Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Video game textmode art part 25: don't make art of the games, make games with the art!

So since time immemorial textmode art has been used not only to beautify BBSes (bulletin board services), but also to help trumpet and announce the release and distribution of computer software. Er... oftentimes, the unauthorized release and distribution of it. Long past the sunset of the dialup BBS era, the main platform for ASCII art continued to be decoration of the infofile, information accompanying a digital package containing unwittingly free programs, music, movies etc.

Once you had an entire generation of software developers who had grown up cutting their teeth on BBSes (and, one assumes, occasionally partaking in a dram of warez), then you had people who appreciated the nostalgic power of the iconography of textmode art (and its earliest historic context -- as sparks of green or amber light against a black background) now working in the software industry and incorporating it into their own productions. One of the highest-profile appearances must have been the (computer-generated) images appearing in conjunction with "Still Alive" during the final credits roll from Valve's Portal (and a not entirely unrelated note here, the "ASCII Portal" adaptation):

The '80s BBS context is invoked explicitly by Jim Munroe in his 2012 game "Guilded Youth", which takes place in two settings -- one, real-world suburbs, and two, a fantasy-themed multi-node dialup BBS accessible via C64. I don't know if artist Matt Hammill had authentic background experience in the computer art underground, but if not -- he sure did a good job faking it! (I know, this is ASCII-ish, and the C64 would have had PETSCII graphics, but I'm willing to overlook the historical inaccuracy.)
And here the pictures are in context, complete with a login activity transcript:
(And for contrast, the underwhelming offline "real world":)
2010's Digital: A Love Story is a fascinating case study, set "5 minutes into the future of 1988" by its creator Christine Love -- who is young enough that she never got a chance to experience the BBS scene firsthand, reconstructing the milieu and aesthetic through research at the self-same whose Public Domain ANSI art vaults I've been recently plundering myself. What she arrived at wasn't quite ANSI art, but it was darned close! You begin in the Public Domain...
(This one is basically an outtake from Noel Gamboa's Star Trek ANSI collection!)
Gradually players expand their phone list and possible locations in cyberspace they can call into. (This is a nice thought, but no academic institution would ever have featured friendly ANSI art on their welcome screen -- online access in the late '80s was a spartan, user-unfriendly world accessible only to gurus at ease at a Unix shell prompt.)
Finally we begin ekeing our way into the realms of the true elites... (a little spacing on that font, please!)
(Hilariously playing against type, the underground warez board features the most stock, TheDraw-ish ANSI art in the entire game! This is ironic, presumably unwittingly, as it was the digital underground who elevated ANSI art beyond its crudest initial applications to something that anyone might want to look at. But as we have seen, 1988 predates the underground artscene -- ACiD only got going in 1992 -- so this is all looking a bit ahead of its setting.)
She may never have called a BBS, but I gather she read Neuromancer! Imagine those patterns as a species of Matrix code revealing itself...
And then we have Sam Barlow's 2015 FMV game Her Story. Most of this game is spent poring over interview footage, but knowing of my interest, a friend sent over these photos of some exceptional content:
What's the context for these images?

The player is looking around on a police computer and in the Recycle Bin there is a game and its nfofile"

That logo is plainly machine-generated, as is the accompanying illustration, but to be fair, the game constrains these pieces to tiny windows, a much smaller canvas than the traditional 80x25 MS-DOS screen would allow... I doubt that a human would be able to accomplish much more with these limitations.
You got me -- it is a touch of class! Not a faithful reproduction of warez packaging, but a passable echo from memories of it.
There was another game I wanted to talk up in this post, Sisters of the Amniotic Lens, featuring a quantity of teletext from Illarterite ... but I must confess, the deliberately user-hostile interface interfered with my attempts to get far enough into the game to capture some of its in-game teletext appearances to show you. Fortunately, he has provided a gallery, so I can just poach from there:
And finally, the big attraction: Bethesda's 2015 release Fallout 4 included a cute nod to the artscene's parallel H/P/A (hack / phreak / anarchy) scene, with unlockable hacking powers enabled after finding illustrated dot matrix printouts of tfiles (text files) filled with esoteric electronics lore, issues of the "Total Hack" 'zine, naturally given ASCII art cover illustrations. You can hack spotlights...
you can hack turrets...
... and even robots!
It's just a pity there weren't more issues! That wraps it up for this long-waiting-in-the-queue post, but of course this just scrapes the tip of the iceberg of games using textmode art. These were just the ones that employed it in some valid context in which textmode art could be reasonably expected -- of course, a whole generation of software designers made games in textmode (often cunningly employing remapped character sets, as with Teoman Irmak's work on Adventuresoft's illustrated text adventures) because that's all they had... or at least, that's all they could figure out how to use... and then there are roguelikes... but that's grist for a whole other post, to be sure!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Textmode art roundup: Bloom County

