Today I finished reading, Mythologies by Roland Barthes. The text was definitely worth the read. It expands semiotics into the realm of politics, which is exactly what I'm looking into. Also, I hope it provides a good foundation for reading Baudrillard.
Yesterday, I looked deeper into my idea of creating gift shop commodities of revolutionary movements. It seems like any movement that it didn't feel offensive to appropriate has already been commodified, so they aren't hitting. The movements that are yet to be appropriated just seem so offensive. I wanted the pieces to be uncomfortable to illustrate the blutness and indignity of being ideology being commodified but I feel like some of the pieces I have designed just feel too offensive.
This is a bit of a problem. Either the movement has already been comodified e.g. feminism, LGBT+ rights, climate change, so I can't make anything that isn't already an available commodity. There are communist/ socialist movements that feel comfortable to comment on, but in the West mocking imagery of these revolutions is common, so it may just appear that I too am mocking these movements. And finally, movements that are very serious and still ongoing, like civil rights, just seems way too offensive to consider.
I have been thinking about Vietnam, I came across Thich Quang Duc's protest against South Vietnam's oppresion of Buddhism where he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.
The display was intended to be a media spectacle, the Buddhists invited American journalists to document it and it was 60 years ago now, but it is still uncomfortable. I wanted to design a product that was a taccy monk-shaped candle, branded with the words "Made in Vietnam" - I know the idea is really blatant but its still early in the process and it illustrates the ideas I want to express pretty well.
I also had the idea of creating a snowglobe with Vladimir Lenin's tomb inside it. A snowglobe is an interesting commodity as it is purely aesthetic.
I think its about time I considered another idea and started developing it. I know that I should develop the idea, then find the medium that is best suited to said idea, but on the other hand, I want to develop game-like experiences after this year and it would be helpful to develop my skills in this area. I am treating uni as the one time in my life that I can make things without having to worry about the commercial side of things.
Besides, starting from a medium may breed creativity since I am providing myself with limitations. Despite this, I am not sure where to go from here.
I was thinking about Disney imagineering. An imagineer is just an experience designer for Disney. I found a YouTube channel that makes documentaries on the history of Disney theme parks and the rides and attractions within them. I was amazed by the complexity and just how well designed they were. I realised that these creations were very similar to game design, you take your audience, push them through a linear narrative that feels like their input matters. You meticulously plan the experience. Moments of quiet, moments of awe, moments of fear.
There is also the connection between theme parks and Hyperreality. Baudrillard famously uses the Disney theme parks as an example.
Also as a bonus, there are plenty of online learning resources for designing attractions at Disney that would make for design tips.
The issue with this idea is that it is well explored territory. I know that I won't make a completely new and original piece, but its just the idea of a sort of digital rollercoaster has been done to death. If I were to do a digital environment piece, I would need it do something that sets it apart.
I'm thinking that the big benefit of working digitally is that you are not bound by the laws of physics. You can make anything happen. With a concept that involves the system of political signs and their appropriation, it seems were to apporoach it in a non-abstract fashion.
I watched the film I'm Thinking About Ending Things recently, which I really enjoyed despite its unfavourable reception. It felt to me like how I imagine the psychadelic release of horomones in your brain when you die. A sort of Freudian dream, where deep seeded elements of your unique existence are presented to you in cryptic ways. This film is unnervingly surreal. It is abstract enough to make you weightless, but not enough for your feet to leave the ground. Everything feels personal, and imbued with deep meaning if you are willing to make the effort to piece things together.
I think it would be interesting to take this sort of approach to an interactive experience. I haven't seen a well fleshed out psychadelic/ abstract exploration game that doesn't fall in to the tropes.
I have seen a couple of exploration games that have touched on this concept. Like LSD: Dream Emulator (the title ruins it) and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. LSD Dream Emulator is extremely abstract and weird. The game was originally released on the PlayStation in 1998 so it still has that nineties 3D graphics look but I think it works in its favour. The player warps between worlds by interacting with certain objects. I heard about the game when the designer, Osamu Sato, modified the game to accompany Alt-J's new album. You can play it on their website here.
