Archive for the 'aesthetics' Category

Not done with Duras.

Sep 23 2012 Published by under aesthetics

While Bientôt l’été contains many elements that refer to Marguerite Duras, there still remains something in her work that it doesn’t capture. It’s normal for a game design to deviate from its basic premises. I feel one has to let the design go where it wants to go. Stubbornly clinging to one’s initial ambitions is not only frustrating but it often brings unsatisfactory results.

Not that this particular aspect of Duras’ work was ever really on the agenda. It’s just something I notice when I read her work now. It’s simply inspiring for some other interactive piece.

Duras has a way of describing situations that has great emotional impact on me when I read it. And situations is exactly what I want to create with this technology (not stories, not causal chains, not moral choices). She never describes an entire scene for the purpose of imagining it visually. She mentions only certain elements. But each of them feels somewhat like a metaphor. Not a metaphor that clearly expresses or demonstrates a thought or feeling, more like an emotional trigger that remains more or less meaningless.

There is always a character involved. Although the descriptions may not be observations by the character. Maybe the character is just another element in the scene. But one we feel great empathy with. We are there with her.

I love the muteness of these situations. Not silence, as I feel a lot of ambient sound. But muteness, in the sense that something is palpably not being said. Something that cannot be said. Something that is either too horrible or too fragile to be spoken.

I want to create such a situation in the realtime medium. I’m not sure how to go about it. Maybe I should literally follow a passage in one of the books. And simply build in 3D whatever is described (and leave the gaps open?). Or maybe I should just aim for the atmosphere created by such passages and invent the situation (which is how we usually work).

Temps couvert.
Les baies sont fermées.
Du côté de la salle à manger où il se trouve, on ne peut pas voir le parc.
Elle, oui, elle voit, elle regarde. Sa table touche le rebord des baies.
A cause de la lumière gênante, elle plisse les yeux. Son regard va et vient. D’autres clients regardent aussi ces parties de tennis que lui ne voit pas.
Il n’a pas demandé de changer de table.
Elle ignore qu’on la regarde.
Il a plu ce matin vers cinq heures.

I love how Duras gradually introduces descriptions of the scenery or the situation, precisely at the moment when they feel metaphoric (even if their precise meaning is unclear).

Aujourd’hui c’est dans un temps mou et lourd que frappent les balles. Elle porte une robe d’été.

These quotes are from the first page of “Détruire dit-elle”. Maybe that’s what I should do. Just take this first page and make a videogame out of it.

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Tired of realism.

Aug 30 2012 Published by under aesthetics

Part of the charm of Bientôt l’été is how it evokes memories of the seaside in me. While it is not photographically or audibly realistic, it plays with certain associations in your brain that trigger recollections of experiences.

I deeply enjoy feeling the effect of such a simulation. But the care I have to take to maintain everything within the sphere of the real is getting on my nerves a bit.

While programming, I encounter many interesting effects that are the result of the logic that runs the game: glitches, errors. These effects are not realistic in the sense that they do not match with our expectations and knowledge. But they are real: they are triggered by the real code that runs the simulation. They are only errors in the sense that they are involuntary effects of (bad) programming. But logically speaking, they are perfectly correct.

It’s tiresome to pretend that the character on the beach is a real person. I know he’s not. And it doesn’t diminish my fondness for him. I like him as an artificial creature. So why could he not behave artificially?

I know. Because that’s not what this project is about. But after this, I think I’m done with realism. Synthetic creatures are different. And that should be ok.

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The end of maximalism.

Aug 11 2012 Published by under aesthetics,musing

With Bientôt l’été I have shifted towards a different design practice. Instead of including as much as possible in every design, I am moving towards a method of scarcity. Now I try to reduce the amount of elements to the smallest number possible. It’s a shift from glorifying the ambiguity that the interactive medium enables to seeking a sort of purity.

Ironically, this purity may help achieve a much greater emotional effect. In the past we were happy to let our players figure out for themselves how they want to play our games or how to feel about them. But as a result many people could not get anything out of them at all. Too much was open, too much mental activity was required. In a medium that excels in the visceral.

I abhor the vacuum of modernism. So I will be the last to embrace a motto like “less is more.” If only because our goal remains “more”. The goal is not to simplify things as such, but to increase their impact. And the fewer things there are, the more attention both creator and player can give them.

This attitude potentially conflicts with our “make the game first, then design it” method were it not for that other discovery: that it is ok for computer simulations to be imperfect, for computer characters to behave differently than real humans.

