Lessons from the BearPig

Learning to think of myself as an ever-improving artist instead of a bad artist

Something I realized tonight is that a lot of my perception of my own art abilities is probably due to having my first job in video games be at LucasArts.

I was pretty over-confident when I started there, and I thought of myself as at least a pretty good artist if not an exceptional one. I didn’t have any aspirations of taking a full-time job as an artist or animator, but I figured I wasn’t bad for a programmer, and being around so many talented professionals would be a great opportunity to get better.

The attitude at the company — or at least, the parts of the company that I came in contact with — was a lot more binary than that: you either were an artist, or you weren’t. “Programmer art” was at best disposable, and more often something that was to be sought out and destroyed as early and as thoroughly as possible, lest it somehow infect the game and bring shame down upon the entire company.

To be clear, I don’t think it was at all unreasonable. There’s no sense in having art made by amateurs in a place that was hiring some of the best professional artists in the business. And I get it on a personal level, too. I wouldn’t want somebody coming in and trying to do my job, even if they were good at it. But it did have a permanent side effect: it made me start to think of my own art skills not just as “not professional,” but as “not fit to be seen by humans.”

It’s only recently that I’ve started to break free from the Talent Binary. It doesn’t have to be either professional-quality or worthless. I’ve slowly started to appreciate that the stuff I draw doesn’t necessarily have to be great, that it’s okay if it’s just good enough. Does it convey what it needs to convey, and does it seem “genuine” instead of just an uninspired copy of someone else’s work? That’s probably good enough.

I also started to appreciate that it doesn’t even necessarily need to be good, if I enjoy doing it. It’s only by being in environments that literally treated art as a commodity that I got locked in the mindset of art as being a product. It’s okay to just have fun trying. And I also started to accept that while I might be able to reach a level of skill that I’m completely satisfied with, if I put in the work every day to practice and get better, I don’t actually enjoy it enough to do that. It feels pretty good to let myself off the hook, without thinking that I have to give it up entirely.

There was a piece of programmer art in The Curse of Monkey Island that was a perfect example of the lessons I should have taken from LucasArts instead of the ones that I did.

For quite a long time during development, the title screen of the game was a DeluxePaint creation by my boss, the lead programmer. It was a simple scene with a calming, light blue background. In the center was the text “The Curse of Monkey Island,” in the usual SCUMM dialog font which some nerd out there probably knows the exact name of but I don’t. Below was a curved line depicting a beautiful sandy beach, and on either side were delightfully abstracted palm trees made from an assortment of brown and green polygons. And in the center of the screen was a face: a perfect brown circle, with two light brown semi-circles representing the ears, two black circles for the eyes, and a light brown circle that was the snout. As the title text suggested, it was the Bear Pig of Monkey Island. At the time, and being the arrogant little shits that we were, we made fun of it. Even the artist himself called it “bad programmer art.”

But was it? It did exactly what it needed to do, which is provide a backdrop for game initialization and indicate where the final title sequence would begin. And during development, it set the mood. This wasn’t just some numbered sequel, but a story with a title and everything. The island evoked the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, to envelop us in our tropical setting every day while we sat inside a dark windowless office in Northern California.

And the Bear Pig was a reminder of the folly of arrogant men trying to tamper in God’s domain, daring to create blasphemous, hybrid monstrosities that could serve no possible purpose other than to be a lesson in human fallibility. A valuable lesson to all of us not to get too cocky while working in one of our favorite franchises!

So was it “good” art? No. Oh God, no. No no no no no. But was it good enough? Also no. But… did it serve its purpose? Considering that 25 years later, it’s still a fun memory of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a team I’m still amazed I was lucky enough to work with, I’d give it a qualified “maybe.”