Misc update

[General] (03.02.11, 5:09 pm)

Well, I haven’t been updating in quite a while. That’s largely because the writing I do is dissertation related, and is very messy. So my work isn’t really in a good state to upload to the website. I’ve also been working on other sorts of projects, a lot of them art related.

My life has been emerging from a very turbulent period, but it’s coming along alright.

Just wanted to say. I’m out there. Still working, etc etc.

Fluid Hydrodynamics

[Projects,Toys] (07.22.10, 5:04 pm)

A while ago I had a brilliant idea of doing a fluid simulation to get interesting material effects that could potentially be used in Painter. I did some research and discovered a paper on Particle-based Viscoelastic Fluid Simulation. The implementation described was pretty much exactly what I needed, so I set forth to make a library to handle effects.

And of course, it’s also useful to have a nice shiny demo.

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Spy Games

[Projects,Toys] (05.31.10, 5:16 pm)

This is a project for my Game AI course in Spring 2010. The project was a collaboration between Ken Hartsook and myself. The AI system used for the NPCs was inspired by Cutumisu and Szafron 2009. “An Architecture for Game Behavior AI: Behavior Multi-Queues“. The primary goal of the project was to develop a game in which social interaction is a primary game mechanic.

To play the game, click on the other characters and choose options to engage with them socially.

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Procedural abstraction and representation

[Art,Games] (02.25.10, 12:18 pm)

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting a show at the Phillips gallery featuring the abstract works of Georgia O’Keeffe. I adore O’Keeffe for her art, particularly her use of lines and colors, but this exhibition focused on the relationship between the abstract and the representational. These particular paintings exist on the edge between abstract compositions and depictions of flowers, bones, or landscapes. O’Keeffe is known for rebelling against the characteristics of realism in art, and claiming that “There is nothing less real than realism.” Instead, it is the abstract that most closely is connected to how we think of the world and understand it in our minds. Abstraction is the process of distilling a representation into its purest, simplest meanings. Realism does not convey experience; it conveys instead a rendition, an imposition of noise where there should be clarity. Realism detracts from the artist’s interpretation of meaning from a subject by chaining the representation to the object. O’Keeffe manages to do this without essentializing: her paintings of a jack-in-the-pulpit are not a claim that the images represent the true essence of the flower, but that they suggest her own experience of the flower, distilled.

Because I’m interested in games, this post necessarily has to connect somehow, and that is in procedural abstraction and representation. Games and simulations are abstractions of the world. Instead of depicting images, they depict processes. There is plenty of writing about the inappropriateness of realism for simulations, but one thing that can be learned from O’Keeffe is the role of the artist in the abstraction itself. The practice of abstraction is cognitive, gradual, and immensely personal. While O’Keeffe’s role in her art has been to transform objects into representations which are abstracted, personal, and artistically evocative, it is the role of the designer to derive rules in simulations which create dynamics and aesthetics that form a good experience for the player.

There are several dimensions for exploration here: O’Keeffe made several series in which she abstracted an image more and more until it became something that is far removed from its original subject, but still recognizable. An interesting exercise would be to simulate a system was with many rules so that it is realistic, and then gradually remove them until the system became more abstracted, but still recognizable. What kind of effect would such a series of systems have for a player? How would the designer make the choices of what rules to remove while reducing and abstracting gradually? A second exercise is to consider O’Keeffe’s artistic evocation of sexuality in her paintings of flowers. What would it mean to design a simulation which was abstractly representative, but also evocative of something else?

Meaning, gameplay, and narrative

[General] (01.21.10, 11:45 am)

I read a lovely article on the blog for Frictional Games. The argument in the article is that gameplay and narrative are detrimental to meaning in interactive experiences. The terms gameplay, narrative, and meaning are carefully defined, and the argument is important and compelling. However one element of this was troubling which is the intertwining of experience with meaning. All media produce experiences, particularly entertainment produces experiences. The majority of games, though not the games that Frictional is espousing, are entertainment.

Frictional games are interested in horror, which is visceral, so a focus on experience is natural. However, by placing experience foremost, it is easy to fall into the trap of non-interactive media, which is provide a very carefully, precisely crafted experience. In these situations, the meaning is crafted by the author, and we get criticism that hearkens back to auteur theory. This is one of Roger Ebert’s main critiques of games, that because it is interactive, the player can interfere with the author’s precise vision. This is not what is being argued in the article, however, there is something more to meaning in games than experience, which is not clearly stated.

