Certificate of Authenticity

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, so I wanted to speak about what I’ve been up to, in regards to Tombeaux’s progress. While I haven’t been able to devote as much time to creating visual or design work for the game as of late, many other necessary elements have been accomplished in the background.  Most of that behind-the-scenes work has involved me doing a lot of reading, writing, and traveling, all in support of the game’s research.

Since Tombeaux – more than any other project I’ve done to date – includes an extremely large amount of history, the emphasis on solid research has been crucial.  Just as with any historical fiction piece (book, movie, game, etc.), I feel like I have spent just as much time reading and researching as I have been modeling and designing (if not more!).

Since Tombeaux is a historical game that relies more on fact than fiction, I’ve returned to a sources, all of which I’ve consistently used for reference in making the game:

research_books

Important Sources for Tombeaux

These books are actually what got me started on this journey over a year ago, and it’s been a pleasure to revisit their pages. The experience has simultaneously reaffirmed old ideas and sparked new ones for the game. In the past few weeks, these texts have helped me to get close to finishing the characters and dialogue found throughout the game.  At this point, I have seventeen different characters from different time periods, cultures, and backgrounds (the player never sees these people, but does hear their voices in short narrative bursts). These include historical personalities such as a fur trader, an Ojibwe woman, a lumber baron, a tourist, a homesteader couple, and a farmer, to name a few. I’m attempting to stay as authentic as possible in crafting their dialogue, so while I have taken a few artistic liberties, the characters will speak words which are an amalgamation of both fact (actual quotes) and fiction.  I’m nearly finished with these, and look forward to seeking out voice actors for these various roles (if you or someone you know might be interested, please do reach out!).

NewHeaderPlain

In addition to the reading and writing mentioned above, I’ve been diving deep into various primary resources, such as letters, photographs, maps, journals, and certificates, many of which I plan to somehow feature in the game as “virtual artifacts” of the actual text/image (hanging on a wall, sitting on a desk, etc).  I would never have been able to find nearly as much material if it wasn’t for the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). In addition to having an unbelievable online catalog of visual materials, the History Center in St. Paul houses a world-class museum and research library.  I had the good fortune of spending a bit of time at the center and interacting with the employees, making it one of the highlights of my time working on Tombeaux thus far.

But it doesn’t stop there with the MNHS – they actually manage 26 different historic sites scattered across the state, a few of which I’ve recently visited to seek out visual references that will aid me in making my game’s scenes as authentic as possible. This summer, I’ve been able to visit two sites of particular importance – the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, and the North West Company Fur Post (both are 60-90 minutes north of the Twin Cities and only an hour apart from each other). In both cases, I had specific goals of what I’d need to capture with my camera, in hopes that I might be able to use it to aid me in creating the worlds of Tombeaux.

2015-05-16 14.51.19

The “Four Seasons Room” at Mille Lacs

At Mille Lacs, I discovered that the museum had curated a wonderful combination of both contemporary and historic Ojibwe culture, culminating with an experience in their “four seasons room”. This particular room was so rich with identity and history that 15 minutes of photographing that space has saved me hours of combing the internet and archives for reference imagery examples of 19th century Ojibwe living customs!

The North West Fur Post provided museum-goers with somewhat of an opposite experience from Mille Lacs, approaching things from the perspective of the english fur trade culture set at a re-creation of a famous 19th century trading post (I recommend visiting both sites in the same day, for the balanced historical perspective as well as out of convenience). I was able to gather more visual materials for Ojibwe culture, as well as new elements of fur trading culture and history, all of which will be visual examples to be references when modeling objects and environments in the game.

NWC hero

North West Company Fur Post

In addition to these focused and deliberate trips, things also sometimes just appear when you least expect it. I spent last week on vacation at a cabin north of Hayward, Wisconsin, and had the opportunity to gather some miscellaneous elements for the game, including: the chance to inspect and photograph some century-old branded timber from the logging era (courtesy of the Barnes Area Historical Association), gather some white pine tree bark textures from the surrounding area, and visit the Sawyer County Historical Museum.

