Old office boxes sit hidden in a corner of my mom's bedroom closet. Lined with masking tape and their cardboard peeling, these packages don't quite resemble the cartoon-ish treasure chests so many of us are familiar with. But the contents inside make them gold mines — at least to me.
These cardboard time capsules are overflowing with 8.5x11" paper, each page covered in imagination-induced Crayola crayon and marker drawings. In fact, you may have seen some of these pieces of art featured on display at the Syracuse, NY museum called the Banack Family's Kitchen Fridge. The bulk of these drawings are from six-year-old me and, frankly, I haven't improved much as an artist since. However, the biggest takeaway from reflecting upon these doodles is that I'm doing now some of the things that I could have only dreamed of being able to do as a child.
From Crayons to Code will be an ongoing series here on my blog where I revisit this fascinating art from my youth. Today's focus will be on Pompineys — the Pokémon-influenced series I wrote and illustrated in elementary school — and how its legacy has impacted recent projects of mine.
Like many boys growing up in the late '90s and early 2000s, I had a fascination with video games. Though, it wasn't so much the games themselves that piqued my interests. The idea of birthing and exploring impossible universes flooded with unique characters is what appealed to me. From the moment I put my hand on a Nintendo 64 joystick, I knew I wanted to create my own adventure, my own story. I was dead-set on making a video game. The problem was that I had no idea where to begin, especially as a child without access to a computer. I assumed that video games were consecutive drawings, much like that of an animation, where every possible "frame" had to be individually drawn. It was an absolutely absurd assumption in hindsight, but that's essentially what I did: hand-draw hundreds upon hundreds of these frames, storyboard fashion. They weren't perfect, they weren't pretty, and there was no way of actually playing them, but I felt like I was inching closer to my goals.
Pompinenys (later shortened to Pompineys), was a series spanning several games and a few thousand pieces of paper. Carbon copying many - even the most minute - details from the Pokémon franchise, Pompineys featured baseball cap-yielding protagonist, Zash (Zack + Ash = Zash), on his mission to capture, train, and evolve creatures through turn-based combat. Pompineys were stored in capsules (called Blocks) and would earn Zash badges when besting gym leaders. From an originality standpoint, there was little innovation happening here. But, coming from the mind of a six-year-old who had designed hundreds of new "Pomps", complete with names, stats, and lore, this outlet was an extraordinary way to express myself.
Each one of these games used nearly an entire ream of paper and a pack or two of markers and crayons. My parents didn't get upset at all the resources I went though because they praised my imagination and dedication. Even at such a young age, I tried to approach design in a realistic fashion by incorporating menus, character selection, naming systems, flowcharts, and the likes. This may seem monotonous or slightly obsessive-compulsive, but I thoroughly enjoyed fleshing out my ideas to such an extent. And if anything, this discipline in project preparation has continued with me into adulthood for the best.
My then-teacher would let me show my books and games to the rest of the class after reading time. Had Mrs. Betz not allowed me to be proud of myself and said no to my weekly showcasing pleads, then I almost certainly would have felt expressively stunted. Feedback was important to me, especially when my friends wanted me to craft Pompineys after them! Braylink, a fire horse that can control lightning, was created for my friend, Braylon.
I drew over 300 Pomps throughout the lifespan of the series, some more distinctive and experimental than others. Upon revisiting these drawings, I'm surprised that I never got into Pokémon ROM hacking once I learned how to develop computer games. Some of these Pomps would fit quite well in the Pokémon universe, considering how much influence I drew at the fundamental design levels. I did dabble with the Pokémon IP directly with my creation of the paper game, Pokémon Rainbow. Unfortunately, no Pomps appeared in Rainbow because I wanted to create a distinction between Pompineys and its influence. It would have been pretty cool to see a battle between Braylink and Groudon, but I digress.
Over the years, my drawing output decreased steadily. I found different ways to express myself, like stop-motion LEGO videos and, at around 12 years old, computer programming. Not leaving my roots behind, in 2010 I released a PC game called Paper Dreams. You can play it here. This game was special in that all artwork was drawn with crayons or markers on paper and scanned to the computer. Paper Dreams, and its sequel, were homages to my childhood, where I wanted so badly for my drawings to come to life for me to play with.
A project that I started in early 2017 real-time transforms a photograph of doodles into a playable game. Objects are defined, at the moment, by shape and size. The video below showcases two separate demos, with the first one featuring a character that can move in cardinal directions and collect shards. The second demo is coupled with Box2D physics so objects have better interaction with one another.
Lighting in the photographs needs to be precise and the image scanning algorithm is far from perfect, so I'm holding off on releasing it as-is. I foresee a lot of potential with a tool like this, and I hope to expand it in the near future. Further, you can expect a blog post soon dissecting this project, how I built it, and where I want to take it from here. Had something like this existed when I was six, my world would have been transformed. Now, I want to create tools for the dreamers, the six-year-old mes.
While I may not be meticulously storyboarding games on computer paper anymore, my childhood wonder absolutely helped shape me into the creative problem solver I am today. The passion world-building sparked in me would eventually lead to my now-entrepreneurial mindset.
Much like a Pompiney, I've evolved.
Thanks for reading the first part of this series! If you enjoyed it and want to be notified when Part II comes out, you can join my mailing list below. If you're feeling generous, consider sharing this post on social media.