I received an a-n artist bursary this year to engage a games designer to teach me how to make interactive virtual worlds on screen. I have long been interested in how “analogue” games can aid creative thinking and be used as tools for collective world building, but was interested in how to expand this into a digital environment. I’ve played tabletop roleplaying games as a hobby for a long time and in the last few years have staged interactive performances based on Nordic Live Action Role Playing (LARP) techniques as part of my art practice. One of these LARPs, Katabasis, takes place in a cave, which was in turn inspired by the underground environments that many roleplaying campaigns take place in – Dungeons and Dragons being the most famous example. It is the potential of the subterranean as a space for refuge, ritual, habitation, culture formation and exploration that I am interested in exploring further through the a-n bursary project.
Having spent all this research time looking at different ways of approaching game design it was time to learn how to take the project one step further – into the realm of 3D. Being trained in photography and video editing I know programmes such as Final Cut Pro, Photoshop and Premiere Pro fairly well. I’ve also spent many hours looking over my friend Arnau’s shoulder while he created special effects in AfterEffects for my short film The Return from Annwn. But creating 3D shapes and spaces wasn’t something I was familiar with at all and the point of this project was in some ways to learn and explore what for me was a completely new medium.
Earlier this year I met artist and 3D graphics wizard Kris Lock. His and Jo Sweeney’s film The Vase in the Container was shown at Whitstable Biennale this year and is an impressive feat both in content and in the execution of the graphics. And luckily for us Kris said yes to teaching me and artist colleague Antonia Luxem how to start our virtual journey.
He suggested we look at three programmes in particular, all of which are free or have a free trial before you start paying. First we would learn how to create 3D-rendered objects in Blender. These were then to be imported into Substance Painter where we would give them their texture and surface finish. Lastly, the object – or digital asset rather – would be imported into the games engine Unity, where you can make navigable game landscapes to explore. We’d planned to spend an introductory lesson on each and then go from there but perhaps unsurprisingly, it all took way longer than we thought it would!
Starting in the autumn we had a couple of lessons on Blender. The idea was to start completely from scratch so we knew what was involved in making digital assets in this way. We started with an arbitrary item that one might find hidden deep in a dungeon – a treasure chest.
First we found a 2D image of a treasure chest which we sculpted a 3D object from, extending the image surface into space to make it an object you can zoom in and out of, spin around and generally view from every angle. This took a lot troubleshooting as it seemed that every time we changed our angle there was a missing plane or point in the object – or I’d gotten my horizontal planes crossed with verticals and so on. As with all computer programmes, learning all the commands and menu systems was also quite a challenge – especially as they are different in all three programmes!
We then learnt freestyle sculpting, which is where the concept of polygons came in – a polygon is the point in the wireframe that a 3D object is made out of. Having an object with a high polygon count means that you have a very detailed object, which is great for freestyle sculpting and makes it look great, but it also means that working with the object takes up a lot of computer processing power. So this is a juggling act. We essentially made some wicked looking handles for our treasure chests using a high polygon count and the sculpting tool and these almost broke my computer!
Without going into too much detail, Kris then taught us how to animate our objects using key frames and I’ve got to say it was really satisfying at the end of the session when my treasure chest lid opened and closed on its own. When you import the objects into a games engine, you can essentially trigger your objects to move according to certain actions, all details to think about from the very start when you are designing the object and the storyline. As with most programmes there are also numerous ways to do the same thing, and we also experimented with rigging animation, which is better for more natural effects such as body forms etc.
In our next session we imported the treasure chest into Substance Painter and played around with its texture. In order to do this you have to first explode the object onto a 2D plane in Blender, known as UV mapping. Pretty tricky to get right the first time around as both the proportions and the planes and edges tend to get tangled. What really struck me with the whole process was the amount of time it takes to do things properly and I’ve definitely got a new found respect for what goes into creating computer games. What I also liked about Substance Painter (apart from all the amazing textures it has) was that you have to bake your mesh maps rather than render. Pretty cool.
The idea when we started was to have a fully fledged dungeon environment with various objects and props that we had made in Blender and that we could then bring to life in Unity. Because of the sheer amount of time it took us to make objects this wasn’t quite to be and we didn’t have that much time to experiment in Unity as we would have liked. We did learn how to start making a terrain and a first person character that you guide as a player through your journey – and we got to place our cherished treasure chest (with opening and closing lid) in an environment, but there is lots left to explore.
