Inventory Icons

by Gary Winnick
Aug 13, 2015

So in case you hadn't heard...."The current icons in the game are not final... ignore them!"

In putting together a functional pre-production wireframe I had to knock out a group of about 125 quickie icons™ that could be used to simulate real inventory icons necessary for game play.

Ron pretty much always says to both myself and Mark "This is temporary, don't spend more than 5 or 10 minutes on it!"  Of course, as an artist I sometimes have a hard time with that (and don't get started on Mark doing something in 5 or 10 minutes - but I'm sure he'll weigh in on that when he writes an art post - sometime soon we promise).

In any case, I tried to bomb through the first pass of these keeping them as flat two dimensional versions although we'd decided to make the finals more three-dimensionally rendered the way the icons appear in Monkey Island.

Here's a smattering of a few of the before and after versions wireframe on the left, newly revised on the right.

Creating the first pass 2 dimensional wireframe icons has been a very helpful exercise in their design process, as creating icons tends to be more about being able to select an item or visual reference that clearly communicates the idea of what the icon represents.

In the case of the inventory icons, since they do represent some manner of physical item that exists in the world it still requires quickly designing the look of that item- in most cases before it exists in the game world. When brainstorming designing story and puzzles is usually when we realize we need a particular item and then backtrack to where it physically exists in the game world. This can become a bit of a hodgepodge as we weave together story, locations, characters and puzzles. FYI, the following example is made up for the purpose of this post, it's not really in the game (at least not yet) so is spoiler free.

"Maybe Ransome likes ham sandwiches, let's have a dried up rotten one under his bed.... How about getting him one in the Diner, or maybe you need to get all the ingredients to make one...."

Additionally, it's pretty likely that when we create ‘The ham sandwich puzzle' that asset does not exist anywhere visually in the production game art at that point or if it does it's generally at lower pixel resolution and a different angle then the icon needs to be.

Typically the first place we're going to create a visual representation of that ham sandwich will be in its inventory icon form, then retrofit the design of that item back into it's game world counterpart so the two somewhat match- after all, the player needs to be able to make the visual connection between them asap.

The first thing I'll do to create that icon is research it online by searching ‘ham sandwich' or ‘ham sandwich icon', additionally, if I find a good iconic representation of the item online, it really only serves as a starting point to get the idea underway, you have to be careful about copying anything you find too literally as the ‘Ham Sandwich Icon Designers Union' (local 517) could end up be fairly litigious about their intellectual property.

Once you have your own good representation of that ham sandwich simplified and sketched out at the proper orientation you'll need to make sure it's rendered in the same style and color space as your existing icons as they belong as a group together and needs to share the same harmony and continuity.

Finally, given the nature of needing to translate the game into multiple languages, icons need to be pretty universally recognizable (at least as much as possible) so we try to keep them as as representationally visual as we can.

This can be somewhat problematic when it comes to an icon that mainly exists with printed text as it's primary identification, I.E. ‘Last Will and Testament or Lab Report". In those cases you do your best to create an icon that's different looking enough from other similar items and depend mainly on the player mousing over it to get a text description to do the trick.

Great icon design is an art form unto itself and requires a particular type of shorthand visual designer. In many cases the evolution of iconic communication is based in our collective societal consciousness when creating that items' representation during a particular time in history.

Take the classic phone handset as an example, today, most people I know use a cell phone that looks like a flat rectangle, but every kid still recognizes the representation of a 1940's style rotary phone handset when it appears on their screen, it's become a pop culture representation to communicate an idea, the same will go for the graphical icon of an envelope representing email that will still be around long after the day we stop using paper post.

Additionally, a lot of game inventory icons are designed by the lowest common denominator, few projects (our's included) tend to have the budget to hire a dedicated icon designer, it falls to the most logical available resource, in our case that would be myself, and I'm really a comic book artist and character animator, so bear with me, I'll do the best I can.

- Gary

P.S. The icons are not final until the game ships...

