So that’s why curators have technicians

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Work continues on v r 3, my exhibition of water. Yesterday I started actually messing around in Unity itself putting water all over the place and attempting to have it behave itself.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but I’m always really interested in the strange parallels that come up when you’re trying to do some sort of “job” in a game creation context. Whether it’s setting up the staging of a Eurovision show (Epic Sax Game) or doing the interior design for a non-existent institute (Digital Marina Abramovic Institute), there are always these situations where you’re trying to accomplish a task in digital space that is most often done in physical space. Setting up an exhibition of water is another example of this experience.

The most interesting thing here, of course, is the ways in which the digital impinges on the task, making some things much easier, some things harder, and some things just strange. So you can organise a gallery space by just cutting and pasting a file from a previous project, but in the same breath you might find out that light somehow shines through one of its walls which you need to fix. There have been various oddities like this that have cropped up so far in a single day of working on v r 3. Here are two.

You can’t lean over. In designing the plinth to hold the water I wanted it to be as similar as possible to the cubes in v r 2 as a kind of continuation and consistency. But in thinking about labelling and the ability to actually look at the water itself, it occurs to me that a really typical movement people perform in galleries is leaning over something that is lower down in space. The typical avatar always stands completely upright, just swivelling their neck around or, at best, doing a really weird crouch in which they lower themselves straight down in some kind of creepily smooth squat before scooting around the landscape like that. There’s no really naturalistic way to look at something from other postures. And this kind of rigid body (physics joke for you fans out there) has implications for the kind of display technology you then end up using. Maybe the plinth has to be higher so that the weirdo viewing the show is able to look clearly. Maybe the audience member has to be fitted with terrifying telescoping eyes so they can “zoom in” on things they can’t lean toward. Maybe the didact with the information about the particular piece they’re looking at has to be angled at 45 degrees to be legible, or has to be in extra large type. Etc. Consequences.

Water isn’t water. The water I’m displaying in v r 3 is obviously not “really” water, right? It’s not just a physical substance that behaves according to the laws of physics. Now, if I were having this show in reality, there would be all kinds of problems around displaying water, like the risk of it spilling or evaporating, of somebody trying to drink it or splash it, or of it leaking through the materials of the plinth, say. None of those issues are issues in a digital space, though – in those ways digital water is very neat and tidy and resistant to interaction. However, it doesn’t play nice in other ways. You can’t, for instance, take for granted that the world will be reflected correctly from the surface of the water (should you choose to enable reflections, which is a decision you can make). Instead, I fought for a couple of hours with the phenomenon of looking down into a pool of water only to see various bits of the reflective world pop in and out of existence. This does not happen, as far as I know, with real physical water. There’s lots of stuff like this. At one point I had multiple pools of water and realised they were all co-dependent – when I changed the colour of one (again, easy to do, no dye required) they all sympathetically changed colour. Not what I wanted. And on and on it goes. Currently I’m dealing with an issue where if you stand a really specific distance from the water and look into it, it refracts the world around it in a kind of scary infinite-looking regression of swirling shapes. A bit like a demon is about to swim up out of it and claim your soul. Not what I want.

So, once again I’m brushing up against all of these oddities of virtual spaces and virtual objects and virtual liquids. On the one hand they’re often very clean and simple to deal with or move around or remove or add, but on another hand they sometimes all too much like what they are, assemblages of code and assets that may or may not reflect reality.

Splish splash.

Strange Power

I played Virginia as part of the IGF judging/jurying process the last couple of weeks. As I said earlier, it didn’t necessarily grab me as a game overall. (I wasn’t the biggest fan of simply triggering “the next thing”, despite the very, very impressive cinematic/filmic approach.) However, there is one element of the game I keep thinking about, and I find it kind of strange:

The power cable in the FBI director’s office.

You visit the director’s office fairly often, and every time you walk in, there’s this white power cable leading from the far left wall, across the floor, up onto the desk, and into (I think?) his laptop. It is a super awkward piece of cable positioning in an office setting where you’d normally have some sort of more hidden approach, so it really stands out. And because it’s so blatant, it ends up feeling (to me) really naturalistic and interesting.

I guess the most obvious explanation is something along the lines of the temporary nature of the Director’s work setup – he only uses the laptop sometimes, doesn’t have a desktop computer installed in there, and so just plugs in as necessary. And since the only outlet is (presumably) in that wall over there, he has to stretch his power cable a long way to get power – as we have all done many times in our lives I imagine. It’s not pretty, but it does the job.

I wouldn’t want to read any metaphorical depth into the power cable, although the game itself is drowning in metaphor so perhaps it invites it. I just really enjoy how wrong the cable looks in a completely natural way. It’s the kind of ugly ‘decor’ stuff real humans do, and which is often so completely absent from videogame interpretations of living/working spaces. (Frankly, cables of any kind are often pretty absent – perhaps because they’re just a pain to model or something?)

