Archive for March, 2012

Exposing fragility.

Mar 30 2012 Published by under musing

Bientôt l’été is an intensely personal piece. Not so much because it talks about things that I have lived through, but because it exposes things that I hold dear. A certain way of looking at life. A way that reading Duras at an early age certainly helped form.

It exposes a certain pride in being fragile, and a love for things that in any other context would seem corny and trite. To be charmed by the vanity of a young woman. To allow the boorish bluntness of a man to arouse one. To find a fragile subtlety in something admitting the fondness of would mean public scorn. To proclaim out loud that love is everything. And to feel surprised by one’s ineptitude and often carelessness concerning the matter. And to realize that I still don’t know what love is, while I know that I do know. And to enjoy the contradictions. Above all, to enjoy the dizzying charm of contractions.

And yet, the complete exposure of my weak parts feels like a sort of strength to me. As if making all one’s secrets public makes one invulnerable. There is nothing anyone can ever say of me that I have not said of myself.

To have been there.

PS: To know that what one thought of as love when one was young is still the same as what one thinks of it now. Only now one can laugh about it too. While it remains the most solemnly serious thing. Possibly the only thing that retained its weight after all that time.

To love.

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Space time.

Mar 29 2012 Published by under features

Today was spent in space. I made an endless space simulator for the beginning of the game. The idea is to suggest the underlying premise that the action takes place on a remote space station. I didn’t want to use a cut scene of a fixed length because I want players to decide for themselves how deep into space they want to travel. If you like, you can spend hours in this scene before starting the game.

I had first created a program that generates solar systems with a sun in the middle, a random number of planets circling around it and moons circling the planets. It wasn’t even close to realistic but still the enormous size differences between suns and planets and the distances between solar systems made the scene far from evocative.

So then I made a program with simple particles and a planet here and there and its lovely and mesmerizing.

It doesn’t look anything like the arresting view we get from Jupiter and its four moons through our newly acquired telescope. Actual navigation through space must be maddening, crossing the vast emptiness between planets and obsessively staring at your destination for months, years on end. But that’s stuff for another game.

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Shades of amusement.

Mar 28 2012 Published by under concept

The multiplayer part of Bientôt l’été is quite open-ended. I imagine it’ll be a little bit like improvisational theater or music. But with complete strangers. Who may or may not be very talented or inspired. So sometimes a session will go very deep and move both players. While other times, it’ll be dull and awkward.

To me, this is all part of the experience. I don’t want to guide the play much. I like it when nobody knows how things are going to play out. And I think being aware if this, makes even the bad experiences interesting.

It’s part and parcel of the interactive medium to me, that players make their own amusement to some extent. I just provide the instrument and the score. You should play the music.

And yes, sometimes it will be odd. But that’s how conversations go. Sometimes they feel good, otherwise not so. And I hope the artificiality of the context will render even failed conversations moving. And perhaps contribute to our appreciation of our imperfect yet so wonderful species.

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Joy ennobles.

Mar 27 2012 Published by under musing

The capacity for joy is one of our most ennobling features. Joy makes us rise above ourselves. And whatever the source of this joy, we all share the feeling.

This lesson was taught to me by Amélie Nothomb in whose novel Métaphysique des Tubes, an infant is made aware of the gloriousness of its existence by enjoying a piece of chocolate.

I get frustrated sometimes when people around me don’t seem to see how wonderful some of the art is that brings me to tears. When I see people visiting a cathedral through the lens of their video camera, when they flock around the famous sculpture while ignoring the better one, when they dismiss a majestic opera as squealing fat women, when they mock the elegance of a ballet performance or when they reject a novel because it’s deemed too difficult, too weird.

But when I see how deeply they can be moved by a blockbuster movie, how a television commercial can bring tears to their eyes, how a pop hit inspires them to write poetry, I understand that they too know what it means to be alive on this planet. And this brings immense peace to my heart.

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Art for amateurs.

Mar 26 2012 Published by under musing

Modernist fine art has succeeded in chasing away most of the audience. To the point when today, art is considered by most to be stuffy, elitist, hypocritical, incomprehensible, arrogant, meaningless, etc. This doesn’t mean that people don’t still need art or enjoy an artistic experience. They just get their fix elsewhere. In cinema, in comics, in videogames. Many people are true art amateurs (in the sense of art lovers) without perhaps even being aware of it.

In a way it’s easier to make (modern) art. Even for people like me, critical of contemporary fine arts. Because art world residents are still well educated and aesthetically open-minded and even hungry for experiments, novelty, etc. It’s a bit like making work for your family. You can make a lot of assumptions about shared knowledge. And if people lack the knowledge, they will blame themselves for not having read this or the other philosopher rather than the art for being obscure.

Not so in videogames. Gamers tend to be quite intelligent, and often even sensitive, but most of them lack any sort of education or experience in culture and the arts. As a result, it is very difficult to move many of them with a piece that is rather specific or very subtle. Gamers are quite capable of experiencing deep aesthetic emotions during play but only when the game hits them over the head with the proverbial hammer. The content of the work needs to be simple and general and the delivery clear and unambiguous. Or their emotional connection with the game will dwindle.

