Agony is an horizontal shoot'em up featuring an owl. It was developed by Art & Magic (our group, formely known as Ordilogic) and published by Psygnosis in 1992.
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How it all started
After finishing Unreal, we started working on a new project for the Amiga, code named Twilight that was supposed to be a sequel to Unreal. Yann could not be part of it because he had been called for serving military duties. So we were three left: Marc Albinet, Yves Grolet and I. Because Yves would be the only programmer in the team we had to limit the scope of the game. Marc had been working on a shoot'em up on the C64 before (Iliad) and suggested we do such a game because it was a somewhat easier type to make. Well, except we would again push the boundaries of the Amiga to the limits and make it a pretty complicated development anyways.
The way we split work was as follow, Marc would work on levels 2,3 and 5. I would do levels 1,4 and 6. We didn't want to do spaceships or futuristic settings. We decided it would be some fantasy settings in natural environment. We would explore all the classic themes: Sea, lava, swamps and so on.
As we were aiming for the best shootem'up on the Amiga, we talked about how to add even more value to the product. At the time, we were very impressed by the Shadows of the Beast series. Their games had some of the best intros of all games, with beautifully animated back-stories. So we decided Marc would do a complete animated sequence for the introduction and back-story of our game. On my side, I would do 6 paintings, one for introducing each level during load time.
We then started working on a prototype. It was like a race. The race for the largest number of parallax scolling planes. They had a lot in SOTB, but they wouldn't overlap, it was much like the sky in the 3D parts of Unreal.
The Amiga hardware was capable of 2 playing fields that could overlap, and there were many games using that feature. However, Yves devised a way to provide more overlaping planes, and developped a prototype with 3 full screen of parallax scrolling. That was truely awesome, something nobody had ever seen on the Amiga, it gave an incredible sence of depth.
Above: ECTS in Earls Court, London 1991
When we started pitching Agony in 1991, we were showing our latest game Unreal at the ECTS (European Computer Trade Show) in London. Steve Riding, producer at Psygnosis came to our booth (actually Ubisoft booth) and we showed him a prototype of Agony off-stage. He was very impressed and invited Yves and I to a dinner the same evening, he wanted the game badly. You have to realize all the stars of development at the time were signed by Psygnosis, such as Reflections or DMA. Being part of that family would have been incredible for us, we thought.
Even with the language barrier (we barely spoke English at the time) we understood each other, and during the dinner we realized we both shared the same vision of where the game should be heading to. Of course Steve had well prepared that meeting and greeted us with bags full of Psygnosis goodies. Ah, those were the days. When we left, we had large smiles on our faces. The project was signed a few days later.
From there, we changed the name to Agony (we were looking for a name starting with letter A, so that it would be on top of the retailers lists), and we used an Owl as the main character because we thought it would be very cool. This was our choice, not Psygnosis.
Right picture: My workspace in my parent's house basement, 1991-1992
We had been working with Jeroen Tel of Maniacs of noise on other games before, and I wanted an orchestral score for the game. He came to my place and we discussed about our needs and constraints and showed him the prototype. Jeroen would gladly provide the in-game orchestral and bombastic music for the game. Psygnosis provided the game with even more added value by contracting virtually all the best musicians of the time to make music contribution for the loading parts and intro, that was just insane.
When I look back at this game, it strikes me how free we were to design a game that really was a piece of personal work. Steve’s only interaction with us was to help us increase the quality even further to reach Psygnosis standards. He helped us to contract some of the best musicians of the time, and Tim Wright’s incredible intro piano piece is a tribute to that. This is in complete opposition with today’s publishers and their corporate culture, trying to impose their always-changing ‘vision’ or strategic marketing bullshit. The result is Agony is often regarded as a piece of art, and regularly cited among the best looking Amiga titles, and I’m really proud of that.
Not all was rosy though, and as the game was taking shape, Steve gave us some bad news. It would already take three disks to store the game and it was not possible to include the introductory animation. Adding more disk would have made the manufacturing costs prohibitive. We were sorry for Marc who had already been working a lot on the animations.