Perhaps I could find, or write a narrative that fits my semiotic-poltical context, then represent it in a dream-like digital experience.
I think I should now just take whatever I know and start making with it. I wanted to create my own narrative to base the experience on but I reckon I should just begin making and let the narrative come out from that. I will use the book American Psycho as reference, as I realised it covers many of the themes I am interested in, consumerism and the objectification of people, blurring and confusion of reality, homogenisation and the unnacountability of the elite. However, the book is more focused on consumer culture than any political movements, so I would need to adapt for that.
I am not the first person to draw parallels between American Psycho and Baudrillard.
This video covers many of the similarities but it doesn't go into much depth.
When I'm designing this environment, I'm going to take inspiration from Surrealist works, particularly Giorgio de Chirico's landscapes, and Rene Magritte's signs.
I didn't know much about Dear Esther aside from that it was an exploration game developed by The Chinese Room. I had been meaning to play it for a long time and it was on sale for £1.50 so I thought I may as well give it a go.
I don't think Dear Esther is a Game, as it doesn't really have any game elements in it, but I will continue to call it that for the sake of simplicity. You begin on the docks next to a lighthouse on an uninhabited Hebridian island. There is no obvious indication on where to go, but the landscape is designed to be baron, any man-made objects are jarring and so make for obvious landmarks to head towards.
As the player progresses, they trigger cryptic narrations from who we can assume is the character we are playing as. Everything seems fairly normal, until you reach an abandoned bothy...
The narrator talks of a man who used to inhabit the island who died of a disease from the sheep he tended. Then he talks of the same man falling from a cliff and breaking his femur. The differences between your character and this man become blurred. You walk into a cave and things get surreal.
At one point while swimming, you are transported to the scene of a car crash. It becomes evident that this is perhaps some drug or injury induced dream-state, pre-death hallucination or a reflection from the afterlife.
You exit the cave and proceed to hike towards the radio mast you saw at the beginning. This is the climax of the narrative. We encounter surreal scenes, like paper boats made from written letters, ghostly figures in the distance, and shrines to a crush car. We begin to wonder who Esther is, is she our partner who died in the crash and the letters are an attempt to contact somebody who is no longer with us?
The game ends with the player jumping from the radio mast and flying across the landscape. We see from our shadow that we are now a bird. The audio from this point reminded my of a choir at a funeral. Maybe it is our funeral, maybe it was Esther's. At this point, I was nearly brought to tears. I thought of a quote from Stephen Spielberg that was along the lines of "I'll consider videogames are once level 17 makes me cry". Now it is clear that videogames have the emotional to make one cry, but I wonder if the emotional experience would be any different if I simply watched somebody else play the game?
Maybe since I felt as though I was in this environment it made it easier to empathise with this character that I didn't understand. I don't know the answer to that question.
I'm not going to build something anywhere near the scale of Dear Esther, but I can take inspiration from its level design, and methods of story-telling. If you boil the game down, right to its bare bones, you have a clear linear bath, with short details. The path twists and turns but for the most part heads the same direction, towards the landmark that you see at the beginning of the game. The landscape will often frame this landmark, to remind the player of their motivation, whether they consciously understand that as a motivation or not.
The sound in this game is vital to the experience. The wind picks up at intense moments, and changes depending on your environment. During absurd moments, the music begins to fracture- orchestras turn digital. I am not that great with sound, but I am sure I can piece something together that will enhance the experience, its just the level of detail will be much lower.
Avant-Garde Videogames: Playing with Technoculture
I had a quick read through this book while looking for inspiration, and came across a couple of interesting references. I will look into Guy Debord and Situationist International. I also saw references to Naomi Klein who I have come across before. I saw that she wrote a book, No Logo, which discusses corporate involvement in politics with a focus on Nike, which is interesting as Nike must have been political for much longer than I thought.
Today was probably the most difficult day so far. I am in a weird stage where I am not quite satisfied with my idea, but I can't think of a better alternative. I would search through books and art for inspiration, but that's what I have been doing for weeks and I haven't landed on a solid idea yet. So I spent most of today sitting at my desk, eyes closed trying to find some new idea.
