Archive for April, 2012

Her Venetian name in deserted Calcutta.

Apr 30 2012 Published by under aesthetics,research

We watched a 2 hour long film by Marguerite Duras yesterday -Sunday is the holy day for living room passivities around here. Now I finally know that its title, “Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert”, is the answer to the question “What is Vice-Consul of France shouting?”

The entire film consists of several people talking in a neutral voice -often in pairs, often in the form of questions and answers- over slow camera pans of an abandoned and empty baroque mansion. Only at the very end do we see two women, sitting, for a few moments.

The story, however, is populated with multiple remarkable characters, many of whom recur in several of Duras’ novels. It’s the story of the ball. The ball where a heart is broken such that it renders a person mad. The woman who breaks the heart is, as always, Anne-Marie Stretter, who was called Ana Maria Guardi when she lived in Venice.

The events take place in Asia, among French diplomatic circles. But the images we see, are of a Western building, abandoned. Probably somewhere in Europe, not Asia. The neo-classical style creates a connection between colonies and motherland. But it’s a vague one.

Despite the recipe of this film being one for utter bore-fest, I experienced it as a fascinating journey that I wanted to absorb every drop of. It’s strange how, once you have stepped towards the film and allowed it to capture you, you never want to leave. The few times that I nodded off -as one does in front of art films- I cursed myself for missing a few sentences. That’s how intensely desirable the text had become.

And the strangest thing happened with the images. Even though the scenery depicted nothing of the story, and even though it was set in a different place and the light was wrong, at some point, the images began to fuse with the story. And the rooms and grounds of the abandoned mansion started to refer to the events and places in the story. Even though no connection exists, and none is actively suggested, after seeing both simultaneously for an extended period of time, one became absorbed by the other, as I was absorbed by the film.

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Envie d’aimer.

Apr 29 2012 Published by under Duras

— Que faites vous? Venez.
— J’écoute India Song. Je suis venus aux Indes à cause d’India Song. Cet air me donne envie d’aimer. Je n’ai jamais aimé. Je n’avais encore jamais aimé.

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Gill Sans, not Helvetica.

Apr 28 2012 Published by under aesthetics

I’m a bit torn regarding the graphic style I want to use for typography, interfaces and promotion of Bientôt l’été. There’s three styles that are relevant as reference. There’s the Belle Epoque style of early coast resorts, which I guess is the continental version of Victorian, though more leaning towards Art Nouveau than Neo-Gothic. Then there’s the sparse style of Nouvelle Vague cinema. I really love the boldness and humor of Godard’s typography. And the tone of the game is very much “French art film”. And then there’s the Science Fiction aspect and the holodeck layer, which lends itself to a more “cyber” look.

I changed the typeface in the game from Helvetica Light to Gill Sans Light last week. I was tired of the blandness of Helvetica. Though Gill doesn’t transfer so well to the screen (I had to use Gill Sans Book instead of Light for the smaller texts). Futura was another option. But it’s a bit stiff. The slight curvy playfullness of Gill could perhaps add a modest touch of Belle Epoque to an otherwise very clean modern look.

For the holodeck layer, I need to resist the temptation of using one of those kitschy OCR fonts from the nineties. I need to remind myself that this is a Seriouos Project. After working on something for a while, one tends to forget what it is supposed to be about and starts seeing too many possibilities.

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Images like words.

Apr 27 2012 Published by under aesthetics,musing

This may seem like an odd thought and may lead nowhere. My lack of concern with pictorial realism is not simply aesthetic, or just practical. I really don’t feel that our games should look real. I have no interest in tricking the player into thinking that they are looking at a film. The synthetic quality of the image is very important to me.

The way in which our games should feel real is more like the way in which descriptions in novels generate a feeling of reality in our imagination, than the straight up showing of a photographic representation. The visual elements may have some resemblance to real things, but ultimately they are symbolic stand-ins, much like words. The purpose of a 3D object is not to pretend that it is a real object, but to stimulate the player to imagine such an object.

