Traditional roguelike aesthetics are all about abstraction. Object representations are distilled to a simple symbolic form, thus it’s no surprise that roguelikes sometimes come paired with ASCII art. Of course this is also often due to practical limitations--the engine/system itself may only be capable of displaying characters--but it’s also stylistically appropriate for art to use the same medium as the rest of the game in a similarly abstract way.
Here “art” refers to still works composed of multiple characters arranged to depict a larger subject. The overall aesthetic of a roguelike can definitely be said to have artistic value (heck, even Dwarf Fortress can make it into the Museum of Modern Art!), but ASCII art is a step in a slightly different direction.
Unlike letters, numbers, and punctuation that rely purely on player imagination to flesh out that goblin, dragon, or cannon-laden death robot, ASCII art gives the viewer’s imagination a starting point. ASCII isn’t generally used to draw fully “abstract” art; it’s more suggestive than that, while still lacking enough accurate details that there is plenty of room for a wild imagination to interpret and/or expand on the image. In terms of detail, ASCII art sits firmly at the bottom of a list topped by 3D/textures, 2D/pixel art, and more styles in between.
ASCII art itself can also range from more to less abstract, mostly dependent on the number of characters used.
For a collection of many more examples, check out this thread on TIGForums. There you’ll find plenty of roguelike mockups, many of which include ASCII art. Very inspiring stuff!
Art in Cogmind
While Cogmind’s animated GUI and particle effects can definitely be classified as (and are intended to be) art, procedural content aside I’ve decided to also add ASCII art to Cogmind. For now only items (components/parts) will be drawn, “only” being a very relative term here because there are 600 of them! Good news is I’ve already drawn them all and imported them into the game, so that’s another task out of the way…
The process began several months ago when I started drawing ASCII concepts for weapons to see whether it would be worth including them in the game. Initial concepts were well-received, so I expanded on them to make sure the necessary variety was possible within the restrictions of ASCII and the available dimensions in the item info window. Finally I sketched out other item types to make sure I could handle those as well.
At first I wasn’t sure if I could produce enough art within a reasonable time frame, but after months of occasional practice a consistent style appeared as I familiarized myself with the available glyphs and found uses for each. That and I got much faster at producing interesting designs.
Cogmind art sits between the two extremes described earlier: It’s a little abstract but there’s enough room to contain some more suggestive details.
Cogmind art uses a traditional code page 437 font, meaning 255 characters including your normal alphanumerics and punctuation along with extended ASCII. No glyphs have been altered (though the font is slightly wider than the IBM font to suit a square cell aspect ratio). Art is always more interesting when working with a set of stringent limitations!
The font is available at each resolution the game supports, thus art drawn with it can be scaled without any stretching/shrinking.
While not necessary, adding ASCII art provides Cogmind with another unique visual aspect and, more importantly, gives observers a little something concrete to latch onto. I love it just for what it is, neat-looking ASCII art, but from a more practical standpoint it’s a useful marketing tool for a game that honestly doesn’t have the most appealing screenshots. Cogmind is at its best when it’s in motion (the disparity is more apparent than with other games), and screenshots aren’t a very effective way to capture the feeling of playing the game. ASCII art is a quick and easy attention grabber that is likely to attract the same kind of audience that would be interested in this type of game. Or so I hope ;)
The next post will look at the process behind creating the ASCII art you see in Cogmind.