The Pixel Crush

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

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Dishonored Dissected

I was lucky enough to be granted an enthusiast press pass to the Eurogamer Expo, at which I got to see a bunch of games on the show floor before they were even released (privelaged, I know), on top of which I attended some of the developer sessions. Perhaps most notable among these was the one for the- then upcoming, original IP Dishonored. (Tragically mispelled)
When asked what it was about Dishonored that the developer felt was most important, they stated the emphasis on 'player freedom'. It being a game which has much love for the stealth genre I immediately began comparing it to its forerunners (a little prematurely considering it wasn't even released at that point). That freedom, I felt, wouldn't stand out unless there were instances of play where that freedom was taken away from the player. Without contrast it cannot can be emphasised. A magnificent example of this was the part of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory where the player could be subdued by enemies and have all their equipment removed, only to find themselves in an interrogation room. From here they had to escape questioning, reclaim their personal effects, and resume the mission goals. This break in pacing provided context for the normal style of play, giving the player a new appreciation for the tools and agency with which they had been provided.

Luckily, as it turns out, they released this game, I played it, and Dishonored does indeed have a sequence that almost exactly mirrors that of Splinter Cell's where the player must recover their equipment, before resuming the pursuit of mission objectives. Not original no, but it still serves its purpose.
Yes, I spent 25% of my time twirling my blade in front of the god rays.
Dishonored's marketing would have you believe that this game's themes revolve around revenge, specifically your revenge on the people that killed the Empress, the woman whom it is your job to protect, as her bodyguard. While I felt this was all well and good as an overarching plotline, I was skeptical over its potency as a theme that was communicated through the moment to moment gameplay. How can you successfully evoke the emotions associated with revenge: closure, satisfaction, adrenaline, anger, when 99% of the human obstacles in the game that you encounter have not wronged the player personally? Well in this instance, Dishonored does fail, it's moment to moment gameplay loops become about something else which I will describe later. But this revenge arc did surprisingly come into play for me, just not in the way I expected.
They're probably talking about government conspiracies, making jokes about me. They must die.
In order to exact revenge, you must first be wronged. So it will come as no surprise that, throughout the course of the game, someones probably going to metaphorically stab you in the back (thus leading to the contrast of freedom when recovering equipment). I believe Dishonored intended for me to want to avenge the wrongs committed against the character's closest to the protagonist, but that's not what transpired. What was more important to me as a player was a place, rather than a person. This makes sense considering the core traversal mechanics are lovely, but the social interaction is limited, so I knew the environment intimately, the people: not so.
The Hound's Pit Pub...
...home to orange fluids and English caricatures with American accents.
Upon returning to the Hound's Pit Pub, a venue of fine beverages and homely design, I found it overrun by those working for the people who utterly betrayed me. This was a place with which I had subconsciously developed a connection. A habitat for benign characters, safety, resources, and somewhere I was relieved to return to and explore, outside of the hostile constraints of a mission. Finding it overrun by traitors was the narrative trigger it took to complete that revenge arc. Now this arc would not have been at all profound or powerful had I not be doing my utmost to remain a pacifistic and stealthy force for good. I had only killed accidentally, or when I was not presented with an alternative. Now presented with my home, crawling with the enemy, I abandoned these moral restrictions and leaped from roof to ground, bending time and flesh alike until there was just smoke and silence. And it was cathartic.

So if Dishonored isn't about the people, the characters it so desperately wants you to invest in:
Then what is it about? What did it make me feel moment to moment?

