Plants – the Supporting Actors

First off, a disclaimer: Now that the school year is about to start at UW-Stout, my teaching, chairing and program directing duties will be (unfortunately) eclipsing much of any hope I have of keeping this blog frequently updated.  My goal will be to have something posted every few weeks, to keep you informed of the snail pace progress that occurs during the school year!

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Various plants filling in as groundcover in Tombeaux

Last month, I posted about the importance of trees (namely, the White Pine) in my game. The trees are essentially characters in my game, with a focus on their historic, environmental, and commercial value. I’d like to follow-up with a sister post, about some of the smaller foliage elements – the supporting actors – that are scattered around the river scenes of Tombeaux.

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A scientist from the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, playtesting Tombeaux (photo courtesy Greg Seitz)

I once again returned to the source – the river – to get the evidence I would need. Through consultation with scientists at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station and a trip out on to the St. Croix, I spent a mid-August day doing some field research that would help me refine my focus (I was also able to get some valuable playtesting time in to the trip).

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Foliage in Tombeaux

There are a myriad of common plants one might find in a variety of natural settings (around the world), whether they be prairies, forests, or rivers.  As examples, daisies, queen anne’s lace, cattails, ferns, knapweed, various grasses, and mushrooms are found (and easily recognized) by people around the country, and sometimes world. Plants like these are also native to the St. Croix region, and thus necessary elements to my game, providing the “filler” that I am looking for regarding ground cover around the river. Just as with the trees, I used a fantastic program called Speedtree to create all of my plants.  In a few cases, I was able to employ and modify the template of a plant they had already created. But in most cases I found that it was necessary to strip down the structure of a plant to create a new, unique looking species that would fit my specific needs.

Photo of Wild Celery

In addition to the common plants mentioned above, there were a few unique plants that I knew I would need to create and represent well in the game, due to either their history or their “prolific-ness” on the river. Regarding the latter, wild celery (Vallisneria americana) is in fact a frequently found piece of vegetation around the country and world, but also very unique to the St. Croix. It’s a type of “tape grass” found in freshwater environs and is commonly sought after by waterfowl; it has a beautiful movement as it flows with the underwater currents. When one is on the St. Croix, the plant seems to be everywhere – serving as both the bane of the fisherman’s motor and also dinner for a duck.

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Wild Celery (and fish!) in a shallow river area of Tombeaux

I wanted to be sure to represent this plant – even if in a subtle way – in Tombeaux. Making it in Speedtree was somewhat easy – I first created a simple grass cluster, and applied a subtle amount of force to the mesh, which resulted in a wavy feature that seemed to fit well with the natural flow of wild celery. When a slow, weak wind force was applied, it gave the look of a grass moving underwater.

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Using Speedtree – Wild Rice (Top), Wild Celery (Bottom Left), & Queen Anne’s Lace (Bottom Right)

The second unique plant was a bit trickier. Northern Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) is a well-known upper-Midwest staple, especially in its final form on the dinner table (it is not actually a form of rice, but a grass with grains growing from it). This plant is particularly important to Tombeaux, due to its historical significance in the Ojibwe culture (both in the past and still today). The harvesting and preparation of wild rice is an art in itself, implementing a series of tools and extremely involved processes, including the use of canoes, knockers (large wooden sticks that remove the grain without damaging the plant), and winnowing baskets that are made from birch bark.

Photo of Wild Rice

When the St. Croix and surrounding tributaries were completely flooded due to logging (with both high water and the presence of logs), the wild rice began to dwindle. With a spiritual, cultural, and economic way of life for such a large population disappearing, it foretold of what was to come with land and rights also going by the wayside. My use of the plant in Tombeaux thus has both historical and environmental intentions, hoping that it catches the eye and interest of a player to learn more.

Drawing of Wild Rice Harvest by S. Eastman

Due to it growing so thick in a natural environment, I wanted to make the wall of wild rice exactly that – a thick collection that swayed in the wind, not allowing the player to navigate beyond its edge. In the game, I’ll have various tools and canoes nearby, to provide the story of this important part in Ojibwe culture to the player to observe and consider. Using photos from wild rice plants, I applied textures and wind properties to the plants in Speedtree, to give them as real a representation of the actual plant as possible.

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A thick wall of wild rice in Tombeaux

I hope this brief glimpse into some of the “supporting actors” of Tombeaux’s environment has helped you gain a better understanding for both the process and the meaning behind their creation.

