The Pixel Crush

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

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Paisley's Pixels II

There has been a huge bottleneck at the end of this term with deadlines, and the amount of hours we've all put in to pull it off, culminating in me spending two days in my pyjamas finishing my negotiated brief and then staying up late for another two days finalising both my animation technology presentation and our pitch project. Thrilling stuff.

Lets do this chronologically. The negotiated brief all seemed to come together at the last minute with me finally figuring out how to make my sculpt work in Maya and then I cranked out all the textures in one day, amazingly. I took photos of my own skin, my chair material, and the material on my laptop bag to use as a resource to create the textures for Noel's face, arm, leg and overall.

Its always disturbing seeing a skin texture in its stretched and unwrapped form but here is Noel's. My work-flow started in Mudbox where I painted the texture quite roughly using photos I'd taken as stencils, this looked ok in the viewport but when I exported it to Photoshop it was a blotchy mess of collaged skin, so I took the Mudbox texture as a guide for where everything was laid out across the mesh and then re-painted it using the clone stamp tool in Photoshop, using each of the skin photos as a palette. This was a problem at first because of varying white balances and exposures in the photos so I did my best to balance them first so my texture looked cohesive.

Here's how it looked in Mudbox. I tweaked it several times to try and avoid the burnt bacon look I seemed to be achieving I also used the displacement maps to add some of the wrinkle detail into the textures themselves which always help avoid that flat look you can get in a render with lots of ambient light.

I loved adding the details like the straggly hairs on Noel's otherwise bald scalp, its how I hide my woeful understanding of proportion- by layering little details that complete the character.
Note the detail picked up in the displacement by the specular highlight along the top of Noel's head
I absolutely love this next render, it makes him look like a milky eyed wise man with a wizened face that has more stories than wrinkles.
What's that gelatinous protrusion from underneath your beard Noel? Maya fur f*ck up again?

I actually managed to attach the separate displacement nodes to individual surface shaders that all fed back into an ambient occlusion shader and achieved the following- and as ever the the model's tiniest details are revealed in glorious monochrome. I'd like to do another turn around (that's right there's a turn around coming) with an ambient occlusion render and a mental ray contour pass for the actual wireframe mesh. It'll have to wait or now. I set a shader override for the fur so it was grey at the base and white at the tip, so I'm pretty sure it's not part of the AO but just fits due to the natural gradient of grey to white as it hangs farther from its point of origin on the skin.
Shiny bounce lighting.

The arm is actually a reeeeeeally overly simple base mesh with fingers (badly) sculpted on top, but the illusion of a clenched fist would've required rigging otherwise so this was the most viable compromise I could think of, and the final look is quite nice with textures. When it comes to making a fully functional rig this will have to re-done.

I spent a little while tweaking the shader for the 'glove' and 'sock' parts of his overall but never quite achieved the look I had originally designed so that's something I'll need to re-think going forward. This near to final render wasn't what I was going for at all but by changing the colour of the refraction, reflection and diffuse to different hues created this semi-iridescent effect making it shimmer like some kind of jewellery.
Noel & his overly shiny sock/glove

I've recounted this epic tale more times than is socially acceptable but it was rather stressful and frustrating. It took Nelson (my PC), my laptop, and 6 studio computers to render out half of Noel's turn around. When you've got light bouncing from object to object, and its being taken into consideration of the light scattering through the skin, rendering can get a little complex. Oh, and there are thousands of hairs hanging off his face all bouncing light around too. Shiny, I know. So after having it rendering at home overnight I worked out it wasn't nearly enough and made my way into uni for 10am to set the studio PC's going too. At 3:30pm I took what I had and caught the bus home after waiting at the bus stop for 30 minutes, I ran and everything! I then put it all together and handed it in with 2 minutes to spare, not a complete turn around but more or less, and I was pleased with it. So here is the final thing with missing frames added:

I'll save the other projects for another post. This one's too long already.

