Friday 22 June 2018

Andy Green and the Pixels of Doom

If you are a regular visitor to the Fighting Fantasy Facebook groups, you have possibly already encountered the work of Andy Green. But in case you haven't, the Warlock summoned him to the depths of Firetop Mountain to interrogate him about his Pixel Art and his near-magical methods...

The Warlock: How do you go about creating your incredible pixel art images?

Andy Green: I started pixel art on the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s using programs like OCP Art Studio (Rainbird Software), or, The Artist (Softechnics), purely for my own amusement. These were either doodles or crude attempts at copying game inlay artwork. These were saved onto cassettes but sadly I no longer have them so you'll have to take my word for it! Fortunately, those I did on the Amiga using DPaint III, were saved and since converted to a PC format which are on my Facebook page.

I returned to ZX Spectrum pixel art in 2017 (only three decades late!) and drew a loading screen for a game that never had one called Stop the Express (Hudson/Sinclair, 1983). This received positive reactions from various Spectrum Facebook groups and as a result, I've been doing them ever since, adopting my style and improving with each one I've done.

The program I use is Multipaint (Windows), which emulates various 8-bit home computers with the ZX Spectrum resolution and palette being one. The drawing tools Multipaint provides are limited and reminiscent of the above Spectrum art programs but these are perfect for me since I draw all my pictures free-hand (with a mouse), all I require are basic geometry shapes, lines, and a magnify mode to add minute details.

As for the process of creating an image, most are copied from video games inlay art, or book covers, depending on what media is available. The majority of these tend to be portrait so I pad out key objects to make them landscape without losing the focus of the main picture too much - City of Thieves being a prime example. I use a grid method to copy artwork - overlaying the original image with this that matches the width and height of the ZX Spectrum resolution. I then draw out roughly outlines of key objects using a combination of geometry shapes, lines and solid attribute blocks (to reduce colour clash). Once that is done, it's a simple case of filling them in with all the detail, shading and colour.

When I remember and don't get too carried away, I save my progress using a numbered file method (i.e. WIP 1, WIP 2, etc.). Once a picture is complete, I put together a time-lapse video that shows a picture being drawn from start to finish.

TW: What have been the most challenging aspects of converting Iain McCaig's classic cover images into pixel form?

AG: Colour clash! The ZX Spectrum palette only permits two colours per 8x8 attribute square and is well-known for its infamous "colour clash" in many classic games. To compensate, some games ended up being monochrome (two colours). When it comes to pixel art, the same can be said for giving original artwork the Spectrum treatment especially if they contain a lot of colour in a small area. Fortunately, with Iain McCaig's brilliant artwork, colour distribution is quite minimal so makes for transferring to the Spectrum more painless. In theory!

TW: Do you have a favourite FF pixel piece you've created?

AG: I originally drew The Forest of Doom picture back in 1995 on the Amiga which took roughly a month to do. Fast-forward to 2018, and I decided to set myself a challenge of re-drawing The Forest of Doom on the Spectrum. Bearing in mind the Amiga version had 64 colours and the Spectrum 7 (14 if you include non-bright mode). I'm quite pleased with the result. As there's such a huge FF gamebook fanbase, it made sense to do another; City of Thieves, presently my favourite piece.

TW: How do the Amiga art images differ from the Spectrum ones?

AG: There's no colour clash on the Amiga for starters! Plus, you can choose from a range of screen resolutions and colours. The most common number of colours most Amiga pixel artists use is 32 or 64 with a screen resolution of 320 x 256 pixels. Whereas the Spectrum resolution is 256 x 192. As you can imagine, Amiga images take much longer to draw as the only limit is your imagination. Whereas on the ZX Spectrum, images take around 5 to 10 hours to draw depending on level of detail.

TW: Which was the first FF gamebook you read?

AG: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I was with my parents aimlessly walking round WHSmiths looking for a new book to read having finished either Magician (by Raymond E. Feist) or one of Stephen King's books. I can't recall which one exactly. Might had been The Dead Zone. I was a bit of a horror fan for a while! The words "A fighting fantasy gamebook in which YOU become the hero!" on the front cover certainly caught my attention. I didn't hesitate to buy it with my hard-earned pocket money. I was engrossed from the start and the novel idea of the battle system making use of the dice to defeat enemies to me was ground-breaking and original.

TW: Do you have a particular favourite?

AG: Definitely The Forest of Doom. Out of all those I had read (up to around FF gamebook 20), there was just something about this book that kept me re-playing it over and over. I guess my Amiga/Spectrum pixel fan art is proof of that!

TW: Who was your favourite FF artist?

AG: Ian McCaig for his brilliant covers on the first editions of The Forest of DoomCity of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon. I'm not surprised he went on to create several characters for the Star Wars series including Darth Maul. A very talented artist.

TW: Is there another piece in particular that you would like to produce?

AG: All of the FF gamebooks (59?*)! Come back in 10 years and I might had finished them all! Joking aside, Seeing as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain got me addicted to the FF books, I did make a start on this one a while ago but due to other projects, and 'real life', it's been put on the back burner. I'll get there eventually and finishing this one for me would be quite nostalgic.

TW: Did you ever play any of the FF Spectrum games back in the day?

AG: Yes, although one, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, bears little resemblance to the book. This was literally a variation of another game called Halls of the Things, in which you roam a randomly generated maze collecting keys to open locked doors and killing enemies with a bow and arrow. A good game though, nevertheless. The other, The Forest of Doom, was more faithful to the book with a battle system included. Sadly, those were the only two released on the ZX Spectrum. A third was planned (The Citadel of Chaos) but only got released on the Commodore 64.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

The Forest of Doom

In fact, I was quite disappointed that only a couple of FF gamebooks made it to the ZX Spectrum so I decided to have a go at programming my own but kept running out of RAM (memory). So that idea got abandoned!

TW: Which is your greatest '80s-themed passion? Fighting Fantasy or the Sinclair ZX Spectrum?

AG: The ZX Spectrum. While I loved the FF gamebooks, I became addicted to home computers and video games ever since visiting my cousin in 1981 and seeing the Sinclair ZX81 up and running with no sound and crude blocky black and white graphics. I was over the moon when I received one at Christmas the same year. At Christmas, 1982, I got the rubber-keyed Spectrum 48K. Original and ground-breaking games were order of the day and even now I'm astounded how programmers managed to squeeze top games into 16K or 48K of memory. It's certainly been an amazing journey seeing how games have evolved over the years.

Of course, it wasn't all about the games, the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum introduced me to the world of BASIC, and I spent many hours typing in programs from magazines and expanding them adding my crazy ideas.

Drawing on the ZX Spectrum didn't happen until around 1984 after being constantly impressed by the quality of some game loading screens and basically wanted to have a go myself. Despite doing a few pictures on the Amiga, my world was turned upside down in 1995 with the loss of four members of my family, months apart, and I completely lost all interest in gaming and pixel art. These days, it's thanks to the Internet and the huge retro communities that keep the memories of systems from the bygone days alive plus new games are still being made for them, which keeps me busy drawing custom loading screens, which I do on request.

Thank you to Andy for taking the time to answer my questions, and if you haven't already, you can check out his astounding pixel art here.

* Actually 67 now - or 71, if you include Steve Jackson's Sorcery! quartet.

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