Snapshot: No Man’s Sky

Wandering the planets in No Man’s Sky is a bit like scouring the beach for something beautiful, a nice looking shell, a colourful stone. You never know what the tide will carry ashore and you never know what each planet will generate to explore.  The limitation of repetition become apparent not through an inability to create compelling terrain, which is satisfactory – bar the apparent materialisation or omission geological formations right before your eyes. This could be forgiven by virtue of the sheer scale of what is trying to be achieved and doesn’t dissuade from exploration. What frustrates is the inability to populate spaces with a convincing variety of flora and fauna that differs enough from that found on the previous planets you have visited – this is all based on an experience of 50+ hour’s game play. In an alleged universe as large as is claimed, this might be considered unwarranted, but shouldn’t that make repetition more unlikely? Furthermore if you consider the types of planets you can encounter, I have yet to come across the extremities of a completely inhabitable planet. I know that would prevent useful game play, but part of the allure of vastness of space is surely how remarkable the discovery of new life would be? Not a vending machine of planets, where in each spherical egg I’m virtually guaranteed to find a bunch of phallic shaped mineral deposits, beanie babies with ridiculous A.I, and Daftpunk clones playing I-pads in sheds every 2 minutes. To borrow one philosophical quip from the game ‘With the chaos of the infinite, we must cling to the probable’. There manages to be enough of interest to keep your attention, the constant speculation, the lack of any immediate answers to anything, but many will grow weary of this mine-em up’ long before they have the opportunity to meet anyone else. The humbling truth is they probably won’t. There is a loneliness to the game that calls for you to explore rather than tell you what to do at every turn. Maybe Space is too much space.

Making Games an Integral Part of ‘Place’

Curators of the public realm and game designers need to explore opportunities to collaborate to make games an integral part of place.

It will be a challenge to bridge these professions, but it is a nexus that must occur for common goals to be established.

Gaming can enhance human interaction with the landscape, inviting and engaging with a broad spectrum of society. There are, however, some key differences between designing physical and virtual environments.

The physical landscape is bound by the conventions of society, layered with a history, a suite of infrastructure and landmarks, which help to define the setting, purpose and cultural significance.

Virtual environments are at origin created from scratch on a blank canvas, within a game engine and adaptable physics – an abstraction of the actual environment. This is accompanied by an inventory of items to populate the space, often featuring their own traits, again, an abstraction of the physical equivalent.

We frequently see real world locations referenced in virtual game environments, often in the form of famous landmarks, architecture, landscape, historic periods and events. This helps people to make associations and to create the desired ‘atmosphere’ within a game. In one sense, landmarks may be considered the anchors of place as they are often the first image people associate with.

‘To the tourist, a city is a collection of landmarks, their surroundings irrelevant on a whistle-stop tour of the most famous sights. In games, geography is matter not of accuracy, but of atmosphere’ 1

Be it virtual or physical, assets and locality are not the only thing that define a place.

It is only when we consider the potential of tapping into local settings and experiences that the local economy for gaming becomes apparent. Gaming could be informed by locals and created for a broader audience, allowing market for local knowledge to develop.

‘A game is always going to feel more true to its real-world setting if it’s made by people who actually live and work there’ 2

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When we think about ‘Place’ there are other qualities that contribute to our cultural map of the world. An ongoing social narrative. Human interaction. A history. A future. Events. Appeal. Last but not least, and most applicable in a gaming sense – fun.

In one sense Augmented Reality (AR) is competing with the world of domesticated gaming, however, there are other audiences that may find the outdoor setting appealing – tourists. When combined with the local gaming population, AR draws people outdoors to be active, without preaching the benefits or making the physical achievement the central focus of the game.

Whilst the game designer has a lead role in creation and execution of games, the desired experience of cities continues to be shaped through public realm curation and stimulated through place making. Outdoor gaming  can provide an adaptable tool to help to inform both.

Landscape Architects and Place Makers understand the need for engaging activities within the public realm. There is, however, a flexibility that the overlaid, augmented digital environment presents, which transcends both the permanency of physical boundaries and features, and expense of infrastructure.