Pixel Propaganda

One thing I didn't get quite right was Noel's eyes, too much sparkly bump mapping and incorrect cornea shapes. Georg linked me this handy illustration of correct eye anatomy and how to go about recreating it, tear ducts and all.

When E3 was full of gratuitous amounts of everything I think it was fitting that most interesting thing I saw all show was this simple interview with Irrational Games' creative director Ken Levine. He talks about relationships, specifically within- but not limited to, Bioshock Infinite.

An Open Letter to Dan Hay regarding non-diegetic gameplay elements in Far Cry 3

Savannah's are forsaken for jungle in Far Cry 3, like ludic themes are discarded for experience points... 
Hey Dan,

I don't usually write to developers about the games they're working on, because I figured that you guys are far more qualified to make creative decisions than your fanbase. But since I watched the E3 demo of Far Cry 3 I can't help but voice my opinion for the sequel to a game that affected me quite profoundly.

I never played the original Far Cry, but when I read such interesting things about Far Cry 2 I had to give it a try. At first I hated it, the game kicked my arse round the African savannah until it taught me its rules, its themes and ideals, until they were beaten into me. It was a raw, immersive, uncompromising piece of visionary game design that redefined the potential I saw in videogames as a storytelling entertainment medium.

Now that Clint Hocking has moved on from Ubisoft I can only imagine your team is ready to prove itself without his hand at the wheel and from what I've seen it looks like a new direction, perhaps more guided, but exciting none-the-less. The one thing I would ask of you is to remove the dumb scores that pop up on the HUD when the player performs things. How can the game deign to reward the player for killing another human as if it knows what was right, what the context was, or what the player was feeling, Far Cry 2 nailed that moral ambiguity so well that when you enjoyed the killing, you knew its world had claimed you in its sick seduction of brutality.

LA Noire made this mistake by scoring player interrogations so that when the player failed they knew they had done so, and instead of feel the consequences of their mistakes and experience real player agency, they simply felt the urge to restart the case and get a better score, totally missing the point of the interrogations.

Keep up the great work and don't be afraid to make something as exciting and uncompromising as I know your team is capable of. Because, to paraphrase Voss, 'its insanity to do the same things over and over and expect shit to change.'

A fan,


Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Paisley's Pixels

Some advice: stock up on warm clothes and canned food, this post is looooooooooong...

Mudbox: Screwing up hard work on a computer near you.
I've finally finished exporting my sculpt from Mudbox, which has been a complete pain, because while I finished the sculpt a day or so ago the displacement maps have been playing up in Maya. So for myself and anyone else trying this I'm going to make some bullet points so I don't spend ages experimenting next time I have to do this.

Displacement maps do work, but only if you ask really nicely
  • You can export using both subdivision and raycasting methods, subdivision is faster but limited to one object, raycasting uses more memory and is less stable and has more settings: so more room for error
  • There are options to smooth target and source meshes and smooth UVs. These are all necessary for a correct displacement apparently, otherwise the maps exports with un-smoothed values.
  • Stick with floating point EXR's, any 32bit format should work but this one ensures compatability and quality.
  • Make sure you export the base level meshes from your sculpt back into Maya as they probably changed significantly from the meshes you started with.
  • When you connect the displacement map to the displacement node of the shading group make sure you then go to that objects displacement attribute and click calculate bounding box so it can figure out how much displacement is going to take place.
  • If you're doing this with a mental ray shader you make have some errors so do it with a lambert or something, and then when the bounding box is calculated you can apply the mental ray shader back to the object.
  • Sometimes subdividing the base mesh with the displacement on top improves the appearance of the tessellation.

Yes, he even has hair. Yes its shiny as f*ck

I have literally been sat in my room in my pyjamas for two days finishing the sculpt and trying to figure this crap out and, while not healthy, I actually feel like it might all be finished in time for the deadline, and to a much higher standard than I hoped for halfway through this project. It's probably not going to be as perfect as I initially imagined, but its encouragingly close. All that's left to do is paint textures which, apart from the face, should be fairly quick.