In 2015, after bumbling around in a retirement exile of irrelevance for decades, we saw a return to the limelight. No, I'm not talking about ANSI art, but rather Berke Breathed's comic strip Bloom County -- which began way back in 1980 (I pre-date it only by one year, but it kept pace with me in my upbringing by eg. wallpapering the halls of my local campus radio station) as a kind of college paper Doonesbury clone (Doonesbury, now there's a comic that has never been ANSIfied, I'll bet!) (hm, I just lost that bet!) and basically kept pace with the '80s step for step, closing up shop in 1989, only to string along readers through the increasingly Bloomier "Outland" spin-off from 1989 through 1995. It saw a Sundays-only revival as "Opus" in papers from 2003-2008, so really, as it went directly from Bloom County to Outland and then gave it a rest for eight years between 1995 and 2003, now we're coming out of a second, 7-year hiatus.

Due to timing, the golden age of ANSI art was just beginning to ramp up as the strip was petering out. ACiD founder RaDMaN reports: "Bloom County (Bill the Cat and Opus), Snoopy, and the FidoNet dog were some of the first ASCII art characters I recall ever seeing in commonplace usage on public domain bulletin boards. They were all small scale line-drawn ASCII, typically no taller than 6-7 lines" -- this would have been in the late '80s and very early '90s, perhaps looking something like

_   /|
 /  |
//|  \
Even though Bloom County was on its way out, its silly subjects, sassy attitude and iconic animal characters (with limited newsprint palettes) all combined to make the strip a frequent subject of underground ANSI art conversion -- in my estimation in the top 5* of "toon" ANSI subjects following the winner by a huge margin Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes (possibly the most ANSIfied character of all time? We could easily run an "ANSI Calvin of the Day" feature for several years running without any repeats), Steve Purcell's Sam & Max -- Freelance Police (and hm, if Earthworm Jim counts I may have to revise my stats), Warner Bros.' the Animaniacs, and Jeff Smith's Bone.

It's curious -- while the strip was popular in the newspapers for its time, it was by no means a success on the level of The Far Side or Garfield (or probably even Dilbert)... all of whom get represented in ANSI form also, only not with as great frequency. Maybe their respective art styles made them poor candidates for ANSI conversion, or maybe there was more of an ideological mismatch between the status quo funny pages and the grim elitism of the digital underground. One can only speculate as to why some properties successfully made the leap across mediums and others did not! But please, no further speculation. Without further ado, here's an ANSI art gallery of Bloom County characters rendered in textmode art -- taking as its point of departure an AOTD (ANSI of the Day) post from the 16 Colours Facebook group, which found itself topped up in the comments section. I've decided to devote a blog post to the topic so I don't need to keep "bump"ing a dead thread every time I find a new one. Instead I can just make amendments and additions here, the Internet's newest comprehensive source on Bloom County textmode art.

We begin with a short but sweet piece from my own artgroup Mistigris, a representative from our 1094 collection (our debut!) by Inquisitor, who quickly decamped with his pal Pestilence to Integrity. This is of course Opus the penguin, illustrating BBS menu options and freaking out. As the star of the strip, he's also the subject of the lion's share of the Bloom County ANSIs, so we'll open with a number of takes on his avian visage.