The stealth genre for me, is a genre about discipline. Its about its about resisting the obvious and graceless path in favour of the cunning and beautiful path. Often this boils down to lethal and non-lethal routes to success, but there is much nuance to be had between either extreme. The reason Dishonored was so capable of supporting this revenge arc, is because it caters so well for the player when they are undisciplined. This of course means that at any time they can break from the discipline of stealth and alter any intended narrative arc, but the foundations for it are there. You could argue that its not discipline, its just a choosing one or the other rather than resisting. But Dishonored's systems and physicality are designed in such a way that it feels so consummately compelling to just move through the world, interacting with obstacles, that to choose to avoid everything is to withhold from yourself the greatest satisfaction these systems of play can offer. You are completely over-equipped to deal with these obstacles, so to refuse to deal with them requires restraint.
The non-lethal options are pretty grim, its hard to feel good about sparing a life...
...when they meet their end at the hands of the plague, regardless.
You may have noticed that I have been describing the people in this game in a borderline psychopathic manner, with non-empathetic terms. This is because Dishonored bares it's systems on it's surface, so raw and enticing, that any narrative context is flooded by the potential agency presented to the player. The obstacles in the system are people, but they are only indirectly humanised, leaving them to be mostly presented as agents with the systems. This is where the Heart comes in. The Heart is a device that the player holds in their left hand and can locate items of worth with, this is it's primary function, but it can also speak secrets to you of the environment in which you are in, or the character at which the heart is pointed. This acts to re-humanise what were once obstacles in a system- back into people, people with backstory, and that puts the player's actions into greater and more interesting context.
"There is a history of madness in his family, he is the worst".
"They are ugly people on the inside, but are kind to each other."
"She thought it was work in a factory, it was too late by the time they arrived."
"She wished she could be out there, on the whaling ships, rather than in here."
"His family was taken by the plague, he wishes he could join them."
In my left hand, the Heart, a pulsing mechanism of truth.
This made playing the game and making these moment to moment decisions richer. But it also made me into some kind of deity, passing judgement on them as if I had the right to decide their fate just because I had the power to. Dramatically compelling: yes. Sane: probably not. People have referred to this game as a culprit of the increasing "swiss armification of games"- too many powers pandering to an uninteresting power fantasy. If this is all Dishonored is, as I think someone already pointed out: its probably not going to be done much better than this, so at least we can move on to more interesting things now, right? The player is given so many supernatural powers, but the one I used the most, and by far the most overpowered? Quicksave. I feel like the developers missed a trick with the chance to actually weave gaming's most ubiquitous super power into the fabric of the fiction. The save game system is basically already an extension of the player's time bend ability. Having it as a feature already kind of breaks the flow of the game, so I imagine overtly integrating it with the other powers would only have drawn unwanted attention to a fictional problem game designers haven't been able to solve yet: that of the save system effectively giving players access to infinite parallel time lines. Yeah, hows that for an alternative interpretation?

Pixel Propaganda

Michael Abbot writes more inspiring stuff from his experience at a talk featuring exceptional game makers Amy Hennig (Uncharted) Jenova Chen (Journey) and Ian Dallas (Unfinished Swan).

Dishonored is one of several recently, or nearly released stealth games. Here their respective designers talking about the genre as a whole, relevant reading.

Laurence Nairne breaks down violence in games in a new blog post, forever coming closer to cracking the metaphorical skull of the matter open, and examining  the truth of it's messy innards. What a horrible image.

Brave's original creator Brenda Chapman talks about the importance of cartoons, when faced with a room of people who change lives on a daily basis.

This VFX breakdown is pretty nuts, some amazing CG sharks. Beware cringey shark gore.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Ultimate Indie Dev Collaboration

Hello to the like-minded and the aspiring,

I am a CG artist freelancing in the UK (currently at Aardman) working on CG assets for their Digital department. In the final year of my digital animation degree I wrote about 'meaning created in the medium of videogames' for my dissertation, I have read a lot about design, and I'm an able hardworking technical artist. The thing is, I know almost nothing about programming. As you can imagine this is more than a little problem when it comes to game development. So in order to actually begin creating something I'm looking for an inspired, organised, hard-working, motivated, and creative programmer and fellow designer. Someone who can help me craft digital experiences that provoke emotion, thought, entertainment from the player. And in roughly that order. I want to expand this completely amazing medium many of us so deeply love and have great hopes for, if you're someone who is interested in being part of a game that does that, please, get in touch.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Herosquad: Assemble!