It sings about a real person – it doesn’t tell us much of anything about him, per se (except that he doesn’t give enough of a shit to find a more elegant aesthetic solution to his power needs), but it tells us, just briefly, that he’s real, that “this is real”.

Games often want to do “this is real” of course, but I wonder if awkward details like the power cable here are a secret sauce that aren’t being used enough? Good job, Variable State.


The Pleasure of Winning Poorly

Advance Wars

I’ve been playing quite a lot of the Gameboy Advance version of Advance Wars lately. I wouldn’t say I’m terrible at it, but I definitely don’t have the greatest military-strategic mind in the business, so I often do stupid things that get me annihilated or put me at a huge disadvantage. I also don’t learn from these mistakes so far as I can tell.

This means that the kinds of elegant victories you generally need to achieve a high rank in the game (e.g. winning quickly, powerfully, and with great technique) are often out of my reach. I get them sometimes, but it seems to be largely by mistake or because the particular map in question is kind of trivial.

For quite a while my low rankings really bothered me, because it feels (quite rightly) like not being good at the game you’re playing, being judged (quite literally) as not as good as you could be. But lately I’ve been playing the game almost specifically toward lower ranks on purpose. And oddly enough it’s felt more ‘real’ in a lot of ways. Thus I often stop worrying about speed, but rather trying to build up a marginal advantage in material assets (which I’m pretty sure the game has built in to make your life easier) and then grow it to the point where I just roll over the opponent with an unstoppable force.

It’s particularly weird because it feels like the AI doesn’t quite know how to play this, it seems tuned to respond to more elegant play than I’m offering. So it often just sits back on its heels while I grow everything until it’s far too late. That sense of just grinding out the victory feels more connected to the shitty, long-durational nature of most wars than the idea of a brilliant stratagem and minimal losses etc. does.

So when my B or C rank rolls by, I just nod sternly and turn my face to the next battle.

Background Reality

Part of what I’m doing with this game Kicker is making a pretty involved American football simulator, as I said yesterday. The weirdest thing about the football simulator is that that game isn’t actually about playing football – or at least not much football. So this elaborate system of play-calling, calculating play results, checking for first downs, interceptions, and on and on and on is all just in play as a kind of background fabric to the “real” game. Some days it’s hard to tell whether this is the most massive waste of time I’ve ever engaged in, or actually pretty great.


Thrills and Skills

As we all know, I’m in love with the Skate series of video games because, as I’ve gone on about at length, it operates at a great level with player skill. Specifically, your avatar (the skateboarder) can technically do all of the available moves from the very beginning. The question is whether you, the player can pull them off. And the answer is that you can’t until you build up your ability over time. You need personal skill, physical skill, in order to do the amazing things that can be done.

The major upshot of this, I think, is that in Skate we can take great pleasure in our accomplishments. They’re hard earned and we understand that each well executed movement is because of us.

Recently, I’ve had the deep pleasure of playing two related games which take the Skate concept of requiring skill to interesting new levels. Both games are by a guy called Dr. Bennett Foddy (it’s currently blowing my mind he’s an academic, unless that’s all a hoax). The first game I played, which is actually Foddy’s most recent, is GIRP, a rock-climbing simulation (as seen in the screenshot to the side). The basic premise is that you hold down a key and your dude reaches for the corresponding grip on a rock-face. If you let go, he lets go. If he’s not holding anything, he falls off the wall. That’s about it, other than the ability to “flex” and thus have the guy pull himself up on any handholds he’s holding. The objective is to make your way up the wall – you really need to play this game to appreciate what that entails.

GIRP is a brilliant game of skill. You start off flailing ridiculously, often unable to get anywhere at all. But gradually you adjust to the basic mechanic (much like rock-climbing) of choosing appropriate grips to reach for next, and making your guy pull himself up at the right moment so that he can reach distant grips and so on. The purity and simplicity of the simulation (holding onto something, pulling upward) leads to a real feeling of control and achievement (though the avatar is very ragdolly and can jerk around pretty crazily). It also leads to higher levels of skill being attainable. My current favourite moment was when I realised I could swap handholds by reaching above my current handhold with my free hand, then letting go of the hold, only to catch it again with the reaching hand. Swapping hands is often very useful, so this isn’t just a piece of flair but a genuine rock-climbing building-block that emerges from the simple gameplay. I’m sure there’s more, too, that I haven’t figured out – I can’t even get to the top.

The other game I’ve taken for a spin a few times now is the earlier game QWOP, which takes simulation to a brilliantly absurd extreme. In the game you control a sprinter, but instead of the usual fantasy of running crazily fast, you have to individually control the runner’s calves and thighs in each leg. As you might expect, having this level of control means that you basically just fall down repeatedly as you try to make the guy run. Foddy has made this helplessness the explicit point of the game, in opposition to the usual power fantasies we usually get. Thus, the skill you’re trying to learn is something insanely simple in theory, but something that feels unattainable as you start playing. Playing the game, it’s the first time I’ve felt so excited by managing to take a single step.

Then I fell down.

But then I got up again.