This is why I love what I do – I’m able to combine two passions I’ve had since I was a kid: the urge to express myself in a visual and creative manner and my desire to soak up everything I can about the history around me. And honestly, I don’t think I could be happy doing just one of them. I need my artwork to be rooted in authenticity and research and I can’t imagine how I’d ever write a scholarly history book like James Taylor Dunn did (unless I was able to fill it with more pictures than words!).  Making historically focused and inspired artwork is truly an enjoyable process, and I can’t wait to finally share that experience with everyone else (as I’ve always found that sharing is half the fun!).

upnorth

Top: White Pine Trees, Bottom: Hayward Museum (left) and stamped log from Barnes Historical Association (right)


Advertisements

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.

cabin_maya

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).

Outhouse

Outhouse in Maya (188 tris)

Lean To

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)

Cabin Fever

Kate Craig of Fullbright, showing her main reference for Gone Home – a Sear’s Catalog from the 90’s

I had the good fortune of attending an amazing talk at GDC this past March, featuring Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor & Kate Craig. They talked about their meticulous and methodical approach to level design in Gone Home (a game that is one of the many reasons I was inspired to pursue my project in the first place).  Kate Craig talked about how important it is to do your research and focus on what looks both good *and* believable, I immediately connected to her approach as a game artist and designer. Even better, Kate personally sat down with me after the talk and provided some valuable feedback for Tombeaux, much of which has shaped the game’s current state (thanks Kate!).

As I mentioned earlier, I am working on two levels that the player spends time in while playing Tombeaux.  One (larger) level takes place on a small section of something inspired by the St. Croix River, while the other (smaller) level takes place inside a small cabin atop a cliff, overlooking the river.  I’d like to talk a bit about the cabin itself, and how I’ve seen the design transformation of such a key level in my game. Although I’ve grown fond of the below screenshot, there was something that just didn’t seem right about it.  Having learned a lot about level design over this past year, I knew I had to (almost) start over with this scene.

Former cabin interior from Tombeaux

Prototype Screenshot of former cabin interior from Tombeaux

So with that said, I’m going to break my realization down into three distinct nuggets.  They might seem like no brainer’s, but I can honestly say I didn’t think about them nearly as seriously a year ago, and now I’m paying for it with having to do a major amount of cabin remodeling (literally!).

Real Estate Tip #1: Who lives in my cabin?

My game is filled with characters, dialogue, and embedded narrative.  While you don’t necessarily see the characters, you hear their thoughts and read their writings. What this means is that these virtual people need to live somewhere in my game.  Not just in a few lines of code or an audio file, but instead I want the player to feel like the characters were present just moments ago – the campfires are still smoldering and equipment is waiting for its owner’s imminent return. Regarding the cabin, it has a unique owner. While you as the player never meet this person, his presence is felt through the decor in the space and the words he’s left.  In fact, the cabin’s occupant is the main narrator of the game, speaking as if he is standing right next to you.

I’ve been working on bios for all of my characters, but due to his prominence in the game, he’s received a bit more attention than the others at this point. As a character, he is timeless and nameless, acting more as a representative of a collection of ideas rather than a specific person or opinion. Yet his dialogue hints at some elements of formal education and a high society lifestyle, with a longing for something more primitive and simple. I’m using Thoreau’s Walden, William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, and elements of Teddy Roosevelt as some inspirational jumping-off points for his design.

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

When I designed the cabin last summer, I wasn’t thinking about characters enough. I was more focused on creating a 3D space than giving it “character”.  Sure, the grey-boxing doesn’t need “character” (or characters), but it still provides a large amount of drive to why objects rest in the space that they do (and why those objects are even there in the first place!). So, while my “2014 Cabin” served its purpose well through providing the player a place to navigate and also helped me to envision the style of the game, it was only surface level about its reason for existence.

For instance, my earlier cabin design didn’t even have a bed, sink, or toilet. Instead, I decided to make a closed-door in the room, that would hint that those things were behind that door.  But what do you think everyone wanted to do when they saw that door (and how frustrated they got when they couldn’t do that thing)? Remember, although you think you’re making this game/level/cabin for yourself (or a fictional character, like above), that is only part of it – the true judge of its merit will be the player.

Screenshot of Old Cabin Interior (Maya)

Screenshot of old empty 2014 cabin interior (in Autodesk Maya). Brown door leads NOWHERE.

Real Estate Tip #2: Who is going to visit my cabin?

While designing your virtual space for a virtual character to inhabit is important, it is also crucial to consider how guests visiting your space will react to the world you’ve created.  I boil this down to two questions to ask: Will the player be able to navigate my world efficiently? Will the player believe in the world I’ve created?

