“Draw me existential dread. And make it turquoise.”

Today, a special guest post from Below’s artist, Yasmeen Khan. I wanted to post it here so everyone sees how much work she puts into every single thing she does.

Coming up with a new set of icons for the Conditions was something we talked about for a long time, but put off until we’d got the beginnings of a style established. As generally happens, it started with some initial discussions and culminated in a very late-night Google chat session, in which Yas tweaked version after version as my demands grew ever more rarefied and impossible.

At some point when we’re working on stuff like this there always – always – comes a moment where I go “Hey, I’ve got this idea. Maybe it’s crazy but let’s try it.” And Yas diligently tries it and it always looks terrible and burns the eyes from our sockets and I go “Ok, clearly I’m mad as a spork, just keep doing that thing you were doing before.”

Every time. And because Yas is a saint, the next time I do it, she never goes “Remember last time you said that and the art police threw us in the cells and made us look at Matisses until we’d calmed down?”

Anyway. Find out about her painstaking process after the jump. Oo, and check out Yas’ art blog here.

Knot2Grey

Below’s Condition icons: an evolutionary story

I’m incredibly lucky to have got the job of making the illustrations for Below, Chris Gardiner’s fantastic dungeon-delving browser game.  (If you’re not already playing Below, you can find the game here, and a G+ community of wonderful players to talk to about it here.) Below’s in beta at the minute, and we add new stuff all the time. Sometimes, creating an icon is as easy as drawing a picture. Sometimes it’s a somewhat lengthier, tanglier process. Sometimes you just want to say, “Hey. This took work, you know.” Hence, this post. We wanted to give players a closer look at the evolution of one of the most important sets of pictures in the game, the Condition icons.

Along with the other basic quality sets (Boldness/Subtlety/Wits and Gear/Secrets/Treasure), these were the ones that took longest to create and involved the most back and forth between me and Chris.

The problem is, Below’s Conditions are a pretty diverse and abstract bunch of qualities – Lost, Weary, Cursed, Dark, Watched, Dread and Hurt – and for the longest time I was stumped for a way to depict them pictorially that would also have some kind of thematic unity. We wanted to be quite symbolic, but we didn’t want to go down the jewelled letters  route, the way we did with the other two basic sets. Having any more initials on the left hand side was only going to be confusing. Also, the Conditions are not the same sort of rational, logic-based qualities as the other kinds – they’re more primal, they’re about fear and menace, and we wanted a way to represent them that fitted with that.

But ‘primal fear’ is no easier to illustrate than ‘the state of being lost’. So what else did the Conditions have in common? With the Gear, Secrets and Treasure icons, I’d begun with the thought, ‘What do we keep these things in?’ This led to pictures of a knapsack, a book and a chest, which later became abstracted (and replaced, in the case of Gear, after I belatedly worked out that a knapsack and a chest are both kind of squares with stripes on).

Anyway, that idea of finding something the qualities had in common, at one step removed, as it were, led to the initial breakthrough. I thought, instead of trying to represent the condition itself, we could turn it round and show the effect of each condition on the character, to give them that level of consistency. That led to the idea of showing the emotional or physical consequences of conditions by using eyes and things related to sight (or the  lack of it), and at first I approached it quite literally. This concept, and a 20-second ultra-basic sketch:

…led me to make these monochrome drawings:

   

…which fit the style of the cards in the Below deck, but didn’t have either the uniformity to make them into a set that would stand out from the rest of the icon library, or the colourfulness of the other basic sets.

Given that the Boldness/Wits/Subtlety and Gear/Secrets/Treasure sets had evolved into the current, quite abstract, enamelled jewellery style by now, we decided to try something much more along those lines. Chris had suggested the idea that the basic eye have an iris that could be changed to represent the threat, so after a little thought, I took that earliest sketch shape and turned it into this:

…and some initial drafts of variations for Cursed, Hurt, Dark and Weary:

   

The concept was in place. Finally. Easy. But the fun – and the actual work – was only just beginning. I sent these pictures over to Chris and we started talking.

First, there was the basic shape – as you can see, the curves were more ‘realistic’, being based on a drawing of an actual eye rather than the concept of an eye as an ovoid shape, if you see what I mean. I actually like this first eye. I like the variations in the line thicknesses, and the kind of haunted expression. But it’s not great for readability at icon size, and Chris explained that he was looking for something a bit more symmetrical, more symbolic and less realistic. So the next draft looked like this:

 

This basic shape had symmetry one way, a mirror line down the middle of the image. But it was still too eye-like, and so the next step was to go for horizontal and vertical symmetry, like so:

This was getting there, shape wise, even though what’s inside wasn’t right. Chris asked next if the outlines could be a consistent thickness, rather than tapering, so then I made this:

But this was too solid, so we tried various ways of breaking it up, to try to get back towards the pieces of enamel and gold style. Here’s some of the unfortunate experiments:

 

Yeah, no. In the end, we went with just separating the eyelids at the corners, keeping the lines a consistent thickness, to produce the actual basic template we ended up with:

After that, we just had to talk about a few little details. Like whether to include the gold ring around the iris, and how much room the pieces of white should take up.

Surprisingly the one thing we hardly had to worry about was the actual content of the set, imagery wise – the aspect you might think would have caused most of the difficulty actually needed barely any discussion. The tiny pictures inside the iris, the wee skull, the pentagram and the spiral, hardly changed at all after I drafted them. Lost was the only problematic one in these terms – initially we wanted to use a compass rose, spun off-centre to symbolise disorientation, thus:

But we felt that this just didn’t make sense at icon size, and in the end Chris decided to use the spiral which was initially earmarked for Dread, I think.

So. All I had to do now was add some shine to the gold and enamel pieces,  and we have the final versions of the menaces which are probably even now stacking up on your left-hand side as you try to find your way round Below’s haunted dungeons:

     

Sometimes, creating an icon is as easy as drawing a picture. Sometimes it’s a somewhat lengthier process…

 

Thanks, Yas! The next post will be a game-mechanics one, possibly about the recent Fallen Heroes update to the closed beta, which allows players to seek out the remains of their friends who fell in the dungeon. But first, as a special tease for blog-readers, here’s a new icon that’ll be popping up alongside the other conditions soon:

What could it be for? Struck by Lightning? Going Really Fast? Time will tell!

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