Noel Paisley Ladies & Gentlemen
Gauntlet close up

Sock (couldn't think of an epic equivalent) close up
Ignore the tip of his beard geometry protruding from under the hair, I haven't yet figured out how to cover it in hair.

Did I get a bit render happy? Yes but I that it is both justified and well earned.

When sculpting was too much I sheltered within the familiar confines of Photoshop and tried to get something presentable in terms of concept art for the pitch project. Teaser:

Thomas Farriner Makes His Escape
Amazing what blending modes and a couple of textures can hide ;)

The Animated Analysis that tanked in terms of marks (though not as much as my dissertation proposal) but which I'm quite proud of (though not so much now I'm told its not worth an academic damn).

Analysis of an Animated Work:
Immersion & Emergent Storytelling in Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft, 2008)

Most people would classify Far Cry 2 as part of the open world, first person shooter genre (FPS). This is a rare hybridisation, so uncommon in fact that the sub-genre of the 'corridor shooter' has become ubiquitous when describing most FPS games, as many of these games take place in environments where the player is funnelled down a series of corridors in a restrictively linear fashion; both in terms of narrative structure and level design. This is perhaps where Far Cry 2 innovates the most but also where it stumbles, most likely due to the massive scope of the game world that is being represented in game for the player.

Immersion can often share a close relationship with the technology of a game. When the player needs to be sold on the illusion the game is offering in order for them to suspend their disbelief, their sensory connection to the game is one of the most important elements. Hence the emphasis on graphical fidelity, sound design, and the perpetual existence of the game world that Murray hints at in her writing on immersion (Murray , 1999: 105). There are a number of ways that Far Cry 2 strives to maintain perpetual existence of its world that work to enhance player immersion.

There are no loading screens, no pauses while the player is forced to wait, in an open world game this a difficult but necessary technological achievement. Jesper Juul talks about the way a game has fictional time and a play time where time in the game world is fictional time, whilst play time is time as the player experiences it. He gives the example of the loading screens in Half Life maintaining fictional time by pausing to stream data, but disrupting play time (Juul, 2005: 143). Far Cry 2's lack of load screens (except for when the player boots the game before playing) allows the fictional time and play time to remain in sync. In this way suspension of disbelief can be sustained, and the player is immersed for longer stretches of time.

Far Cry 2 uses a safe house system where the player can 'save' their game by sleeping on a camp bed. Save games in Far Cry 2 allow the player to rest his character for a chosen amount of time using a watch on the character's wrist, this is the only example of fictional time breaking away from play time and it is portrayed by a time lapse of the world outside the safe house. As the sun lowers in the sky the weather changes, non-player characters (NPC's) whiz around, and the player is shown how the game world is in perpetual existence. It continues to exist without him or her, which creates a believability in the procedural nature of the game world and it's various systems.

The animation system in Far Cry 2 plays a big part in the player's immersion, the game shuns the use of the cut scene, a technique ripped straight from the frames of its moving image sibling, film. Instead the player is fixed to the first person perspective of their character continuously . This means that every action the player performs is done using their own digital hands, without the use of an obtrusive user interface or heads-up-display. For example Far Cry 2 allows the player to navigate its 50km open world (an unnamed African country in the middle of civil war) using a map, which the player carries in the hand and can examine at any time. When the player finds a vehicle, they enter it without leaving the first person perspective, with animations provided for every action. The same goes for firing, reloading, and unjamming weapons, repairing vehicles or swimming.

Far Cry 2 also has a unique approach to first aid. While it borrows the rather tired convention of the health pack to heal a players wounds, when the player is critically wounded, they must retreat from battle and tend to their ailment. This cues a brief animation of the player reaching down and say, pulling some shrapnel from a leg, or fixing a dislocated knee joint. This insistence on a first person perspective, perpetual world existence, and 1:1 fictional and play time all follow an uncompromising design ethos that match the brutal nature of the games themes of idealism and greed. In this way Far Cry 2 forms a communication between designer and player though its mechanics of play, a design methodology that is described in Extra Lives and advocated by independent developer Jonathan Blow (Bissell, 2010: 93)

This unrelenting immersion can occasionally hurt the player's experience, while games have evolved beyond placing 'fun' as their only purpose, this does not mean a player is going to relish the frustration of having a game's systems punish him/her time and again. Whilst getting to a mission objective on the map, the player can begin to resent the systems that embedded them so firmly in the game world when they have to run for miles in real time, only to be gunned down in the chaos of the enemy AI and fire propagation system.

