Monday, 23 April 2012

First Year Review

I have to say, I’ve enjoyed this year-it was even more work than I expected, but I’ve also learned a lot more than I expected, and I think I’ve improved way faster this year than I would have otherwise. I had never done any 3D modelling in my life before this year, for example. But, as a result, I found it kind of hard to keep up with sometimes- fitting in the practice to get better around sketching (and eating and sleeping haha) is difficult sometimes. I’m still pretty hopeless at texturing (hopefully I can fix this over the summer).

     Anyway, I can’t really think of anything I’d change about the curriculum. I suppose it would be handy to learn other methods of creating things in 3DS Max, such as alternate methods to building characters and unwrapping.

     It would be cool to have projects that overlap between Game Production and Visual Design, too. Having a project that incorporates both equally now and then would be pretty awesome, as there’s a pretty deep moat between the two at the moment. By which I mean, having the concept art for a 3D model go toward the final mark, or finishing a character design project and then making it in both clay and in 3D.

Gaming Environments and their effect on gameplay

Characters may be the heart of any game, but any narrative or depth would be pointless were it floating in a void of nothing- the environment where the events take place is just as important as the events themselves, and this is more true for video games than any other media or art form. Your vision isn’t directed- you are free to explore everything the area has to offer.

     However, free as you are, the environment needs to have some kind of route through it. If you are in a hub between levels this isn’t so important, but if you are supposed to get to the next area through a door that blends right in with the rest of the scenery, you hit a dead end, unsure of where to go next. The creators need to place indicators of where you are supposed to go- sometimes the designers do this, by placing a line of collectibles, ammo, health, etc leading to the door. But usually, it’s the art teams job to make that door, or the path to that door, stand out somehow, be it using colour to make the area around the door catch the eye straight away, or by placing obstacles that lead the player in a route around the room in a way that leads them to a position from which they can’t really miss the door.

     The cult classic game Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy has many perfect examples; the game is absolutely full of some of the most beautiful and immersive environments- chances are, by the time you finish the game, you still haven’t seen all Abydos has to offer, and frustrating as the fetch-quest near the beginning can be, the chance to explore the secret passages and the dungeons of the royal palace alone was motivation enough. But the absolute perfect example here has to be Heliopolis, both from a visual and a design point of view. When you first arrive at Heliopolis, you see a temple, lots of sand, and some small huts and a huge wall off in the distance. The latter two are unreachable, however, guarded by the laser-shooting Eye of Ra statues. So naturally, your first stop is the temple, in which you find nothing useful- but upon exiting the temple, you find yourself facing a huge cave you may never have noticed otherwise, leading you to the dungeon. Later, when you can destroy the Eye of Ra statues and progress to the other side of the wall, you find a huge expanse of desert containing the next dungeon, a small village, and many places and items significant in the games various sidequests. The way the game leads you to where you need to go is simple, yet clever.

     The Krazoa Palace in Starfox Adventures worked similarly. Each time you enter, you are dropped off at a different location, and are heading somewhere in the palace you haven’t been to before. To make things worse, the room you must pass through with each visit, your centre of navigation, is a maze of fans and air currents, meaning it would be easy to get lost. This time, you are directed by design rather than visually; each door is activated differently. You can’t go the wrong way because you either don’t have the item or ability needed to open the wrong routes yet, and the places you have already been are easily recognisable because it’s easy to spot how a door is supposed to be opened or how the route is to be navigated (a pair of dinosaur footprints in front of a locked door mean it’s opened by standing on it wearing the SharpClaw Disguise, while a door with a symbol on the wall nearby means it’s opened by shooting the symbol). Each floor of the central room is also distinguishable by the enemies, placed on each floor in varying number and type.

Art Direction, and what it entails...

The art director for a game is essentially the one who decides what the game you’re playing will look like, in a nutshell. But this means being responsible in some way for each and every element in a scene, how they come together, which elements to use, and what those elements are in the first place.

     Of course, this requires a lot of interaction with the rest of the team, and the ones who will be actually making the items and scenery in question. The art director is basically the one who takes the ideas of the game designer, and organises them into something visual; he or she has the final say in everything visual that goes into the final product. If the designer says s/he wants the first level to be a rainforest full of life and energy, the job of the art director is to see the designers vision as clearly as possible, translate that rainforest into visual form, and ask themselves firstly, ‘What does a rainforest look like? What types of trees and plantlife would one find? What is the ground like?’, and secondly, ‘How can we put that life and energy into the level?’ Maybe they will decide to fill the area with movement from every direction; ‘Rainforests are full of insects and animals, so the background needs to be full of…?’ And so they do the research to find out exactly what insects and animals one would expect to find in a rainforest. ‘So, this rainforest needs tropical butterflies, hummingbirds, treesnakes, etc. But will they be static or animated? Sprites or 3D models? Maybe if the player leaves their character standing still for too long, insects will gather around him. Aha, maybe if this happens, the character swats them away.’ So already, the art director is telling the lead artist s/he needs x number of different models for Cacao Trees, Cecropia Trees, and Canopy Trees, at least one static model for an iguana, several hummingbird models (fully animated), a treesnake model (also animated), an animated sprite of insects, and a new idle animation for the main character.