Lomion - Aug 13, 2015 at 13:38
Thanks for all these interesting informations. I like the way the second pass looks like Monkey Island 2 icons. If they remain unchanged it will be a real delight to play with.

vegetaman - Aug 13, 2015 at 13:40
As a dev, I usually cringe at "don't spend more than an hour on this, because we won't use it for production' because that usually winds up as "well it works so keep it as is" and then it winds up as a feature in production.... But yeah, lovin' the icons. Glad to hear a lot of thought is being put into the universality of icons; as many products I have used have "universal icons' that are anything but (and I've worked on stuff where I've seen their universal icons and figure if I can't figure out what it means -- how can the end user or the customer). Great post! :-)

Ron Gilbert - Aug 13, 2015 at 13:53
That's why I like to say "don't spend more than 10 mins".  Ten minute art will be so bad it won't go in the game, but can still answer the questions that need answering.

vegetaman - Aug 13, 2015 at 17:29
Looks and sounds like it works quite well, too. I didn't mean to knock it, as I do stuff "on the quick" myself for simple tests and such, and find it to be quite handy, as well as having quick turn placeholder graphics done for me for laying out UIs. That may be the nice thing about art over software for the "quick implement" approach is that since people can see it (since software is intangible or under the hood, as long as there aren't nasty speed issues or bug crashes, the "it works, so don't touch it" rule often applies).

Tivat, NR - Aug 13, 2015 at 13:48
Whoa.. You just wrote a wall of text about ham sandwich ..How cool!!! You must be very hungry.

Natalija - Aug 13, 2015 at 13:59
That ham sandwich looks delicious!

Mattias Cedervall - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:26
I think that these icons looks much better than the ugly icons in Windows 10!

This comment is not final.

Helge Frisenette - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:29
I can't be the only one who think the "wireframes" were better?
They are more clear and iconny.
I'd really prefer just plain text. Takes up less space, is much easier to understand and is very easily translateable to any culture and language. Also, it is far faster to make and alter.

Pedro - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:02
I agree. Well, not so much the text part (I don't care either way. I like text just fine, but I'm also okay with graphical icons.) But in most of the cases, the 2D art looks better and is easier to read than the 3D. The 3D version of the bottle is nicer (although it's fairly flat), and maybe the stick of butter (but that's because the 2D art isn't fleshed out.) The book is okay, too. In all other cases, I prefer the 2D look. I just feel pixel art at that size and resolution just looks so much better and is easier to parse visually as 2D rather than 3D.

Big Red Button - Aug 14, 2015 at 20:07
The 3D bottle proves how expressive even a small number of pixels can be!

Davide - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:19
You should consider that you are talking to someone that revolutionized a genre
by replacing the word "text" with the word "graphic" (more than others, at least) :P

Bogdan Barbu - Aug 14, 2015 at 13:30
Are you sure you don't want them to scrap all of the art and do a text adventure game instead, like back in the day? But seriously, apart from looking awful, text would probably end up wasting more screen space than images because of the low resolution. If they rendered the text at a higher resolution, then everything would look inconsistent.

Patrik Spacek - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:36
I like 2d versions of those icons for this game, but there are situations when it needs to be 3d because of misunderstanding of what the hell is it? Hard to recognize. 85% 2d flat, 15% 3d if neccessary. I would also use design of all items from that era.

Ron Gilbert - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:41
Maniac Mansion had text inventory, so did Last Crusade and Monkey Island 1. It was Monkey Island 2 that introduced graphical icons and they were retro fitted back into the Monkey Island 1 when the graphics were redone for VGA. If we wanted to stay true to the era, the inventory would be text, but we'd rather have icons and we're the deciders.

Marco Lizza - Aug 13, 2015 at 17:19
Back in the days everybody was accustomed to text-representation instead of icons when dealing with the inventory. When icons made their appearance in Monkey Island 2 I found them an astonishing technical feature but also somewhat cumbersome since from time to time some of the icons where difficult to recognize and the association between the image and the description simply couldn't glue well in my brain (e.g. when you have similar items like books and such).

As a Maniac Mansion spiritual successor, I expected Thimbleweed Park not to have icons... but I appreciate that you took the hardest way through.