If meaning is not authorial intent, then what is it? Games are unique in that they are systems that a player can interact with. I argue that the meaning is produced by the player’s comparison of the system in the game with the outside. The game can be about an adventure story, and the player could compare it against any other story; the game could be about failed relationships, and the player can compare it against personal experience; or the game could be about moral dilemmas, and the player could compare it against their own personal morality. With games, as in any other medium, meaning is not inherent: it is representative, and it requires interpretation and participation in order for it to work.

Diegesis and Progress: Assassin’s Creed versus Prototype

[General] (01.16.10, 3:59 pm)

I finished Assassin’s Creed 2 not too long ago, and just recently a friend lent me Prototype. Both games have been very enjoyable, especially from the perspective of free navigation of space and the development of an increasingly diverse and complex arsenal of player abilities. In terms of play, the difference that stood out to me the most between the two games is how progress is implemented within the narrative of the story world. Progress in Assassin’s Creed 2 (AC2) is entirely diegetic, whereas progress in Prototype is almost entirely extradiegetic. I found the diegetic development in AC2 to be extremely rewarding, but the choose-your-own ability system in Protoype is also compelling for different reasons. The approaches offer the conflicting goals of narrative integration versus configurability. What approaches could we employ to integrate the desirable features of both systems?

Progress in AC2 is diegetic. This means that the protagonist Ezio gains a new ability when it is granted by the story. The player has no control over what abilities are learned, but each ability is integrated into what is happening in the story world. For example: Ezio gains use of the hidden blade when it is given to him, Ezio learns how to use special maneuvers with other weapons when the player purchases a lesson and Ezio is taught. Every new maneuver (with only a couple exceptions) learned is given by the plot, so the player has no control over the development of progress, it is entirely controlled by the designer. A major positive of this is that challenges are presented to the player explicitly to draw the use of the new skills. Very rarely is the player up against an adversary or obstacle for which there is no way around.

Prototype takes a very oppositional stance: Almost every new ability learned is through an interface in the menu. When the player has accumulated enough of the game’s currency, new skills may be purchased and used immediately. Skills are unlocked as the plot wears on, but typically (or at the very least, in my experience), there are many more skills available than can be purchased. This allows the player to control the repertoire of abilities that the protagonist, Alex Mercer, can use. The player may have a preference for one power over another, and focus development of new abilities on that preferred power. This is empowering to the player to be able to customize and develop the skills usable in the game. However, a tradeoff is that there is no story world explanation as to why Alex develops his newfound abilities. A consequence of this is that there is also very little in-game instruction as to how to use the abilities. Because of the design, a tutorial system would be awkward to develop: The player will not necessarily want to sit through five tutorials one after another after purchasing five new abilities. Because the player can learn abilities anywhere and at any time, there is no way to make sure that there is a suitable way of explaining the abilities after the player learns them. The result (again, for me) is that Alex has a mess of abilities and the player has no way to clearly understand how and when they can be used.

Diegetic progression is useful for both the purposes of instruction and also for the sake of making the player’s progression seem meaningful in the story world. However, diegetic progression often leads to restrictive development of gameplay. It seems like there should be some form of compromising between diegetic progression and character customizability. I would argue that quest based ability gains would be a good way to mediate between these. Another possibility is to use a clear training system, much like in Okami, to let the player learn new abilities, but also be able to practice them at leisure.

Painter online

[Projects] (01.16.10, 10:05 am)

I’ve created a more or less permanent section for Painter on the website. That will get the latest updates to the Painter program and include more documentation. Painter still does not have a UI, but that is in the pipeline and should appear relatively soon.


[Experiments,Projects,Toys] (11.22.09, 12:50 pm)

At long last I have a demo of Painter that does something interesting. Click on it below to have it start.

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Miscellaneous independent projects

[Projects] (11.13.09, 9:20 am)

I’ve got this strange disposition that I have cultivated where my self satisfaction has a lot to do with whether I am doing something productive. I have to keep busy so that I’m focused and positive, but if I spend too much time on work stuff it feels crushing. On the other hand, if I relax and laze about for a long while, I’ll be fine for a little while, but will gradually become very agitated. This presents a problem for when I already have a lot of work to do, because I’m doing work, but it’s not my own. The answer to this is independent projects. Normally I’ve got one of these going while I’m engaged with other work, but right now I have a lot.

