Hexels 2: Surviving Untalentedness

I’ve been scouting for pixel art software that would hold my hand and make everything ok.  I’m one of those people who know what they want from a piece of art when they see it, but have little talent in creating.  It all goes back to 1987 when my art teacher accused me of spreading rumors about her having some statutory lesbian crush on me.  I was 12 years old.  (What the f*ck was that all about?! My adult self is still mind blown.)  So I got lower grades than I actually deserved, and I stopped drawing altogether because no amount of effort made a difference in her class.  I was stupid.  Visual art is essential.  The earlier a young creative learns to draw, the better.  I was completely unaware of this, which resulted in a ginormous waste of potential.  I twiddled my thumbs for the remainder of that year, underperformed as best as I could, and steered clear of anything art.  Fast forward to 2017, the year I resolved to roll up my sleeves and kickstart my point-and-click adventure game.  Anyone familiar with the genre knows that it is heavily art-based. I need a miracle.

Enter Hexels 2 ($38) from Marmoset LLC.  Five minutes into the demo I was crying tears of joy.  Could it be true?!  Is it really possible to finally make isometric and regular pixel art despite my obvious limitations?  FYI, pixel art looks easy, but it’s not.  I’ve tried a bunch of apps on the iPad Pro, with an Apple Pencil to boot.   But keyboard shortcuts are life.  In game dev, one would typically make hundreds of art pieces that end up being thrown together in Photoshop or straight into your game dev software of choice.   This is why I had to abandon Pixaki, Procreate, and Assembly on iOS, despite some success in drawing basic 8-bitish characters.  The pencil’s travel from pixel to tool panel made the process too tedious.  Sans pencil, the experience felt clumsy.

Other than that, I’m unnaturally intimidated by perspective, light, and the human form.  Good thing I’m pretty good at reverse engineering.  I could take a finished piece of art, break it down to its core components, and painstakingly imitate.  That’s how I learn to do most things.

Back to Hexels.  It wasn’t exactly JUST a pixel art app when I downloaded the demo 14 days ago.  From the Marmoset website, Hexels is described as “an intuitive 2D, grid-based painting tool enabling you to effortlessly create brilliant works of art.”  If I’m not mistaken, it’s actually a vector drawing app that lets you fill in trixels on a grid.


Drawing in Hexels 2.5  (All weird artifacts are caused by the gif compression of the video and does not occur within the app)

This app brought joy to my heart.  Except that it kept crashing on my 2015 Macbook Pro every time I zoomed in too fast.  I’d normally just throw in the towel and look for something that worked, but I fell in love with it pretty fast.  Updating OSX from 10.12.4 to 10.12.5 fixed my problem.  Nevertheless, the developer sent me a beta version of Hexels 2.59 to test.  Wow.  This version had a slew of killer new features, starting with the awesome, awesome pixel mode.

Pixel Mode on Hexels 2.59 Beta

Pixel Mode on Hexels 2.59 (Beta)

Keyboard shortcuts were very easy to pick up:  B for brush, L for line, I for eye dropper, S for select, G for paint bucket, and so on.  I felt like a power user in no time.  Then there are Hexels works out there that are so inspiring you’d start to think you could actually conquer this thing… this one thing that’s always stood between you and world domination.  If you’re feeling a little hopeless, go spend your day watching Mark Knight’s Hexels speed painting videos at 25%.  Do it.  Do it now.  You’re welcome.

Despite a lack of instructional videos on Hexels, Mark Knight’s videos are a boon when you’re trying to learn both pixel art technique, and Hexels hacks.   I also pored over Deniella Zeman’s beautifully shaded art, and Mira Karouta’s fascinating pieces. Just a word of warning.  These artists make it look easy, so don’t bite off more than you can chew or you’ll end up frustrated like I did.  Start with a cube.  Yes, a cube.  Shade that mother to kingdom come.  Combine cubes.  Walk before you run.