Update, a few totally PD (Public Domain) pieces recent research has uncovered: A situationally elaborate scene, deftly rendered in small scale by EE (update: which is, duh, of course short for PD ANSI legend "Ebony Eyes") in 1990:
And a variation on that theme by the same artist in the same year. I can't really explain it.
OK, time for an ASCII break -- hjw catches the subject straight-on:
                                .'  |  `.
                              .'    |    `.
                             (      |      )
                             .\    OIO    /.
                             | `..' : `.,' |
                            /   /   :   \   \
                          .'  .'    :    `.  `.
                          `._(             )_.'
                             |`---.   .---'|
                             | _   `-'     |  _
                             J| `--..___..-+-' |
                            / |     _[_]_      |
                           /  |_.--'     `---._|
                          /     .-"""""-.    \
                              .'         `.    hjw
This is some kind of threat, as best as I can tell -- an ANSI animation, effected with the help of some GIF2ANS-style automatic conversion utility. I don't see the need for such mean-spiritedness... we would see such excesses visited upon Barney the Dinosaur (textually) and "America's Funniest Home Videos" host Bob Saget, but those frustrated urges are understandable and perhaps even justified... now just what has Opus done to deserve it, though?
This is probably just about as small as an ANSI Opus can get and still remain recognizable.
... though Grampa Phoenix gives him a run for his money. Strangely, ASCII often trumps ANSI at the smallest-scale levels for fine detail:
      (\)77777777777777777777777 a@@@@@@@a    "m `777777777777777(\)
      (\)777777777777777777777 @@""@@""@@@@      # 77777777777777(\)
      (\)777777777'oOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO @mm@@'      # ,77777777777777(\)
      (\)77777'oOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOo`o@@    # ,777777777777777(\)
      (\)77.OOooOOOOOooOOOOOOOOO''O _  `@@@  m## 7777777777777777(\)
      (\)77777,`OOOOOOOO'.;777777 ##.##,mmmmm#'| 7777777777777777(\)
      (\)MMMMMMMmmmmmmmmMMMMMMMM ##' `######''#| MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM(\)
      (\)7777777777777777777777',#' mMm."#"   `# 7777777777777777(\)
      (\)777777777777777777777  Grampa Phoenix  77777777777771907(\)
Drew Olbrich, you have made a gaffe: it is Bill the Cat who says "Ack!", not Opus the penguin!
Merry Christmas! (I have a related project underway, but you'll hear more about it when it's ready.) Here an unshaded Opus is demonstrating his retro cred by interacting with something called a ... "land-line"? Can that be? But it's wireless! The picture is by Sub-ZeroX of Mind, from their August 1994 pack. The flat style is a bit of a throwback by 1994 standards.
And another Christmas piece, this Public Domain work (originally attributed to a "Mike Martell"? but I think he may have gotten it from Ebony Eyes) is likely the oldest of all represented here, perhaps even dating far enough back to a period when Bloom County was still in the papers! ... it just has "TheDraw" written all over it:
Bonus! One further Christmas Opus by RadioIsotope of GRiM! (Nothing could be less grim than this cuddly rendition!)
The first of many from Nosegos of Fire, he lays a bit more texture (and, y'know, our first genuine background) on Opus in their March 1997 artpack.
Speaking of texture, here we have a coloured ASCII rendition of Opus by Zempf of Blade, dating to sometime in 1997. (Coloured ASCII -- neither ASCII nor ANSI. But it can be devilishly effective!)
Back to the background-less voids of 1994, but Ktulu (no relation) has at least found a highly compelling situation in which Opus seems to have gotten himself somehow mixed-up in. (It never fails to remind me of this one, but though I can't imagine that image coming from any source external to Bloom County, I also cannot associate it with any of the strip's events. Of course, a keener could take advantages of trade paperbacks and online comic strip archives to attach every one of these ANSIs to a source panel and the original date it appeared in newspapers! But that's going in a bit deep, even for me -- and that's saying something!) This was released in the February 1994 Relic artpack.
And another Opus -- a dissolving cyber bust of him, anyhow, by the impressively-named Cybernary, out of the January 1994 artpack by the totally forgotten (and apparently not living up to its name) Eternity.
Here's an Opus who gets to shed his neuroses briefly and enjoy a bit of the '80s good life, by the G-Man of Tribe from way back in 1993:
Finally, a piece that taps into the cartoon creature's 'toonish inner essence! (The tongue is a dead giveaway.) This is by a master of the style, Napalm, flag-bearer for the perennial number-3 group CiA. You may have noticed that it looks wider than the other pieces and that observation would be right-on -- this was saved as a .BIN, a peculiar file format typically employed to present double-width ANSIs in artpacks (and with no application on BBSes whatsoever, confined to an 80-column layout 8)
And another ASCII portrait of Opus, this uncoloured one by The Illusionist of Blade, from their February 1997 artpack. Bleah! (Not a judgement call -- just the sound effect associated with another tongue sticking out. Did You Know... Erik Larsen (of "Savage Dragon" fame), piqued at having to illustrate a character who he considered to be ridiculous -- Spider-Man's symbiote-suit gone wild, Venom (a product of the empty imagination of Spawn creator Todd Mcfarlane) -- held his nose and compromised by illustrating the character, but giving him a sinister dangling tongue and spatters of drool. This detail has since been adopted as canon and reproduced by many an artist in his wake! But I digress.)
Now where have I seen that penguin tongue before? (Actually, the proportions are so similar I might suspect one of tracing the other...) Here, Demon Death of Tribe presents both Opus AND Bill, his Garfield-knockoff feline companion. (note their screen saver). Like Animal in Dr. Teeth's Electric Mayhem, Bill D. Cat is the variety spice that's such a standout it really takes centre stage from an ensemble cast (even when the writers haven't noticed yet, like those agonizing first few seasons of the Simpsons where Bart, and not Homer, was the comic driver of the show.)
Another PD artefact, lovingly pored over -- yet another appearance by Ebony Eyes in 1990, echoing but not reproducing the tableau depicted above:
And a bit of UseNet ASCII by Karen A., this one commemorating Bill & Opus' 1988 presidential campaign:
                                   !                       !
                                   !  Bill & Opus in '88   !
                 .     .    . . ___!_______________________!____
       .        .    .  .      (________________________________)
  ___     .    .    . .    ___          / /         \ \
  `-_--__  .  . ___ -  __--_-'         ! !           ! !
    `-_  ---_ ./   \_--  _-'           ! !     !     ! !
      `--_ /o\|  O  | __-'.  .         ! !  _0/ \0_  ! !
        __-\_/\--__/_-                 \  \/       \/  /
   . . /     \/      \  . . .           ! /         \ !
 .   | .'.  |    .`..|.      .         / /           \ \
      .\_____/\______/   .             \(             )/
    .        |##|.^.                     \   "   "   /
  .          |##||  .                     \         /
             |##||                        /\_______/\
             |##|| .                     /   !   !   \
            / / ||:..                   /  __!   !__  \
           | | /  |                    /  !  \\_//  !  \
           | ' |  |                   /   ! \_!-!_/ !   \
          / \_/    |                 !  / ! / !_! \ ! \  !
     !                                                       !
     !                                                       !
     !                      W H I T E                        !
     !                                                       !
     !                      H O U S E                        !
     !                                                       !
     !                         O R                           !
     !                                                       !
     !                       B U S T                         !
     !                                                       !
     !                                                       !
     !______________________________ ________________________!