This may be the ultimate key to making this medium work, artistically. Theoretically it may be possible to achieve absolute realism with videogames technology. But to what end? We will never really believe that the synthetic character on the screen is an actual human (just like we don’t believe that a novel narrates things that actually happened or that an actor really feels pain when he is bitten by a monster on the screen). We have, however, another opportunity with computers, one that is lacking in all other media. Our characters can respond to the viewer!

What matters is not so much the way in which a creature can convince us that it is something else, as the power of this creature to demonstrate to us that it is, in fact, alive, really alive. When confronted with another living creature, it matters little if that creature looks and behaves like us or not. What matters is our relationship with that creature.

Videogames need not be a pictorial medium. Videogames do not need to reflect life. They can become part of it. Videogames are things that we do. Not just things that we see. Likewise, the characters in them are creatures that we meet, not just depictions of fictional characters that we can ponder. If we dare to sit there and ponder them, they should respond in protest and tell us Don’t you dare to ponder us! Talk to us instead! Play with us instead! We may not be human. But we are here, with you!

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Accepting synthetic life forms.

Aug 04 2012 Published by under aesthetics

There tends to be something very mechanical about the behavior of synthetic characters in videogames. This is caused by their logic being driven by the very rigid processes that we can feasibly describe in computer code. One could argue that we just need to multiply our efforts and resources to make these characters look and behave more like the creatures they are supposed to represent. Or one could reject the desire for realism entirely and simple stick to non-human characters, or characters presented in a simplified visual style so that their rigid behavior doesn’t seem odd.

Both approaches have their merits and I do want to see people exploring them. But ultimately, wouldn’t we all be better off if we could simply accept that the creatures on our screens are synthetic? They are not really humans, not really animals, not really plants. Nor photographic representations of them. They are just fabrications inspired by such creatures that may recall such creatures in our mind. If they possess some kind of life, then they are an entirely new form of life. Simpler perhaps than we are, but still quite useful in our artistic endeavors.

If we just accept that these fake characters will have fake behaviors, we will enjoy our videogames much more. A well done simulation is of course a beautiful thing to witness. But if our synthetic actors don’t quite succeed in imitating our behavior exactly, maybe we should just cut them some slack. After all, they only have human-created systems to fall back on, unlike our own organic systems which we did not make ourselves. I think they’re doing pretty well given the circumstances. They have God nor evolution, and yet they have life and manage to move and amuse us from time to time.

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Synthetic images.

Jul 07 2012 Published by under aesthetics

Aesthetically, videogames have more in common with figurative painting than they do with film. As long as videogames attempt to mimic film, they will remain inferior to it. And quite frankly, their output will always remain dangerously close to kitsch.

We need to accept that the images we produce are synthetic and not photographic. That moves our medium away from cinema but brings it closer to pre-photography figurative painting. Instead of watching films, we should be studying renaissance and baroque paintings.

I say “pre-photography” because I feel that photography has ruined the art of painting. And more problematically for us, photography has also ruined our capacity to enjoy realistic synthetic figurative images. But perhaps videogames can rekindle this.

Pre-modern oil painting is not so much about making pictures, it seems to me. It’s about generating sensations. It’s more about presenting textures and atmospheres than it is about representing visible reality. And this is what brings this art form very close to videogames.

What the synthetic image lacks in visual fidelity, it more than makes up for in the power of suggestion, in stimulating the imagination, in reminding of touch and smell.

Photographic images are nice. But synthetic images are much more powerful. Photographic images are also easy to forget because they look like reality and we don’t need art to see reality. But a synthetic image is unique, is completely created by the artist. There’s no need to hide that under pretending that the image is a photograph. We should take pride in the synthetic nature of our medium. It brings us closer to Michelangelo and Rubens than to snap shots and home videos.

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Jacking out.

Jul 04 2012 Published by under aesthetics

I created a “cyber-café” yesterday, for the two-player part of Bientôt l’été. Removed the characters, the wooden table, the drawer, the chess pieces and replaced the scene by an abstract grid with chess piece icons. It didn’t work. When we play-tested among ourselves, we just missed the realistic feel too much.

Players will just have to accept that the realistic look is just a lie of sorts. They won’t be able to look around, or see much of the characters, or put their hands on the table. The interaction is rigid and systematic, despite of the realistic look. But the scene feels nicer to us this way than a purely abstract screen.

The cyber-café game was interesting, though. I changed the interaction so that the quotes from Marguerite Duras that you collected on the beach, are more connected to the chess pieces you find near mysterious “apparitions”. So we’re going to keep that, for now. Playing a sort of unruly chess game as interface to a conversation is fun.

