There has been some progress. It has mostly revealed how badly I have underestimated the work involved, but I am happy, for two reasons.
Firstly, Chunky Fringe will ensure that there is some fun to be had for early arrivals to Digitiser Live. Realistically, my game was going to be far from playable by then, so I am extremely grateful to all the exhibitors who have volunteered to provide things that you can actually enjoy. Tables are still available, if you would like to join them.
Secondly, several months of increasingly crippling tiredness were diagnosed as nothing more sinister than Vitamin D deficiency. Not enough sun, in short. Which makes sense, considering that it was winter, and I spend most of my time indoors anyway. All it took to solve the problem was one blood test and some supplements, so I feel rather silly for not getting it checked out sooner.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for my procrastination. I did ask a few experts on the subject, but they haven't got back to me yet.
It's fairly simple, even relaxing, to make pixel copies of the original Digitiser characters. What I have been working on, and now realise will be the main graphics challenge, is how to frame them. Starting from the script, which you may remember has now been approved by “The Man”, this is some of the paperwork that I ended up producing.
Before putting pencil to paper, I went through the entire script to generate a complete list of locations and shots. I had already done a similar background count to estimate memory usage, but this pass was exhaustive. It was good to revisit the script in detail, and tweak a few scenes in ways that only seemed obvious after coming back to them with fresh eyes.
At the same time, I was formalising the technical specifications of the screen. Last year, I felt slightly annoyed to discover that the BBC Micro has a native teletext graphics mode, which the ZX Spectrum doesn't. However, it turns out that I will probably be better off coding my own not-quite-teletext mode.
That's what some Digitiser characters look like in my not-quite-teletext mode screen, with the information bar and some coloured buttons fitting outside the grey area, though there might yet be subtitles overlapping at the bottom. Were this at true teletext resolution, then those same characters would go right to the edges of the screen. I'm happily settled on something a little finer than teletext, so that I can do more with crowds and backgrounds, but not so fine as to loose the characteristic chunkiness.
Another challenge, linked to framing, is scaling. Monochrome images look absolutely fine when scaled upwards by integers, but scaling downwards usually results in a horrendous mess. If Doctor Derek Doctors and Insincere Dave are to meet for tea and biscuits, I will need to hand-tweak one of them so that they can share the same table. Though I could change the framing instead, with Dave sat at the table while Derek gets more milk from a sinister fridge in the foreground. You get the idea.
An unexpected, though extremely welcome bonus is that 98% of Mr. Biffo's old characters read absolutely fine in monochrome. It's partly symptomatic of the way that teletext does colour, the horizontal control codes needing to be hidden within background-coloured cells, but regardless, allows drastically more flexibility when laying each screen out.
Having set out the essentials, I began drawing backgrounds. Very loosely indeed, because the target resolution eats most detail, so thumbnails are almost enough to decide what will work or not. The actual backgrounds will be mostly black, events generally taking place at night, and colour added later if necessary.
One technical challenge will be animating the car scenes, but you can probably already guess the kind of tricks I'll be using. Fortunately, I had settled on using car conversations for exposition before playing Deadly Premonition, otherwise I might have felt that I was ripping off one of its best ideas.
I'm fairly consistent with technical drawing, perspective and such things. My faces are thoroughly haphazard. I had to conceal one sketch from you to avoid spoiling a “celebrity”, and conceal another sketch that sits on the threshold between primal terror and hilarity. Though with enough rapid biro work, I seem to eventually hit on something between that fuzzy-haired guy and Frankenstein's freshly-moisturised monster, which is fine as a starting point for pixels.
I'll be preoccupied with Chunky Fringe for the next two months, and if time permits, also finishing my other Spectrum game. The beta testers haven't found any showstoppers, but I've nearly run out of memory for the ending, and a fancy animation is awkwardly crawling along, due to coding shortfalls that I previously got away with for static images.
Those problems would have come up with the Digi game anyway, so at least I know how to plan around them from the start. Most importantly, designing it as a multi-load, which also frees up memory for some tricks to help the animation run smoothly.
I hope you enjoy Chunky Fringe, and if you do, it won't be because of what I'll be showing. I'd love to chat with you about whatever that I've thrown together by then, but at best, it would be no more than a very brief tech demo. Fortunately, all the other exhibitors and panellists who have kindly come forward will be making the event worth your while.
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