The inkle blog

Calling hand-drawn animators!

At the end of last year we experimented with using Spine to animate our main protagonist. Our animator friend and colleague Martin (who's been working on his own incredibly-named Schrodinger's Cat Burglar) gave us a helping hand, and started producing idle and run cycle animations to help us prototype the concept with our latest character design.

But as we experimented with Spine and 2d rigged animation, we increasingly realised it was perhaps the wrong direction to be pushing in. Although 2d rigged animation can give you very smooth results, it's also quite limited - for example you can't easily turn your sideways-facing character to look forwards at the camera. The advantages are that once you have a rigged character, it's relatively straightforward to create animations since it's equivalent to manipulating a shadow puppet.

By comparison, hand-drawn animation requires you to... well, hand-draw every single animation from scratch. But in return, the results can look incredible - have a play of Spiritfarer (character art below) if you don't believe me! Hand-drawn animation can add a huge amount of charm and character.

Spiritfarer characters concept art

They also seem like the perfect fit for our environment art, which has a painterly aeshetic - we think they will sit together wonderfully.

We have one big problem though - we don't know any traditional hand drawn animators! Annie is our in-house artist and illustrator, and produces beautiful work, but we could do with some help producing pencil test frames that she could do the finishing work on.

Work with us!

UPDATE: We have now found our animator, thanks to everyone who applied!

So, here's the plan: if you're a freelancer and you think you'd like to work on our highland game (or know someone who'd be a good fit), please get in contact. Here's how we'd like to run it:

  • We strongly encourage women, BAME and other minority background candidates to apply.
  • A timezone closer to the UK is preferable. The work will always be remote.
  • Send an email to [email protected] with "Highland Animation" in the subject line, and a link to a portfolio or sample animation work.
  • If you seem like a good fit for the project, we'll ask you for a fully paid art test (we're likely to ask for a few of these from different people, assuming we get enough responses).
  • We make a beautiful game together.

Happy New Year everyone; may this one be better than the last!

Character Concepting - Part 2

[ TV ANNOUNCER VOICE: Previously on Character Concepting! ]

For year we'd been really happy with our character design sketch:

But when our art director Paul came on board, we started to revisit the character design so that she would fit better into the overall art direction. This design was a bit overly cartoonish and didn't fit with the more realistic background art so well.

She was also not entirely fitting with the narrative that Jon was starting to weave. We decided we needed a character who was a bit more grounded. She exists in a world that can be beautiful but also unforgiving; she has a difficult journey to make.

We loved this new direction. And so we started to narrow down the design:

But those were a bit too young. We felt like our protagonist was more like a 14-15 year old.

A pair of socks and some hair experimentation later, and we were all really happy with the design. We've also being going back and forth on whether the art should have (possibly sketchy) outlines, or be clean.

Here's a version with thin outlines. What do you think?

The art of the highlands

It's really important to us that our game strongly conveys the unique feeling of the highlands. There's a strong distinction that you feel being in the Scottish mountains compared to say, the European alps or Yosemite National Park. Scottish mountains aren't the highest, the jagged-est or the pointiest. But they have a darkness and weight to them that's only really shared with places like Iceland or perhaps parts of Scandinavia. They can be very lonely too - the further North you go, the further from civilisation you'll find yourself.

Our players don't all need to be fans of the Scottish highlands of course, even if we are! The point is to create a unique and strong aesthetic that's not just "generic green hills and rocks".

Part of capturing that aesthetic has been about finding an art style that can reflect it with authenticity. We wouldn't want to go with anything too bright or cartoony, so we think a level of stylised realism could do the trick.

The reason we approached Paul first about helping us out with art direction was that his work is both painterly yet has a sense of effortless realism; he's one of those concept artists who can convey a lot with a few important brush strokes.

We think his concept art above is a fantastic example of this! He's also produced an animated version of it that demonstrates parallax, and we'll share that in a future update.

When Paul first joined the team, he started off with a few loose studies to get a sense of the environment: the different times of day, weather and the textures in the foreground. These are a bit looser than our final intended art style, but the looseness is a good demonstration of how much can be achieved with so little!

Finding an art director

In all of our past games the art direction has been primarily my (Joe’s) responsibility. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, and although I love art and I have artistic opinions, I’ve often been stretched a bit thin, especially on Heaven’s Vault.

One thing we decided very early on is that our highland game has to be absolutely gorgeous, so on this project, it was time to find some outside help - someone who could help us define a beautiful, consistent look for the game.

We were keen on a painterly aesthetic, to give the sense that you’re playing inside a rich, lush landscape painting.

Our first choice was Paul Scott Canavan. He’s an exceptionally talented illustrator and art director. Oh, and he's Scottish.

Just take a look at some of the gorgeous work from his website:

So, we dropped him an email. Just a few minutes later, and we had an enthusiastic yes! He loved the concept and was really eager to work with us to make it a reality.