Luckily, there are tutorials online and we are going to have a few more sessions with Kris so that we get to grips with Unity as well as its various customised add-on programmes. Then there is always the option of using downloaded assets when creating environments to save on time, which is apparently is pretty standard unless you have a huge team of game creators behind you. What has been really valuable is gaining a basic understanding of what it takes for someone to make a virtual environment, so that whether I make something more advanced myself or in collaboration with someone, I have an understanding of the process. I still feel there is lots to explore technically and to experiment with before making any judgement on whether the medium itself works for the project I have been working on and am looking forward to taking the project further in the new year.
My aim with the a-n bursary I received was to build an imaginary subterranean location as a basis for an art work which in its most basic form is both open-ended and critically interesting for the player to explore. The question soon arose as to what extent I should guide that experience within the game structure. I wrote in my last blog how I attempted to map out this subterranean landscape through designing a text-based computer game. The third blog in this series is about the different game formats and design possibilities I explored in preparation for making this virtual landscape.
To start thinking about this I organised two public workshops around game design, both which were held at Open School East in Margate this October. The first workshop was a ‘Masterclass in Tabletop Game Design’ with James Wallis from games consultancy Spaaace. The workshop started off with an introductory lecture which took us through the history of board games from the ancient Egyptians’ play habits to chess to modern board games such as Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, before we moved on to game mechanics and the basic structures used to design board games.
James started off with a quote by Sid Meier, the creator of Civilisations: “A Game is a series of interesting decisions’. I felt this pointed to the crux of my questions about the discipline in relationship to art and the hierarchy of who makes those decisions – how does a viewer become an active player and how does one design an experience so that their actions contribute towards its outcome? The traditional mode of experiencing art is comprised of a viewer surveying what is essentially a set ‘of interesting decisions’ made by the artist. But to what extent can the viewers themselves be drawn into this decision making process? This is of course a question that participatory art has been grappling with for decades, but feels particularly pressing in the current political and consumerist climate where the freedom of citizens are being challenged on every front but political apathy is still widespread.
Back in the workshop we spoke about what to build a game from; dice, cards, a board, questions and answers, conversations and so on. We also touched upon how to write a good rule book, the amount of chance versus choice in a design and the most random element of all – the players. James spoke about different players types, such as the socialiser, the battle-ready and the explorer. We spoke about “the magic circle”, the temporary world that is created and agreed upon between the people present, a term referenced by both ludic theorist Johan Huizinga and anarchist writer Hakim Bey. Lastly, James spoke about the importance of borrowing ideas from existing games. As an artist it is always refreshing to hear advice that breaks with the myth of the genius and challenges the idea of the supposed tabula rasa that any avant garde emerges from.
We then got together in groups and designed a board game in 20 mins which was play tested by the other groups. With the feedback we received we then modified our game and had it play tested a second time. It was really fun to work so quickly and collectively and see that you can come up with a solid foundation for a game in such a short amount of time. Definitely an approach I’d like to bring into my own practice more!
For the second gaming workshop we were visited by Lewis from ‘The Escapement’ Escape Rooms in Margate. Escape rooms are physical rooms where a team of people have to escape as quickly as possible by solving a series of puzzles by using their collective wit, imagination and cooperation. Prior to the workshop we were able to try out their escape room experience The Pit, a mining-themed challenge. This was cool as throughout this project I’ve been thinking about the underground mostly in an imaginative sense. Here was the opportunity to see how someone had interpreted the subterranean as a physical space. The Pit differs from The Escapement’s other challenges as it is a series of underground spaces rather than one room and I was almost surprised that our team managed to get out in just over an hour. Time really did fly while we were down there though, it was lots of fun!
It was especially interesting to think about the difference in the intention between an escape room and the large-scale installation structures of artists such as for example Mike Nelson or Christoph Büchel. The goal is very clearly defined in an Escape Room; “get out as quick as you can”, whereas you could argue that although the intention is often more obscure in an art context this can often lead to the experience being more open to interpretation. On the other hand, the time pressure involved in an escape room brings to the fore personality traits in those taking taking part, which is always interesting to observe.
The aim of Lewis’ workshop was to teach us the mechanisms and design decisions behind an escape room. What is a puzzle and how do you design one? How do different player psychologies play into the situation? How important is immersion? The Escapement put a lot of emphasis on using narrative as a driving motivator and a convincing atmosphere through props and scenography, whereas other escape rooms can focus more on the technical aspects of a puzzle solving. We learnt that every item in their escape room is there for a reason. You have to think both creatively and logically when trying to figure out their hidden meaning. Some of the tasks could only be completed with two or more people, bringing cooperation and communication into the game as important aspects. What I took away from the workshop for my own practice was a method to plan and map out a series of causes and effects, keeping in mind having a balance between the type of challenges you present to players.
