I approach the picture frame within the clean, white, minimal gallery space. I pause in front of it, taking in what can only be described as the crude scrawls of a child. A manchild, more likely. “They call this art?” I think to myself, as there’s no doubt about what the squiggles in front of me are depicting – meat and two veg, if you catch my not-so-subtle drift. Thankfully, a sign beneath the frame exhorts me to “please fix this!” and so I do. Well, I try to at least. I’m no artist, so turning an eyesore into eye candy isn’t very likely, but at least it won’t be a plonker portrait anymore.
Different Strokes’ setting is an art gallery in which the visitors create the art. More than that, however, each piece is a collaboration between two people. Fresh frames dot the gallery space, and it’s simplicity itself to interact with one, which then brings up a basic set of tools – brushes of different sizes, a paint bucket, a few basic colours to choose from. You can draw whatever you like, then hit upload and that’s the image that will be displayed in that frame. For a picture to be finished, however, it needs a second layer, so the frame will have the “fix this” tag on it. Whoever decides to do so can refine what’s already there or build upon it, or they can simply overwrite it completely.
Different Strokes Screens
The gallery itself is procedurally generated (and infinite), and each room is made up of a combination of blank slates, frames that need to be finished, and completed works. Visitors can stroll through, and anything that catches their eye can be given a thumbs up, while finished work that’s offensive can be reported. There’s some truly impressive work on display in these random rooms, but that’s not actually the point. The point is for this to be a place in which even non-artists like myself can have a fun time making stuff to go on gallery walls.
In that capacity, Different Strokes is a huge success and I’ve found the project surprisingly engrossing given I don’t really spend time drawing or painting normally. That said, a concept like this is always going to be attractive to griefers, and I can certainly see how easily the positives could be drowned in a sea of dicks and hate speech. Compared to the first time I came across Different Strokes about a month ago, it definitely feels like there are more people determined to undermine the spirit of the game, but that may not be indicative of a trend.
The game’s creators are very aware of this, of course. Different Strokes was born out of a Ludum Dare game jam where the theme was “delay the inevitable,” so the idea that people may ultimately ruin what could be a vibrant, fun community is baked into the game’s inception. “Obviously if you open it up to people,” says the game’s Lead Network Engineer, Jasper Stephenson, “they’re going to paint awful, terrible things. You’re gonna get racism, Nazis, whatever. And that does happen, but what we’ve seen is the community really rallies together and fixes these things and paints over it and reports things, and it’s been really incredible time to see that.”
He’s absolutely right that one of Different Strokes’ joys is clicking on the “see original” button on a finished work and discovering that lurking underneath the colourful, joyous final piece is something truly awful, now to be forever buried. The game has a system for trying to prevent a promising start from being ruined, too. “If you have a bad enough reports to likes ratio,” explains Stephenson, “the game will automatically delete the second layer and return it to its first layer, so somebody else can paint over it. Give somebody else a shot. So it’s not about moderation in the sense of completely deleting and removing or wiping out whatever, like, swastika somebody drew. It’s about giving somebody else a chance to fix this and saying, okay, they took this and turned it into something positive. Instead of just erasing the bad let’s readjust and remix the bad into something good.”
The two layer system was a very deliberate choice, too. To keep things streamlined, the team wanted the process to be “I collaborated with you,” says Stephenson. “And now it’s just a binary transaction of okay, I made this change or I did something and then you did something on top. It’s that simple – it’s bite size. And it makes it easy for people to understand – it almost feels like the front and back of something. Whereas when you add a third side, it’s just goes, okay, now I’m using Photoshop and like turning layers on and off and things… So that was the idea around that. It’s just to make it as obvious as possible what’s happening while still having a layer of customisation on top without making overly complicated systems. People ask us about things like time lapses of painting. And I love the idea of that, but that’s a lot more data than we’re – as a super small indie team – really ready to handle. So we’ll think about that if we go triple A, but for now [this is it].”
Despite its deliberately pared back toolset (“We wanted to limit people. We wanted to force creativity, force you to use the little bit that we gave you to make something interesting and different”), the possibilities for creativity and player expression really are limitless. “You’ll get people who do fan art. We get a lot of that,” says Stephenson. “You’ll get things that are trying to make you mad or make you happy. You’ll get people just trying to be silly, but you also every once in a while get something weird, like somebody confessing something. One of my favorite ones is – on the first page they wrote ‘nobody’s going to see this, but dot, dot, dot, I’m gay.’ And then the person who painted over it put a little view counter ‘25,000’.” He laughs. “Just to joke ‘yeah, we’re all seeing it.’”
“So that kind of thing happens a lot in this game where you just get something that somebody wants to say out there in the world. We released this right around when the Ukraine war started. And regardless of your politics on it we got people posting pro Russian things, people posting pro Ukrainian things, painting over Russian things with Ukrainian things. Vice versa. But there’s only so much battling you can do – the rage doesn’t come through as much as… okay, here are the ideas that are out there. Here’s what people are thinking about and talking about right now. The most mad that anybody has gotten in our game was when somebody named Ron painted over their picture and they went around painting a ton of pictures that said like ‘anti Ron,’ ‘stop Ron now!’. So now there’s a pro Ron movement and an anti Ron movement in the game. You’ll see paintings for that every once in a while.”