COUNTY88.TXT 60 lines/80 columns/7-bit ASC   Karen A.
Intended for public distribution -- not intended for resale.
And a return appearance from Ktulu of Relic, this piece showing Opus & Bill from their January 1994 artpack. Bonus points for Berke Breathed's surreal landscapes -- this looks more like the Dali-esque Outland than Bloom County, but the dandelion patch belongs canonically to Bloom County... and was indeed the very setting for the first installment of the strip's current revival! (Opus 'n Bill became a regular Batman & Robin power couple in the funny pages -- and became grist for a legal battle when leaping across the digital divide in 1993 and were heavily penalized for going on a screensaver hunting expedition against After Dark's famous flying toasters (themselves plagiarising album artwork from Jefferson Starship's 1973 "Thirty Seconds Over Winterland". I only knew about it as one of the few non-game pieces of software I keenly warez'd back in the day, unaware that very soon obtaining the product by legitimate commercial means would become impossible! I'm glad to see from the YouTube clips that someone hung on to their copy, because I've been trying to dig a copy of it it up again for literally decades, and the only references I could locate were to legal records 8)
OK, where were we? Yes, Ktulu of Relic just can't resist drawing Bill D. Cat snorting dandelions (somehow resist sharing anecdote about John K. working under Ralph Bakshi putting Mighty Mouse snorting cocaine in the Saturday morning cartoons) as though they're going out of style. (Most artists would never draw a Bloom County character, but of those who did -- it seems they would often make repeat visits.) This looks like interface artwork for an e-mag, but I found it in Relic's April 1994 artpack.
We've got an ASCII portrait of Bill...
From: [a--k] at [cscihp.UUCP] (Andy Santoro)