Though I hate having to design interactions at this point. It’s a very time consuming process and hard to schedule.

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The incredible shrinking game.

Jul 03 2012 Published by under aesthetics

Minimalism is an odd beast. There is no end to it. That is its very own excess. There is always something that can be removed.

I have already reduced the amount of features in the landscape of the exterior. The beach is blank, there’s only one building and one character and a bunch of gulls. No clouds, no hills, no trees. And now I’m hacking into the interior scene. Removing all of its realistic features in favor of a completely symbolic screen. Soon there will be nothing left of Bientôt l’été!

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Walking is reading.

Jun 07 2012 Published by under aesthetics

There seems to be a correlation between motion and text. I personally dislike reading text in a game. I’m just too eager for (inter)action to just stand still and read. Even listening to a character speak gets on my nerves if it requires me to stay in one spot.

But if the text coincides with motion, I find it pleasant. The linearity of moving from one point to another meshes with the linearity of a text in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

I have just implemented “Passing Thoughts” in Bientôt l’été and it feels strangely satisfying to see the text scroll by in overlay as I move the character through space. It even helps me to read the text and to concentrate on its emotional effect, as opposed to my earlier assumption that standing still and doing nothing was the optimal condition for focus.

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Less is difficult.

Jun 01 2012 Published by under aesthetics

The sparse aesthetics that I’m using in the exterior area of Bientôt l’été are making it difficult to add things. Everything is very empty and simple. So if I want to add something special, it clashes. In other games I could add some particles here, some dirty blotches there and some special effects that are maybe a little corny. But against the spartan backdrop of a blank sky and an empty beach, there’s not much room. Things quickly look silly or out of place.

Everything needs to be very subtle. This contradicts the need to emphasize a special item in the world, or visualize the result of an action. Those things need to stand out but then they clash aesthetically.

Sometimes I wish I could just wipe my arm over my game table and just remove everything. Minimalism is nerve-racking.

And I have known this since my youth, when I wrote

If one fights excess with soberness, every simple act seems improbably grotesque. Fighting the surplus with the nothing expresses itself with the little, which is always hopelessly too much compared to the nothing. There is no defense against the baroque. Even destruction heightens the baroque effect.

There is no defense against the baroque.
I know. This will probably be the only modernist videogame I ever do. But I have to try. If only once. And if only as a recognition of and tribute to the little modernist art that I do appreciate (Duras’ novels, but also Nouvelle Vague cinema).

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Less real. More meaning.

May 24 2012 Published by under aesthetics

When building simulated worlds, one has to choose an aesthetic style. Realism is the obvious choice for those mainstream games that seek to rival cinema. And stylization is the obvious choice for indie titles that hope to stand out on a budget.

I am personally very much drawn to figuration in fine art. So it stands to reason that I would prefer some realism in my own work. But of course I share the budgetary concerns of my fellow independent developers. So compromises need to be made.

There is something incredibly unsatisfying about working in a realistic style, though. If your only reference is reality, then the more you approach it, the more dull your work becomes. If you would achieve perfect realism, nobody would notice anymore. The game would look exactly like real life. And we have a talent for ignoring that.

Things get more interesting where they deviate from reality. But not when they are completely different. A very stylized look invites a detached sort of aesthetic consideration, of pure form and pure color. And that is also dull to me.

When a simulation approaches reality, the places where it differs become areas where meaning starts to exist, where emotion happens. This is true in painting and sculpture, as well as in realtime 3D.

Feeling real is an important reference for me. But things don’t need to look real to feel real. The beach in Bientôt l’été is a perfectly white perfectly flat plane. And yet it doesn’t feel stylized to me. It really feels like one of those sand beaches in Belgium or the north of France. The motion and the sound contribute to this.

Other things, like the waves and the sky, are more stylized. But I hope that people will recognize the way in which they deviate from reality as interesting and meaningful. The sky is blank. But it is not clear whether we’re seeing clouds or clear sky. That says something to me. It becomes expressive.

Some things are further removed from reality. The exterior of the building in which you go to talk with another player changes throughout the game. Sometimes it looks a small café, other times like a large casino and sometimes like a ruin of a colonial mansion. And every time it’s the only building in the entire scene. Then there’s the apparitions. Every time you come out, a single thing will be different. Something has appeared and will disappear again.

It is in these areas, where things deviate from nature, that my imagination is triggered, where my mind starts racing and wondering what meaning I could derive from this. A realistic approach is essential to give a direction to the experience, to create a world that the player can associate with. But once we’re there, it is in the deviations from reality that we find deep aesthetic satisfaction.

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