The first project I worked on for Aardman Digital, the game dev department at Aardman, is now publicly available! And I've asked permission to upload some images for the blog, so here we are.

I was contracted to make the pre-rendered CG assets for a browser game made in Flash. The client was CBBC and the subject their new children's TV programme, Herosquad. The game has been in the press, but only really so far as acknowledging its existence, but hearing the kid's feedback from playing the game was pretty special, how they couldn't put it down, etc. You can play the game for yourself here.

So my involvement was mostly making the buildings that would populate the map that the player would navigate, a medium sized coastal town, Weymouth was often used as reference. I also modelled a couple of vehicles but a lot of this material was taken from a handy model pack used to fill out the vehicle roster and add some variety.

I started with this car  and went from there.
Using reference for things like the cars was super important as they have really specific curves to their outlines. at a distance you can get away with a lot, but they still really help getting the reflections and specular highlights looking nice as the car turns on and road and it glints in the sun etc.

Scale was really tricky on this project and its something I wasn't great at judging by eye, luckily Rich had a default posed 6' foot skeleton we could import into scene and measure things against to get the correct scale and consistency throughout. At one point the fire engine was massive next to the housing, its now tiny for gameplay reasons, so its easier to navigate the roads, but its not how we originally scaled it. Also you can scale something correctly up close, zoom out to the game camera, and it looks totally wrong. It can totally change with perspective.