Obviously I used the same graphic tool as with Unreal , the de-facto painting tool for the Amiga, Deluxe Paint III. But Agony featured a more complex editing pipeline because of its very technical triple parallax playfields.
After some doing research for documentation (most notably paintings from the Hudson River school) I would first draw some level layout and write down some notes about how I planned to create the level. Here's a view of the midle plane in the sea level:
From there, I would do some concept sketches (see below the sketch section) if needed for a particular object or feature. Theses were rather crude as I prefered detailing using the actual media constraints and I didn't make many of them.
I would then work on all separate elements for each of the parallax planes. Here is how it worked:
The background element was static and consisted of only a single bit per pixel:
I would then give Yves a list of colors to apply to both the background (bit=0) and the foreground (bit=1). This color list was encoded into the Copper, a special graphic co-processor that was capable of changing register values at a given time (or position, as the screen beam would scan from left to right and top to bottom). This color list would create a gradient and give the illusion that more colors were being used:
Actually, as can be seen above-right, two sets of gradients were being used and swaped every other frame, each being slightly offset from the other. This when running at 50 frames per second was giving the illusion of a smoother gradient. You need the actual machine to see that smooth gradient correctly as it doesn't work well on emulators.
The middle plane was using 2 bits per pixel, in other words 3 colors were available, color 0 being transparent (to see the background behind). I would work on elements alligned on a 32x32 pixels grid in Dpaint3 such as these:
Here also, we would make use of the Copper lists to change the collor palette every 32 lines so that more colors appear to be in use, with only 3 max per raster line:
Also in the mid plane was included some animation. Because it was only 2 bits, it wouldn't consume much memory so we were able to afford animated elements that breathed life to the environment. One particular animation I did for this level was the moving sea:
There's a small bug in the game in this animation where you can see it's not perfectly cycling from pattern to pattern. This came from some bad tile placement the ressource in itself was actually perfectly cycling.
The same principle would go for the near plane, except we now have one of the full hardware playfield with 3 bits per pixel, or 7 available colors + transparent. Howerver as the ennemies were also using blitter bitmaps (and not hardware sprites) one color was always reserved.
Some elements created in Dpaint3 on a 32x32 grid, then placed using Yves' custom level editor (written in GFA Basic):
On top of the bitmap layers came the hardware sprites. We used two sprites for extra rain effect. Note there's always a maximum of two sprites for each raster line:
Another sprite was used for the enemies bullets. It was multiplexed so that only one bullet could be on a given scanline.
Finally, the rest of the hardware sprites was used for the owl and the owl projectiles and shield.
Here's the final composition from the above layers:
Making the title screen
One of the key features of Agony is the inclusion of over-scan (read 'that takes up the entire screen including borders') images during level loading. I'm very proud of these images as they were an important factor to the succes of the game and in gaining its status of being a piece of art, according to many commentators.
I would do a rough sketch to layout the image:
Then I would start on DPaint 3 by first creating the palette. These images use the halfbrite mode wich consist of 32 colors that you have full control of, and another 32 colors that are the exact same colors with half the intensity, hence the name. So the key point was to design a palette with only bright colors, knowing the dark colors would be automatically generated. At that point, I would leave a number of colors available in the palette so that I could add more as needed during painting.
The first step was to paint flat colors and then move on to gradients and details. To increase the smoothness of gradients, we often made use of dithering (made by hand pixel by pixel). For this particular image I used a photograph as a reference for the sky. This is a photograph I took of a sunset seen from my previous appartment in Redon.
Complete loading screens gallery
Game screenshots gallery
Concept sketches gallery
I actually did very few concepts on paper, only a couple rough sketches here and there, and an awful lot of notes.