Interestingly, based on the IPs of its users, Different Strokes is engaging people from all over the world. “I thought that it would maybe by overrun by trolls or by people from one country or another,” admits Stephenson, “…but it really is a pretty open and even distribution that we see.” “They might be [using] VPNs,” he continues, “but we keep track of who’s painting what, just to kind of try to track trolls and people who might be trying to hack us obviously. But we’re looking at the numbers of different people from different places and it’s actually a fair distribution. That really encourages me to look at this gallery as a kind of cross section of humanity in a way.”
The pieces that appear are a reflection of the full breadth of the platform too. “We have a complicated ratio… in the back end,” says Stephenson. “When the game requests ‘give me page one of content please’ that it will use to populate the gallery, first of all, it divides into things that need to be fixed and things that are done and rateable. And it will always try to balance those out, until it runs out of things that need to be fixed because those get painted over fairly fast. So we have a much lower number of that than done things. But there’s also new content coming in all the time, so it balances out nicely.
“And for the things that are done, we have three different categories of things that show up in the gallery. One is completely random. So a good portion of it is just anything. So that’s how we make sure that nothing ever gets lost completely. Another one is the newest things that have been painted. So for those it’ll show up chronologically with a bit of randomness, what has been painted recently. So if you go far enough, you’ll keep going back in time in that sense. And number three is things that are both new and well liked. So we have a formula that actually calculates whenever somebody likes something and recalculates it, and sorts by that ranking – that has a little bit to do with how new it is and a little bit to do with how well it’s liked. So those are the three things that factor into what shows up in your overall gallery experience.
“Something else that we added recently… is the gallery of the week. Every week there’s a theme that changes… That one is a much smaller gallery. It functions the same as the main gallery, but it only lasts for one week. And after that it’s closed. And you can see the top ones from there and you can go back and browse that gallery for all that it was. So if you want to get your work seen and you feel like it’s just being lost, you can go into that gallery and paint in a smaller scope. Your work will always show up in the first few rooms because there’s just less people painting in there. It won’t get lost as much.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about that because as things kind of exploded – we have more than a hundred thousand paintings now – it gets harder and harder to get your work seen by more people. And obviously, that’s not the point of the game, but it’s nice to know that it’s out there and it’s showing up in the game.”
Different Strokes Before and After Pieces
Different Strokes is proof of what can be done with a simple but clever core concept. The base of the game was spun up in only three days, yet its potential is huge. Different Strokes is also as much about what the team hasn’t added to it as it is about what it has. “We get people asking every day in our Discord – ‘when are you gonna add opacity or anything like that?’” says Stephenson. “And… we could do it – it’s not a technical question. It’s just a matter of – the more technical, the more in depth features that we add, the less accessible it is to anybody.
“We want to make it something where somebody comes in and draws a red smiley face, that’s enough to be in this game. And that signals an emotion and makes somebody on the other side of the world think – oh, I can augment that and change it or whatever, add some, you know, silly little legs on it or something. And then that in itself is a great experience and a great collaboration that they have had together. And it exists now in the gallery and they can feel like, oh, I added something to this. Whereas if we put Adobe illustrator in this thing and you’ve got bezier curves and everything, and you’re creating gradients, then it’s just like, okay, this is for pros. We don’t need this. We’re trying to keep it as dumbed down as possible so that everybody can feel like this is for them.”
That said, there is one way to get slightly better tools to work with, and that’s the USD $5 Deluxe version. This, however, just gives you a few more colour options, smoothing and a finer brush, so keeps things very much in the same ballpark, while also rewarding invested players. It’s there to “slightly augment your experience, slightly enhance your experience,” says Stephenson.
Instead of making painting more sophisticated, the things that will really benefit the Different Strokes user experience are more about tracking and discovery. You can play the game in a browser on Itch.io without an account but logging in adds another layer entirely, creating an ecosystem of creators that can be followed. If I click the “share link” button on a piece I really like, for instance, the game takes me to a web browser page for that particular artwork, and from there I can click through to see everything that user has done. And I have a page collating all my own work too, letting me see at a glance which of my layer one paintings have been finished and what they now look like.
Those web links can also be easily shared, obviously, letting art from the game spread across external platforms. “We actually recently added a little notification feed,” says Stephenson, “so when you get likes on your paintings, it’ll show you like – hey, people liked your stuff. Which doesn’t really do much – you don’t know who did it, you just know that somebody did. I like that little micro moment of happiness, but [we’re] not trying to tie it into some kind of social network, gamify it.”
Right now Different Strokes is available to play via Itch.io and you can wishlist it on Steam. As for other platforms? Stephenson is excited about the possibility of using motion controls to draw on Switch, while iPad/phone integration is “on our to-do list.” The latter in particular would be a fantastic fit, as ditching a mouse in favour of touch would lower the barrier to entry even more. I’m excited to see where Different Strokes goes and have my fingers crossed that the “inevitable” in “delaying the inevitable” isn’t a descent into chaos, but a community that rallies around the project to maintain an ever-growing gallery that provides a space for creativity, catharsis and much more.
Cam Shea has worked at IGN since before the before times, and has played more Breath of the Wild than just about any other game. When he’s not playing games he’s mixing records.