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Looking past the cattails at a beaver dam in Tombeaux

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At the Homestead

By now, it is probably somewhat obvious that Tombeaux is not a typical video game.  With me possessing a background in fine art and a career rooted in academia, I’m taking a slightly different approach to my project than many fellow peers in the indie game world. One example of this is how (and where) I’ve spent the last three weeks.  I’ve been the artist in residence at the National Park Service’s Homestead National Monument of America, in Beatrice, Nebraska.

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The Palmer-Epard Cabin, and original homestead cabin (and inspiration for the cabin in Tombeaux)

An artist’s residency is what I like to call a “work-cation” (I know, that phrase doesn’t make sense, unless you’re a workaholic…), in which I’m away from my family, home and university job, and focusing on nothing but making the game for literally 14 hours a day, 7 days a week (but I don’t recommend being away from your family for this long, as it is very difficult (on me, but especially on my wife Emily, who is a saint and superhuman/mom!)). Residencies are quite common for artists to pursue in the contemporary art world, as it provides the solace one might need to dive deep in to the “creative zone”. The idea is that an organization, institution, or foundation will award an artist (who has been selected through an application process) with the time and space to support their creative practice. Some residencies actually even provide outfitted studios, full-time chefs, and living stipends. Some have dozens of artists living and working at the residency at once (think “grown-up art camp”), while others have a single artist visiting with them (I prefer this – the hermit-like, no-frills approach).

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The National Park Service has supported artist residency programs for some time, and it has always been a goal of mine to take part in one of these programs. I was fortunate enough to be selected by the Homestead National Monument of America as one of their 2015 Artist’s in Residence. I’ve spent the last three weeks researching, making, photographing, and talking in an environment that is the perfect fit for making a historically based game like Tombeaux.

The Homestead Monument of America site is dedicated to both preserving and teaching visitors about the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of free land to nearly any man or woman who applied. This act, signed in to law by Abraham Lincoln, was a major reason for the rapid westward expansion in the 19th century. Since part of Tombeaux takes place in the 1800’s and incorporates themes of homesteading history, working here has probably been the closest I’ll get to finding a “field laboratory” for conducting my game research.

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The restored prairie and Heritage Center at Homestead National Monument of America

As one can probably gather by now, my time here has been wonderful.  While I have hunkered down in my living quarters and art studio making the game for the majority of the three weeks, it’s given me the escape that I needed after such a busy and stressful year of working in higher education (in a state that has seen better days, in that regard). I’ve been able to consult archives and exhibits, photograph authentic objects, documents, and structures, and interact with visitors to talk with and receive feedback about my game.

At work in the studio, making Tombeaux (image courtesy of Beatrice Daily Sun)

Today is my last day at the Homestead Monument of America, and while it will be wonderful to return to my family who I’ve missed so much, I know I will look back and remember this place for the time, space, and resources it provided me. Frankly, without the National Park Service’s help, Tombeaux would not be nearly as far along as it is today (in the ballpark of 300 hours less developed, to be exact!).

Art Update

I thought I’d put up a post showing some of what I’ve been up to, in regards to modeling and texturing over the past few days. Note: nearly all of this is WIP, so certain textures and details are yet to come!

I’ll start with the cabin, where the player will frequently be returning to throughout the game. I modeled it in Maya and wanted to keep the exterior under 1,000 tris, all while trying to recreate a cabin similar to an authentic homesteader’s cabin. As you can see, most of the detail work is handled by the texture maps, since it has flat walls that don’t demand a high-detail geometry profile. Also, the player will not be able to walk around the entire cabin, so my focus was mainly on the front and sides of the structure. Soon, I plan to add a handle and hinges to the door, a stove-pipe on the roof and wooden boards nailed over the windows.

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Base for Cabin Exterior in Maya (835 tris). Inset: reference image

Albedo & Normal Map for Cabin Exterior

Albedo & Normal Map for Cabin Exterior

I have also modeled a few outbuildings/objects for the cabin.  The outhouse will sit in proximity to the main structure, and the lean-to will be found behind the cabin, as if it was a later addition to the home. I’ve created some barbed wire fencing as well, using albedo, normal, and transparency maps. Its design is based on the 1874 version by Joseph Glidden from DeKalb, IA (itwas the first barbed-wire patent awarded in the United States).

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Outhouse in Maya (188 tris)

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Lean-to in Maya (166 tris)

Barbed Wire Fencing. (L: Glidden's 1874 Patent, Top Right: Model in Maya, and Bottom Right: Transparency Map for wires.

