Vision: The Unfinished Swan (PS3)

The conjecture when facing a blank canvas makes for a poignant introduction. The environments we step into are usually pre-fabricated with refinement and lustre; to captivate and hold our attention.

The Unfinished Swan inaugurates a white space poised with a central reticule; it wants you to surrender with an impatient button press. Any provisional ideas of exploring negative space are immediately abolished, without some kind of reference point there is no sense of movement or progress. The inevitable yielding launches an insolent black ball of paint; the staining of its target brings a revelation; the appearance of surrounding structures underneath the void. It is a remarkable sight and it sets the temperament of its shooter; the competitive will quickly race to uncover a way out, the completest will reveal the integrity of the structures and the stunned will just stand there, beguiled by the possibilities.

The linearity of your path is equipoise by the freedom to reveal your pathway, there is no limitation to the amount of ink you command, but self-restraint creates an appealing impressionistic view of the landscape. The opposite effect is throwing copious amounts of black onto black which renders everything invisible again. Despite the world’s pre-existence behind the emptiness, it is an ambit you have uniquely revealed. It is all too easy to disclose the intricacies of both the story and the visions, but the central mechanic excels by stumbling upon the wonders rather having an anticipatory mindset.

As you progress; shadows introduced to the emptiness accentuate edges of constructions, the architecture almost begging not to be spoiled by your dye. The developers (Giant Sparrow) later indulge in this unblemished vista by replacing your ink cache with spheres of water. The spectacle of seeing water thrown onto white is arguably more appealing than ink; flirting with insights of the locale and then evaporating into nothing.

In contrast to the initial elucidation, pre-rendered buildings are presented bathing you in a haze of relaxation. The unhurried pace and minimal aesthetic is a pleasure to traverse, reminiscent of a lazy Mediterranean town in the summer. This departure from the opening however has been controversial. The introduction of auxiliary mechanics and change of graphical integrity had some critics unconvinced, citing a mismatch of ideas usurping the opportunities that could have been explored. It is a valid point but does not diminish cohesion, The Unfinished swan is clearly introduced as an imaginative bedtime story. The interrelation of conducting ascendable vines to the latter creation of geometric blocks fits within this whimsical realm of magic, giants and Floating airships.

The Unfinished swan may have been more impactful following its initial concept but Giant Sparrow should be applauded for exploring diversity over the one visual trick, and perhaps this departure makes that aesthetic even more potent. There is a simple exploitation of traditional game proponents which unifies conviviality, such as walking over a maze instead of through it. It is not innovative but it supplements the simplicity of the puzzles, they are completed effortlessly and feel congenial rather than taxing. Like the visions of relative contemporaries; Thatgamecompany, to whose work this will be compared, restraint is needed from revealing too much.

Ultimately The Unfinished swan takes a stimulating game mechanic and offers eloquence, nurtured through the warmth and buoyancy of its story. It’s virtues lie in the enchantment of a unique atmosphere and this ambiance keeps you seduced until the credits roll. Ian Dallas, Max Geiger and the rest of  the Giant Sparrow team have somehow bottled vivacity; inimitable energy pours from bleached buildings and crystal waters, they serve as conduits of peacefulness, for you to get lost in, for you to uncover reverence.

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Prevision: Memory of a broken dimension (PC/Mac)

What was the last videogame that left you completely immobilized, when you stood before something incomparable, that defied categorisation? Questioning not only what was happening visually but how you felt within the atmosphere it generated? The type of sensation that is usually reserved for something unprecedented; like those key revelations that chart the advancement of the videogame.

The summation of my writing has been to ask a simple question; is the videogame still evolving? I search for that answer without equivocation, Ezra Hanson-White of datatragedy has responded to that question and his answer has hit me like a brick.

Originality and innovation are two of the most abused words used in the gaming press, permeating fickle scores and hollow reviews, I would like to use those terms with the sincerity they deserve. This is what originality looks like and how innovation feels, this is Memory of a broken dimension.