I considered new methods of interaction, but I couldn't come up with a solid justification for alternative interactions. I tried to think of ways of representing reification (the curation of objects makes a person more object-like themselves) and how this could be expressed through a loss of agency. Perhaps the audience form a sort of Katamari ball of objects that eventually becomes to massive to push. Or maybe the audience is bombared with items that push them away from their goal. But as I said before, I found no solid ground to clear a path from.
It's now quite late, but after looking back through my notes, I came across Baudrillard's ideas of a future where reality becomes more intense than its representations. Life is more exciting than TV, sex is more intense than pornography. It made me think of how our ideas of these human experiences are first presented to us through the media.
Sex and death is absolutely everywhere, in the media. Many films are pornographic, sex serves as the motivation for luxurios items (perfumes, cars, booze), death is all over the news, it is the focus of video games. It is likely for most people's experience with these phenomena to be experienced through media, long before they know what they are.
The earliest interaction with real death that I remember, is watching Saddam Hussein being executed on TV when I would have been seven years old. But I'm sure I would have had an idea of it from seeing it in films and video games.
I thought that perhaps, I could explore these very human experiences, which are the most real and most simulated. Now I wouldn't want to explore sex in such a literal term as creating virtual pornography, but more in terms of the objectification of women, using it as a method to sell commodities etc. Death too, is interesting. In video games, death is a reward, it is presnted to us through news media as either a tragedy, a celebration of a long successful life, or as statement of fact. We have a strange detachment from death, it seems completely alien to us.
I can explore these ideas in one linear narrative, the narrative can progress through birth, sex and finally death. I think the narrative would need a surface level narrative to mask these- for example, Dear Esther, uses the surface narrative of a man exploring an uninhabited island.
I have spent the past couple of days reading and working in Unity. I have enough of an idea that I now feel like it is worth my while to start making things in Unity.
I came up with much better ideas while I was reading, and the content of the book would spur on ideas that I could implement in my project. I think this way of working is going well for me so I will continue to do it.
I am now thinking of a Unity narrative in which the audience experience different forms of reality by travelling through media. The aim would be to muddy one's perception of reality by placing them in a range of different realities. For example, one may walk through a television screen to be transported into a sitcom house that continually transitions between childhood home and television set.
I also came across the concept of liminal space, which is a sort of stage between places. This isn't a scientific phrase, it is just what people on the internet call it. There are strange images of places that don't exist, yet many people find them familiar. It would be interesting to try and recreate this in Unity, as they have a strange memory-like feel to them like you recognise all the signs yet they don't seem to fit together properly.
I also began work on Unity, so far I have a basic scene and have began work on a first person controller. I decided first person is the best option since it reduces the distance between the audience and the world that I put them in.
To make the controller, I adapted the mouse-look script that comes in Unity's standard assets package. The unaltered script is incompatible with Unity and is actually really difficult to read. I wrote my own mouse look script but copied all the difficult maths from the Unity script for doing things like clamping the upward and downward range of the camera.
Also for the first time, I am designing the program to run according to time and not framerate. It's always a thing I forget to do but it has caused me some bother many times. It is really just as simple as multiplying all moving things by Time.deltaTime.
So I have my mouse look script and my character moving script that uses the WASD keys or controller analogue stick as an input. Both of them seem fine when I use them by themselves, but I realised that the movement is mapped to the global position. This means that if I look right and hold down the key to move forward, the character does not turn and will now appear to be walking right.
I think I will fix this by changing the movement to be controlled by physics forces based on local directions.
Instead of manually controlling the position of the player through vector location data, I just add forces to a rigid body. So if I push forward, a force is applied in the direction the camera is facing. I also have added a max velocity so the character doesn't accelerate to very high speeds, and I have also added friction so the character comes to a stop quickly.
I also decided, that if I am going to be making prototypes soon, it would be good to have a method to quickly change betweens scenes. I made a quick prefab that allows me to quickly set a trigger point that will change the player's location to an end point that is a child of the gameobject. This will allow me to make as many teleports as I need in the future without needing to code anything.