Some of the buildings are super simple. This beach hut (which coincidentally doesn't appear on a single beach, and is more like a suburban shack or allotment shed now) is basically a cube with a roof extruded from a single 'poked face'. I had some nice mounds of sand piled up against the corners and a dune grass pathway to the front door, but they got cut in the end, excessive detail.
Having stuff like that around the base of the buildings to help them sit in the environment better was essential and something that was requested quite early on.
For example on this church there is a whole lawn and gravel path piece which is rendered separately in order for the vehicles to be able to be rendered on top of the ground, but underneath any tall buildings they might pass behind, like the church steeple. Thus giving the impression of depth in the scene. I spent far too long modelling ornate details on the stained glass windows which you can barely see here if you squint and don your monocle.
This is probably my favourite thing I modelled, the colours, shapes and weird asymmetrical design that I totally fluked. The reference images I both was given and found really helped in this case, a mixture of modern warehouse with skylights, industrial factory with bricked up windows, and the pipes and boxes that seem to cover every industrial building if you look closely on google maps. Also, solar panels, none of that unsustainable shit. Wish the brick shader wasn't quite so reflective though, you can't check every angle when testing shaders and this was clearly one I missed.
Throughout the project I had about about two brick textures, two roof tile textures, a couple of tarmac and concrete textures, and a grass texture that served me for 70% of the texturing I think. With a lot of scaling, mirroring, colour remapping (invaluable for creating the illusion of variety), and tiling I was able to really quickly texture stuff once it was modelled. Like on this house, the same bricks and slate roof and grass that all the other houses use, just with different colours and sizes. This helps keep a kind of art style whilst avoiding obvious repetition. I now love tileable textures. Also, when so many of the shapes are cubes and seen from a distance, you can automatic unwrap basically everything. So much time saved, so many horrible UVs.
Yep, they have a fireman's pole that goes all the way from the roof down to the ground floor. The Herosquad colours seemed to be navy blue and red so they were slapped on this fire station and the training tower below too.
This is a traffic cone. It is a subdivided 3D model with a reflective silver strip encircling its middle. WOOH! HIGH PRODUCTION VALUES!
I enjoyed creating some of the air traffic for the helicopter missions, this hang glider even has a tiny pilot made of cubes, and you can totally get away with it, which is fun. I made sure to support gender and ethnic diversity with these NPCs, or "non-player characters". Because that's important.
For the helicopter a bit more detail was needed in the model as it appeared in the menu screens closer up than they do in game, along with the fire engine and boat. I did shader work on the other two vehicles but modelling credit goes to Tom Lord and Rich Spence respectively. I used lots of coastguard photos for reference for the helicopter and having such exact reference was in this case as much a curse as a blessing, hard mechanical modelling that is very exact is not my strength. One of the reasons I was initially uncertain about the added responsibility of modelling a hero vehicle. I can happily model something vaguely organic or wonky and broken, but stuff that requires strict adherence to form, ie human anatomy or vehicular design, I really struggle with. I thought this was just a drawing thing as I have always struggled with life drawing or technical draughtsmanship, but it seems this fundamental inability to accurately replicate form and proportion has transferred to my CG modelling as well. That same proportion failure is coincidentally what I love most about my drawing, I like to mistake it for style and personality.
The rotors and helicopter were rendered separately so that the blades could continuously spin, whilst the helicopter rotated independently of them.
At this point in production buildings were getting quicker and quicker to make as I was able to steal pieces from previous models, as I had already done with some houses Rich had from an older project. Here the TV ariels, roofs, fire escapes, and pipes are all copied ... in fact I don't think anything except the "H" in the circle is unique to this model. But with significant replacement and retexturing it is almost unrecognisable as a whole.
This lighthouse originally had some rocks around the base that I quite liked, but they glistened too much and didn't look rocky at all. The lichen effect on the roof was just achieved by remapping the midtones of the slate texture to an organic green. Its what sells the image to me as a slate-clad lighthouse keeper's abode.
A nice office block with parking area delineated by some bollards.
This is one of the earlier buildings where I started breaking out the fancier reflection features to make the most of these assets being pre-rendered. It makes the roof look a bit favella with the corrugated iron, but it makes the material look so much more tactile and appealing, especially at the angles where it catches the light. It was also where I realised the you have to push the bump map values of the shader to 10 times what you might usually, because of the very distant camera angle the shader is sampled differently than it would be close up, this means detail is lost and has to be compensated for by exaggerating things like bump.
I wish I had close up renders of some of these props as they hold up quite well and its nice to see alternative angles. Though others, like this van, are much safer from a distance where you can't see the horrible lumpiness of parts of the bonnet etc. Being confined to this high angle though meant getting really inventive with keeping the roofscapes interesting, because that's by far the largest surface area on show, walls are lost in the perspective.
It was genuinely great fun to work on, I grew to love the miniturised style, that orthographic angle from old top down strategy games. And I'm now back working for Aardman Digital on more stuff which looks even shinier, so hopefully that will see the light of day eventually too.

Pixel Propaganda

Propaganda for my own writing?! Yep, I wrote some words for gaming opinion and news site Rebel Gaming! I had thoughts about the mobile gaming platform and the way it had no respect for the player's time, and how I felt about that. So time and feelings, deep stuff.

I continue to love the show Extra Credits because I feel what they have to say is really important and it also happens to fall in line with a lot of my own views which doesn't hurt. Here's a video of theirs on the role of fun in a medium.

This got linked round the CG department, and I couldn't contain my hysteria, I am in love with this GIF.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Directorial Legacy

Not long ago I was asked for some advice on making student films in the final year of university.
I thought I'd reproduce it here, with some considered editing. Here are the 8 arbitrarily chosen truths of student animated shorts.