That is the great challenge for artists using a popular medium.

Of course, one could say “to hell with the audience” and make work in the modernist tradition. The problem with that, however, is that most people who are into modern art don’t give a damn about videogames. And so your precious, subtle piece of art will cater to zero audience. Only gamers play games.

This is the situation: we are making art for amateurs. And I really suck at it.
I appreciate the pressure to make clear aesthetic statements. But I find it very difficult to give in to the expectations of simplicity in terms of content. I have no interest in making broad statements about the human condition or telling the ancient story again of the-feeble-solitary-creature-who-defeats-all-obstacles-against-all-odds-and-emerges-victorious-and-celebrated. I want to explore the less obvious aspects of our wonderful existence on this planet, point out things that we might not have noticed we have in common yet, celebrate the beauty of something we had not considered that way before, etc.

And with every step away from The Big Story, I see people getting off my bus. And I wonder where will I be driving this time. How many people will be left at the end of the ride? How far can I take you?

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Talking about making.

Mar 25 2012 Published by under musing

Talking about what certain elements in the game may represent -like I did at the end of the previous post- feels uncomfortable. Usually I don’t ever think about this, let alone attempt to express it in words. Representations in our games are far more open-ended for me than my words may imply. It’s not like I have an idea and then try to express it. It’s probably more often the other way around: I’m struck by what an image, a sound, a gesture does to me and I keep it, and collect some and remove others until a sort of story appears that feels consistent.

One of the things that draws me to this medium as an artist, is exactly its capacity for multiple meanings, depending on who’s playing. I am curious how other people see the things I put in the game. I have no expectations.

But I do realize that some people may have trouble making any sense at all of our work. In such cases of course it’s better if I give a few hints as to how I see it. Then at least they get something out of it -hopefully something they find interesting.

Still I find it difficult. I’m so used to silently trusting my emotions that I really need to force myself to express in words how my work makes sense to me. And the words always sound so limited, so inadequate and far too definite.

But it’s not because I can’t express its meaning properly or that I might even say things that are completely wrong, that our work would be in any way obscure. All of our work is completely clear to me. In fact, it’s more clear than anything I could ever say in words. There is no room for the absurd or the weird: everything in our work makes perfect sense to me, more sense than anything anywhere. This is probably the main reason why I make this stuff: to try and make sense of things.

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Realtime 3D is the medium.

Mar 24 2012 Published by under aesthetics,musing

It’s strange how easy it is to forget how truly remarkable contemporary videogames technology is. Being able to control a character and navigate a virtual world borders on the miraculous. And yet, most of the time, when interacting with a videogame, we manage to all but completely ignore the realtime 3D wonder that we are witnessing.

The history of videogames may, in part, be responsible for this. We have experienced the evolution of the medium from simple abstract presentation to astonishing photo-realistic detail as a history of ever more sophisticated dressing up of structures and content that have essentially remained unchanged. The tendency to dismiss this “cosmetic layer” in videogames is great.

There is also, of course, the demands that conventional gaming makes on our attention. We often simply don’t have the time to take in a landscape, or empathize with a character. The game relentlessly confronts us with one obstacle after the other, because it is fun to overcome them. And while that may make sense for symbolic board games or abstract arcade games, it is a terrible waste when it comes to finely detailed presentations.

And finally, the aesthetic success of the rendition may end up feeling so natural that we don’t notice anymore. Especially because experiencing this presentation requires activity. The experience quickly becomes mundane: navigating, finding places of interest, avoiding collisions and falls, etc. In a way, the realism of the simulation prevents us from enjoying its aesthetics and being impressed with the amazing thing that we are actually doing.

I fear that we may be throwing away the baby with the bath water if we don’t start paying attention to this raw material soon. We are so caught up in either providing very conventional fun for our audience or in exploring the “essence of interactivity” that we fail to see the forest for the trees. The really amazing thing about our medium is right in front of our noses. We just need to focus.

I want to address this in Bientôt l’été. Of course, a modest project like this cannot hope to rival the wealth and fidelity of big budget titles. But if independent creators do not embrace the medium of realtime 3D, how can we ever hope to expand its artistic reach? I’m gambling that having only a few high quality objects against an otherwise empty or abstract backdrop will suffice to convince the player of the reality of the place. But above all, I will give the player opportunity and time to allow him- or herself to really feel the presentation.

There will simply not be any game goals to distract the mind away from the content: all interaction is completely voluntary and there’s no extraneous rewards. But more importantly the game’s themes are aligned with the visual presentation: the places and characters are expressions of the content. The beach you walk on, alone, is your barren soul deprived of a mate. The wind that pulls at your clothes is the passion that rages inside. The entire space station is the inside of your skull. And meeting another person is really about meeting another person, being with him, needing his presence, enjoying his company. While his holographic state tells you that he will leave you. It’s inevitable.