I’m not sure how it came about, but here’s what I have:

1) I’m working on Painter again. A little while ago I was having a conversation about the project. I introduced it as a spiritual successor to Genetic Image, where instead of generated expressions, Painter uses generated programs. After having this conversation I realized that I did all of the hard work for it: the infrastructure to define the programs, statements, expressions, and so on, but I stopped when it got to the actual drawing. For some reason, this seemed like the hard part at the time.

Admittedly, there do not seem to be any open libraries for Java that give Photoshop-esque drawing capabilities, but that’s kind of a silly thing to hope for anyway. However, there are good libraries for producing straightforward visual effects, especially out of Graphics2D. Normally these are directed towards cutting edge UIs, but I’m sure I can use those tools effectively for painting.

2) POV-Ray. I love POV-Ray. In the years since I first discovered it there have been more and more raytracers and renderers, but POV still holds a special place in my heart. However, a thing that has always bugged me about it was that you don’t have a lot of control over how objects reflect light. Actually, that’s not true, but you only have a few ways in which to do it. In traditional renderers, there are several types of illumination: ambient, diffuse, specular, and pure reflection. When programs start using radiosity, particularly via Monte-Carlo integration, it becomes hard to restrict illumination to the four types given. The light reflected off an object viewed from a particular angle is really something in between traditional diffuse and traditional reflection.

Anyway, I decided to compensate for this by modifying the POV-Ray source to include glossy reflection. It looks decent so far. There are actually a few other ways to get this effect, but mine has some special means of variation that allows quite a bit of customizability. When it’s more done I’ll post a few comparison shots.

3) Gameboard: A new project is a program supplement for roleplaying, that attempts to simulate the tabletop experience while gaming over the internet. This project is hardly unique, but most other programs that aim to do tabletop online run into a few flaws: they are closely bound to a particular system, cutting out house-rules; they prioritize 3d graphics over ease of navigation and use; they restrict users to internal assets and prevent them from being creative with their own. Effectively, they prevent users from doing things with the game board that players can do with a tabletop. I haven’t studied the other products that closely, but I know that a few of these are definite issues. My goal with this is to create a system to get those elements of the tabletop experience that are integral toward holding players’ attention during games.

Gameboard has a lot going for it conceptually, but I’m also at a tricky design situation, where I’m trying to figure out how tiles and layers should be represented in data structures. It’s not an impossible decision, but it’s one of those that is either made correctly, saving a lot of time in the future, or is made incorrectly and needs to be revisited a bunch.

4) Finally, I’m working on some new GeneticImage renderings. I’ll post some pictures later…

And on that note…

[General] (10.24.09, 3:03 pm)

I just read this off of Amanda Palmer’s blog. In it, she discusses an experimental theatre project “Sleep No More” being run by the British theatre company Punchdrunk. Sleep No More is described as a combination of “The Shining, Macbeth, and Twin Peaks.” As awesome as that sounds, it gets much more interesting (from AFP’s post):

you don’t sit and watch actors. you wander around the space, alone (and wearing a mask) and you create your own experience.
actors come and go, events unfold. you can follow actors if you wish (they generally ignore you, but they will make contact occasionally),
or you can sit alone in a beautiful room filled with christmas trees until someone walks by you.
you can discover rooms nobody else is in and rifle through dusty papers and books.
there are rooms in asylums filled with bathtubs. there are fully landscaped gardens, there are rooms filled with dirt.
there is full nudity. there are lots of tuxedos and ballgowns. there is insanity. there is sexiness.
there is murder. there are moments where everyone winds up together and moments where you can watch the most intimate scenes play out between characters.

It’s not game-like in the sense that there is no “interactivity”, though there definitely is presence on the part of the audience. So, despite a lack of interactivity, there is still participation. Moreover, there is exploration and role-taking. Using classical definitions (say, Chatman), this can hardly be classified as narrative. So what is it? Well, it is performance art, but that ignores the problem.

We can think of types of games, performances, and stories which require some degree of role-taking (eg, clapping for Tinkerbell in Peter Pan plays). We can also think of performances which have an anonymous audience that wanders though a space in which some scene plays out (eg, spectator mode in some FPS games).

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