The continuous back and forth between -symbolic- presentation on the screen, in a book and my imagination is a source of great aesthetic pleasure to me. It is not the amazement caused by the fidelity of the depiction that brings me the most joy, but the realization that it doesn’t look real at all, when viewed a bit more intently.

It is in the discrepancies between the real and the picture that much of the expression happens. And I don’t intend to refer by this to the crude aesthetics of modernism in which far too little remains of the reality that I know. It is a much more subtle game. It’s a game of role-playing and deception. But it’s a lovers’ game, so it’s important that the deception is unveiled promptly after it happens.

A novel leaves a lot of room for the imagination. And there is great pleasure in such creative mental activity. I think videogames are similar. Whatever you see on the screen is only a trigger for your imagination, often connected to a memory. And when we’ve entered the personal domain of memories, we are not far from the feeling of connectedness that art often provokes. The warm glow that we feel when we realize that we have something deeply personal in common with the creator of the work, and by extension possibly with many people. That we are not alone, that there is still life in our species, and room for hope.

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Magical mistakes and the illusion of illusion.

Apr 26 2012 Published by under aesthetics,concept

I added tides today. So the sea can be close sometimes, and far at other times. To test, I have created a little interface to change the tide by pressing a key. I’m considering leaving it in, just like the key that changes the time of day. We’re on a holodeck, players should expect to have power over things like that.

It generates some magical effects, though. The waves on the sea are separate objects that position themselves randomly in an area defined by the avatar’s position and the position of the shoreline. If the shoreline changes, the waves will adapt. But not immediately. So, magically, if the tide does down, the waves remain on the beach for a while. It’s fun to run after those waves rolling majestically on dry land.

It’s wrong. But would such a surreal event really hurt the experience? The entire thing is fake anyway. Isn’t it more interesting for the player if the design takes this into account? The narrative context of the holodeck sure makes this easier -maybe as of now, all the games I make should take place on a holodeck. But as mentioned before, this narrative should not be necessary. The game already is a holodeck!

I can’t think of any videogames that actively acknowledge their own fakeness, without being funny or ironic about it. But I feel that there may be a clue here to figuring out the unique aesthetic qualities of this medium.

Possibly relating to trompe l’œil paintings of the past, where the illusion only works for a brief moment, after which we return to admiring the brushwork without needing to believe we are looking at something real.

I have had this nagging suspicion lately that the feelings of immersion brought about by videogames are separate from actually believing that we are somewhere else. We never really suspend our disbelief, we just play, we imagine. But we always remain ourselves. In fact, I believe this awareness is crucial to deep aesthetic enjoyment.

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The poetry of fakeness.

Apr 25 2012 Published by under aesthetics

Since the reality that I’m trying to represent in Bientôt l’été is a simulation running on a holodeck, elements that are obviously fake are in fact realistic. Much like my game engine, I imagine a holodeck would simplify the appearance of certain things, stylize their behavior, and optimize rendering to improve technical performance.

One of the things that I particularly like in the latter category is the trick of having everything happen around the player’s avatar. When The Endless Forest seems to be drowning in a shower, in actuality the rain particles only fall around your deer avatar. In The Path, only the parts of the woods close to the Red Girl are being drawn. Likewise in Bientôt l’été, the waves and the gulls exist only near the player. They even follow him around when he walks the beach.

Since the scene in Bientôt l’été is so barren, the illusion doesn’t actually work completely. But since we’re on a holodeck, it doesn’t matter. Seeing the fakeness of the system actually makes the scene more realistic!

There’s a certain amount of poetry in these optimizations. The fact that the world only creates itself to be seen by you. That everything is turned to show its best side to you. That life happens where you step, and only where you step. Why hide this? It’s a beautiful, slightly unnerving thought.

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Drawing for the ages.

Apr 24 2012 Published by under aesthetics

There’s not much point in aiming for photographic realism when working in realtime 3D. You can try hard and get really close, but you can only get as close as the current technology will allow you. So by this time next year, chances are that your current incredible accomplishment will look dated.

Instead, we should attempt to design for the ages. Create something that will always look good. There’s no point in denying the limitations of the technology. Recognizing them and working with them, will lead to far better results. When we look at a painting by Rembrandt, we know it’s not a photograph. But does that make the work any less fascinating to look at?