I also did a bit of storyboarding, I plan for the first scene to involve the audience climbing through a television set into a kitchen. The phone rings and they and once they turn around the room is revealed to be a set.
I moved back to my flat in Glasgow yesterday. The flat is a lot quieter than my house at home and I am hoping it will allow me to focus on the project better. But for now I have still been busy moving back in. Today I had a desk and desk chair delivered to the flat and I had to re-arrange my room to fit it in. It is looking nice now and I have everything I need to get to work.
Today I did a little bit more sketchbook work. I am starting to see a common thread throughout the piece. I want to explore three parts of the human experience, infancy, love and death. But I plan to explore these themes in the strange hyperreal relations we have with these basic human experiences. So for example, infancy can be explored through the maternal nature of childrens programming, love is experienced through Disney concepts of true-love or pornography, and death is an abstract concept we do our best to ignore. It serves as a fail-state in games.
So now the main task is to find a flow through these three themes. I will do this through level design.
I am relatively new to level design so I think it is best I get an idea of the basics for this project. Most people tend to cite Christopher Totten's An Architectural Approach to Level Design as a good introduction to area.
Infancy could be represented through the player being guided by a maternal object, whether this is a TV show character, a company mascot, or a popular toy through an unfamiliar environment. Maybe the audience has no agency, and they float on the object as it moves down a stream.
I am thinking that I could use an Egyptian-like setting for this piece. Partly as it works well with the level design- a pyramid acts as a clear landmark, and the ascending of a pyramid allows for an ascent, whilst also being able to have routes going inside and out of it. It works well as represntations for infancy, love and death- Ancient Egypt is a common topic in childrens media, the ascending of a pyramid is similar to Freuds dream-content of ascending a staircase being like sexual climax, and the pyramids were used as tombs for rulers. Ancient Egypt is extremely mythologised, and our common cultural idea of it is likely formed from the reproduction of earlier ill-informed depiction of ancient Egyptian life. On top of all this, it works well as a surface text to hide the subtext. Dear, Esther uses an uninhabited Hebridean island as a surface setting, I will use ancient Egypt.
I am struggling to come up with detailed storyboards so I think I may write out the experience from the first person. From their I can draw out more detailed storyboards that will lead on to the actual design of the level.
To get a better idea of the narrative, I have tried to write out the experience of the player. I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to achieve in the first section, but it gets more vague. I think I will need to bounce between a written experience, storyboard, level design and my research until I get to a point where the idea is solid enough to begin work on it.
So so far I have three acts, infancy, love and death. In infancy, I plan to have the audience under the guidance of a maternal force. I am not yet sure what this entity will look like, but it could be a brand mascot, or a character from children's television or a child's toy. The audience does not have agency at this part of the sequence, so they will perhaps be on a raft sailing down a river, or in the back of a vehicle.
Next we reach the love sequence. In this stage, the player as reached the base of the landmark they could see at the beginning and must begin the ascent. At the top of a staircase, there is a narrow opening. This area will be quite strange and uncomfortable. The player will see objects that represent contemporary signifiers of love and sex. I am not quite sure how this section will play out due to a lack of research in this particular area. Structurally, it will take place inside, allowing me to play with lighting and a narrowing of paths to build tension.
Finally, the player emerges at the structure they could see from the beginning. This marks the objectfication of death. This area seeks to explore the alienation from death and its presentation for the media. This area could be a large monument or shrine, with an opening in which the player enters to end the sequence.
Maybe I could return to my idea of following Disney imagineering and make the environment have a mechanical feel. I could use techniques like forced perspective to give it that sort of unreal Disney feel.
My first thoughts today are concerned with whether the experience needs to be more interesting. Dear, Esther only relied on the story and the environment, the only issue is that my environments won't be as spectactular as Dear, Esther's as I just don't have the time or skills. I hope for the visuals to be interesting however, but I need them to be basic as striving for realism will take up far more time than it is worth.
