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I’m Too Young to Die: The inside story of creating a Bitmap cover

I’m Too Young to Die: The inside story of creating a Bitmap cover

Judging a book by its cover is an unwise move. Or so says the famed turn of phrase. After all, how can a single page at the front of a book hope to capture all of its contents?

In fact, it’s not quite as simple as all that. It might not be too smart to critique a book based purely on seeing the front cover, but much like the headline of an article, a cover has a critical role to play in suggesting the rewards of reading on, and helping the audience decide if they want to dive in. A good cover brings a lot to a book. And a less than ideal cover? As Bitmap’s own Creative Director Sam Dyer knows all too well, the effort put into getting a cover just right is always worthwhile.

“A poorly designed cover can mean that a potential customer could decide not to engage with a book before they even have a chance to see what it’s about or see the spread designs,” Dyer explains. “But a well designed or illustrated cover can be really powerful. It’s this reason that at Bitmap Books we take the covers of our books very seriously. We pour over the design and if hiring an illustrator, look at various portfolios to see what style would be best suited. This doesn’t always come easy, but occasionally the ‘perfect’ artist falls on your lap.”

I’m Too Young To Die: The Ultimate Guide to First-Person Shooters 1992–2002

In fact, such a stroke of luck is exactly what happened with Bitmap’s new look at the first-person shooter form, I’m Too Young To Die: The Ultimate Guide to First-Person Shooters 1992–2002, which ships later this month. It was the book’s author, Stuart Maine, that suggested to the Bitmap team that his ex-colleague, Ian Pestridge, could be perfect to take on illustrating the cover.

“We were immediately drawn to Ian’s incredibly detailed illustration style that almost looks engraved or etched,” Dyer remembers. “His portfolio contained a plethora of fantasy and sci-fi-type figures, all done with minimal use of colour to give them a unique, striking look. We could immediately see how this style would work really on the cover of a book all about FPS games. It’s dark, edgy, intense, and not like anything we'd seen before.”

Pestridge was no newcomer to illustrating on game projects. He fell for drawing as a youngster and started out in the games industry as a concept artist back in 1997, working on Interactive Studios’ Dragon Sword; a game that ultimately wasn’t to be. For the last quarter of a century, meanwhile, Pestridge has worked for numerous iconic UK studios, from Blitz Games to Rebellion, developing a striking illustrative style defined by immense detail that pulls in the viewer.

“Every stroke you see in my work is a single pen stroke,” says Pestridge, when conversation turns to the concept of being able to see the presence of the artist’s hand in his illustrations, particularly when compared to works with a more clinical or digital feel to them. “It’s not that it’s a laborious process illustrating in such detail; it’s highly enjoyable. But it’s almost zen like, putting so much time and detail into an illustration like those I did for Stuart’s book, expressing so much through techniques like hatching, and thinking about things like lighting. I love the idea that you could keep zooming in and in on my work and keep finding more detail, and see how the image is really constructed from individual pen strokes; almost lose yourself in it.”

I’m Too Young To Die cover detail

It was Pestridge’s impressive knack for remarkable detail that made him perfect as the illustrator of a cover for a genre like the first-person shooter, that is so often so visceral, intense and filled with personality and even grotesque caricature. FPSes feel up-close-and-personal, in your face and even brutal at times. All things Pestridge ably captures in his illustrations.

“I already absolutely loved first-person shooters, and have for a long time,” says Pestridge of his starting point on working on the concept for the cover. “And so the title really spoke to me; it evoked a lot of the feelings the first-person shooter genre can bring. The title was a really great starting point for the process: I’m Too Young To Die. That title [from DOOM’s easiest difficulty setting] brought all these pieces and ideas; like the intensity of those difficulty settings. Terms like ‘hurt me plenty’ and ‘I’m too young to die’ in place of more standard names for different difficulties have this attitude. There were the intense, characterful expressions of the faces that went with each difficulty setting in DOOM, and the expressions of the status bar face that you saw when playing. So I started to think about using that idea of these intense faces as something that could work for the cover.”

As the core cover concept started to solidify in Pestridge’s mind, it became apparent that the cover should endeavour to do what the book does. That is to say, rather than trying to magically allude to every page that sat behind it, like Maine’s book, the cover would also try to capture the essence of what the genre offers, particularly between 1992 and 2002.

“We wanted to summarise first-person shooters and the feelings they bring, much like the book does,” confirms Pestridge. “But it’s quite a broad genre. I thought about showing weapons or whole characters or other ways to capture the various elements of what makes up an FPS, but the idea of those faces and that intensity was always there; again, informed by DOOM’s use of faces to indicate different difficulties or player states. I wanted to find a way to kind of sum up that variety of the genre, and all its games. And we needed not to infringe on copyright, of course. I wanted to remind people of those distinct heroes like Duke Nukem or Serious Sam or Painkiller.”

I’m Too Young To Die cover detail

With all those thoughts and ideas around character, intensity, personality and attitude, Pestridge explored breaking the cover down into four panels, each sharing a different form from within the wider FPS genre. Each would show a face, inspired by various types of shooter protagonist, with a view to capturing the intense face-to-face scenarios that often occur within the games themselves.

As such, there’s a panel inspired by lone action heroes like Duke Nukem, and then the future marine as seen in DOOM, Quake, Crisis and so many others. Next is the real-world soldier, star of a bounty of iconic shooters, from Call of Duty to Medal of Honor via Brothers in Arms. Finally comes the post-apocalyptic warrior, as made popular by titles such as Borderlands, Rage, and Fallout.

“I’m not actually sure what you call a four panel triptych,” says Pestridge with a chuckle, “but those characters filled mine.”

Zeroing in on the four panel concept further came about through plenty of collaboration with the publisher and author. Dyer and Maine would feed back on Pestridge’s ideas, offering guidance and context – something highly important considering that at the time the cover was underway, the book was not yet complete, particularly in terms of its layout and aesthetic.

Eventually, with Pestridge’s concept and a final test sketch submitted and approved, he began work on the illustration itself, putting around 25 hours into each individual panel. Pestridge also submitted a mock-up to inform the layout of the cover and the positioning of his four panels; something that turned out to offer more of a guiding hand to the design team than initially planned. Compared side-by-side, that mock up and the final cover are incredibly close. Pestridge, it turned out, brought more than ‘just’ illustration talent.

Looking back across the entire process, then, it’s clear a cover does more than simply front a book. Its creation and the wilder book’s development are intrinsically entwined. To a degree, separating the concepts of book and cover are as unhelpful as tearing the cover from the book itself. They are a singular entity, in this case both striving to communicate what the first-person genre came to be between its origins and 2002. The cover just happens to be the first page potential readers see; and that’s a hugely important responsibility worth all the effort, collaboration, budget, and those 100 hours of illustrating work.

I’m Too Young To Die Collector's Edition

In fact, Pestridge’s quartet of stunning illustrations are cropped on the final cover. Those who pick up the strictly limited collector's edition of I’m Too Young to Die, however, also get a set of art cards, each providing a full version of Pestridge’s illustrations. That inclusion was something the illustrator found amply rewarding, letting each of those pen strokes get some attention, including those outside the cover crop.

If you want to take a close look at the cover, the book’s contents, and maybe those special edition extras, you can pre-order the standard and special editions of I’m Too Young to Die right now over on the Bitmap website. The book ships very soon too, on November 14th. You really don’t have long to wait to get that gorgeous cover – and the rest of the book – in your hands.

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