     However, the designer may well say s/he wants to scrap the rainforest and go with a desert instead, but it still needs to keep the feeling of life. This is a more difficult; ‘How do I put life into a desert?’. Firstly, they consider what can be reused from the original scene. ‘Maybe that model of a snake could be retextured to make it a rattlesnake? Perhaps some of the more ambiguous shrubbery could be reused around an oasis?’.
     The art director is responsible for how the final result turns out. Once a task is completed, it’s run by the art director, who must give the go-ahead for it to be used in-game. So if the wrong trees are used, or if the texture of the ground mismatches the environment, or even if the plantlife is too green for the designers vision, the art director is the one who takes responsibility.

I just know if I start talking about character depth, this will be a long post.

     The characters are, essentially, the heart of any story. And in games, a media that combines just about every narrative platform and therefore immersing you in the story from every angle, the characters must be that bit stronger than in any other type of media. You’re not reading a book, where aesthetics and voices are left to your imagination, nor are you watching a film, where your only task is to watch the drama unfold with no involvement in the story at all. In a game, you have to connect with the character you play as- you don’t necessarily have to sympathise with them, or be on their side, but there needs to be a connection there. If the protagonist is a general all-round genuine jerk, you may not agree with him, but a well-written game will still have you understand why he does what he does, and feel some degree of empathy toward him. The same isn’t quite so essential in, say, film; you’re taking a backseat in the story. You can hate whoever you want to hate and sympathise with whoever you like and it won’t have such an impact on your immersion in the story. That isn’t to say that only games get this effect down-pat, of course.

     Anyway, characterisation is constructed from a number of ingredients; aesthetics, the characters outward appearance, script, the personality the writers have assigned and the mannerisms they may be given, and acting, the way the actor or, in this case, voice actor, translates concept into form.

     The harmony of these elements is what creates a realistic, believable character. The way a characters personality and voice match or contrast their appearance creates the depth of their personality on a whole other level than it could be written or drawn or acted out. A hench bodybuilder-looking tank-type character gives off an entirely different aura when he has a falsetto or child-like voice and is terrified of his own shadow, for example.

     I’m going to bring a few case studies into this, just to show some examples of perfect characterisation, and the difference between how it can be achieved in-game as opposed to other media. The first has to be (don’t hate me for bringing an anime into this) One Piece- visually, nothing beats One Piece in terms of character diversity. Manga and anime is pretty well-known for having cliché characters who all have the same face. OP couldn’t be more opposite, taking just about every cliché in the book and tearing it to shreds in some way or another (if a story features a character associated with gothic culture, for example, they will always, without a doubt, be a total badass, right? Only in OP would the guy with the ability to manipulate shadows, who lives in a haunted castle with a mad scientist creating an army of zombies for him, be a fat guy with a high, annoying voice). Then there’s the fact that when Oda bases a character on a real person, the resemblance can be somewhat genius.
     As for acting, the voice actors chosen are simply perfect (the godawful dubs are excluded) a running theme in One Piece is to give characters a voice that completely contrasts their appearance and/or personality- usually the voice is chosen to fit the personality but contrast the appearance, but sometimes all three clash. But in a way that works well- this is usually done in the case of villainous characters, in a way that instils our immediate hatred of them before we even learn their nature.
     But what makes OP amazing is the amount of depth in every character. Everybody in One Piece has at least one hindering weakness, be it a general lack of intelligence, a ridiculous lack of any sense of direction, or being honestly, hinderingly, pathetically wimpy (the character in question wins about 3 fights in the whole series, ALL of which through trickery and lies, and NONE of which without making a determined attempt to run like hell first). But the real crowning feature, and the core point I was getting at before, is how you connect with the world of One Piece through the main characters. And this is built up and pulled off as an art form. Throughout the series, no matter what happens, Luffy, with Main Protagonist Power, will always show up to save the day, against all odds, always knowing what to do and, most importantly, what to say to put those around him on the right track. In this way, such faith in him is built up in the viewer that when finally, Luffy is completely helpless to save his crew and watches his own brother die to save him, it actually comes as a shock to the viewer- when Luffy breaks down, the entire feel of the show takes a whole new direction for a while.

