Monday, 20 June 2011

Virtual Reality Design Logic in Copenhagen

Today was the last day of my brief visit to Copenhagen for the Against Procedurality seminar at IT University. After going to the Design Center (meh) I decided to take myself on an architectural walk using a map provided by the Architecture Centre, which I visited a couple of days ago. I popped into the Royal Library to use their internet, so that I could go on the CopenhagenX website and get information about some of the sights I was going to see - you're supposed to buy the book to go with the map, but this way was cheaper and I was perfectly happy with it. I planned a 2-3 hour walk that would take me out of the city and home again. This was kind of a strange thing to do, because it meant leaving a lot of historical sites behind me and heading into a post-industrial wasteland, but it turned out to be very interesting. I wish more cities had architectural maps available like this, because it really does turn the cityscape into an exhibition of sorts, and with an extensive map such as the one made by Copenhagen X you end up finding very striking buildings in unexpected places.

One of my first stops was Havneholmen, which is full of dramatic projects, all screaming out for your attention. The name implies that it's a harbour, and indeed there is a lot of water there, but almost no boats. Presumably, the mooring fee is too high for most people to afford. You'd think they'd lower the fee since nobody's buying, but maybe the people who own and rent these expensive architectural projects don't want people's pesky boats ruining their view of the 'harbour'. My perception of Havneholmen as a fake place led me to start thinking about video games. I felt a bit embarrassed last night reading a kotaku post that made mincemeat of Square's design practices. What an idiot am I, I thought, for thinking it wise to write a paper about design history in the Final Fantasy series when this stupid company's idea of a development process apparently may consist of:

Tetsuya Nomura went on making characters, the other artists went about drawing concept art for environments and the 3D artists went about gleefully making objects until, at some point after they’d cut a demo out of the gelatinous marble of game-material they’d slammed together over a period of three years, a new producer stepped in and said, “Guys, let’s turn this . . . thing into . . . something.” Hence: half of the environments were unused. Hence: when the characters banter during levels, their banter never has anything to do with the scenery of the psychedelic racetracks down which they shamble: it’s always “Hurry”, “This way”, “We have to keep going”. Though hey! It sure looked great!

I'm sure that's no way to make a game world. Game worlds are supposed to make sense, in a very constructed, planned and artificial way. Games are designed environments, and they are also screen-mediated spectacles. On the very rare occasions when virtual environment design is exploited for great results, you wander around them knowing that everything is perfectly in its place, the whole world intended to be not only a space for movement but also a series of perfectly composed snapshots. Square don't design things in a considered way, they make a bunch of cool stuff and then throw it all together. This is why the weapons that you find lying around landscapes don't seem to belong the same material culture as the architecture.

It's probably no way to make a game world, but in fairness, I think it might very probably be how real worlds are made. Havneholmen looks like what happens when many disparate architecture firms have lots of money thrown at them and are told, 'make something cool'. So they made cool things, mostly out of glass, often with more cool things inside of them, like giant spiral staircases. Not only does the cityscape as a whole get built up into an ever intensifying state of insane layering, but within each object forming part of the layering you see even more layers. Is it a harbour? Who knows! Each building sure looks great, though.

After Havneholmen I spent a long time walking on cycle paths alongside piles of rubble, but eventually I came to Sluseholmen, home to the Fyrholm project. If I had any remaining doubts about the real-world value of studying the history of the design of virtual worlds, Fyrholm dispelled them immediately. Stepping into Fyrholm is like finding a glitch in the matrix. Only the bafflingly beautiful Teglvaerks bridge marks the transition from the heaps of formless material that make up the industrial site from an area that appears to be the middle of a full-fledged city. Like a mirage in the desert, you know it can't be real, and yet there it is, standing there in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, I've never seen a mirage in the desert, I just imagine that this is what a mirage feels like, based on movies. And I've never been to Amsterdam, but the internet tells me that canal towns of Amsterdam inspired Fyrholm.

I soon noticed that the designers of Fyrholm had used game design techniques to make this town feel deceptively real. When designing a European-style town in a virtual world, game designers will often create a single facade that looks like several different buildings connected together to make a busy, eclectic, historical cityscape. Here I'm stereotyping, but they are too - the conceit is that European cities are 1) old 2) crowded and 3) haven't had to be rebuilt much, because of the relative shortage of earthquakes. So you end up with streets that look cute and jumbled and patchworked. This knowledge should never have helped me to understand real-world architecture, but lo and behold, Fyrholm was designed in exactly the same way. To make it feel like an eclectic, established town or city, they hired one architectural firm for the artificial islands and basic building structures, and twenty more firms to design a set of unique facades that all nevertheless follow a set of unifying principles. It's not that I don't like it. I think it's an ingenious way of making large residential developments feel more personal. Then again, I probably wouldn't mind living in a computer game.