While these systems can work against the player's enjoyment of the game at times, they are what create the potential for the player-centric emergent narrative that Henry Jenkins discusses in his Narrative Architecture essay (Jenkins, 2004) and truly explore the medium's narrative potential. This approach to meaningful story relies on the 'buddy system', the characters that the player meets can rescue the player when they are failing in combat, in this way the immersion of the player is saved from being broken by a fail state or load screen after death. While the missions remain fixed, the certain elements are interchangeable, and players can make choices that allow the narrative to branch. In this way Murray's “procedural authorship” (Murray, 1999) is at last put to use as elements of the story are directed by the author's hand (the buddies) and the player takes those elements and assembles them through choices and gameplay, forging a personal and unique emergent narrative. This was taken even further by one critic who documented a 'perma-death' (a self enforced rule where once the player dies, the game is over) play through of the game and annotated the screen shots he took with anecdotes of his own emergent experiences (Abraham, 2009). This is one example of the best that Far Cry 2 can be, and a logical extension of its uncompromising nature.

Murray, Janet (1999) Hamlet On The Holodeck The MIT Press
Juul, Jesper (2005) Half Real The MIT Press
Jenkins, Henry (2004) 'Game Design as Narrative Architecture' in: First Person: New Media Story, Performance and Game The MIT Press
Bissell, Tom (2010) Extra Lives Pantheon Books
Abraham, Ben (2009) Permanent Death - The Complete Saga 27th April, 2011
Far Cry 2 (2008) Developed by Ubisoft Montreal [Sony Playstation 3], Ubisoft

 Pixel Propaganda

Not the must cutting edge article on story in games, but its still intriguing to ascertain the state of narrative among developers. There are two other parts also so worth reading if this piques you interest.

A wonderfully written review of LA Noire that interprets the games world and characters in a wholly original manner.

Why sometimes I should learn to shut up about my passions and obsessions, and why not shutting is up is so important.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Pixel Prose IV

Look at the beautiful sparkle in his eye...

Applying the displacement map of the sculpt to the shader.
Noel is now into phase two of the negotiated brief and I've begun sculpting him in Mudbox. The transition wasn't as smooth as planned with re-scaling, normal reversing, UV unwrapping, and OBJ exporting all necessary steps to undertake before any sculpting can begin. Note to anyone attempting a similar thing: don't bother with Autodesk's cross software format of choice FBX, its a pile of crap that doesn't work properly with Mudbox's brushes, stick with OBJs.

For those not in the know, a displacement map is a texture that physically deforms the original model according to the light and dark values of the texture, this texture is generated by a sculpt you make in a piece of software like Mudbox of Zbrush. This means you can view the low poly model in the viewport but at render time a giant texture's worth of detail is tessellated at render time.

Ok that's slightly misleading. What actually happened when I applied the displacement map to the model was this:

Nice one Mudbox, how would you like it if I did that to your face?
Maya can actually handle a pretty epic amount of polygons in the viewport if you're lucky to have a half way decent graphics card. So this series of renders above this one are 2,830,320 polygons, rendered straight out of Maya. 

Unfortunately with my Wacom out of action I've been switching between dodgy tablets from the media desk, a faulty bamboo or a malfunctioning Intuos 4 when I'm in the studio. But I'm getting used to it, this is what the sculpt looks like in mudbox, I'm really trying to push the crumpled paper style wrinkles of age, so they show up nicely in the render, because some detail is bound to get lost as light is scattered through the head by the SSS shader.
Soulful Noel
I've tried to strike a balance between mirroring my brush strokes to save time, and sculpting asymmetrically to create a more organic looking character.

