Archive for the 'aesthetics' Category

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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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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Unexpected awe.

Apr 20 2012 Published by under aesthetics

Bientôt l’été is intended to be understated, silent, introverted. A quiet game that waits for you. With characters who only speak to form lines to read between. A far cry from any emotional rollercoasting. A complex game, yet simple -barren even.

It’s not that I’m not interested as a designer in spectacle, in wonder, in awe. One day I definitely want to tackle that challenge. But not this time. Bientôt l’été is dry like a good white wine.

And yet, when I walk towards the borders of the holodeck, where the sky opens up to reveal space, full of stars, I stop in my steps and stare. I was already a bit dizzy from looking at the sea, but confronted with a universe that seems to swirl around me due to the continuous rotation of the space station I am on, I can barely keep my balance. Proverbial jaw on the floor, I am moved to my core by the immensity of it all.

Marguerite Duras, whose novels inspired this game, has nothing whatsoever to do with space fantasies or even emotional spectacle. I’m not sure how I got here, but it makes sense on some level. I think this space element crept in in the aftermath of our Cncntrc prototype which, in part, dealt with cosmology. And peering at the planets through our latest geek acquisition, an Celestron AstroMaster reflector telescope, certainly contributed as well.

It’s one of those things that comes out of the marble as you keep hacking at it. It was apparently always there. I just didn’t know. And to think how difficult it would have been to try and achieve this effect on purpose!

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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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A body, to remember.

Feb 25 2012 Published by under aesthetics

The effect of reduced appreciation of the craft of painting through familiarity with photography, described in the previous post, does not apply to videogames yet. Even though many videogames use photography as a reference for aesthetic quality, we can still be impressed by the images they produce. I think this is, at least in part, because we know that there exists no technology that can capture a three-dimensional reality the way a videogame presents it. We know that all of what we are looking at is hand-made. This puts videogame artists in a position similar to that of painters before photography.

When I create a 3D situation for a videogame, I want it to feel real to the player. I want the player to feel like he is in that place, or at least be reminded of what it feels like to be in a place like that. If this place is inspired by an existing place, I can only rely on photography and audio-recording for part of the presentation. For the actual mood of the place, the atmosphere, the way it feels, there is no capturing technology. I need to create computational processes and make combinations of all of the elements that make up a realtime 3D scene, to present this reality.

So when I am in that place, in the real world, my body becomes a capturing device. I don’t photograph, I don’t record, I don’t make sketches. I stand there and try to soak up the place, to store what it feels like in the memory of my body. So that, later, in the studio, I can reproduce it in a game engine. Maybe this is how painters worked before photography.

And maybe this is why those old paintings feel so much more saturated with reality than any contemporary pictures (be they photographic or painterly). The artist could only present reality as he had experienced it, reality as he had lived through it, as a human. And maybe this is why I respond so much more emotionally to a painting than to a photograph. Maybe, watching the painting, my body re-produces some of the human processes that the artist went through to produce the image. And that feeling of sharing a sliver of life with a remote person on such a physical level, is very moving to me.

Let’s hope that 3D capturing technology is not invented before the Ingres of videogames can make his work. A few centuries from now.

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