One of the other tangible opportunities AR that sets it apart from Virtual Reality (VR) for example, is the ability to leverage off the existing tactile experience as part of the game. This adds something new to location based mobile gaming (LBMG). Whilst this is not unique experience when considering existing experiences such as geocaching, the hybrid of traditional screen based game experiences with AR, in conjunction with specific geographic locations is new territory and practically unheard of amongst curators of the public realm.

References 1 & 2 – Edge Magazine, ‘Cabbies hate this weird trick’, Dec 2015

 

 

 

 

Narratives in the Digital Landscape

Not everyone has means of accessing rich, stimulating environments, whether it be down to geographic confines or financial limitations, physical and psychological health or perhaps most likely – a lack of knowledge of where these environments exist. Increasingly densified and over-populated urban centres, diminishing open space and poor weather are also other factors that limit our experience.

By focusing on our lack of experience of natural environments, it is possible to better define what it is we find redeeming about it, and how this is manifested in videogames.

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Discussing his recent works having branched out into the art scene, architect and hybrid practitioner Nick Wood touched on the idea of absence of experience and the assumptions we draw from to form an image of place in our heads.

Building upon this, our interpretation of places are not only shaped by our experiences when we have visited them, but other factors such as word of mouth, elements of popular culture, and perhaps even videogames.

A digital landscape is not bound by the detrimental factors detailed at the start of the article, but they can be artificially recreated and augmented as part of a game to interpret the environment.

Drawing on the experience of ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’, we are indulged in the realistic depiction of the Shropshire countryside in summer. Travelling to and from destinations within the game is paramount to the experience, unremarkable by the pace of most modern gaming conventions.

The experience is abstracted by a narrative that meanders through the game on orbs of light, conveying the apocalyptic dialogue of the visually anonymous country folk. Irrespective of the ominous messages the narrative becomes the vehicle of experience in the game and the landscape, despite its realism is ultimately a wonderful distraction.

Without the narrative the experience of the landscape is ambiguous given it partakes to a game, and our generic expectation of a game is that there is a problem that needs to be solved.

Landscape therefore becomes more meaningful when we assign a narrative to it.

The Journey: desertification of experience

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The Journey teaches us that game environments don’t have to be intimidating, dystopic, and combative.

There is a certain amount of patience in exploring the desert landscape, but this only forces greater recognition and reflection of the environment you find yourself in.

As we surf around the sinuous, sandy landscape, the underlying decay of desert palaces remind us of the failure of civilisation, drawn only to the distant mountain that provides an ever present compass.

Gusts of wind prevail, preventing exit from the game boundaries rather than walls of static, meaningless objects we so often see in game landscapes. This guides in a way that makes the game feel less linear, although the minimalistic landscape makes way-finding quite intuitive.

As your journey continues the landscape becomes a conduit to delivering the powerful societal narrative. Squandered power of a once mighty empire. An extinct race and stories in the stars. Unique and mysterious. Bold, majestic and brave.

There is also merit in scaling the heights of the desert environment. It prompts moments for reflection, and contemplation of big issues like enslavement, climate change, deforestation – also prompted by cut scenes comprising only of hieroglyphics.

A broader question of the Journey as an experience is, do you have to be lost in a game to make it truly captivating?

A game is a bit like an unfamiliar city, a maze where you must make the connections by familiarising yourself with the environment. That doesn’t make a city you reside in become less compelling, but less challenging, less like a game.

The digital lens which we look at cities could make them more compelling not only for visitors, but long term residents. Maybe we need the sensation of being lost so we can learn the value of discovery again. It once again demonstrates that games can render place, but places of imagination, of role play and interpretation.

Technology has burned discovery in some ways. The narrative of our cities lost in a visual garb of commercial splurge, delivered via our various electronic devices whilst telling us where to go. If the city is no longer the retail consumer hub it was why do we still treat it like it is? Experience becomes the product, the brand.

A lot of people won’t like this game. They will ask what the point of all of it was. It is not until you reach the pinnacle of the game and the plight of your cloth shroud avatar becomes apparent that the underlying message of the game becomes clear. Other avatars you met during the game weren’t just bits of programming but other players playing simultaneously… companions met on the way. The value of the shared experience.