     Then there’s the PS2 game Ico, possibly the polar opposite of One Piece. The game is about Ico, a boy with horns exiled from his town and locked in a labyrinth, and Yorda, a girl who speaks a strange foreign language and is also locked in the labyrinth, for reasons unknown. Ico must guide Yorda out of the labyrinth with him, a task made increasingly difficult by numerous shadow-beings hunting Yorda (and the fact that Yorda is kind of a huge wuss).This is literally the only setup we receive, and very little is revealed throughout the game. In fact, the only way we know Ico was exiled because of his horns is because it says so in the manual. This is bordering on an avatar/actor scenario; an ‘actor’ being a character the player actually plays as, and an avatar being simply an incarnation of the player oneself in the game world. In order for an actor-type character to be effective, they have to have a lot of just that: character. They must be accessible for us as an audience. Yet, in this situation, Ico is certainly an actor-type character, yet we know very little about him, even his personality. But somehow you do connect with Ico- possibly through Yorda. That is, rather than connecting with either one character, you feel for the bond between Ico and Yorda, who despite having just met and not even speaking the same language, neither understanding why the other is sealed in the same situation, develop a strong bond and the need to protect one another. Just watch the cutscene of when they first meet, at the start of the game (skip to 9:05).
     There is little to say about voice-acting since the whole game contains all of about 5 lines of speech, none of which is in any real language (aside from Yorda’s mysterious language, subtitles to which are only unlocked after completing the game once, Ico speaks a fictional language that apparently was derived from a combination of Japanese and Pig-Latin). And in these few lines of speech, it’s impossible to gauge either characters personality. However, it’s easy to pick up on Ico’s strong will and willingness to protect Yorda no matter what, and Yorda’s complete kind gentleness without the use of script at all. This is partly visual- both are complete opposites in appearance, Ico looking scruffy and boyish while Yorda’s skin and dress are both such a pale white she practically glows all the time. But it’s also partly down to the life-like animation; there’s something endearing about the way Yorda shakes her head and backs up if Ico calls her down from a ledge that’s too high to jump, for example. And so much detail is put into the AI; when you step outside, if there’s a bunch of birds nearby, Yorda will playfully run toward them and watch them fly away, sometimes turning to Ico and pointing at the birds (it’s adorable). You grow to somehow know both characters personalities despite almost without words at all.

I always write these things and fail to upload them...

So there are certain rules in the process of designing an environment; the first would have to be, be sure the environment is technically accurate. If the setting is in the Mediterranean, for example, make sure the trees, plantlife etc are all elements one would expect to find there.

     Secondly, do the research- study each individual element of the scene in real life before attempting to draw it from memory.

     Finally, try to include some sort of narrative, or open some kind of mystery, in the finished scene, or evidence of the things that have transpired there.

Environments and scenery are my huge kryptonite and I need to iron that out. Which makes this Environment Design project pretty difficult for me (BUT I CALL IT A CHALLENGE). As such, this is one of the few projects I haven’t started without seeing an image in my head to start from; I’m genuinely completely lost.

     Anyway, my technique for setting myself some kind of starting point to work from is to take random words from the dictionary and see what fits together, and what the words combined connotate. In this case, I’m naming the area before I design it; candidates so far are Paper Bastion, Vector-Raster, Empyreal Cocytus, or a combination thereof.

So my favourite places in games have always been the ones that just feel truly, hauntingly empty. Inside the moon in Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the dream-sequence Zanarkand in Final Fantasy X, the strange “hidden rooms” and bonus maps (and the arena where you fight the Phases) in .hack//, the river where you fight The Sorrow in MGS3, and the very bottom of Aperture Science in Portal 2 are all perfect examples. These areas were all an abrupt and drastic change of scenery, and became instantly memorable because they were so out-of-place with what you knew so far about the world of the game in question. Not only were they radically different, but you were suddenly completely cut off from the rest of the world- it felt like the game itself telling you “You’re on your own, dude”.

     So that’s exactly the feeling I want to achieve. Maybe by throwing in some surreal elements the way .hack// did.

Ideas are coming together; I decided I wanted to do something different with the sky, and possibly the surface of the ground. Cue bullet point format due to my short-attention-span brain and its lack of ability to process paragraphs.

-          The sky I might replace with a ceiling, as if the environment exists in a closed space. Possibly a checkerboard-pattern.

-          Or, the checkerboard pattern could work for the ground instead. But instead of a flat ground, an uneven, more organic one, like rocks or sand, only with an unnatural texture. Pavement would work just as well here.

-          I kind of like the idea of static, too. Like, television snowstorm static, making it look like the object isn’t quite there.

-          Telegraph poles. I want telegraph poles in here; but placed really randomly and all the wires are crossed over and tangled. For the horizon I might use a typical city skyline silhouette, but with said telegraph poles sticking randomly out of the sides of the buildings like some sort of fungus. Basically, I want them in place of trees or plantlife, as if they’d just sprouted and spread, the way weeds do when a place in abandoned.