Ron Gilbert - Aug 13, 2015 at 17:23
I feel icons are necessary and I personally like them a lot better than text, but maybe we'll do a "text inventory" mode.  One issue with icons vs text is the item names. It was nice in MI2 to not have to worry so much about the item name length. In MM -> MI1 we had to keep names short so they could be displayed in the inventory. It's a small problem that can be solved with alt names when displayed in the inventory.  Worth looking at.

Marco Lizza - Aug 13, 2015 at 17:51
Keeping item names short can be quite a hassle, especially when trying to convey some humor and fun (not to mention localization). Using alternative (shorter) name vs icons, in that sense, is almost the same. Thank God when selected/used the items can adopt their full (longer) name.

Having a "hardcore legacy mode" with no inventory icons could be interesting, but I think that if you guys feel that the game should have icons simply go for it. At the very end you are making the game the way you like it. ;)

Sushi - Aug 14, 2015 at 14:09
So *that's* why there never was any "gas-filled chainsaw" in MM! It was more than 18 characters.

Davide - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:50
Back in the days, I was a small child that was barely able to read, and Monkey Island 2
(or Monkey Island 1 VGA) had a magic that Maniac Mansion didn't have for me (I appreciated it later, when I grew up);
it was fun playing them with my elder brother and participating in trying to solve the puzzles,
whose solution often gave visible reward (humor was quite evident too, not just written).
Inventory was graphical and it helped very much to this.
So I'll prefer graphic icons. I like them more.. do it for the kids!
(well, I don't know if the subject of this game could be applied to kids too)..
what's the Thimbleweed Park rating target??

Davide - Aug 14, 2015 at 02:45
Plus, I found them more consistent with the rest of the artwork.

Peter Campbell - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:13
>>>>> items by text name only imo.  Besides, when you highlight the icons with your cursor it gives the text name of what they are anyway.

Estranged2 - Aug 14, 2015 at 00:25
Simon 2 did icons for verbs as well.
I think it was nice.
This is a very personal, emotional preference that people have. I don't think there's a lot of conscious logic going into it.

Patrik Spacek - Aug 14, 2015 at 09:08
Thanks Ron, I meant to stay with icons and when I said "from that era" I meant visual look of the items, not the text version from original game. Just art wise...   I always prefer art before text :o)

Mister T - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:05
Shapes like the tuna tin are much easier to recognize in 3d. Also there is a sense of a more elaborate visual grammar in that style. For example the angle chosen gives a hint what it is meant to be. So my guess it, the more one sees of those, the clearer they get.

I wonder whether it is possible to get a era-specific design into such small icons. But when playing Gone Home, I immensly enjoyed the popcultural hints to the time the game takes place in.

Kevin Drum - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:40
Is the bottom right icon an unopened stick of butter?

Kevin Drum - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:48
Also, if I'm way off, then do not take it to mean that I'm insulting the icon since I have no context.  I really dig that pipe wrench.

Arto - Aug 13, 2015 at 15:41
I like the E-ticket. Reminds me of something.

Ricardo Marichal - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:42
I would rather the 2d icons but maybe more detailed.

Dan - Aug 13, 2015 at 18:47
I would prefer the 3D icons. There are always items that look much better and more identifiable in 3D. A sandwich is a great example for those items.
And if you want to make it look coherent, you need to make them all 3D.

I like these new wireframes!

Peter Campbell - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:10
If the game was still using the Maniac Mansion-looking graphics then I'd prefer the flat 2D icons too, but with the change in art style the 2D icons would really look out of place against Mark Ferrari's art.

salty ride - Aug 23, 2015 at 22:08
Me too, every item posted here looks better in 2D for me...
When you add depth they look smaller and the diagonals look a bit strange.

Big Red Button - Aug 24, 2015 at 06:34
As Gary wrote they are still not final. The diagonals will probably be defanged via anti-aliasing.
Due to the 3D conversion the can of tuna now clearly looks like a can.

Bogdan Barbu - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:52
I understand that the icons aren't final but I'll give some feedback anyway. Maybe you'll find it useful later on, maybe you'll ignore it.