Part of the official selection of SOWN (the Tokyo game show’s Sense of wonder night). MOABD’s theme and content, surprisingly, has originated from real world elements. This may seem implausible unless your vocabulary consists of; Hyperspectral imaging, or erudite ramblings of the heliosphere and solar radiation bursts. The images here depict oceans of static transmissions, of information broadcasts and the mining of data, data inspired by NASA’s interplanetary footage amongst others.

Ezra has created a first person tool that allows you to tune into broadcasts, radio signals that need exact synchronisation to capture images. These images forge a landscape which you traverse and explore. The slightest directional movement fragments the similes and you are constantly re-evaluating where you are. The sensation is like having infinite epiphanies; not understanding anything around you but for fractions of seconds; everything solidifies and becomes clear. Tuning in TV channels seems appropriate, but imagine walking inside of them as you are doing it. The feelings this generates are often antonyms of one another; shades of claustrophobic openness or relaxed intimidation. Most of the time I did not know what I was viewing but what I recognised, or thought I recognised was all the compulsion needed to see more. Videogame history has a lot of diverse experiences, but I have never seen anything like this. It is fitting that MOABD was featured at a Sense of wonder because that is exactly what this is; a sense of wonder.

Ezra divulges some more information on this already exceptional work in progress.

Your vision is about radio propagation and hacking into satellites to view data signals.
How did this idea materialize?

Its been a slow process, the first bits of inspiration were from experiments with 3D modeling tools, shattering primitives and mapping textures to the camera’s viewpoint. A couple of years ago I started writing design thoughts down in my sketchbook, up until then I had no habit of doing so, over time I began noticing how different fragments of ideas actually tied together with prior ones. That led to the concept coming together as well as discovering how my creative process can work.

MOABD received astonished reactions at the Lunacade exhibition in Sydney. Some of the audience did not know what it was or what to do with it. I view this as a positive thing, we don’t hear that very often; videogames are often derivatives of familiar sources. Was the distinct aesthetics something you imagined or are they true to the source of satellite signals?

It’s cool to consider the aesthetics as being true to the source of satellite signals, thinking of how glitched out data can look when the methods of reading it are unknown, but overall the aesthetics are imagined. Some inspiration comes from the deterioration introduced while making copies of copies, like VHS tapes or types of compressed audio & video. Other things like NASA space footage interrupted by solar radiation bursts, buffering artifacts of late 90’s 160×120 RealPlayer streams at 5.3KBps, half-emulated features of systems.
I’m wanting to get the entrancing effect of watching a fire or waves crashing, fields of tall grass billowing in wind. I’m probably also chasing expressionism or even impressionist ideas, but I don’t think the visuals are there yet, experimental visuals are something I want to see more of in games and interactive media, maybe when Geometry Shaders are standard in all hardware?

Interaction generates a bizarre feeling of travelling immense distances but equipoise by not really moving. A Loss of signal makes the world disappear leaving only the wire frame grid around you. Does the world solidify as you tune into it or is it constantly unfastened?

Most of the world is fragmented and as the user synchronizes with it, becomes physically interactive. I’m playing with having certain rules where parts of the world break apart again when out of range (inspired a bit by WiFi signals). There’s also places that overlap in the same point of space with the user tuning between them. The level in the Lunarcade build is pretty claustrophobic, there will be wide expanses to balance the experience.

How are you going to explore narrative and what do you want to communicate? As the visual elements are so effective is there a danger of diluting the experience with more ‘game like’ elements?