I also feel as though I am hitting a bit of a wall, I just want to get started but I still don't have a stable enough foundation. I get better ideas whilst reading but this is still slow. I think the problem is that since 3D work is slow, I don't want to start building things that are likely to be discarded. I don't want to get started with an idea that is completely rigid- I think things should change as you build them, but I just still need it to be more rigid than it is now.
I realise that the first section (infancy) is well storyboarded and I could actually get to work on it if that were appropriate. Which is a relief as I am in a somewhat nervous mindset that I am stuck in a mental-block. I think what I need, is to continue researching the next two areas- love and death- and I will be able to keep moving with the design.
For the love section, I am reading Gender Advertisements, by Erving Goffman, the text is quite old, but it deals with the semiotics of gender expression, and I presume how these are used in advertising. I am hoping this will spur me on to think of narrative artefacts that I can bring into the experience.
When considering the love section of the experience, I think back to Rene Magritte's Rape.
My first reactions to this piece are that of an uncomfortable nature. The figure appears mutilated, like her sense organs have been sealed up yet a consciousness lies trapped below. The figure is a modern depiction of the woman, hyper feminine to the point that they are condemned to silence, only to be observed for the sexual thrill of the viewer.
I am not sure of the background of the piece, but it is possible that this is a satire of premodern art. Many modernists condemned the nude, especially the futurists and the dadaists. Perhaps this is a play on women's role in art to observed as sexual objects.
I got through the entire book but it wasn't what I was looking for. It was interesting but I just really want something that is going to inspire imagery for love section of the experience. I think I may look back at artistic references to sex and love. And I may also read some more Freud.
Duchamp's The Large Glass
The Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, is a 1915- 1923 work by Marcel Duchamp. Despite being an early modernist piece, it still appears completely unconventional today.
The piece is in two segments, the bottom half shows an impossible machine, that Duchamp calls the chocolate grinder. The chocolate grinder runs on a fuel that Duchamp calls love gasoline.
To the left of the grinder we see 9 empty jackets, these are the bachelors. They perpeptually grind away underneath the bride which one can assume they act towards.
In the top panel, the feminine panel, we see the bride, three square targets and some drilled holes. Some interpret the holes to be the bachelors missed shots at the targets.
The whole work is deliberately complex and escapes attempts to trap it within critical reasoning. But it can be interpreted as a frustrated love story of the machine age. The piece is in perpetual movement, like machinery, but the machine never fulfills there purpose. The bachelors are condemned to eternal masturbation.
It would be interested to recontextualise this piece into a contemporary scenario. The collection of objects by individuals is an attempt to make them desirable. The bride is the idea (signified) that they strive to. They are simultaneously the object of desire, and the desirer.
Francis Picabia I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie
Francis Picabia was a French cubist painter. His Painting, I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie was created after Picabia had a fling with a dancer onboard a transatlantic ship journey. Picabia rendered the dancer's body in the cubist style but it is abstracted beyond recognition. Instead we see 'feminine' shapes, that dance brightly to illustrate the painters ecstasy.
Giacometti Suspended Ball
Suspended Ball is very similar to The Large Glass in that both are depictions of perpetual sexual frustration. Giacometti used two highly abstracted forms, that most interperet as sexual, although they may not be able to place a finger on why.
From a certain angle, the objects seem to overlap, from the angle in the image above, one can see that they do not in fact touch.
More Game Research
After drawing out a quick floor plan of how the experience will play out, I thought it all seemed a bit plain. I decided I would take another look at how video games make their levels more interesting. I watched playthroughs of other exploration games like What Remains of Edith Finch. As the space in this game is indoors, it is fragmented into many smaller experiences, which isn't so helpful for what I am trying to achieve. But the start of the game was interesting. It puts you on the other side of a chain link fence which it is implied you just climbed over. Here, the player is encouraged to look around and they can see a missing persons poster. This is a piece of environmental storytelling. This alone is enough to intrigue the player, are they in danger? Who is this boy that went missing? Do I know them?
The player eventually follows the path ahead of them as it is the only possible direction. The game makes the relatively straight path more interesting by making them walk to the side to squeeze under a fallen tree, and a deer runs away after being startled by the player.