Making the Owl animation
Creating the owl animation was a very complicated and time consuming task. I started by analysing videos of flying owl and took a lot of notes. Then I used Sculpt4D to create a crude animation of two planes flapping and bending so I could generate a series of frame from the side view. For each frame I had to manually rotate each plane to a particular angle (see notes below). There was no such thing as texture mapping, so it was just two flat planes moving. I would then import each image into DPaint3 and draw all the owl feathers and body frame by frame, pixel by pixel. Here are some notes and sketches that helped me puting this all together.
I first did some tests for the game's logo, but after some rather unsuccessful tries, both Psygnosis and us found that this was not good enough. Steve contacted Roger Dean, a famous fantasy painter mostly known for his paintings used as covers for the Shadow of the beast series of games. Roger Dean designed a wonderful shape for the logo and I just had to add the colors. I created the Art & Magic logo/character. I even made an oil painting version when we started later the Arcade company the next year.
Sea level elements gallery
Mountains level elements gallery
Volcano level elements gallery
Gameplay video (Longplay Level 1)
Reviews and articles
The complete list of Agony reviews on Amiga Magazine Rack:
There is a very nice article by Eric Cubizolle in Pix'n Love #8 featuring an interview of Marc Albinet (french).
There is another nice article by David Taddei in his book '101 Jeux Amiga' (french) : http://101jeuxamiga.fr/
Hall of Light: http://hol.abime.net/3209
Lemon Amiga: http://www.lemonamiga.com/?game_id=40
Awesome fan art by Vaan McLeod:
Remixed musics @ AmigaRemix:
It is well documented all over the internet that the main titles music by Tim Wright features a note at the wrong octave. What most people don't know is the story behind this 'mistake'. Well actually it is not a mistake at all. When we received Tim's music from Psygnosis, it was using quite poor piano samples. My guess is Tim was being very conservative about the memory, hence the low-fi samples. But as we had plenty of free memory during the title screen, I though I would change the samples for better ones from my Roland U220. In order to provide better quality samples, I had to use a higher sampling frequency rate (piano sounds are full of harmonics). That high sampling rate limited the amount of pitch change the Amiga was capable of doing during playback. With the new sounds, one note was not playing at all because, in the score, this particular note was transposed too high given the new sampling rate for the Amiga to cope with. The only solution was to move it one octave below. It changed the melody, but it sounded so much better. As we had full contract rights to modify the music at will, we decided to keep it like that. People who never heard the original would not know this was different. Of course Tim always felt his music was not sounding 'right' to him, but the amount of praise for the game's music showed we probably did the right thing.
The other thing regarding the intro music is the fact I'm often cited as co-composer. I did not co-compose this tune at all. Tim deserves all credits for that. I'm however the one who had the idea of doing a piano piece for the intro music. What happened is I wrote a small piano piece and recorded it on tape and sent it to Steve at Psygnosis saying 'Listen Steve, we want something like this, could you please look for a composer capable of doing this on the Amiga?'. Tim wrote an entirely new music that kept the original spirit and was much better than the one I had made as an example. This is why Yves insisted that I would be credited for the intro music as well.
I used the fire scene in the castle in 'Indiana Jones and the last crusade' as reference images for the flames to paint the main titles image.
The owl as a main character was not imposed to us by Psygnosis. We were looking for a flying animal to mach with the graphical design of the game, and when we signed with Psygnosis, we liked that company so much we thought the elegant beauty of an owl seemed a good fit. I used a sequence at the beginning of the film 'Labyrinth' as a reference for creating the animation.
Programming: Yves Grolet
Art: Franck Sauer, Marc Albinet
Title music: Tim Wright
In-game music: Jeroen Tel
Loading music: Martin Iveson, Robert Ling, Martin Wall, Alister Brimble, Matthew Simmons
Ending music: Robert Ling, Martin Wall
Produced by: Steven Riding
Box cover artwork: Tony Roberts (Planet of Death)
Logo: Roger Dean
Listen to all agony musics
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How to play the game today
If you don't own a real Amiga, the best is to play it on WINUAE
Get beautiful Agony posters
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