Enemies and obstacles would be more fair and predictable to avoid if their collision boxes weren't defined by non-straight lines. Various other elements here and there, due to the nature of what they were trying to depict, would also benefit from digitally created straight lines. But a good deal of the art was hand made.
Art must work with the game. All visual elements should have a purpose. Some give the player information about the state of the game world. Others create experience and "visual pleasure." I had some rules with the art to serve the first purpose. One of these rules was that all objects that were solid, meaning the ship would explode on hitting them, would be given black outlines. Decorative background objects would have no outlines. Foreground and background graphics were further set apart by contrasting color schemes, either in hue or value. Enemies would have an animation for each of the states they could be in. All of these are the basics, but the basics are vital.
The artwork was hand drawn on paper with a mechanical pencil (I guess to emulate how my school sketches were made, I know this is a weird choice). After this, I would scan each paper into the computer. Once on the computer, the image would be contrast adjusted to lower the darkness of the lines. Using a Wacom tablet, I would then digitally outline the sketches. With the outlines done, I would use the tablet to fill the images with color and shade them. Since Vacuous was a cheap production (~$1000 to produce), I used the free graphic editing tool GIMP for this entire process. If I knew that Krita had existed at the time, I might have used that instead.
Below are some of the original sketches:
- J. M. Stark