0. Overall, I do like the new icons. Just getting some flattery in here to make you want to read on. The rest is meant to be constructive (yet subjective) criticism, not a low form of insult. :P

1. The red arrow on the hotel card (or whatever the thing under the tuna can is) seems too close to the darker half of the card. It makes it a little difficult to tell it's an arrow and not a random shape. Also, I think the icon would be improved with a little anti-aliasing on the top and bottom sides. Straight, aliased, low-resolution lines with small slopes look hideous (to me, anyway).

2. I'm not sure what kind of receipt that is but if it's the kind you get in grocery stores, maybe make a long, curved piece of white paper with (unreadable) black "text" on either side of it. That's more easily recognizable than having an unreadable "RECEIPT" printed on.

3. Did you try drawing the vacuum tube at a different angle in order to take advantage of the other pixels? It might help make the legs look a tiny bit better. I'm not sure if it's possible. Just throwing it out there.

4. I'm not sure if that's a concrete block at the very end (probably not judging from the X on the front side of it) but it bothers me that the bottom 45 degree line is not entirely straight. I do see why you did it, though.

Good luck.


Bogdan Barbu - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:59
4 (cont'd) Oh, that's not concrete. It's grandma's two year-old tin-wrapped sponge cake, isn't it?

Geoff Paulsen - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:53
I hope only "tangible" items will be inventory items.  I hate it when games put "ideas" or "clues" into the inventory.

lewton - Aug 13, 2015 at 15:08
I actually liked the notebook in Discworld Noir. You could "pick up" clues, combine clues with other clues to get new clues, talk to people about clues, use clues with objects etc.

Paulup - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:30
I seem to remember the 3rd Monkey Island (non-Ron) did that a lot...
It felt like I was carrying around a ton of expository dialog in the inventory.

entropy - Aug 13, 2015 at 14:54
I know it's extra work, but I'd really appreciate if we can
have an option to read the blog posts spoiler free.
Would that be possible?

A start could be images, marked as 'may contain spoilers',
that are only visible upon a click. So it's the reader's decision,
if he wants to see the image(s).

After all, I now know 9 items and I claim I will remember at least 5 of them. :)
That potentially spoils the fun of some puzzles, don't they?

Anyway, thanks for the excellent work. Really!

Arto - Aug 13, 2015 at 15:47
"After all, I now know 9 items and I claim I will remember at least 5 of them. :)"

Don't worry. Ron will cut them.

Guga - Aug 13, 2015 at 16:02
As a gamedev and... "artist" (it's just that I didn't have anyone to make the graphics of my game), I find this post extremely interesting, since I had a hard hard time drawing icons for my game's inventory. I'm not good at manual dithering, anti-aliasing or things like that, so I ended up either having something flat that didn't feel right or tried to scale down a bigger image and obtaining an awful blob of low contrast pixels. I would have loved to have someone capable of getting to the (visual) point in such a way, these icons are great. They perfectly serve their purpose.

guy of gisborn - Aug 13, 2015 at 17:45
cool. I like seeing such progression.

And if there are more design stuff that you want us all to participate in, then please say so. The book title and dolores stuff was fun.

Nacho Fernandez - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:23
I think text inventory will be one step too far back. Objects when they are visually represented allow more subtle mind processes to go on when puzzle solving, in my modest opinión. So I am 100% with you with inventory icons.

OFF-TOPIC: My 7-year-old girl is wanting sooo badly to play Thimbleweed Park... I keep feeding her images and videos, so it is my fault. I am sure I will have a great time gladly inventing excuses for bad language and murders and all that.

Mister T - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:42
Now I want to click them very badly.

count - Aug 13, 2015 at 19:47
Cultural baggage icons: "Save" via Floppy Disk ...

Paulup - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:23
The new 3D icons are excellent, all of them are much better than the previous 2D versions.

Inventory icons are one of the best things about adventure games...

They really make the items come alive and give the game more personality - some of those little icons stick in your mind for decades and their inclusion was a HUGE step up from text inventory.
Rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle was a source of constant amusement as an icon sitting there in the inventory of the VGA version.

Peter Campbell - Aug 13, 2015 at 20:26
I really like the icon inventory screen, the look of the items and how they match up well with Mark Ferrari's art.  I can't believe some people want text-only items, it's just far too regressive and dull imo.  The only thing about the HUD that still looks off is the Commodore 64 verb font who's font style looks really out of place with the new art style.  Other than that, everything is shaping up great.