At the same time as I was organising these workshops I was invited by Grenselandet LARP festival in Oslo to run ‘Katabasis’, a Live Action Roleplay I have designed and run with collaborators Francis Patrick Brady and Susan Ploetz. ‘Katabasis’ follows the structure of the Nordic Larp tradition. It starts with a 2hr workshop to familiarise the players with the communication methods (the game is non-verbal), space and interactions that are the structure of the game. They then play out a narrative (not pre-planned) for about 2 hours and spend the last half hour debriefing. Debriefing is an important way to bring players back from their fictional character and the collective magic circle they have created.
Designing ‘Katabasis’ (the name references the journey to the underworld) was very much an experiment in using the associations of the subterranean as a location within which to explore culture building in groups. ‘Katabasis’ is a Black Box Larp, meaning that it takes place in a simple room with minimal scenography, props or costume. In our latest runs of the Larp we experimented with using string to demarcate cave tunnels, entrances and caverns in game. Players are essentially asked to suspend disbelief in regards to the scenography but still have to bend, crawl and wind their way through the space. This embodiment of the cave space seems to strengthen players’ experience and I am curious as to if a purely screen-based or “mind-based” experience can do the same.
I wanted this project to be an exploration of the possibilities and limitations of various game platforms as mediums for art making and narrative building. Thinking aloud now about the most obvious differences between the various gaming traditions. Using the whole body to interact with the task at hand is something Larps have in common with Escape Rooms, as does the spatial design that goes into the overall experience. Although Black Box Larps don’t necessarily use scenography they often use sound and light in their design. With Katabasis we use the lack of light to create atmosphere and the sound of water to demarcate different stages of the game. You could say this is similar to the video game experience where the visual and audio plays a large part. Larp is usually predicated on your interaction with other players, which is similar to board games and MMOs (massive multiplayer online games). However, one element that does set it apart from many gaming traditions is that Larp does not tend to have gamification built into its game design. The focus is on creating an experience, such as an atmosphere or emotion, rather than winning a game, something I am interested in translating into single player screen-based games.
It is worth mentioning in this context ‘Design/Play/Disrupt’, the video game exhibition the V&A opened this autumn. There are plenty of video games they focus on that do not follow the “traditional” video game trajectory, ‘Journey’ being one of them. ‘Journey’, has in many ways much in common with Larp, apart from the obvious fact that it is screen-based. The aim of the game seems more about exploring your surroundings and interacting with other players and as it happens non verbally and without any textual direction the onus lies very much on the player to create their own interpretation of the events and visuals that unfold as the game space is explored.
Another thing that was fun to see at the V&A exhibition were all the references to ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’, the original text-based adventure game I wrote about in my first blog. The highly rated video game ‘Kentucky Route Zero’, which is the focus of a section in the exhibition, used this as one of their major inspirations and reference it quite notably in their game design. They also used Twee, a system built on Twine, the interactive fiction programme I used to write my text-based adventure game and referenced in the last blog, to design their game.
The bursary I received from a-n was for experimenting with bringing ideas around game-journeying and space-making into my practice, particularly through learning how to render a digital space in 3D. In my last blog post I wrote about the research I have done looking at the development in games from tabletop RPGs to text-based adventure games, which then developed into dungeon crawls made with early computer graphics. Although the aim of my bursary is to gain skills that would enable me to make a playable space akin to what we are used to seeing in computer games today (if a lot cruder!), before doing this I first had to map out a storyline or make some sort of physical plan.
Using the format of a text-based adventure game as a first draft and as a way to organise my thoughts seemed like a good idea and I decided to use a mini residency at LIMBO in Margate to learn how to do this. This required some testing and trialling on my part, mostly with the help of online tutorials. The residency lasted for four days with a small exhibition at the end, meaning it was a pretty intense week! I used the time to think about how to map out game spaces in different ways, with the main outcome being a text-based adventure game that players could play on a computer that was set up in the space.