Currently I’m approaching the narrative as a kind of alternate-reality device. The user is interacting as themselves, as they would at their computer. Running the game is fictionalized as running an emulator, the user is booting into an obscure operating system where a haunting PSX-era chime would seem fitting on startup. They scan directory structures for hidden files, exploring the software contained inside while unveiling its purpose. Then the emulator establishes phantom connections beyond the local network and strange things occur…

There isn’t a sense of cutscenes explaining narrative or the Player playing as a character, which is something I had planned on doing at first. I’m a huge FPS fan, ever since finding wolf3d.exe on a shareware disk in the mail, so it seemed natural to treat it entirely like an FPS- disembodied hands walking into the character’s living space, walk up and activate the computer…dive into screen… it probably would work fine but the thought of treating the game as an emulated system just stuck in my head. I like how it wraps up all the common game-stuff, menus and things, and makes them fit into the fiction.
The funny thing is, I added view bob, which helps make it feel even more organic and reactive…so who knows, maybe I will end up putting some disembodied hands in (Fotonica nailed awesome VR hands), maybe part of it ends up being a game in a game or a scientific virtual reality research tool…?

What developments have you made from the code you previewed at
Lunacade?

I’ve been busier with work recently so I haven’t gotten too many major developments, overall just making adjustments based on feedback and also working towards having a set of different interactions that I can structure levels around. The Lunarcade build didn’t include any form of a map system so that is another thing I started prototyping. Since I work on the project in spare time, development is either at one extreme or the other depending on what is happening, crazy accelerated binges or just slow & steady progress.

I am intrigued by a question you posed in the TIG forum: “What if you could access any range data transmission. What is out there that is being studied and not public knowledge? (+ a ton of fictional stuff). Could you elaborate on the relationship of the real world based elements mixed with the fictional?

I feel like I need to restrain myself from elaborating, it’s a mix of real world elements that I’m pulling from, random things you hear from science journals, about the heliosphere, clouds of galactic fluff, the cosmic background radiation, etc. Then the reality that a lot of stuff is transmitted in the electromagnetic spectrum almost invisibly to us, using various devices to observe specific ranges. Researchers use techniques like Hyperspectral Imaging to view into the earth and detect various minerals, similar techniques are probably being used to analyze material on the surface of Mars right now and observe behavior of the Sun.
I guess fascination with stuff like that started with radio when I was younger, that all these different stations can be accessed from a point in space from a small device.. In some ways microscopes had a similar effect, I’d take a sample of muddy water from off the street, drop it on a slide to track down and chase all sorts of weird objects swimming around. I never found out what the different things swimming around were, I didn’t care, all that mattered was that they were in a tiny drop of water pulled from a bigger puddle of water, what else was in the puddle that I hadn’t discovered?
That kind of captures where the question came from and what the fiction of the game floats around with, I’m hesitant of how thorough it will be explained in MOABD, overall I’d just like it to be a contemplative experience that doesn’t over-explain itself, the mystery and strangeness is important for the type of experience I’m creating.

You have expressed that you want the user to feel like they are using a tool. Is this a tool for general observation or will it be imbued with emotional content?

The introduction to computers and DOS had a sense of unknown that was new to me, you’d type in commands and not know what would happen, trial and error, digging around in directories and trying to get games to run with boot disks. The introduction of the internet made this all even more mystical, does the information superhighway exist on this AOL trial disc, what is this thing, a new type of CD-ROM dictionary? The weird sense that your computer is connected to the entire world, what? The internet is pretty common to many people now, and I’d like to create an experience that has a bit of that unfamiliar-technology mystique. So, much like the first time running minesweeper.

Phonically the vision sounds like you are inside an electrical storm, is this purely the sound of the apparatus or do you want the experience to be menacing?

A mix of both, I want the audio to enhance the impact of the visuals, so it is more on the imaginative side, I have no idea why the user can hear all this noise! So far I’ve been avoiding putting in common sounds that would be identifiable a lot of the effects come from FM synthesis which I really like for the digital sharpness it can have. The Lunarcade build was pretty menacing sounding, looking back at it I’d want to make parts of it more serene, I don’t want the experience to be too abrasive all the time and wear down the user.

The menu screen is a really effective introduction, it feels like pirate television. Have you experimented by exploring that as a gameplay element in itself?