Laoena - Aug 13, 2015 at 21:10
For items like the Lab Report or a Last Will, etc, it helps players identify the item better if you can add (if there is space!) an icon on the front. representing a company logo or similar.  E.g. A coffin or cross on the front of the Last Will, and a drop of blood or medical symbol on the Lab Report. (and you'll get told not to spend more than 30 seconds or 1 minute to draw the tiny icon too. :P )

In any case, you are already doing this subconsciously for the other items. Look at the E-ticket. Everyone knows that it is an E-ticket because of the capital letter 'E' logo on the paper combined with the arrow. Without these it would just be a funny piece of paper that users need to hover the mouse over (or look at) to see what it is exactly.

Chris T. - Aug 13, 2015 at 21:11
+1 for icons over text. I grew up playing these games and when I first saw the use of icons, it made me wonder why everyone wasn't doing it. Granted my young self knew nothing of programming and the effort/art behind each item.  I like the way you guys are picking and choosing the best elements post-Manic Mansion to include.  Can't wait to try it out!

KamiKasi - Aug 14, 2015 at 00:39
So let's have three Versions: 2D, 3D and Text style! :D
But I really prefer the 3D versions. ;)

Natalija - Aug 14, 2015 at 02:21
I really like these iscons  but I think that the text will be better.. But as you said :

Mario - Aug 14, 2015 at 03:04
@GARY : The 3D Tube is very impressive. Recognisable on first glance. I want to put that Tube into my Marshall Guitar AMP rightaway. The 3D Book  and Tuna Tin also very well worked out. The 3D Receipt could be any paper. Maybe a $ Sign would help.

Maybe you should think about Mouse Over Text.

Zak Phoenix McKracken - Aug 14, 2015 at 03:15
You mentioned the Phone and the Envelop icon example, about how kids recognize the idea even if they probably had never seen that in the real world.
It's funny, I recently heard a tween asking me: "Why to save a document I have to click that blue square? Why a blue square means To SAVE??"
Damn, I felt older than I am... grandpa Zak...

Zak Phoenix McKracken - Aug 14, 2015 at 03:56
If you are able to put a key to switch between Icons / Text for the inventory items, that will be the Final Answer to the dilemma.

Zak Phoenix McKracken - Aug 14, 2015 at 03:58
It will be enough to change the image of the icon: an image with the text written on in.
Unfortunately this will multiply by four the art work to do for the translations...

Giulio - Aug 14, 2015 at 06:40
I say: 3D icons all the way! And no way text icons are a good choice.. quite a bad one IMO.

Liran - Aug 14, 2015 at 08:14
Hi Ron,

This post made me think of a question - Will Thimbleweed Park have a button that enables the player to see all the hot spots on the screen?

A hot spot button might remove some of the "mystery" from the game world but it will prevent pixel hunting...

Ron Gilbert - Aug 14, 2015 at 10:12
No, absolutely not. That is for the weak and lazy, and I'm not talking just about the player, but also weak and lazy designers that don't take the time to make objects and rooms intuitive. Players have gotten so lazy and entitled that they want everything handed to them, this is not the game for them. Designers get lazy because they can mask bad design with pop-ups and call outs.

entropy - Aug 14, 2015 at 10:26
Way to go!

Peter Campbell - Aug 14, 2015 at 14:16

stderr - Aug 14, 2015 at 15:02
Wait! What?!

I have to play the game _myself_?

How rude!!!


Giulio - Aug 15, 2015 at 07:35
Thank God for this. I couldn't agree more with what you said Ron. I remember playing Simon The Sorcerer and having to use this HORRIBLE lazy feature because, even though the artwork was really nice, rooms were not intuitive at all. I never ever had this problem playing any of the Lucasarts Games except maybe Indy3 on a few occasions.

DZ-Jay - Aug 17, 2015 at 11:26

I'm glad _Real Designers_ still exist in this age where everybody gets a ribbon for effort and any small action is cause for celebration.

Keep up the great work!


TR. - Aug 14, 2015 at 09:11
OMG! First icon: Here comes the monkey wrench again...