Animation, which can be done from within Hexles, is a whole new can of worms I choose not to open just yet.  So far so good.  I’ve been able to translate imagined characters and scenes into actual pixel art on this app.  This does not come easy for me.  What a talented artist can do in a few minutes, I struggle with from morning, till the wee hours of the next day, often with nothing to show for it.  But I’m getting there, a tiny step at a time.  I love that  I can adjust my project dimensions and grid subdivisions as I work.  Sure, there are prescribed standard dimensions for characters and backgrounds, but being able to subdivide grids after the fact allows for richer images, and lots of wiggle room — something that we, beginners, could use.  I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously.  I got what I asked for.  Hexels 2 is my pixel art hygge.

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Old Grit – A Collection of Filthy Patches for the iVCS3


I’m giving away a library of presets I made for the iVCS3. This collection embodies my love for imperfect, dirty, slightly ugly sounds that are both edgy and warm reminiscent of old tape recordings. Some presets are variations of one matrix patch, and not entirely unique, created for the convenience of switching from tone to tone without dialing in different settings each time. Don’t forget to read the performance notes to get a better understanding of each patch’s controls. Have fun and go crazy with it! Drop me a line if you find these patches useful in any way.

Disclaimer: Some patches are softer than most. When using these super soft patches, please do not forget to turn down your device’s output volume before switching to the next patch. This would prevent damage to your hearing and/or equipment. Use these patches at your own risk. I shall not be held liable for any damage to property or hearing resulting from the use of these patches, ya hear? Safety first! The iVCS3 can get very loud in an instant. Keep your device’s audio output at moderate levels.

Update (3/23/15): the levels have been fixed, and patches more or less do not differ as much in their amplitude. Yay.

Download all these 3 files, and open them in the iVCS3.

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MIDI Channel Switching and Program Change on the MPK Mini and the iPad

Here is a rough demo of how the MPK MINI can be programmed to switch between MIDI Channels to control different iOS Synths at a time. Please be gentle, this is my first time playing live.  In fact I bungle it up towards the end but what the hey.  Active iOS apps are:

  1. Sunrizer
  2. iMini
  3. iGrand
  4. DM1, triggered from the ipad
  5. Alchemy
  6. Chord PolyPad

To set up different channels on your Akai MPK Mini, download the MPK Mini Editor here.

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 6.15.34 PM

  Setting up the MPK

  1. Plug in your MPK Mini into your desktop computer and launch the editor.
  2. Press ok when the editor detects your MPK.  If it doesn’t, you might have to quit the editor, replug the MPK into your desktop, and relaunch the editor.
  3. Click on Preset 1 to get the preset stored inside your MPK.
  4. Change the value in the “Key + Knobs MIDI CH” to 1
  5. Change the Pad MIDI CH to 1.
  6. CLICK ON UPLOAD.  Remember to do this first before you click on other presets, otherwise you’d have to start over.
  7. Click on Preset 2 to acquire the preset stored in the MPK.
  8. Change Key + Knobs MIDI CH to 2, and change Pad MIDI CH to 6 (yes, 6). CLICK ON UPLOAD, press ok when done.
  9. Click on Preset 3 to get the current preset 3 stored in the MPK Mini.
  10. Change Key + Knobs MIDI CH to 3, and change Pad MIDI CH to 3. On Pad 4 click on “Momentary to change it to “Toggle”. CLICK ON UPLOAD, press ok when done.
  11. Click on Preset 4 to get the current preset 3 stored in the MPK Mini.
  12. Change Key + Knobs MIDI CH to 4, and change Pad MIDI CH to 8.
  13. If you wish to use Chord Polypad on the pads, set the notes of pads 1-4 as follows: E3, F3, F#3, G3.
  14. Click on Upload and press ok when done.

