There were quite a few devs present at Playcrafting's Fall Expo that I just didn't get to see. One of them was Frank DeMarco and he was showing off a game that looked interesting to me. It seemed to be about playing a glitched game in some fashion. The game itself wasn't glitched—the game was the glitches.
"Picture Processing" is in quotes for a reason. I'm not talking with Frank Demarco about processing pictures; the name of his game is Picture Processing. I had a chat with Frank over Skype since I missed meeting him in person at Playcrafting.
As usual, I went in with a minimal premise before talking with the developer. I find it's best to let them explain themselves and their game in their own words. Here's my interview with Frank DeMarco about his game Picture Processing.
TechRaptor: So let's start with your name and the game that you were showing off at Playcrafting's Fall Expo.
Frank DeMarco: Okay, sure. My name is Frank DeMarco and the game I was showing is called Picture Processing. It's a game... it started as part of a game jam called A Game By It's Cover which is based mostly on a art exhibition in Japan called My Famicase. It's a yearly exhibition where participants make NES cartridges - like they take the physical cartridge - or they make replicas that look exactly a real Famicom cartridge and they make their own artwork for it. And then they make a sticker for it and they put it on the [cartridge]. So it's almost like making a box cover of a game that you wish existed or you think would be cool if it existed or for whatever reason you just want to make a game.
TR: It would seem that this is a very niche event. I just took a quick click through that website. I speak Japanese kind of on a conversational level and I can read it a little bit [but this amount of complex Japanese] is beyond [my abilities]. So I have to ask how did you get into this? Japan can be charitably described as not very [friendly to Westerners] and they tend not to always translate their stuff in English and it can be hard to find said stuff translated [into] English. And then on top of all of that this is a really niche thing - this isn't Comiket. So how did you find out about this in the first place?
FD: Yeah, right on, right on. I know for sure that I saw it on the TIG forums 'cause that's where the first game jam was that was based around. This was in 2008 I think.
TR: And for those who don't know, what are the TIG forums? 'cause I've heard of it but I don't actually know what it is.
TR: That's where I heard it. Spelunky, yeah!
FD: Exactly, exactly. They do game jams once in a while. The first "Game By It's Cover" [Game Jam] was done through TIG Source and that was in 2008. I think that's right after they had the first exhibition of Famicase. I feel like people who saw it they just sort of took to it. When I saw those cartridges I was like, "This is so awesome!" I think I saw the exhibition before I saw the game jam, but I know the first game jam was through TIG forums.
TR: So you saw it somewhere on the Internet. You haven't actually traveled to Japan as of yet I imagine.
FD: I have been to Japan.
TR: You lucky [person, you]!
FD: [laughs] Oh yeah, yeah. And you're totally right, too. I see it that way, too. I know a lot of people who really want to go.
TR: Akihabara is my Mecca.
FD: Yeah, I've been to Akihabara.
TR: Okay, this interview is over. [laughs]
FD: I have some games that I got from Akihabara. Some independent games. In Akihabara they sell games, like [independently-developed] games.
TR: Yeah, that's one of the reasons why I want to go. [Some Japanese indie developers] don't put [their games] online. You can only buy a boxed copy [in a store]. It's a limited. You can go [to Akihabara] and pick up a Super Famicom for like a couple hundred-thousand Yen. I think [an argument can be made] for the Japanese Indie Scene [having] started up a little stronger than the American one. The idea of making a game and selling it at a festival like Comiket or something similar. That was something - I think, but I'm not 100% sure on this - I think the Japanese were kind of doing that first. And they still use that model to this day doing limited [production runs] and special editions. And there's things you can only ever find there. You might not even be able to get it shipped to America if you could even find a copy because maybe they only made five hundred of them.
FD: Yeah. I met someone recently from a group called Tokyo Indies who is going to have a table at Comiket. He posted that he printed 50 copies of his game, and I think that's how a lot of developers distribute their games in Japan.
TR: So, [Picture Processing] is based off of a Japanese game in a similar theme? What inspired you to make Picture Processing?
FD: So the [Game] Jam is take that imagined game and then you make a game based off it. The exhibition itself, it only goes to the level of like a paragraph [written] about the game. The level of interpretation is going to be based on which game you choose. Some of it a paragraph might be enough to tell you everything that you need to know to make the game and then some of them the one paragraph is like, you're gonna have a lot of room to change it around and do what you wanna do. In this case there was a lot of room for interpretation. At least [that's] what I think.
TR: So what was the paragraph?
FD: It was in Japanese first of all and I don't know exactly what it said. I asked somebody who is Japanese to translate it for me and he was like, "It's a little bit difficult to explain it."
TR: Yeah, some stuff in Japanese doesn't translate 1:1 in English conceptually [speaking], so I get that.
FD: Yeah, there's this one word specifically called like wabisabi.
TR: I know that word, yeah.
FD: You know it, right? A lot of people who know Japanese know that word. I didn't know it until I was looking at this game.
TR: And for our readers, explain exactly what wabisabi is in your own interpretation.
FD: Sure, as far as I know it's "seeing beauty in the ordinary". Possibly even "seeing beauty in the ugly." [laughs] Obviously that's a contradiction, but it's like... see something [that is] asymmetrical and maybe even natural like some sort of gnarled stick or twig.
TR: So it's an aesthetic concept, basically.