Dan - Aug 14, 2015 at 14:26
That's right, but this time the translations won't be that problematical.

Dan - Aug 15, 2015 at 06:55
... and there is a tuna head on the can.

Paulup - Aug 14, 2015 at 09:35
I see what's going on.
I reckon Gary has signed up on here as a load of aliases, so he can plant comments like:

"We don't need icons! Text is much better! Less work is awesome!"
"Don't make Gary do all the icons, he has enough work as it is!"
"I agree! Just make it text, let Gary watch TV and relax!"

The thing that gave it away is that no real person would ever actually prefer a text inventory, it just doesn't make any logical sense.

Nice try Gary - get back to work on those beautiful 3D icons.

Sushi - Aug 14, 2015 at 14:24
"the lowest common denominator" ??
Great to see Ron isn't the only one to suck at math! :P

3D icons in a 2D point and click adventure? Oh no,  I'm so confused right now...
Math teacher:"they're both projections of a three dimensional object onto a plane, one being orthogonal to one of the original objects main symmetrical axes while the other is projected at an angle of ...."
Zzzzzzzzzz snore zzzzzzzz snore ...

Herbert - Aug 14, 2015 at 14:51
I think you misunderstood something. Remember that we are in 1987 where 3D was something different than today! A person walking behind any object already counted as 3D…

Sushi - Aug 14, 2015 at 15:21
Hi Herbert,
I was just being sarcastic, because of the whole "the 2D looks better" , "no the 3D looks better", "it should be text as in MM/Zak" funny but futile discussion above; as Ron pointed out nicely they're the ones deciding.

So, the definition of 3D space changes over time? That's like 5D!
(Again, being sarcastic- I am old enough to have played the first so-advertised "3D" games on the Atari 2600. By the way, I just checked my mint condition C64 boxed copy of Zak McKracken and it mentions "stunning 3D environment " lol!)

Peter Campbell - Aug 14, 2015 at 20:01
You know.... that ham sandwich puzzle actually sounds kinda fun lol.

Lukas Mathis - Aug 15, 2015 at 04:29
"Finally, given the nature of needing to translate the game into multiple languages, icons need to be pretty universally recognizable"

That's particularly interesting because the sandwich icon you've used as an example uses wonderbread or toast slices or some other kind of square bread slices. I'm not from the US, and I've never seen a sandwich like that in the real world. I was immediately able to recognize it as a sandwich, probably either because I've seen "square bread" sandwiches in US TV shows, or because it looks similar enough to a "normal" sandwich that I was able to figure out what it was, but all of the sandwiches I've ever seen in real world either used a horizontally cut roll as its bread, or slices of a "normal" loaf of bread.

Big Red Button - Aug 15, 2015 at 08:41
You can also buy them everywhere in Europe, for all I know. But I think they are much more popular in the anglophone countries. I'm not from there, too. So when I was in London some years ago I was totally surprised about the countless sandwich stores, which sold no other food than different sandwiches at big prices and big sales volumes! Not very healthful, as every kind of fast food, of course.
I myself use to eat such slices only toasted, not as a sandwich. But I prefer more satiable bread in general.

mr. T - Aug 18, 2015 at 07:33
I always thought the inventory icons were charming ambassadors of delight and marked a rewarding moment for the player when you picked stuff up, both spiritually and literally. I also think many adventure game players might be closet kleptomaniacs...(could we have a few more items to "pick up"? ;)) Too bad you can't put those often delicious pixels in your pocket. Could some icon be brought to real life existence? Maybe added to the special boxed version of the game (mmm can of tuna)...

Sometimes the items were just a few pixels on the screen but when you picked them up, the icon brought some new information about the object (Now owned by you, almost like in the real world! No way! Yes, way) or even perhaps a visual joke that exists only on the graphic, bringing a small but not insignificant extra dimension to the story experience. I also thought it was cool when you could mix some objects together and you got a whole new interesting or fun object. Hard to achieve that effect with text only I think.

entropy - Aug 26, 2015 at 08:13
C'mon, Ron, it's been almost three days since the last blog post!


entropy - Aug 26, 2015 at 08:14
Doh! Wrong blog post.