The space begins to tighten before it frames an area of interest, the players childhood home. The space opens up, and the player feels small under the giant house.
The player approaches the door but it is locked, forcing them to explore their immediate surroundings whilst establishing an objective for the player, find a way inside. After this I didn't find the level design too useful for what I want to achieve.
But here I discovered a couple of level design tips. Obstacles to the players path, and moving parts that react to the player, do not affect the overall gameplay but they establish the audience in that world. The virtual world reacts to them and alters there path.
Also, I like the idea of having an objective interupted. For example, the locked door creates conflict within the player, challenging them to use their wits to solve the problem forcing them to explore their environment.
Today I had my first show and tell meeting. I was a bit nervous about not having a totally concrete idea yet for some reason but it seemed like everyone was at a similar stage so that was a relief.
I got some handy feedback on my work at its present state. Jen recommended that I just hopped straight into Unity and start playing around with things. I agree with this, I have been having trouble getting into that flow state where solutions to problems appear as you're making or alternative ideas pop up. Perhaps if I just start building things I'll find myself in this state.
Jen also mentioned that I would sometimes refer to this project in game-like language and then say I did not want it to be like a game. I don't want to think of this piece as a game. I think it is difficult for something to be both game and art. A game relies on presenting challenges to the player and rewarding them for solving it- the reward is the main focus. I think this reward for the sake of reward makes it an entertainment product rather than a work of art.
I think games can be art when the 'gameness' of the piece is an essential method of expression. But that's not what I really want to do here.
I want to make the game interesting, but I don't really want to resort to cheap game mechanics to do so. I think its best that I make something first then I can decide whether game qualities are needed.
This morning I began the edX course titled Architectural Imagination. I saw level designers on twitter recommend the course so I thought I may as well enroll and see if there is anything of interest.
I know almost nothing about architecture. I have never really had the chance to learn about it. I found the introduction lecture interesting, but there's not much that is directly relevent to level design yet.
I then wrote up a slide presentation for my meeting tomorrow.
I am trying to block in a level in Unity. I have given up trying to make it nice and tidy and it has so far been quite helpful in visualising how the piece may look.
After the DHT presentations yesterday, I have spent today reading. I read a good chunk of Martin Luther King, JR.'s Why We Can't Wait. The book empahsises the use of non-violent protest, like boycotts and overflowing prisons. It is definitely an interesting read. I have been thinking a lot about activism through consumption. At first I assumed it didn't work, this is probably due to the commodification of climate change, where I think the real change needs to be systemic. But it does seem like many of the techniques MLK used were effective, and it would be an oversimplification to deem their methods as exclusively consumption-based.
At the beginning, MLK mentions what he calls tokenism. Tokenism is a change that represents actualy change. So he uses this in reference to legal victories for black Americans in the fifties. Although the status of black people had changed on paper, nothing was done to enforce these rules. The change was only in appearance not in practice. I will likely use this in my dissertation.
I also read a good bit of Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries. The book follows the story of the Frankfurt school and the thinkers associated with it, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno and Jurgen Habbermas to name a couple. I bought this book years ago, and I remember reading the first couple of pages and it just completely going over my head. I seem to have built up a bit of contextual understanding over the years so I can actually make sense of it.
So far, I am particularly intested in Walter Benjamin. First because of the section of The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that discusses the aesthetic nature of fascism. When I was reading a brief introduction to his work, the author writes about a piece he wrote that recalls his youth in Berlin, but his memories are contained within the aura of objects. This is really similar to what I am trying to achieve in my studio work, so it would be interesting to see how he uses the objects to tell a story.
Today I started off with another couple of Architectural Imagination lecture, these were a bit more slow than the last set as they are mostly concerned with Rudolf Wittkower's analysis of Leon Battista Alberti's architecture. Alberti was an Architect during the Italian renaissance. He was concerned with creating religious buildings that fused classical architecture (Ancient Roman) with the pre existing medieval architecture in the cities he worked.
The analysis is purely concerend with the layout of the building and cultural influences are ignored. Wittkower points out the geometric ratios in Alberti's buildings.