I have just come back from the great Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and thought an update on the state of gaming as it related to design may be in order. I fully attended this year and went to many terrible and wonderful presentations. Many of the sessions including most of the nominees for game of the year at the Developers Choice Awards Ceremony told me that the video game industry still has a long way to go before it divorces itself from the violence and misogynistic images that many of us associate with its products. However there were many talks I found inspiring and informative. The most helpful for me from a technical point of view was Building Sim City Art in the Service of Simulation with creative director Ocean Quigley. I learned sim cities get created as designers choose from a pallet of textures and architectural elements (what we might call a kit of parts) that got applied across various volumes which are also chosen from a palette that includes everything from taco trucks to skyscrapers. Quigley said that architects were involved with this process but I wasn’t sure how. The poor guy tried to get the designers to use scripted grammar or algorithms to create facades but apparently they weren’t into this which I totally get. In addition to the design process I learned about façade and relief mapping on quads and tried to understand how to get polygon counts down. This polygon count issue is the enemy of the architect/designer trying to make cool and original buildings in the virtual world but like me has no idea how to do it minimally.
After learning how to make virtual cities I went to see a post mortem review of the 20 year old Myst which The Witness has been repeatedly compared to. They are right. While it is working with old technology which makes it less dynamic and has badly designed cut and paste buildings it is still a lot like The Witness. After getting a little panicked that I was going to get sued for copy write infringement I calmed down and realized that with all the gun toting death eating zombie games our there we were hardly out of bounds on this one.
The next day I switched gears and learned that while they sounded like infomercials lectures that broke things down into steps seemed to work well for gamers. My old client( for real buildings) Pixar told us about The 5 Key Plot Points to Creating A Great Story which I had actually learned in Marshal Gantz’s class last year when I had to write my own narrative. I learned from the creator of The Witcher series how to be innovative and creative in 8 Easy Steps that involve asking questions and identifying feature dependencies.
I also felt a little uncomfortable as he put up images of naked women playing cards that were at one point part of the game. While people started giggling I looked around this massive room filled with thousands of people and was reminded that I was one of the few women there and only 1 of 3 black women that I saw during my 3 days. In short I stood out just a tiny bit. This prompted me to go to the IGDA Diversity Advisory Board round table discussion where I was the only black woman there and the discourse was a little bit skewed for my liking. I wasn’t so sure that having more black men on the screen with guns was the solution to creating diversity in the gaming industry. I shared how the National Organization for Minority architects was doing things with Project Pipeline but also wasn’t so sure they were interested. Either way I got some cards and scuttled out.
Later the day, I heard the most inspiring talk during my time at the conference. It was Designing Journey by Jenova Chen the president of That Game Company. This year Journey swept the IGF & Choice Awards Ceremony. It prompted standing ovations at both their talk and the ceremony. Journey is a refreshingly humanist game that creates emotional connections between players who are searching to find their purpose as they travel to a looming mountaintop surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds.
During his talk Chen spoke about emotional pallets and his evolution from needing the power adolescents sought in games to wanting a feeling of awe and mystery, intimacy and friendship. This game along with other indie game winners such as Kentucky Route Zero and Cart Life helped me to see how incredibly creative and beautiful virtual games can be. It showed the magnificence that gets created when art, architecture, graphics and story come together to create a new world where you as the actor can participate, influence and receive something new. I am not sure if there is a place for my practice in this industry. As someone who refuses to engage in designing environments where violence or the objectification of women is a primary theme I am going to struggle. However I learned this week that indie games are current culture and hopefully the future for this industry. If games like Journey are winning the highest honor in the industry and games like The Witness are being picked up early by Play Station there is a new era coming and perhaps we can be at the forefront of this change for the good in gaming.