Setting up the iPad Apps

  1. Sunrizer.  Tap on Utils button at the top of the screen > Midi > Channel > set to 1.  I’d say this is one of the most ideal iOS synths for live use because it has the ability to change presets using the MPK’s pads, apart from having selectable MIDI input channels.  The synth presets are numbered according to their position in the list, so that Program Change + Pad 1 calls up the very first prset from the top of the list, and so on and so forth.  The beauty of Sunrizer in this area is that you can drag presets up and down to make them correspond to the pads of the MPK.     The banks are also positioned alphabetically so that User banks can be named “01 – Live Gig” for example, and the presets in this bank will most likely end up being the first presets in the list.  Instantly, the first 8 presets in Sunrizer will be mapped to the MPK.
  2. Alchemy.  Menu > Settings > Midi in/out configuration > MDI in > Un-highlight everything but MPK Mini and channel 2.  Midi Out > Un-hihglight everything.  Menu > Settings > Background Audio On
  3. iMini. At the top right of the screen, tap on Connect > MIDI > Select Midi Channel 3, Tap On for the MPK Mini.  You can use MIDI Learn for the knobs and the toggle switches available (delay or arpeggio on Pad CC# + Pad 4 on the MPK Mini).
  4. iGrand.  At the top right of the screen, tap on Menu > Set MIDI Channel to 4, tap on MIDI Controllers to enable the MPK mini to send notes and other midi signals to the iGrand.  Note that lower 3rd knob on the MPK Mini corresponds to Volume in iGrand.
  5. Chord PolyPad.  On the upper right of the screen, tap on the MIDI icon > tap on Midi Out > Select iGrand Piano.  Tap on Midi In > Select Mpk Mini.  Tap on setup > tap on “Selected Group From C3”.  Since we selected E3, F3, F#3, G3 for pads 1-4, you will have to place your desired 4 chords at the bottom row of the 4×4 grid in Chord PolyPad. Since this app does not have selectable MIDI input channels, you will have to be creative in placing your chords in the grid, or use the 3rd bottom knob on the MPK to turn the volume of the iGrand all the way down when not in use.  Tricky! 😉
  6. With this setup, you can still trigger other synths using the top 4 pads (5-8) on preset 4 and all the 8 pads on Bank 2 in Preset 4 of the MPK Mini (Midi Channel 8).  Also, Preset 2’s Pads can still be mapped to drum apps (Midi Channel 6).


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What’s The Story, Morning Glory?

On December 25, 2013, a film idea hit me. I spent christmas day writing the outline to an arguably perverse, undeniably violent tale conjured over a bowl of mushroom soup and christmas carols. The next few months were spent agonizing over broad strokes instead of filling in the cross hatches.  To say I was uncomfortable with my story would be an understatement.  I was unconvinced.  This is what happens when a story is born out of the need to expunge. The writer turns selfish, goes on his merry masturbatory way. I just needed my release, all be damned.  And that’s swell if one’s entire target audience is her army of fluffy cats. Human subjects tend to be more easily appalled by gratuitous violence. “Proceed with caution,” the warning sign said, “After all, you will be stepping on some real, live toes.” Another warning sign read, “Cover your bases, and please don’t get in trouble” while the other flashed, “If you do, make it count.”

So I picked up a couple of resources to help my story chug along, the first of which was a book called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by the flamboyant Robert McKee. The first few pages were sobering.

“STORY is about respect, not disdain, for the audience. When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.”

– Robert McKee

That deserved a slow clap.  Robert McKee helps if you take what you need and discard the fluff.  Really, all I need are some hard rules for breaking, seeing that I have actually never written a legitimate script in my life.  Not alone, at least.

A few years back, I had a wonderful team of young artists who worked with me in writing scripts for an online comedy series.  We would bounce ideas off each other over good food, alcohol, maniacal laughter, and art films. I knew I had it good then, but I didn’t realize just how much.  My foray in story telling often included these brilliant colleagues –William Manzano, Cyril Bautista, and Rafael Raymundo — and our little think tank always felt slightly skewed in the absence of one or the other.  Those were good times because, frankly, it is a struggle to have to build a universe alone.