After walking through a lovely, real harbour, with cheap and cheerful houseboats, I crossed a swamp, got bitten by my first mosquito of the year (yay, summer!) and reached Bella Sky Hotel, which I have seen every morning and every night during my stay here. Bella Sky Hotel is completely batshit insane. It leans 15 degrees in all directions. The leaning tower of Piza only leans by a little less than 4 degrees. It stands in the middle of nowhere, its surface made entirely of triangles, its structure probably also made of triangles come to think of it, bending every which way, visible for miles and completely implausible from most angles.

The stated purpose of Bella Sky Hotel is to make foreigners who have come to Copenhagen for conferences make funny noises. It works. I came here for a seminar, and when I first saw Bella Sky Hotel I made some very funny noises indeed. It exists for the same reason that so many buildings in JRPGs float weightlessly off the ground. In many games, we're like people who are just flying in on business - we're really busy doing all these quests, and we need these visual reminders that we're not slaving away for nothing, we're high-flying businessmen, we're professionals, we've been playing this game so long and finally we've earned the right to come and look at this thing that's like a moomin crossed with a gundam. A lot of people talk about pointlessly flashy buildings in games as if it's a bad thing. Like buildings need a reason to float several feet in the air, or to lean 15 degrees in all directions. Yet in reality, just like in games, looking awesome is big business.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Materiality and Procedurality

This is my position paper for a seminar in IT Copenhagen's game studies department called 'Against Procedurality'. It has Portal 2 spoilers in it. Also spoilers for my presentation on Tuesday :P Anyway, I don't usually get to put things I write academically up here because they're so long, so I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to post a short piece of work. Enjoy!

‘As humans we experience our world through the materiality of things. We walk on concrete, wooden or carpeted floors and drink tea from a ceramic, paper, plastic or polystyrene cup. There is a continuous, invisible exchange taking place between us, our objects and our environment.’- Karen Richmond, Thingness Symposium, Camberwell College of Arts

‘Don’t get yourself all covered in the gel. We haven’t entirely nailed down what element it is, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a lively one, and it does NOT like the human skeleton.’ - Cave Johnson, Portal 2

Materiality refers to the emotional and pragmatic significance of materials. Wood feels familiar, tactile and reassuring. Plastic feels like anything and nothing all at once - it feels more alien the more it attempts to emulate the familiar. When games involve virtual worlds, part of their procedurality is devoted to the materiality of the game-worlds.

Psychologist James J. Gibson, writing in the 1970s, was concerned with the mind’s perception of surfaces and substances in the environment. Gibson claims that the concern of the active being in the inhabited environment is not the physical properties of materials but what can be done with them - affordances, such as ‘sit-down-able’ or ‘stand-on-able’. The way that game engines model affordances highlights something about cultural understandings of materiality.

How materiality is conceived in the virtual world is by nature a procedural question. In Portal 2 the perception of the environment as surfaces and substances with their own affordances is heavily manipulated. The player’s assumption that the affordances of surfaces can be judged by their colour is turned around by allowing the player to repaint the surfaces to change their affordances. It is a creative masterpiece of hyperreal plasticity in procedural form, and it works because of player assumptions about the virtual materiality of the game-world.

Procedural materiality can be exploited rhetorically. Katamari Damacy posed a phenomenological critique of contemporary consumerist society. A small ball can be rolled around the world, picking up any ob jects smaller in mass to itself, growing exponentially as more things are picked up. It answers the question of what matter really is by reducing the products of modern consumer society down to mere material. Nothing differentiates a pylon from the Eiffel tower or a cow from a human being other than their mass. In essence, all things are just lumps of material.

Affordances determine the possible action-paths that players can follow - a virtual environment with a large amount of surfaces posing a wide variety of affordances presents several possible action paths. Final Fantasy games feature beautiful environments in which almost none of the surfaces present affordances other than passability and impassability. Dirt paths are passable, shrubberies are not. The battle screen offers more action paths - a variety of weapons and items can be used in a variety of ways by accessing them from various menus. While the battle system lends itself to mimeomorphic actions, the range of actions the player may choose to replicate is fairly wide. The procedural materiality of Final Fantasy game-worlds is accessed predominantly in the battle screens.

Chris Crawford argues that to exploit procedurality well, games should be as interactive as possible. I suggest instead that simulations of materiality that account for the limitations that materials can place on human agency are more immersive and persuasive. Players want to experience the limitations of a virtual material world as much as they want to try out new possibilities - limitations make these possibilities more meaningful.

‘Look at this! No rail to tell us where to go! Oh, this is brilliant. We can go wherever we want! Hold on though, where are we going? Seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Hm. Just follow the rail, actually.’

This quote, by a robotic character in Portal 2 who has been recently emancipated from a monorail in the ceiling, seems to be a self-referential comment about game design. Level designs that allow a sudden sense of freedom are entertaining, but only in contrast to the restrictive nature of level design ordinarily. Likewise, aspects of game design which give players more agency over materials are only meaningful when materials are ordinarily resistive to interaction. Portal is a more meaningful franchise because not all surfaces can be modified with a portal-gun. You can’t interact with every surface, because there is something fascinating and fun about the way that materials limit human agency and force us to use our power to interact with the world in a smarter way.