The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Pixel Prose

Writing is something I've often enjoyed, especially when it comes to writing about things that I care about or find interesting. So when we are tasked with writing literature reviews in the style of cold and calculating academia, I often struggle to confine myself to the path of pure analysis and often ramble of into the sunset of impassioned subjectivity. Something this blog is usually a prime example of. But I want to do better with this next set of literature reviews so I've disciplined myself and broken out the verbosity. Here is the first of the rambling type reviews.

A Literature Review of Chapter 4: Immersion
From Janet H. Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck. (1999, The MIT Press)

Janet H. Murray's book on interactive narrative art form, and where she sees it developing, is an insight into the potential of storytelling in all kinds of interactive media including videogames, hyperlink fiction, and interactive TV. Though the book is twelve years old and even some of it's more conservative predictions have yet to manifest in any of the formats mentioned above, while others are just starting to emerge on the cutting edge of interactive storytelling.

In this chapter the author outlines the quality of immersion offered by the fictional holodeck of Star Trek and other more readily available platforms. She begins by creating some context and framing the progress of the narrative art form with a quote from Don Quixote, which holds a warning of the fictional realities presented in books and their hold over an individual's imagination. This enticing promise of an immersive virtual reality is present in many media and Murray states this with comparisons to theme park rides and “thrilling movies” (Murray, 1999: 98)

The addictive and alluring properties of experiencing an immersive story is programmed into our brains according to Murray. She emphasizes the attractive nature of these experiences through lust orientated semantics like “the age old desire to live out a fantasy aroused by a fictional world” (1999: 98) and “the pleasurable surrender of the mind to an imaginative world” (1999: 110). These technique appears throughout the entire chapter to varying effect depending on your disposal towards the kind of narrative experiences she describes which are wide ranging and well related.

Murray goes on to talk about the metaphorical meaning of immersion as opposed to its literal meaning, and how its relevant to understanding its effect on the audience in an interactive story. She compares the experience of psychological immersion to that of swimming in water. The difference being that with a videogame, and it's unique set of mechanics and systems, the player has to learn how to swim each time they dive into a new experience which makes the interactive process of learning unique to videogame immersion. In this way the player becomes integrated into the way the world itself works quite rapidly when done correctly. Her use of water based metaphor continues as she describes a similar phenomenon in other media like music and television and then concludes the information heavy introduction to the chapter with the summary of “This chapter is about such digital swimming” (1999: 99) bringing the paragraph to a close with style and good use of repetition.

The liminal state between realities is then discussed and introduces psychological terminology and applies it to fictional realities in an attempt to better explain how this transition between states is made by the player or audience. The authors use of the fourth wall as technique to enhance or break immersion does well to illustrate how immersion is so “inherently fragile” (1999: 100) and its effect can different even from person to person within an audience, she cites an account from James Barrie as an example.

Avatars, hyper-realism, perpetual existence of a virtual world, and interaction are all techniques Murray states enhance immersion through out the rest of the chapter. She even references Windsor McCay's Gertie as some of the earliest interactive animation giving the writing historical credibility. While the chapter isn't always as coherent as a reader might like, it definitely succeeds in relating the methods of immersion unique to interactive storytelling in an informed and enthusiastic manner.

I spent some time practising that highest of arts during the holidays: colouring in! Noel Paisley is nearly finished, I haven't yet finished shading him. I found my method has come to mimic that of render passes, I have an ink layer, then colour, tone, and often these are further broken up into face, body, arms etc.

Noel Paisley

I've continued work as much as I can with The Last Trophy and being back its really good to finally see the characters lit. As I'd only been working with the environments before, there were some problems to sort out once the characters were imported. Here are some examples of the tweaks I've been making:

Shadows turned on (and changed from depthmap to raytrace) to darken the mouth, lights repositioned to fake sunlight.

Surround lights turned on plus shadows, light repositioned to mimic sun.

Pixel Propaganda

Why Duke Nuk'em annoys the hell out of me, hint: similar reasons to that of Bulletstorm.

An interesting take on the effects of ludo narrative dissonance in Red Dead Redemption, and how the player can derive meaning from fighting the game's authorial and idealogical hand.

I always love the Contrarian Corner articles, and though Dragon Age doesn't interest me, this piece makes some good points, and made me laugh.

While the extent to which a war shooter should aim for realism remains questionable, I downloaded the high quality version of this trailer and couldn't stop thinking, this is real. Not just in terms of graphical fidelity but also the character animation is gorgeous.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011


Subtle, but the new shaders connote the metallic materials of the blimp and the bump mapping helps break up the specular highlights.
Its the holidays so stuff to do animation-wise has dried up a bit. Though I'm still doing a bit of 3rd year work to stave off the sunshine induced apathy. I've had to gut my laptop (which was dying anyway) and implement some pretty illogical work-arounds to get my laptop to function properly with the, now enormous scenes The Last Trophy is working with. I remember when I was proud of my laptop, and lived under the illusion that it could hold its own against most desktops of its age...

Note the faulty motion blur on the left propeller, something we'll have to live with without increasing rendertime in unhelpful ways.

I've also been dabbling in render passes in order to give the compositor more control over the different elements of the image. So far we have diffuse material colour, specular, reflection, shadows, zdepth, and ambient occlusion. Unless specifically requested I'm hoping that should cover everything.

There's even some Ambient Occlusion on this one, not that you can really tell, but now you know its there, doesn't it look nicer?
Even though we still have a term left of this academic year I feel very aware of the vast amount of summer holiday approaching, a length of time that I'd like to fill with something productive if possible. I've been sending emails to a small number of companies I'd like to do placements with over the summer and recieving not particularly encouraging automated replies generally saying: "we can't reply to every email, so don't expect a response". Even the hardly known Frictional Games in Sweden have a response warning that they aren't looking for interns. They're a 5 man team for gods sake, and I offered to work for free! Obviously the fact that there is only 5 of them means they can't babysit a useless student, still, slightly disheartening.

In the meantime I've been trying to push myself into making a start on pre-production for our own 3rd year major projects. While this feels stupidly early, I don't want to arrive at term one of next year and have to sketch and storyboard a load of stuff from scratch, if at all possible I'd want to be able to go straight into asset production to give me and whoever else I can convince to join me as much time as possible in the production stage, because the sooner that all wraps, the more we can up the shininess :D

Meet Noel Paisley, Professional Protagonist.

Since gutting my laptop I haven't been able to install adobe stuff because (not expecting it to die on me) I left all the installation discs in Falmouth. So this is just a pencil sketch until I can ink and colour it in Photoshop. Hopefully I can make a start on modelling a low poly version of the character and figure out how the scraps of cloth or his beard might work in terms of dynamics.

Pixel Propaganda

Chris Hecker, designer working on Spy Party recently did a lecture at a University that covers some pretty fundamental aspects of game design but in a way pacey way that infuses his own enthusiasm and opinion.

I've always felt a resistance to killing in videogames, after a while it feels normal (which is worrying in itself) but this article discusses some of the other options available to developers that are being neglected.

This is Jonathan Blow's most complete talk on Braid, specifically its gameplay, and shows footage of the games prototyping phase. Its a fascinating look at one of my favourite games ever and even in this talk, there are still elements Blow refuses to discuss as he believes so strongly in the importance of player discovery.