Paul isn't just a brilliant illustrator; he's been doing a great job of deconstructing the game's art style, breaking it down so that we can work together to build it back up in-game out of the fundamental pieces.

By the way, the key art at the top of this page is his - and it’s the overall look we’re aiming for on this project. We can't wait to show more of what we've been working on together!

Character Concepting - Part 1

We started designing the look of our protagonist back in the summer of 2019, while working on Pendragon.

Here are some of Annie's lovely early sketches:

For a long time, we had settled with the following design. In fact, we've had her in-game for a while, with some early prototype animations:

We've been doing some new work on the character design since then. Watch this space for Part 2!

Update: Part 2 is now here

The story so far

Welcome to this brand new little update blog for our as yet untitled game that's set in the Scottish Highlands. (Okay, we have a proper name for it, we're just not ready to say what it is yet!)

First, let's get up to speed. What kind of game is it that we're making?

In some ways it's very similar to our previous games - it's about travel, it's replayable, and has a strong branching narrative.

In other ways, it's very different. This game has a side-on perspective and has 2d platforming elements, which is very much uncharted territory for us!

Something else that's very different: we're planning to be more open with the development process than we ever have in the past. We're going to try and post regular updates. So please hold us to account if we haven't posted in a while!

That's it for now! Watch this space for more...

The Pendragon Tales!

Two weeks ago, we announced a writing competition for our upcoming narrative strategy game, Pendragon. As you gather the knights of the Round Table to cross England, they will sit beside the campfire and tell stories.

We opened a call for submissions of tales - courtly romances, ghost stories, adventures. We hoped we'd get some good ones - and we received over four hundred, amazing tales.

We've read them all. Several of them we've read twice. And now we're very happy to announce our selection - 23 tales from 23 writers (plus a couple by us). Some are professional game writers for Fallen London, Choice Of Games, Zombies, Run! and Over the Alps; one was a writer on Deus Ex; some have written independent games before; some are journalists; and for some this is their first writing sale.

We have an engineer, an archaeologist, a biochemist, a theatrical set-dresser and a theatre director. The oldest writer is sixty-two, the youngest is seventeen. One story is by a group of professional storytellers, Troubadour Tales, who regularly perform at heritage sites in the UK.

We have contributions from all around the world: Israel, Romania and Argentina, as well as Canada, the US and the UK. One submission was written by a non-English speaker using translation software.

Each on the list wasn't just good, but excellent. Each left us with more than we started with. Some are genuinely startling. Some are scary, some silly, and some are more profound than you might expect. We loved them all (and ended up with more than twice we intended.)

The Stories!

Here's the full list:

  • Death and the King, by Adrian Bourceanu
  • Avethorpe Grove, by Robin Todd
  • The Bramble, by Carl Muckenhoupt
  • Bitter Fruit, by Chris Kerr
  • The Shoemaker and the Thief, by Callico Harrison
  • Woe, by Christopher Pitt
  • The Town by the Lake, by Emma Kate Campbell
  • Three Jealous Daughters, by Enkei, Owner-of-all-Hearts
  • Playing The Maiden Fair, by Florence Smith Nicholls
  • To Be A Dragon, by George Lockett
  • Rust in Peace, by Harry Tuffs
  • The Dame Ragnelle, by ila
  • The Merchant's Tale, by Jasmine Osler
  • Sir Baudwin and the Chalice, by David E. Sky
  • Wilfred and the Serpent, by Mary Goodden
  • The King's Advisor, by Maya Hecht and Udi Becker
  • The Man Who Couldn't Fart, by Michael Kelly
  • The Faerie King's Bride, by OD Jones
  • The Parchment, by Peter Dudasko
  • The Spear Rhongomiant, by Rebecca Zahabi
  • About Names, by Rodrigo Agosta
  • Bethan and Sir Thew, by Samuel Partridge
  • The Waymaker's Grave, by Shelly Jones
  • The Knight of Pies, by Thomas Martin
  • The Lost Soul, by Troubadour Tales

A dying king cheats Death, and yet Death wins. A knight defends his name well beyond the bitter end. A tale of a bloodthirsty hound goes wrong. A giant's plan to save his soul is befouled.

There are tales of ghosts, fairies and shaggy dogs, mixed with cautionary tales, Celtic and Arthurian retellings, and a song.

When you play Pendragon, the stories you encounter will depend on who's in your party to do the telling, and other things - where have they camped? How is the journey faring? A cheerful tale might follow a victory; a sad tale might follow a defeat.

Some will no doubt be harder to find than others... but we can't wait for you to discover them all, when Pendragon launches later this year.

inklewriter lives again!

We're hugely delighted to announce that inklewriter, our free, write-as-you-go tool for sketching interactive fiction, is BACK - stable, free to use, and now open-source!