Barbed Wire Fencing. (lef: Glidden’s 1874 Patent, top right: Model showing textured and untextured versions in Maya, bottom right: Transparency map used for wires (black makes it invisible, white makes it visible).

Cabin, Outhouse, Lean-to, and Fencing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cabin, Outhouse, Lean-to, and Fencing in Unity (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

I’ve also steadily continued to create the rocks and cliffs that will be found in the game.  As I talked about extensively before, the environment in which my game is set demands a great amount of focus on these geological creations. At this point, I’ve created one giant cliff (2K tris), two medium cliffs (1K tris each), and two large rocks (500 tris each).  My goal is to have about double that regarding assets to choose from, in order to dress the river scene’s set so that it is both believable and not redundant.

Cliff in Zbrush (top) & Maya (bottom)

Medium Cliff in Zbrush (top) & again selected amongst the other rocks/cliffs Maya (bottom)

5 Rocks/Cliffs, separated for demonstration (in-game)

5 Rocks/Cliffs, separated for demonstration in Unity

As seen above, to create objects with unique silhouettes (that can stand on their own as interesting pieces) is one challenge, but to also design it so that they work as a “team” in a modular fashion is a bit trickier.  Below, I’ve duplicated and arranged the five rock/cliff models into a grouping to show what I mean. I will need to eventually line both sides of my river level with rock and cliff formations that have unique nooks and crannies, so as to create memorable images and moments for the player to stumble-upon during their experience. I’ve thrown in some trees from Speedtree as well, to provide scale and reference.

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Modular cliff set-up (using 5 unique, instanced assets) (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Modular cliff set-up (using 5 unique, instanced assets) (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

While I’m content with the modeling pipeline I’ve established for these rocks and cliffs, I still need to give a lot of attention to their texture maps.  Currently, all of the geological forms share the same non-native, generic albedo texture, and while that is helpful for continuity, it becomes a bit boring when the player gets closer to the forms. In the coming months, I plan to return to the St. Croix River to shoot reference photography of the sandstone for the base rock textures.  I’m also planning to add lichen and moss into the secondary albedo detail maps, in order to give more interest for close-up inspection. Finally, I plan to turn the specular highlight way down (unless the rocks are wet, of course, which some of them will be!), as I’ve cranked it up only to show the secondary normal detail map. When it comes time for set-dressing, I’ll also be interspersing natural growth throughout the cliffs, such as grasses, flowers, weeds, and even trees.

Cliff Detail (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail – albedo and spec maps will be changing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Cliff Detail – albedo & spec maps will be changing (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

So, hopefully this helps you envision the world of Tombeaux just a bit more, as the objects (both natural and human-made) are beginning to take shape and make their way into the game engine! As always, I’d love any comments, questions, or constructive feedback in the comments section.

Shot of assets (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

Shot of some assets from Tombeaux (NOT scene from game, just set-up for showing models)

and so it begins (albeit a year late)

My name is Dave Beck, and I’m an artist and professor living and working in Wisconsin. I’m writing this blog for you. I hope this peek into my development process will give you a better understanding of my project (which I’ll introduce below), and possibly inspire you to follow and learn along with me on this journey.  I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, so before I dive into the “now”, I’ll start with the “then”, much of which happened over this past year.

On that note, I really should have started this devblog a year ago, when I first began the project.  But then again, I had no idea that it would grow to such the monstrous behemoth that it has, filled with so many design doc pages, polygons, pixels, sounds, and lines of code!  The project I’m talking about is Tombeaux. 

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Tombeaux Blog Header

Tombeaux is a video game that I am creating.  It is an interactive experience that explores the convergence between cultures and the environment across a few hundred years of midwestern American history, taking place on a small section of the St. Croix River (which serves as part of the natural border between Minnesota and Wisconsin).  Through exploration, the player discovers new objects, environments, and narratives, all of which cause reflection upon our history and our future.

Map of St. Croix River, by Kmusser, based on USGS data, via Wikimedia Commons

As an artist, I see the medium of games as having a fantastic future in contemporary art and new media. It’s a wonderful way to educate, entice, and entertain an audience in ways I’ve always wanted to do with other media, but just couldn’t fully accomplish. I’m making Tombeaux for a variety of reasons, many of which I’ll expand on in future posts. I’ll talk about my inspirations behind the game, the development process, the factual research fueling its content, the collaborations supporting its creation, and other things that provide interesting angles about Tombeaux.

It’s already been a heck of a ride, and it’s only halfway there.  I hope you’ll consider joining me for this last leg of the journey.