 <------- ____
  &&&    /    \  __ _____,
    `-- |  o   \'  `  &&/
       `|      | o  },-'
         \____( )__/
         ,'    \'   \
 /~~~~~~|.      |   .}~~~\
  ,-----( .     |   .}--.
        | .    /\___/
         `----^,\ \
                \_/  ACK!!
This greyscale freehand effort by Lagomorph of CiA (hm, advertising his own BBS -- classy!) makes Bill D. Cat look almost like a Calvin Klein underwear model. (Er, sans underwear.)
There are more Bills, a popular subject in the PD set -- each more wretched than the last!: IC in 1991 focuses on his spray of spittle...
Other artists emphasize the whiskers...
Three for three they're wearing hats here. What's that all about?
More a sketch than anything, but the intent remains clear:
Here's another ASCII take, appropriately messy:
   \   \  /
            \ /               \  / /
           / \\  /----------\______________
             /---|           |      ___--/
 ------------| . |  .       /____---__/
    \--/        ===          \
      /           /           \  --\
\  /--|---        |         \ |     \
 \/    \--_____--/ \--_____--/
 /    /   /  ||       ||       \
         /   ||       || \  \   \
        /  / ||/--|--\||  \
             |/   |   \|   \
         /    |       |
And while not strictly speaking textmode art (c'mon, the resolution is low enough that it should get an honourary pass), if you look in the bottom right corner of this 1986 C64 utility's start screen, you will see that an artist identifying as Bill The Cat has represented themselves with a very tiny self-portrait:
And that's it for Opus 'n Bill. But still there are more ANSIfications of the strip's second-stringers: here Lagomorph of CiA returns to the well with this 1995 depiction of computer prodigy Oliver Wendell Jones (and a peculiar negative-space font):
And here's another Oliver, this one from Sub-ZeroX in Mind's August 1994 artpack. The shading on his above portrait was a curiosity, of its time, but this rendition is just flat colours with no attempt at shading at all!:
And our most minimalist Oliver of all, MH of iCE squeezes in both him and his Banana Junior computer. Could Oliver be the first comic strip character to share our interests and hobbies, the first hacker hero of the funny pages, predating Jason from Foxtrot? (As for Dilbert, there are no heroes to be found there, only victims and villains.)
One final Oliver, rendered in TTY-style ASCII art -- this would have been intended for display via dot matrix printout, likely hung up as a kind of banner. (It used some kind of tabs system that prevented its re-posting accurately, so please accept this screen capture in its place:)
I'll briefly dip into total obscurity here with a brutally outsider-styled rendition of an alien Zygorthian from the comic strip (elsewhere shown as telepathic puppy dogs) drawn by Phorce Phed and released in the March 1994 artpack by Leper Society. Some people curate for awesomeness and beauty -- I just try to achieve a comprehensive survey. (But I drew the line at machine-generated ASCII.)
Upping the aesthetic ante a bit, we zip ahead to Fire's October 1996 artpack, and a pair of pieces again by Nosegos, featuring a family's new dog from the post-Bloom-County strip Outland.
Nosegos revisits Outland again in this bit from Fire's February 1997 artpack, a visit to that strip's bizarre "Who Plugged Mortimer Mouse?!" storyline. Hard to see how Breathed got away with it then (not just got away with it, but went on to make a (bomb) movie -- Mars Needs Moms -- with Disney), but something like that slipping through the nets and ending up in hundreds of thousands of newspapers today seems almost unimaginable. Thanks to the Sonny Bono copyright extension act, Mickey was probably closer to achieving the sweet release of public domain status then than he is now! But I digress.
And here's another ASCII from Zempf of Blade, a monochrome 1997 rendition of Milquetoast the cockroach -- a character introduced in Bloom County but who figured much more prominently in Outland, drawn here for the first (and, as far as we can tell, the last) time:
. And Sub-ZeroX weighs in with another entry as well, the only picture on record of Milo Bloom, the Mary Sue after whom the strip is named, released in Mind's August 1994 artpack:
And one more appearance by Napalm of CiA, of the unforgettable Bloom County character Rosebud the Basselope:
Though there are many other characters from Bloom County, our best efforts were unable to yield any returns for human-drawn pictures of Steve Dallas, Cutter John, Michael Binkley, Hodge-Podge, or Portnoy. But what, isn't this enough Bloom County ANSI for you? The big question is: how long will it be for strip panels from its new 2015 run to become ANSIfied?

* You may be thinking -- forty pictures of something gets it enshrined in the top 5 of all time list? Undoubtedly there are more Bloom County characters ANSIfied out there and hiding in the sixteencolors archive in plain view, but due to the primitive attribution and metadata we have to work with, these are just the pieces that floated to the surface when the total database was queried for related terms present in plaintext.

Bonus! Through your patience and devotion, the long tail has delivered to us a prime piece of peak Bloominalia, Bill D. Catt at his Cattiest, drawn by Hoaks of iCE in May of 1994. Enjoy!

And one more -- not an ANSI, but a piece of RIPscrip vector art, also intended for transmission over modem -- an Opus vs. "After Dark" Flying Toaster (cf. that screen saver I alluded to but never elaborated on) by John Kwasnick!