Read the interactive press release!

(For existing users: this is a new version with a new database. You'll need a new account; and you'll need to import any story data from the previous version manually. Details on how to do that are below.)

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So what's new?

After over a year in shutdown mode, inklewriter has been given a new lease of life by an amazing team of open-source developers. Inklewriter is now stable on modern browsers - and it's also open-source, and of course, still free to use.

(Note, if you're interested in ink, our scripting language for IF, please check here!)

The new version is at inklewriter.com, and this is now the main branch of inklewriter. (But we'll keep the old version around for a while, to ensure you have time to copy across your story data.)

What is inklewriter?

Inklewriter is a write-as-you-play tool for creating and sharing branching stories. It aims to provide a way for anyone to start writing an interactive story, with no set-up and no barrier to getting started.

It's not as powerful as ink, our scripting language for game development - but it's fast to use, unfussy, and intuitively laid out.

It's been used by writers, game developers, schools and universities since its launch in 2012.

So what's happening?

inklewriter began as a free web project when inkle was first founded. But with web-technology always changing, it became impossible for us to maintain it.

Enter the open-source community, who have produced a full port of inklewriter to modern web-tech.

This means inklewriter is now fully stable once more, and better yet, it's going to be maintained in the foreseeable future.

The new version is available now. If you've never tried inklewriter before, you can start now. Otherwise, read on...

I had an account. What happens to my stories?

The new version of inklewriter will start afresh. That means you'll need to make a new account to start writing.

Old stories will have to be imported out of the old database and into the new one, but the process should be fast and easy. You can start importing now:

  • Head to the legacy version of inklewriter (which we'll be keeping around for the time being)
  • Log in, open the story you want to import, and click the share button.
  • Type ".json" onto the end of the URL that it gives you, paste it into the address bar and press enter to get your data.
  • Example: http://oldinklewriter.inklestudios.com/stories/musgraveritual.json
  • Open in another tab the new version of inklewriter at inklewriter.com.
  • You'll need to first register a new account on the new version to import your story
  • Once logged in, click on the import link.
  • Copy the JSON data from your story, and paste it into the text area of the import box, and click Import.
  • Next click on the "open" link: your story should be here, ready to open.

We imported our Sherlock Holmes example, "The Musgrave Ritual"... and it took about ten seconds.

I've found a bug. Where can I get help?

The project is hosted on GitHub here. You can report issues - and collaborate on future development - there.

Logins and privacy

Logins to inklewriter are email addresses; these are stored in a secure database, and are never viwed / shared / sold.

If you require a higher level of privacy, however, as inklewriter is now open-source you'll be able to host your own inklewriter service, if you wish.

That said, please do not use a high-value password for your inklewriter account. Security on the internet can never be fully guaranteed.

Thank you!

We're really excited for this; inklewriter was an early experiment for us in making responsive interactive fiction accessible to anyone, without the need to be confusing.

We've frequently used inklewriter ourselves for quick prototypes and sketches, and we're over the moon that it's getting a new lease of life in the open source community.

Credits

We're enormously grateful to the team behind the project:

  • Maxence, entrepreneur and Ruby dev.

  • Alban, free software activist and linux aficionado.

... and you can contact them directly.

Happy inklewriting!

Announcing... ink Jam!

Interested in ink? Been meaning to have a go at learning it, but never had the motivation? Or are you a skilled inkist, looking to show off your skills?

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Either way, if you want a chance to take ink for a spin, we've got a great opportunity coming up. In collaboration with The Pixel Hunt, the studio behind the multi-award-winning Bury Me, My Love, we're launching ink Jam - a 3 day game jam for games made in ink.

About ink

ink is a scripting language for interactive fiction that's designed to be used by humans. Using a simple but powerful mark-up based approach, it's easy to create a branching flow that responds and shifts based on everything the player chooses. It's quick to test, redraft and restructure. But ink is also powerful, with significant features that allow for complex state-tracking world-modelling. It comes with an IDE, javascript output, and Unity integration.

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It's totally free, and being used by studios all over the world to create all kinds of interactive experiences, from a news-game about Uber drivers created by British newspaper the Financial Times, an E3 favourite (https://www.neocabgame.com/) and an IGF finalist (http://wherethewatertasteslikewine.com/), through to a sailing qualitification course, Air New Zealand's chatbot, a game entirely written in emoji, a procedural ASCII dungeon crawler, and a celebrated globe-trotting adventure to name but a few.

How to get involved

The jam is being hosted on itch.io over the weekend of August 31st to September 3rd. Entries can be submitted via the itch jam page, and we'll be judging the results for creativity and technical wizardy.

Once the jam starts we'll be announcing a theme to help get your ideas going. Until then, if you need any inspiration, check out one of the many games written and released using ink, or visit our Patreon tips page for some of the stranger and more powerful things ink can do!

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