-          …I think I’ve pretty much decided there isn’t going to be much colour in this place. Shadoes of grey methinks.

-          Red water. Apart from the red water. The water will be the only colour here, since water is an element that symbolises purity, and so is fire, which is associated with red. But I don’t want the water to look like blood, nor do I want to replace it with fire because fire is too energetic; water is still. It could work if it’s noticeably transparent, though.

-          What if I use static for the sky instead? If it looks like the sky isn’t in place, the whole environment would feel literally man-made, from scratch, right down to the ground and sky.

-          I think I have some scenes forming for some of the names I came up with. If I name it Empyreal Cocytus, there will be a river of red water with white waterlilies, and a bunch of stalagmites with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The idea here is that the river is comparable to the river Styx, leading to the underworld (‘Empyreal’ means ‘sky-like’ and Cocytus is another name for purgatory). For Paper Bastion, the entire surface will be submerged, with white islands dotted around from which the telegraph poles emerge, but in the distance there will be a random out-of-place fairytale-like castle. While the surface is in muted tones, the castle will be bright and colourful. I’m not sure whether it will be protruding from a small planet/moon or an upside-down floating island or something else altogether- I kind of don’t want it to be hanging from anything, lest it take away from the mystery.

-          Actually, I think I’m going with Paper Bastion, I like the castle idea.

I’ve drawn out the components of the final scene; I settled on bringing in the white lilies too- I figured it would feel a whole lot more ominous to have something alive but that you can’t interact with than being completely alone.

     Anyway, I’ve decided that Paper Bastion would be an RPG environment. Only, not a conventional area or level; each time the player dies or otherwise make a fatal decision, instead of ‘Game Over’ and losing progress, the player is instead sent to Paper Bastion, where one must run toward the castle in order to return. The first few times the player dies, this is simply a case of doing just that; running toward the castle until respawned shortly before one died, each time starting further and further away. But the more the player dies, the less forgiving Paper Bastion is. Soon, the water becomes damaging, meaning one has to run from island to island where health is regained. A couple of deaths later and the player is pursued by random enemies the player has defeated (similarly to the fight with The Sorrow in Metal Gear Solid 3), which progressively spawn in greater numbers with each visit.
     Also, it would be awesome if Paper Bastion was the setting for the final boss fight, and the castle was actually the final dungeon, although you wouldn’t know it at the time unless you’d stumbled upon a hidden clue (say, if there was only a few certain spots where you could see far enough into the sky through a window to notice the red water and telegraph poles above you). You land the finishing blow thinking it’s over, but wind up in PB; no bgm in the background, no skills and no healing, just one final straight-up (deliberately easy) fight to make you feel awesome.
     Finally, I come back to the ‘rules’ I talked about in the beginning. In retrospect, I came up with something pretty evasive, being set in a surreal, sparse world (is this cheating…?). But, I did the research- waterlilies aren’t all that abundant in Biggleswade (just weeds…) and so I was forced to resort to the interweb, however. I was actually driven to Google images for the telegraph poles too, of all things- the only type nearby are the type that just look like huge stakes in the ground, with nothing at the top. In the distance on the horizon line of PB, they could be literally anything, so the design was too simple. But I didn’t want the kind that has too much detail, as they’d wind up looking like deformed trees. When I pussied out and checked google however, the exact image I had in my head was on the first page, so I took that as good enough. I did have a couple of books at my disposal when it came to the castle, however.
     I want PB to be full of questions; for the player to question how the telegraph poles came to be there, whether the castle is upside-down or if they are the one that’s upside-down, how the lilies, something living, can bloom, or if they are even alive. I love surrealist art- I love the way Renee in particular can create questions about the image they are portraying (Is the apple huge or is the room small? Does the man with an apple in front of his face even have a face?), and how not being sure can inspire a feeling of uneasiness looking at his work. I wanted to capture some of this; I suppose I’m less trying to portray a narrative than inspire emotion. I had, however, had an idea to show underneath the water; the roots from the lilies would stretch down along with similiar ones from the underside of the island, to create a kind of dark forest at the bottom, where a greyscale version of my character, Milo, would be sitting against a root in the fetal position. There would be a staircase leading up to the surface, emerging right around the island she is standing on. I scrapped this idea due to lack of time, but it would be cool to add some more depth (literally), so if I finish earlier than I expected, I may be able to include it anyway.

Final image complete!

I desaturated the red in the water a little, it looked too bright. I want the surface to look dull and lifeless, while the castle is vibrant and inviting. I didn't have time to include the underwater staircase- but I may return to this at a later date. it was an idea I really liked.