So, even though I do aim for a certain realistic feeling in Bientôt l’été (as opposed to cartoony, abstracted or stylized), I want the visual elements in the game to look interesting onto themselves, not as representing reality so much as referring to it.

Realtime 3D is a technique for creating synthetic images. Aesthetically, we have more in common with painting and animation than with photography or film. But it is a medium that is more modern than photography. Maybe it’s even the first major new technology for creating images since photography. It’s easy to see how photography superseded painting. Now we have to figure out in what ways realtime 3D can supersede photography.

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From feeling real to looking real.

Apr 23 2012 Published by under aesthetics,development

I have been working on the animation of the waves today. With not much success.

I had outlined the basic animation with primitive shapes with the idea to replace these by more recognizable forms later. That outline felt very good. The timing was right, the motion was right. It really felt like waves flowing over a beach.

But trying to also make this look like waves is proving more difficult than expected.

I like the cleverness of the abstract version, though. I find it amusing. I don’t really want to replace it by something that looks realistic. Realistic things are so easy to ignore. They’re hardly worth the effort. But what I have now can only be loved by its creator.

I’ll try again tomorrow.
I should probably look at the sea a bit more.

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Realtime 3D reality.

Apr 22 2012 Published by under musing

There is a reality to realtime 3D that has nothing to do with depiction. The simulation of space and the navigation through it, is a technique with artistic merit onto itself.

We often get distracted from it by interactivity and storytelling. But realtime 3D could be at the heart of an artistic revolution. Not games, not multimedia, not data visualization or procedural pattern generation. But the mere evocation of virtual spaces inhabited by virtual creatures, that we can explore.

This is not simply about depiction. Because the spaces, and even the characters, we create are real. They really exist. As digital objects. They are not a representation of something that exists in reality or in imagination. They exist on the same level as reality -or imagination- itself. They are fact.

We can have memories of visits to virtual places that are eerily similar to memories of real places and completely different from memories of seeing films, or paintings, or photographs or from reading books.  Any functions such places serve in terms of storytelling or artistry are superimposed on the objects that they are -even if they are manual creations too.

This is probably why realtime 3D lends itself so well to open-ended experiences. There is a lot of potential for leaving many things open to interpretation, without ever having the feeling that something was omitted with that purpose. Realtime 3D spaces and characters simply are real.

And the fact that they are still fabricated, is fascinating, and gives the medium an artistic potential that has never existed before. To make something that is a thing into itself, not a representation in some form of such a thing, and to still be able to fill it with expression and evocation, is very powerful indeed.

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Time. And space. And time. And love.

Apr 21 2012 Published by under concept

When creating a simulation of a place, one of the things one needs to take care of is time. It’s a fairly pedestrian thing to do. One thinks of a day and night cycle. Sometimes it’s dark and sometimes clear. Nice to have some variation. Let’s throw in a sun so we can have lens flares. Oh, and a sunset would be so romantic. And a big full moon at night. Since we’re at the seaside, it would really make sense to have a simulation of tides as well. So sometimes the sea is far away and sometimes it is close.

Especially when the moon is full.

Why is that?

I take a step back and the utter strangeness of the situation hits me. We are in space. Not only when we are on a space ship or a remote space station. But always. Our planet is in space. This is why we have day and night in the first place, and tides. Enormous motions of enormous masses over enormous distances at enormous speeds. The mundane every-day aspects of life on this planet are the very things that connect us with the solar system, with the universe.

We sleep at night, cherry trees blossom in spring, some animals hibernate, all because of how the planets and the moon and our star behave. The tiniest creature on this planet is intimately connected to the vastness of the universe. In its day to day routine.

I have come to realize these things much more palpably through making Bientôt l’été. And seeing the ordinary simulation of time on the holodeck contrasted with the vastness of planets and stars outside, where space and time collapse into each other, where life and inertia are one. It’s all intensely moving in its majestic senselessness. It is possible to go beyond meaning. Where our heart is pulled by interplanetary forces in the direction of another human being. To love.

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