Currently the command-prompt style menu ties everything together, the plan is hitting ESC at any time drops out to it, where various programs can be accessed. I’d like the user to have a sense of multi-tasking. Like you’re chilling in a neo-Houston control bunker watching the telemetry feeds and piloting a craft, all while your virtual shadow hangs submerged in the data streams and packet-loss exhaust extending from it…!
The user might have to delete files or rename things as a gameplay element, there is a lot that I want to explore, the map system for example is inspired by the concept of defragmenting drives.

What lessons have you learned from Protekor and PRΔY that you have applied to this project and what do you hope to explore in the future?

Protekor started from a prototype done for Experimentalgameplay.com Drawing theme in Dec 2010, it was the first project I took beyond prototype in Unity, I used it to learn a lot about Unity’s workflow. It turned into a fun exploration of what I consider classic arcade-style balancing, all the waves and difficulty ramping being algorithmic based on the Player’s performance. PRAY is still a super-early prototype, I’m looking forward to continuing with it at some point, it is also a project that I’d use to explore procedural generation in level design.
MOABD has a bit of a generative approach, mainly with the visuals and audio. The visuals are chaotically shifting and organic, different results occur for different players dependant on their position and changes to the environment. The audio behaves similarly, with aspects of it subtly modified by the Player’s mouse input velocity. There’s a chance I might introduce more generative or systemic design into the game, to me, that is one type of perfection in design to strive for. The game that you can keep coming back to that plays out differently each time but behaves under a known set of rules, I’m not sure if MOABD is the perfect fit for that, maybe the next project…

Early experimental footage.

The new language of videogames

The purpose of my writing is to lionize the videogame and its future.

This will be achieved by promoting content for the advancement of the medium, through neoteric thinking and innovation. My aim is to present experiences that we have not played before; alternatives to the oversaturated genres we have wallowed in for too long, games that challenge perceptions, which can enlighten the ignorant as well as the conversant.

Some of these experiences will look atypical; not fitting politely into the mould of what we call a traditional videogame. They may not be cohesive under our current mode of evaluation either, which rates experiences by their control mechanics rather than emotional content. This interactive medium is important socially, culturally and academically, it should not be viewed as a mere disposable toy or as a scapegoat for the ignorant.

I respect that a lot of people have no desire to look beneath the surface; to many, games are just a convenient escape and nothing more.

Please try to understand though: this is a medium that other modes cannot replicate; one that offers an abundance of opportunities. Videogames are conduits of expression and instruments of ideas; they stand as benefactors of creative thoughts. This creativity needs to be supported, unhindered and not supressed or pigeonholed.

The book, the song and the film are widely respected channels of ideas but they are generally passive experiences. As a user your interaction does not alter the course of the content, you watch, listen or read with the option of stopping or continuing. With videogames we can have direct influence inside of those ideas, creating, touching and manipulating them in a way that generates visceral expressive content. There may be a linear path towards a final goal, but that path can be deviated from and played with.

The criteria for selecting the games I present revolves around one element; they must offer something original, either through interaction or by innovating; aesthetically, phonically or through subject matter.

Progress does not come from repeating the same things over and over again; it comes from experimentation and risk taking with a high degree of failure. The games I present will not be criticised for their attempts to innovate, especially because they might not play or look as good as other games. They will be commended for their struggles to forge new paths, because this is how the medium moves forward, through trial and error, it grows through innovators and not by plagiarism or imitation.

In addition to the content and ideas I present I will introduce a new term instead of videogame; one that encompasses more than the current vocabulary we use.

This term is: Interactive visions (or visions for short)

My reasoning behind this phrase will be examined more in depth in another post, but I feel that it simply conveys the essence of the medium without placing restrictions on what or who it is for.

I hope to challenge our perceptions of what a videogame is, what they can do and what they can be. It is important to open up debates as to what this medium is capable of, and what they could be like in the future.

Thank you for joining me.