J O U R N A L / B L O G


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Things were a lot simpler when I just wanted to be a painter. There is something about being able to pursue one of your deepest callings in life with materials and an essential process that has been around for more than a thousand years. But there is also something about being able to pursue one of your deepest callings in life with materials that have been around for less than five years and that enable both a process and a result that has never before been possible in human history.

As a naturally fussy and 'deeply concerned' kind of specific person as far as 'my plans for myself' go, the material of paint was a boon-- I could tell myself, 'Just sit down in front of that canvas and squeeze out some of that wonderful stuff on a palette.' And it would lead me, sometimes, to the most free version of myself.

The power and flexibility and beauty of having such a responsive physical medium is not lost on me...

And yet, I can read through my little hand written journal from my month-long section hike on the pacific crest trail, and I explicitly wrote in it that I found myself often thinking about being a level designer. About what that would be like, and how it would be to be that person that builds places in the city for other people to experience-- with the radical freedom and artistic possibility of the rules of those places being limited only by what you can program the software to do.

And the more I see what people are beginning to do with that kind of software, the more intrigued I am, and the more I want to understand that world more and be a part of it. It has interested me since I first moved a character in a video game. All of my art practices are centered around movement and environments-- photography most obviously as a visual extension of walking and attention enacted into images both for the sake of looking at a place more closely and for the sake of making something new. Painting is about a few more things at once-- movement through an environment as a physical sensation containing more than visual data, the movement of that environment itself (geology meteorology astronomy archaeology biology, all timescales), and of course-- the movement of the paint itself, glorious flowing sticky globs and film layers that it may be. As well as all of the visual impressions that have built up into the  intuitive language of light, detail, and patterns that define my painting practice.

Creating a 3D environment relates to movement in a totally different way. In many ways, the medium is far more static as a material than paint, and the process of building in something like Maya is far more static than the process of travel photography-- yet what is finally made can actually be moved through, unlike any other medium, even unlike sculpture or architecture, because the definition of move through can be whatever the maker wants it to be. And the flexibility of both the tools and the 'created material' allows the builder to configure and reconfigure the work in very powerful ways. Video games and certain kinds of simulation can make '3D environments' alive in very new ways. Interactivity changes the way we relate to an environment, just as the purposes and uses of our buildings and city spaces defines the way we relate to those places. Often those intentions can be seen as a kind of 'co-creator' of the places in many cases, as when a freeway is built to perform a specific function. This key inter-relatedness is often not taken advantage of, in both architecture and video games. There is a noticeable effect when there is a harmonious relationship between what a place is and how it is interacted with, especially when those interactions are more broadly about human living than certain logistic problems or engineering.

When a person interacts with a 3D environment in a game the rules, limitations, and possibilities of the game design have a profound effect on the experience they will have with that place. You could say that the more freedom someone has in the rules, the easier it might be for them to bring more of their own personality into the experience-- but there are other equally interesting ways video games and their environments can work, as I have been re-discovering with 'Dark Souls'. I spent a lot of time playing Skyrim. There is something very personally appealing to me about the experience of seeing a very distant feature in the landscape, and slowly making your way to it. But if a player has total freedom in a space, most people will not really even be engaged with the environment. If they can go anywhere and do anything at any time, only the players who love exploring already and love looking at things already will explore and look at things.

If, however, you make experiencing the environments an experience integrated into the rules of the game with the full commitment of something like 'Dark Souls', where you either engage fully with the game mechanics or cannot possibly progress, and make the environments part of the game mechanics (falling off ledges, fighting spaces/distances, line of sight), suddenly you have an environment that becomes important to all players, and things like exploration become a process related to playing the game in the first place, rather than a more esoteric aesthetic approach to what the game software potentially has to offer. This anchors the extended activities of exploring and aesthetic appreciation to the experiences more fundamental to the game-- association with the representation of the player, in mechanical (game mechanics), structural (narrative, persistent decisions related to the rest of the game world), and aesthetic ways, and in short, to the things that games can do that other mediums of art and interaction cannot.

These possibilities are why 3D environments can become a totally different kind of art and design. Game rules and design also have expressive power themselves, and cannot be taken for granted or used as a kind of 'frame' or 'canvas' on which the art is put inside or painted over. This is the actually exciting thing about games, not the fact that gorgeous 3D environments can be shoved into the framework of an FPS. I think I can bring the physical engagement I have with the world into an interactive framework more naturally (and with huge potential depth and open-endedness) than I can bring it into the framework of an image. Danger, frustration, challenge, and non-linearity can contribute to a sense of flow and agency that is integral to the way I have always experienced walking in the wilderness. With games it seems like there is an exciting potential to dig straight into this experience rather than recall or reference it with emotion-- though that emotion is still the key motivator, lens, and aesthetic tint of the way I want to work with games.

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