  • First off some background rendering knowledge, I wrote a tutorial on the linear lighting workflow and specifically using final gather to light your scenes, and about setting up for it, with exposures, colourspace, and stuff. A good grounding for rendering. Also This is a brilliant blog for mental ray rendering in general, a great resource for different techniques and tricks, and there are plenty of places to find out about linear workflow elsewhere on the internet.
  • Start creating artwork soon, we were always short of design stuff, and the more you have the sooner you can start modelling, trick your artists into doing turn arounds if you can ;) Reference is so important, something I'm learning even now. If you have photographs or concepts to work to your art will shine shine shine. I'm not saying make everything photoreal, but faithfully recreating specific aspects of reality is vital- this lighting here, that material there, these shapes here, and these colours there.
  • Make sure you know your stuff and have thought about the world, the characters, the practicalities of making the film, and anticipate the questions, then you'll be covered. Your team deserves a director that knows their story and can make decisions quickly based on a world that can hold up to scrutiny. You're going to be making hundreds of decisions, and fast, so if you have nothing to inform them you will struggle to keep up.
  • No one seems to be able to avoid this but nail down the story as soon as possible, without compromising too much. People both above you and on your team will keep you making changes 'til the 11th hour and listen to what they have to say, but ignore the bits that don't feel right, or jeopardise the production. If you agree to things you don't feel comfortable with I guarantee you'll regret them later.
  • If you're directing make sure its all working at a storyboard and animatic stage, and make sure your team is on board with it then, and NOT mutinying and demanding changes later. We kind of bodged our layout phase so I cant really advise much here, by this time the animatic was out of my hands so interpreting camera angles and timing was tricky, if you can, keep the storyboard artist and layout artist the same, someone with a cinematic eye to keep things consistent, if its done well these layout scenes can become the templates for every shot, incrementally becoming more complete with each pass.
  • Finding a good file structure is essential and difficult. Breaking things down into folders of scenes and shots works, and organise props and characters separately. Nail this early. Make sure the team knows this early, and make sure they are fucking neat. Clean out scenes after they've been modelled etc, no spare shaders, textures, geometry etc, use the optimise scene tool, delete duplicate shading networks, merge texture files, cleanup meshes. Just the model alone. preferably unwrapped ;)
  • Make sure your team talks to each other when they have a problem or they'll come straight to you and you won't be able to spend time fixing everything. Texture at a high resolution, you can always downsize later, you can never upsize. We thought we could get away with some small textures and then ended up having giant pixels everywhere,texture at 4k for large props, just to be safe, 2k for small props. Be efficient with UV space, while its not essential because memory is rarely an issue it makes texuring and shading much faster to only have one texture map to refresh. Don't use tiffs, theyre enormous, pngs are good, jpegs are only acceptable when very uncompressed. No ngons (polygons with more than 4 corners), try and unwrap neatly, one, maybe two textures per model. rather than a texture for each bit of the model. I recommend roadkill, free, effective, slightly buggy. If you don't clean up things like ngons mudbox and other software will reject the mesh outright.
  • Learn nuke, it'll serve you well in the industry later. but if you don't feel confident or comfortable with it (like I didn't) after effects is still fantastic, just try and avoid the default stuff and customise the look as much as possible. While we're on look, don't just stick lamberts on everything, shaders make your look (aside from colour and form). They make it look clayey, or glossy, or fuzzy, or whatever. They define the overall feel the objects in your world have. For Kernel the key lookdev research was about translucency. See through surfaces of the green house, thin leaves absorbing light, and Leonard's skin doing the same. All those things took aaaaaaaaages of tweaking and experimenting to 'perfection'. Use the mia_material_x_passes and put fresnel on everything, even if its just a little bit.

With a good story, the most hard work you've ever done, and good people, you can make an awesome fillm, and you will never have been prouder in your life.

Here's a little nugget I found on my phone the other day, its reference for this shot.
I love my really unhelpful directing. "Now do this, and this, now this. Done." Functional I suppose.

Pixel Propaganda

A cool looking tool for designing game mechanics, quite in depth though.

Some fancy realtime(ish) rendering techniques using Maya's viewport 2.0.

A great look at the making of indie game Limbo, and its unusual development process and team.

The new Blender Foundation film incorporates live action and, as always, is extremely impressive considering its open source software.