To make the game I taught myself how to use a free software programme called Twine and although this is technically a hypertext game rather than a text-based adventure game – the difference being that as a player you click through links of pre-written text rather than type in commands – it follows much of the same logic. Another word for this format is Interactive Fiction, its similarities mirroring the Choose Your Own Adventure Game style books. As with the books, with Twine you can use text and images, as well as sound, to guide the player through a journey. The structure of this journey is linear but branches out as soon as you include multiple choices for the player to choose from (see graphic). It also automatically ushers you ‘onwards’ through the story unless you build loops into the game architecture, like linking choices the player makes back to already explored rooms. You can also use conditional logic, meaning as an example, that if a player finds a key earlier in the game they can use that key to open a door later on. Thinking about these limitations were an interesting way to go about constructing a story. Not only did I have to create a directional and spatial confine that was open enough for the player to believe and imagine themselves in but I also had to plan out the journey in terms of the time it might take to play the game. A total space/time conundrum! The game essentially became a labyrinthian structure of possible story lines, as regardless of which route the players take, big parts of the space would likely remain unexplored in each game played.
As a small homage to Willie Crowthers’ use of Mammoth Caves as the basis for Colossal Cave Adventure (which I write about in my first blog post), I decided to base my game map on a more local underground space. Margate is home to a famous Shell Grotto, but it is less well known that it is also the home to Margate Caves, originally dug out as chalk mines in the 17th and 18th centuries. They later acquired the name Vortigern’s Caves (after a local king) and were a visitor attraction complete with paintings of mythical creatures and hunting scenes on the walls. The caves were closed to the public in the early 2000s, giving them now an almost mythical wiff of potentiality as a space. A walk along the beach in Margate earlier this summer revealed much local enthusiasm for the caves to reopen and judging from the building works it is finally looking like this might happen next year.
While I was thinking about subterranean fiction, a sub-genre of fantastical literature that has close links to Hollow Earth theory, I was also wondering how such fantastical tales could be brought into the at times dreary realism of a seaside town like Margate. I was thinking of caves as places of both practical, philosophical and imaginary usage, as places for illicit activity or refuge and as places representing both fear and possibility. There are so many roads you could go down when exploring the subterranean, so how was I going to decide on a narrative out of all of this?
Then, thinking back to Willie Crowthers’ involvement in ARPAnet and the historical link between cave systems and databases, I decided to use my personal database to advance the story line, as a way of making a method in the face of these endless possibilities. I keep a folder of randomly gathered images and texts for inspiration, which I spent the week sifting through and piecing together into a spiderweb of a story. Connections and sub-stories eventually emerged and became the basis of a narrative of a post climate change hideout that the protagonist is trying to locate 500 years in the future. I named the game ‘Lair of the Neo-Diggers’, a subtle hint towards what activities used to take place in this subterranean space.
Having had a tradition of searching out an underground location on every holiday I have been on and every recent birthday I have celebrated I have also amassed my own archive of photographs of cave entrances and tunnels. These images became the backbone of the games ‘physical’ structure as it advanced downwards from the starting point of Margate Caves.
When I exhibited the project, audiences were encouraged to map out where they were going in-game by drawing the space they uncovered. I also played with the physical gallery by using tape to map out corridors and entrance ways on the floor. Those visiting the space could choose to follow these marks as a map, embodying the journey taken in the game. Another idea I hoped would work was that as people uncovered more of the cave in-game they would add their findings to a map which hung on the wall. However, the feedback I got was that people got so engrossed in the text game that they forgot about this element. This response made me wonder whether something simpler, – something which leaves more to the imagination -, like a text-based adventure game, might be more effective in conveying imaginative narratives. I initially thought of the text-based game as a tool to map out the beginnings of a more sophisticated 3D landscape, but now I wondered if a less is more approach might work better altogether. This is an approach I am familiar with from organising Nordic-style Live Action Role Play workshops (with no props or costumes), but the whole idea behind my bursary application was to delve further into the visual aspects of gaming and roleplaying.
While I’m figuring this all out, I’ve slowly been working on expanding the network of fictional tunnels in the game and getting more sophisticated with using Twine. If you would like to play test the game do get in touch and when the game feels less like a work in progress I will be making it available on my website.
This summer I was invited by artist Flora Parrott and geographer Harriet Hawkins to speak at Expand & Contract, a research day they organised in London. The conference hosted a group of multidisciplinary practitioners to expand on themes related to Flora’s PhD on perception and the subterranean. It included a lecture by archaeologist Clive Gamble about his findings related to our early ancestors, a shamanic drum journey to our inner caves led by academic William Rowlandson, a talk by Loretta von der Tann from Think Deep about the challenges of working in underground engineering and an atmospheric underground audio journey with SHELL LIKE. My contribution to the day was to run a mini version of Katabasis, a LARP I have co-designed which is set in a cave. Using Flora’s artworks as a sort of stage set, the LARP became a way to physically process what we had experienced that day and to collectively imagine and create an underground space based on what we had to hand. I also held a lecture about the links between Cavers and Coders and as this research forms the starting point for this project I thought I would start my blog posts with sharing some of it here.