If there was anything the team did well, it was tapering off the story into manageable, feasible chunks.  Sometimes we got the arc down pat from day one, and worked out the details over the months.  Other times, the story unfolded with each meeting. For the most part, we regulated each other so that no one got to go Uwe Boll 100 per cent. We were an irreverent bunch, and a little spoiled to go unchecked most of the time. But we drew the line at some point. We knew which jokes were good to tell during meetings, and which ones could spark a witch hunt if unleashed upon the interwebs. My vantage point isn’t as clear when working alone. Case in point: I once set out to create a light hearted animation about a boy and a mom playing video games, and ended up inserting animal cruelty, gore, and sexual innuendo, in that order, within the first minute of material. Did I mean to do it?  Not entirely.  Let’s just say I botched the treatment, but something in me found the resulting scene too funny, and too real. It was a political statement executed in absolute political incorrectness.  So I left it at that and fed it to the internet. Not surprisingly, a handful of angry commenters demanded that I give them back the 2 minutes they have lost forever. The rest was duly disturbed.

This indecision over the larger details of my story inspired another “brilliant” idea. Let’s turn this into a video game! How does one resist the vast possibilities offered by, what essentially is, an interactive film? Adventure games, despite being the antithesis of the FPS genre — deliberately slow, undeniably laborious — offers irresistible advantages over film. Multiple causes and effects, multiple endings. It’s the perfect avenue for a hypothetical question, the perfect bottle for a test tube storm. To the undecided story teller, the open endedness of modern adventure games is a device rather than a perk. It allows for deeper reflection on consequences, control, and lack thereof, and demonstrates how universes are created with each choice, or indecision, or mistake. While the player experiences a linear story, he is also completely cognizant of the existence of alternate outcomes.

The genre is perfect for the kind of story I want to tell — that of the cycle of corruption that has become our way of life, and the exacting punishment that awaits its vilest perpetrators. It’s been done countless times, but not this close to home.  Not in the dank slums of Baseco where the disenfranchised live off of rot, and decay, and things no longer wanted. Not in the corpse lined streets of post apocalyptic Tacloban. And certainly not in the air-conditioned plush of a Dasmarinas mansion.

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In the Land of the Lost Genre

Hey, you! My name is Hazel and I am about to embark on the considerably long journey of creating old skool point and click adventure games. I remember when I played my first adventure title back in ’92, the text controlled EGA version of Leisure Suit Larry that a classmate “copied” for me on a green mini floppy disk. I got home, slipped the disk in my 286 desktop, and was duly bedazzled by the game’s opening sequence:

I swear I remember clapping softly and smiling from ear to ear because even the age quiz excited me. The game mechanics were the first of its kind that I had experienced, and I thought, “What technological breakthrough! How did they make such an intelligent game?! Oh my God, computers will soon take over the world…”

In ’96, a college friend lost my Star Wars disc, one that came with my brand spankin’ new, SoundBlaster-equipped 486 supercompter. To make up for it, he handed me the best game, he claimed, he’s ever played: Full Throttle. I popped the silver disc in the drive and instantly that opening sequence did me in. I spent the next several days glued to my state of the art machine. Thus began my love affair with the adventure genre.

As the genre proved too tedious and slow for the newer generations and was taken over by first person shooters, platformers, and hybrids, I discovered I belonged to the marginal, unlucky bunch who experienced motion sickness with the moving-cam perspective. Which is to say, I am unable to play 95% of modern games. Try as I might, FPS and TPS games literally make me sick. I think to myself, how perfect all these new titles would be if I just had the choice to switch to a fixed perspective, heck, even to an isometric view. My kid finds the idea absurd. Apparently, the death of the isometric view in action games had a lot to do with immersion, or lack thereof, which is strange to me because the more I experience an entire scene in one blow, the more immersed I am. I know a game is awesome when, looking up from the screen, my immediate environment suddenly feels strange, as if I was just coming home from somewhere. That’s the part I love most about adventure games. That feeling of being transported into a picture perfect scene.

Now, with close to nil knowledge or practical skills needed to create a visually engaging, challenging, and sensible adventure game, I decide to create a visually engaging, challenging, and sensible adventure game. Sure it might take several years and a mountain of botched attempts to complete one, but what the heck. It will be fun, for the most part…


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