TR: You read that and that paragraph - everything that it said - that's what you interpreted and Picture Processing was the result.
FD: Yes, but also the image itself.
TR: The glitchy sort of cartridge label.
FD: Yeah, the glitched-out catridge label. And then that concept of glitching is I think what the person was going for by saying, "You can see the beauty in [these] glitched-out graphics if you take the time to look at it.": I think there was something in the paragraph about how you take out a catridge and you blow in it then you put it back in and try to fix it that way.
TR: Yeah, I did that all the time. Did you have an NES and have to do the whole, "Oh crap, the game's glitching out" [blow on the catridge] kind of thing?
FD: Yeah. There's definitely that level of it, too. I'm mostly more just remembering a game that would take like five minutes to get it to work. But yeah, there is also that like... you never know if you touch the machine... and like, that whole experience I think is what this person was trying to convey with their cartridge that they made for Famicase. I was looking at another game where I was like, "This would be a lot easier to interpret. It would just be a straightforward platformer and it would be really fun to make." But then, you know, this other one... it just kept coming up in my mind and I was like, "I think this would be really cool if I could figure out something that would fit with this. The cartridge itself is so awesome looking.
TR: Yeah, it is!
FD: Yeah, right? Imagine that game really existed. I don't know what it is... when we look at them, it's the same as looking at any other cartridge that actually has a game associated with it.
TR: It's all about the label.
FD: Yeah! [laughs]
TR: And you know what the thing is, if [you] think about it - that game does exist. 'cause technically, you made it. So in a way, it does [exist].
FD: Yeah, I wonder what the person who imagined this game would think of [Picture Processing]. I wonder, I wonder... The game itself, it's not as... um... I don't exactly what the word for it is.
TR: That would segue into my next question. What is your game about? 'cause all I have is it's a game based around the idea of playing through glitches in a glitchy game world and that's all I know. Describe your game - what kind of game is it, what do you play, what are the objectives, etc.?
FD: Sure. You turn on the game and you're basically playing as a person who has a glitched-out game. Part of the description involved "meditation" so in this case instead of being able to - your game is so glitched out that you're not gonna be able to get it to work. You meditate on this glitched-out screen and eventually you're able to switch around the internal memory of the NES so that you can change the tiles around and put the game back together by changing the memory of the console. That's the concept. Practically, it's a puzzle game where you switch around tiles. You're presented with a screen. The first level looks like [Super Mario Bros.] The clouds are switched with Mario's body and the trees are switched with the ground and the mushroom is switched with the sky. You bring up an interface that has the tiles on it and basically the one action you can do is swap tiles. You might see one tile looks like a cloud and you look at the scene itself and you see the cloud is totally out of place but you see it looks like clouds might go here. So you switch the cloud tile with maybe, like, the trees are in the sky or the trees are towards the top of the screen and you switch the cloud with the tree. You just slowly switch things around and you chip away at it in a way and it starts looking more like an actual scene from a video game. Eventually you put together the scene from [Super Mario Bros.] where he's going to get a mushroom.
TR: What did make the game in? Did you use a prefab engine, did you create it completely from scratch? How did you put it together?
FD: It's a framework for Python called PyGame. I wrote the code in Python and there's a Python library called PyGame which is built on SDL which is like a low-level library for graphics and it can be exported to a lot of platforms but what I've known it mostly for is PC, Mac, Linux.
TR: Right. And you released your game on PC, Mac, and Linux. Now, in terms of releasing your game, is the thing that's currently available on [your] website the full version? [Are you] not gonna take it any further or are you planning on doing a commercial release?
FD: Well, yeah I guess when it comes down to it I don't know because I'm not sure exactly where I want to take it. There are some things I know, though. I consider it a demo and I want to add some things to it to the point where it's a complete demo and then I want to make a full game with a lot more levels. Right now there's just five levels. It's an interesting experience to go through those five levels and I hope it's satisfying to beat them.
TR: How much of a time investment did it take you to make this from when you started coding to when you had the finished game?
FD: I'm pretty sure it was either four or five days. It was right at the end of the game jam. The game jam was a lot longer than that so I was probably thinking about it for a while. But really, I really just didn't start working on it until right at the end of the jam.
TR: Outside of [Pcture Processing], is there other work that you've done? I noticed that you have another game on [your website] - a shooter that uses Chinese Trigrams. I don't even know if "Chinese" is technically accurate [in this case]. Um, oh... what's the word I'm looking for... Asian Astrology! Because they generally share [symbology] in that [geographic] area.
FD: Right, as far as I know it's not based on astrology, though. It's based on this process of tossing vegetable stalks. [The symbols] translate really well into binary code because each bar is either open or closed. So it's either like a 1 or a 0.
I'd like to thank Frank for taking the time to speak with me. You can follow him on twitter at @Dometoerio. Aside from talking about his game, he was kind enough to talk to me a lot about the indie game development world, Japan, and some of the more esoteric elements of art and design.
I can say for a fact that although Picture Processing is a short little title, it's fun and definitely an interesting puzzle game. The first level is intuitive, but it gets a bit more challenging as you go on since you can only determine which pieces go where once you understand the type of game the particular screen is coming from. Pop over to this page and give the game a try!
What's a glitch that you remember fondly? What other meta concepts from dealing with early gaming might make good games unto themselves? Tell us in the comments below!