Pitted and Creased
Meanwhile we have a pitch rehearsal coming up, not as soon as I first thought thankfully. Hopefully I can get the concept pieces done in time and we can get a solid run through so that on the day we can break out the charm and enthusiasm. Seems like we're ditching out more ambitious gimmick which I loved as it involved the audience and therefore the pitch was unique in the same way our product was: it would be interactive. But five minutes isn't adequate time for this so we'll have to revise our strategy and either come up with something new or hope we can put together a very slick presentation.

Baker's Escape

The fourth and final literature review, from Tom Bissell excellent book Extra Lives.

Literature Review IV

Chapter 6: Braided

From Extra Lives

(2010, Pantheon Books)

This chapter features extracts of an interview within prominent independent game designer Jonathan Blow. Using Blow's words, Bissell works to construct an argument for games as an art form on its own terms.

Bissell explores the possibility of a fundamental conflict between narrative and game structure, “Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.” (Bissell, 2010: 93) While this is a good observation about generic game design, it doesn't include the wider definitions of narrative that both Jesper Jull and Henry Jenkins have acknowledged, it very much refers to the fixed narrative as seen in the film or novel that different genres appear to draw from so much with limited success.

Then Blow raises the question of whether the art or expression in games should really be coming from the storytelling at all when other mediums may incorporate narrative but “the real art is happening else where” (2010: 94). Here the author gives the excellent example of opera, where story takes a back seat to musical performance. Later in the chapter Bissell gives us a hint as to one of the ways games serve as an expression between designer and player “Like a poem, a great platformer does not disguise the fact that it is designed” (2010: 97) but it is through a game's difficulty that Blow chooses to use as one of his methods of communication with the player: “It's difficulty is interesting because it is not arbitrarily difficult. It is meaningfully difficult, because, again, it forces you to think about what subverting time really means and does” (2010: 101). Through this back and forth between designer and author, the successes and failures of, Jonathan Blow's game Braid (2008), can be very directly evaluated, though in a mostly subjective manner.

Bissell acknowledges that Blow relates “the videogame's umbilical attachment to story to the influence of film” (2010: 94). When a medium draws so heavily from its predecessor of moving image, perhaps developers find it hard to escape this heritage, when dealing with subjects that are more representations of reality than abstractions of it. Perhaps Bissell could explore this rift between the failures of representational games and the successes of abstract games, and relating it to Juul's writing on abstraction in games.

Games often have very defined gameplay conventions, and the author does well to recognise these whilst identifying the fact that there is a difference between what some critics might refer to as a genre when it is in fact a movement, the movement in question being the 'art game' movement, whose ethos- Bissell infers, primarily follows ludologist design ideals- “They work off a few basic assumptions: games have rules, rules have meaning, and gameplay is the process by which those rules are tested and explored.” (2010: 96) Drawing parallels between artistic movements is something that few authors have done when discussing games. Relating them to established movements in other media, I feel, is a good decision that creates context for the evolution of games and fosters a better understanding of their current state of progression. “Naturalism is not the pinnacle but rather a stage of representation. With Braid, a considered impressionistic subversion of 'reality' has at last arrived” (2010: 99-100).

Overall Bissell's writing is little light on videogame terminology and theory, he makes up for this with his knowledge of literature, fine art, and film theory when discussing the topics raised throughout the chapter. While the subjects are wide ranging, they revolve around the central critique of Braid in order to cohesively hang together, and appear to fit the style of experiential game criticism well.

Pixel Propaganda 

Not much to share this week, I still want to write about LA Noire but with these literature reviews I'm aware the blog posts are verbose enough as it is.

Luckily there are a number of good pieces of LA Noire based criticism to fill that gap for me, the first of which is a hypothetical look at the gameplay enhancements a sequel could make. The second takes a critical look at the breakdown between Cole Phelps, the player, and intentionality.