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Slavery of the will.

Mar 23 2012 Published by under project

I start building a game before knowing what it is going to be. Because in my experience, most of the ideas I have on paper don’t work out in practice. It’s better to just build the basic blocks of the game world and then see what I can do with them. Often inspiration comes in spades when there is something to look at and play with.

At some point, however, the game may be giving me ideas that do not seem compatible with my original vision. As a strong willed creative person, I reject such ideas. But that is dumb.

This is a very new medium and we don’t have a lot of methods and wisdom to fall back on yet. At least when trying to use this medium for artistic purposes. As a result, we may have great ideas but not know how to express them in the medium. The brute force of iterative prototyping seems to be the only way we have to slowly try to hack our way towards our goal.

But this is potentially endless. And always frustrating. A more fruitful way of achieving nice results is listening to what the game is trying to tell us. Certainly, in the beginning we may need to lead things in a certain direction. But at some point our initial intent will intersect with what the technology allows us to do, what we know ourselves capable of and what simply feels goods and what doesn’t. A number of paths will start to appear. One of those paths, inevitably the hardest and most unclear one, is the path that leads to accomplishing your goals. Other paths are easier and clearer, but they may seem simplistic or empty.

At this point, I know I need to reject my instincts to stubbornly follow my will. It’s strangely difficult for a creative person to choose the simple, easier path. But, I know from experience that that is the right one to follow. There will be plenty of opportunities along it for expression. And this path will lead to results. Maybe not the results I envisioned. But maybe interesting, surprising results. The other path, the path of the will, leads nowhere. It just keeps going and going, becoming broader and broader, and ultimately dissolves into nothing.

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Breathing engine music.

Mar 23 2012 Published by under project

I missed a post yesterday. It was a busy day. Part of it was spent listening to music for Bientôt l’été.

After a wonderful experience on our prototype project Cncntrc, I asked Walter Hus to compose music for Bientôt l’été too. Part of my motivation was that, next to being an accomplished composer, he is also an enthusiastic piano teacher. And piano teaching is an element in Moderato Cantabile, the novel by Marguerite Duras that provides for the initial situation in Bientôt l’été.

One of the peculiar things about Mr Hus’ recent work is that it almost always involves a monumental computer-driven Decap pipe organ. When I visited his studio yesterday, he just switched on the device and I was welcomed by a low throbbing sound coming from the biggest pipes of the organ that made everything in the small room vibrate. From there, the sound evolved into a fascinating surreal seascape with waves coming from the motorized breathing of an accordion, ethereal voices flowing in the wind, subtle piano tingles and amusing references to 70s synthesizer ambiance.

I was delighted to hear how evocatively he had captured the idea of a beach simulation running on the holodeck of a remote space station. I could feel the engine of the craft, hear the wistful sighs of the ocean and lonely cries of man and machine in empty space. I was pondering changing the entire game so everything in it would be triggered by the music alone. Because all I wanted to do was listen to it. But then we came to our senses and decided to mix the music dynamically in the game, as we did in Cncntrc -and The Path.

So even if all else fails, I feel the music for Bientôt l’été alone is sufficient justification for this project to exist. I’m looking forward to implementing some tracks in the game and seeing where the music leads the design and aesthetics.

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The childish language of love.

Mar 21 2012 Published by under features,musing

Editing the text for the dialogues in Bientôt l’été, I’m struck by how much I adore the self-pitying childishness of the language of love. Of course Duras has a way of playing this up. And maybe I am more sensitive to the charms of feminine naiveté -or is it playing at being naive for the sake of self-glorification?

There’s also a strange sort of joyous humor in the exaggerated expressions of desperate infatuation. Not in the least because of the polite form that Duras often uses to address a lover.

Je vous aime comme il n’est pas possible d’aimer.
— I love you like it is not possible to love.

Avant vous je ne savais rien de la souffrance….
— Before you I knew nothing of suffering.

Rien d’autre arrivera dans ma vie que cet amour pour vous.
— Nothing else will happen in my life but this love for you.

Votre corps va être emporté loin de moi, et je vais en mourir.
— Your body will be taken far from me, and I will die from that.

And then there’s the wonderful playing with cruelty, the purpose of which may be to provoke pain in the lover which will then count as proof of love.

Quand j’écris, je ne vous aime plus.
— When I’m writing, I don’t love you anymore.

Je préférais que vous ne m’aimez pas.
— I’d prefer you didn’t love me.

Je crois sincèrement que j’aurais pu ne pas vous aimer.
— I sincerly believe that I could have not loved you.

Parfois dans la journée, j’arrive à m’imaginer sans vous.
— Sometimes during the day, I manage to imagine myself without you.

I hope players will enjoy this sort of language as much as I do. I have no idea if this is supposed to be good or bad writing. I only know I find it incredibly endearing. It makes my heart tremble, brings a tear in my eye and a smile on my lips.

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