Retro blamer

I can’t help but feel our thinking around play is hopelessly old fashioned. Slides, swings, monkey bars. It’s so retro. In the area of gaming a game system is considered retro if it is over 15 years old. How do we consider play equipment as having evolved so much? When does play equipment become retro? How has it evolved with the modern expectations of play?

This week I ran an interactive workshop for a class of Grade 3 children regarding play. Firstly I showed a series of 16 images depicting various forms of play, predominantly outdoors and including nature play, conventional play equipment, wheel sports (bmx, skate boarding etc) and a few other play typologies. Each image also contained people participating in that type of play. I asked the children to select the three images they thought ‘looked the most fun’.

play typologies

There were two definite favourites. The first was an image of the Playford Alive Town Park playground right outside the Stretton Centre where we were located, a technology hub funded by Federal Government in the Playford Alive development. I understood that this might be fresh in the pupil’s minds and anticipated some interest.

The other image deemed to look most fun, which was a surprise, was an image of a playground constructed in Minecraft. The image also contained the Minecraft interface with recognisable components. To see that this artificial environment was deemed more fun than the other images of play opportunities says something profound about modern expectations of play amongst children. It wasn’t established if Minecraft was on the school curriculum.

The third most fun was an image of parkour. There is no parkour in the City of Playford. What was it about the image that was captivating the 7-8 year olds? It dawned on me that the parkour image depicted a series of multi levelled concrete cubes, which bore a great resemblance to the cubic constructions seen in Minecraft.

There was an all-round lack of interest in the images depicting nature play, despite strong backing within the industry to develop more nature play opportunities in recent years. It was hoped that by association of experience, the pupils would have an awareness of what nature play looked like. It may hint at a lack of nature play opportunities and experiences, amongst this particular group of pupils at least.

I feel the game industry is currently missing the opportunity to develop play outdoors. Are huge sales of throwaway game experiences in a global market the only thing in demand? What about games with local context developed specifically with locals in mind? This could be planned, funded and developed as a local attraction. Technology making experience of the outdoors (including nature play experiences) more accessible and appealing to an increasingly domesticated audience. This shouldn’t be confined to children either, far from it. The average gamer age is 33. A generation who grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Brothers, as oppose to Angry Birds and Minecraft.

Snapshot: The Last of Us Remastered

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There is something quite compelling about the natural qualities of this fictitious dystopia. Without the zombified aspect of the game this could be existing urban degradation near you. I have seen Fresno.

We don’t need some apocalyptic event to make this urban decay real, it is an aesthetic as likely to have occurred through some flawed planning and governmental mismanagement. Or maybe even climate change. This bares resemblance to the description of the unpopulated urban environment depicted in Alan Weisman’s ‘A World Without Us’.

The attention to detail is high. I look down and i don’t see one generic surface. There is paving laid in multiple patterns and textures, a soldier course of retaining pavers and even some degraded by war or weathering. I look at block of seating and planting in front of me, made of a different stone with coping, populated with light posts and overgrown shrubs.

The foliage is unconvincing however and it sways inorganically like a seesaw, rather than the disorder of multiple limbs with variations in weight and wind resistance impacting their movement. It also lacks diversity and is sometimes too obvious as the sole barrier to movement when that is all required of it.

There is tweeting but no birds to be seen from the occasional tree that has outgrown its planter box. Its roots spill over the edge with evidence of infrastructure decay from the inevitable overpowering roots. There is litter strewn around and moss everywhere.

The water isn’t particularly convincing. The reflective qualities are there but the consistency of the water when engaged sometimes looks like jelly, although it didn’t bother me like the foliage.

We are reminded of believability vs necessity debate with environmental assets in games. The interpretation of a post-apocalyptic environment where nature has begun the re-establish itself is what sets it apart from the pack and it plays a major role in the tone of the game.

Miyamoto’s Landscape Philosophy

Instead of designing game levels that fit on a single screen, they (Nintendo) created enormous 3D landscapes complete with trees, castles and dinosaurs. Adapting to this new challenge, Miyamoto created a new philosophy. While game designers were coming up with features, then building their games around them, Miyamoto worked on creating expressive landscapes, then created ways to use them – The Ultimate history of Videogames