Working on Not Everything Is Flammable was a great experience, notable because it’s probably the only time in my life I will ever get an art credit on a video game. I am not an artist by a long shot. I’m a stick-figure-drawing, Photoshop-phobic non-artist who is dreadfully embarrassed by any art I have had to make even for proofs-of-concept before the real artist arrives to work their foreign, unattainable magic. But NEIF was a project that shifted my perception of creating video game art, all because I jumped at the chance to create pixel art for the game.
To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the process of making the art. This was in a large part due to my template being a grid of squares. The grid felt like a handicap, in a sense, taking away the pressure of drawing something on a blank canvas and making it feel more like a colour-by-numbers without the numbers actually being there. Additionally, having things like colour and line stripped from the creation process, it was simple enough for my programmer brain to dissect a common household object, for example, into basic shapes, and translate it to whether a pixel existed in a square or not. I found that objects that worked, like fire extinguishers, had really distinct shapes and thus were instantly recognizable, and I had to do very little other than map out where the pixels would be and put in some shading.
Pixel art is remarkably effective even with just black and white. I was quite proud of my cat and my sheep, which have big roles in the game. I only used black for the cat, and black and white for the sheep. What’s more, I don’t think either would have looked better if I had done a bunch of different colours and shading.
From this, I learned that with the pared down aesthetics of pixel art, less can be more. Teasing out what made objects recognizable became a technique I would rely on as I continued making pixel art assets. The team had a list of potential items they wanted in the game, and it was interesting that the simplest items to make often turned out the best. There was not much I had to do to create a bowling ball, only make a circle as best I could with squares and then place three darker dots in just the right spots. Instantly, it looked like a bowling ball. But without the dots, it would just be a blob. Funny how that works out.
To my even greater surprise and disbelief, I found that the final pieces I created were actually recognizable and not awful like any of my previous artistic endeavours. For the first time, I was proud of the artwork I had created and proud of the game that was going to use it. I began creating more complex pieces and working with more shades of grey. My favourite pieces that I created were copies of famous paintings, which were gussied up with colour before being added to the game. I love these so, so much.
I think pixel art, especially on so small a scale, is a great introduction to making art for games. It does give the game a certain aesthetic, but in exchange, it’s very forgiving to non-artists like me, hiding all manner of sins. Because pixel art has the constraints of the grid and solid colours, there’s a cap to how “good” even professional artists can make a scene look, which means that mediocre or terrible artists’ work doesn’t look that bad in comparison.
While some say that pixel art is a cop-out or lazy especially in indie games, I would argue that games need decent art above almost anything, and sometimes game developers who can’t find an artist or want to work solo on a project need cop-outs. As indie game developers, we should go ahead and make the best art we can for our games, and sometimes that is pixel art, which gives huge returns on quality for those of us who aren’t artistically inclined.
As for Not Everything is Flammable, I still find the game charming and enjoy the concept immensely. I think procedural levels work well, making every playthrough different. The unique interaction of being the flame and passing who you play as through different objects is really cool, not to mention it’s really fun to destroy things. And finally, I admire how the pixel art style (from the lack of “real artists” on the team) was chosen to play to our strengths – or lack thereof. Pixel art was embraced and used to set the tone of the game, giving it the vibe and the humour that it has. I’m thrilled I got to make art for an awesome indie game, and I gained a lot more confidence and insight for having done so.