The relationship between gaming and the subterranean has existed since roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons entered the popular imagination in the early 70s. Although it has been a popular backdrop in fantastical fiction (think Jules Verne’s 1864 story Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Ludvig Holberg’s even earlier 1741 novel Niels Klim’s Underground Journey) there is no direct explanation for why the subterrestrial has made such a mark on modern gaming lore. One reason could be that the cave – or dungeon – provides a helpful spatial limitation to guide players through a game, as you have only a limited number of options of where to turn next. The underground also provides ample narrative potential, with its association to the beginnings of human existence, as a place of resistance and subversion and as a still unknown and unexplored territory.
I’ll begin with the absolute basics. Roleplaying games (RPGs) such as D&D are played with paper, pencils and plenty of dice. They are usually played in a group, led by a “Dungeon Master”, who has either written the game or prepared a pre-existing campaign and who is there to guide the other players through their quest. What RPGs do particularly well is encourage players to be active and use their imagination to spur on the game – without player input there essentially is no game. The game narrative is spoken out loud and the only visuals present, at least in old school games, are the notes and maps players jot down themselves – unless your Dungeon Master is also a gifted illustrator, as my group’s DM is, who makes amazingly evocative drawings of the friends and foes you meet along the way.
As video games have become more sophisticated in content and more expansive in playable space they are starting to feel more like old school RPGs in terms of their imaginary potential. That being said, in most current video games the possibilities the players have at their disposal still need to be pre-programmed into the game architecture, causing limitation by design.
The first computer games were text-based adventures, also called interactive fiction, and essentially digital renditions of the Choose Your Own Adventure book format. They are typically played by one person typing text commands to a computer-controlled Dungeon Master, whose narrative unfolds through text on the screen. When typing in commands, the player has to hope the computer recognises their commands, basically like a primitive Siri or Alexa. Rather than using arrow keys to move around, a player might type in the compass directions or click on hyperlinks to advance the story, helped along by commands such as “get object”, “open door”, “enthrall dragon” or whatever seems appropriate.
One of the first computer games to see the light of day was a text-based game called Colossal Cave Adventure. This was initially developed by a computer programmer called Willie Crowther in the mid 70s. Willie was an avid spelunker and based the game on an underground space he knew well, Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. In fact, a couple of years before he programmed Colossal Cave Adventure, Willie and his wife Pat were instrumental in mapping out and joining up the underground networks that constitute the Mammoth Cave system. It is now known as the world’s longest cave system, with more than 400 miles (643 km) explored. In the computer game the underground network is made of 3000 lines of code and 1800 lines of data, which includes 140 map locations and 53 objects to find along the way. Given Crowther’s interest in converting physical networks into digital spaces it is perhaps not surprising to learn that he was part of the team that developed the ARPANET, a computer network which linked various research nodes across America and Europe and which was a forerunner to the modern day internet.
The ARPANET map holds an uncanny resemblance to an old school dungeon map. As with RPGs, text-based gamers often keep track of their progress, often through drawing. A wrong turn in Colossal Cave Adventure could mean death by hot flowing lava, or worse, being stuck in the Hallway of Endless Mist. As you can imagine, the save function wasn’t great. I find the visual links between the mapping of a computer network and a cave network, whether real or imaginary, really striking. It has also made me want to explore further links between communication technology and caving, of which I am sure there are many.
With computer technology improving in the 80s, text-based adventure games developed into first-person dungeon crawls, whose graphics still had to be crude enough to fit onto a floppy disk. The dungeon seemed a good setting as its repetitional layout was conducive to the aesthetics possible with the technology of the day. Many of the characteristics of computer-based dungeon crawls were lifted from the tabletop RPG format. This included the inventory of objects that players could carry with them, as well as the dungeon map visual that would track what areas were explored so far in the game.
In terms of gaming history it is worth mentioning that it is fourty years ago this month that Richard Bartle, inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure, linked up the first ever MUD – Multi-User Dungeon, on the University of Essex’s computer network JANET. This came closer than ever to a screen-based and communal RPG-like experience, as it could connect players in different locations to play out a scenario. It is also the precursor to the MMOs (Massive Multiplayer online game) we know today, such as World of Warcraft.
I’ll end it in the pixelated 80s for now however. My next post will hopefully be about my attempt to map out an underground structure through a games software designed to make text-based adventures, as a first step towards creating a virtual environment.