Regarding efficiency, I feel that the design of my cabin was fairly straightforward – in both cases I used simple geometric footprints for my layout (long rectangle in 2014 and large square in 2015). While I would have loved to create a more unique blueprint, I thought about the location and timeless period that this cabin is found in and realized that I needed to forego luxury and spatial design for minimalism and efficiency (I have decided to add some outbuildings to the cabin that the player would see when outside, to add some more complexity to the design in a different way).

cabin_birds_eye_comparisons_cabin_interiors

2015 (filled) cabin on left, 2014 (empty) cabin on right (Autodesk Maya Screenshot)

While my 2014 cabin was visually interesting due to the objects, textures, and lighting, it didn’t make any sense as a living space.  It was long and narrow, lacking half the things you’d normally find in a cabin, and confused the player with an extra door that never opened. In my 2015 redesign, I’ve attempted to create something that is more open, yet feels extremely compact (borderline claustrophobic), to give the sense to the player that someone had lived here for a long time. There is now a single point of entry/exit to the cabin, and I’ve tried to lay out the objects in a way that feels like someone has been accruing memories across multiple time periods. While half of the objects have yet to be modeled, I already feel better about this space, for both the player and my narrator (half of the objects are already modeled, but I haven’t applied the textures yet, as I need to update all of them for Unity 5’s materials).

New Cabin Interior (Grey-box), 2015

New Cabin Interior (half modeled, half grey-boxed), 2015 (in game screenshot, Unity)

Real Estate Tip #3: How much inspiration does my cabin need?

A trend that I’ve been (happily) noticing in-game design lately is the amount of research – or pre-production – people are doing for their games.  While this has always happened to a certain extent, devs and companies are starting to realize that the more seriously we can take our medium from the beginning, the more likely others will take it seriously as well.  Whether it be the AAA studio who flies their devs to Florence to research Renaissance Italy, the mid-sized game dev company who uses on-site photogrammetry to create the majority of models for their game, or the artist who uses a Sear’s catalog as her style and image reference guide, people are doing solid research these days, and it is paying off ten-fold in the final product.

Objects from the Pine Needles Cabin, Modeled in Maya

Select objects from the Pine Needles Cabin for Tombeaux, Modeled in Maya

As an academic, I take research very seriously. When you add my obsession with details and rule-following to the pot, things can get out of hand really quick.  This actually happened last summer with the cabin, as I decided to recreate the exact cabin I was living in, down to many of the objects in the room. While this was a good exercise in observational modeling (and I had access to great texture references), I simply got too caught up being inspired by my surroundings.  The environment I was creating wasn’t making sense for the player and fictional character, and much of that was being driven by the exact place in which I was eating, sleeping, and working.  While the residency at Pine Needles was a monumental and crucial element to envisioning and starting Tombeaux, it took a lot of of user (play)testing, self reflection, and research to realize that it wasn’t the right fit for my game.

Exterior & Interior View of 2014 Cabin Inspiration

2014 Cabin Inspiration (Exterior & Interior of Pine Needles Cabin)

Now a year later, I’ve realized that – in addition to the lack of connection to the subject I was attempting to recreate – I simply don’t have time to be so exact and anal-retentive about everything.  I’ve got A LOT to model and texture, and while that cabin is very important, I can’t lose sleep over how many inches wide the windows each were (yep, I was approaching it like an engineer instead of a level designer!). So now, I’ve reconfigured the cabin’s exterior shape to be loosely based on a simple pioneer cabin.  The interior seeks out another source of inspiration: I’ve discovered the work of Eastman Johnson, who spent most of 1856 living and making artwork on Lake Superior, among the Ojibwe people and the fur traders. He sketched a few cabin interiors that I’ve found particularly pertinent to the look, feel, and time period that I’m hoping to achieve in Tombeaux’s cabin (and river) environment.  His sketches, combined with a late 19th century cabin exterior is shaping up to be a better fit for the game.

Exterior Interior

2015 Cabin Inspiration (L: Homestead National Monument, R: Eastman Johnson Sketch)

So, just as the mantra has been for the past few posts, a lot can happen in a year.  Although it sometimes feels like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, I think it will be worth it in the end. It is my hope that the player will walk into the cabin and immediately feel my intentions for the designing the space, through their observation of a strong narrative, thoughtful visual layout, and solid research foundation.

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. 

tombeaux

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.