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Art and Games: Making Niua Simoa

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(Originally posted on Facebook 8th of March 2010)

KeletiSandcastle1

A sandcastle I built at Keleti Beach in Tonga.

My artistic urges have found outlet in a very strange - and admittedly trivial venue - lately. I've started reading Ocean Quigley and Shannon Galvin's blogs. Both are skilled practitioners, but both work in video game design as much as in art and sculpture. Both have worked on Maxis Studio games like The Sims and Spore franchises. Sandbox and puzzle gaming are the only genres I really enjoy, first person shooters and the like bore me, so I'm a fan of Maxis work. I've really enjoyed seeing the problem-solving and play that went into making these classics, as well as Quigley and Galvin's non-gaming art. Just look at some of the work that Quigley and others put into making Spore beautiful. Quigley's idea of a tornado on a leash that (according to memory) never made it into the game is very cool. The idea of tactile disasters more generally is cool. I love gameplay that emerges sandbox out of partial control over chaos. Sandbox is exactly the right analogy. I do love sandcastle building for the same reason: The medium forces me to work certain ways, and what emerges cannot ever be quite as I planned, but it can still be just as good. Process art, by other terms, but hopefully not abstracted to be 'about the process'. The most engrossing art is about the world and the mind, it is serious narrative, it is critical. Even tongue-in-cheek, making sandcastles, I made playful criticism. There is reason behind my ploughed fields and peasant shacks below the castle, a justification for using junk in that area.

I loved Simcity 2000 as a kid, and I do remember my younger brothers hovering over my shoulder saying things like 'You're not even DOING anything'. And there I was thinking that I was building a solar-powered dream world. In an interview with CBS News, game designer Will Wright explains that Simcity came to him when he was making the maps for the game Raid On Bungeling Bay. Quite simply, he found making the maps a lot more fun than playing the game, but just giving the players free reign would have made for a boring game, hence the way Simcity's best titles push back at the player with organic city-like rhythms. Part of the franchise's appeal is that you ARE doing something, you are challenged to maintain growth and keep factors like pollution down. It is, in that sense, a game of quiet creative and intellectual action.

Though it doesn't escape me that my brothers' fundamental complaint remains correct, creating via computer games is a pretty aimless task if your creations serve no critical or educational (ie, artistic) role, especially if they are not to be shared. However, increasingly thanks to studios like Maxis, players' creations ARE shared, and they can play an artistic role in the players' daily lives. It's genuinely amazing to see the cityscapes that people are still building in Simcity 4, just look at the pictures of one player's creation Vale Paulista, even with dated graphics the creative power of the game is evident, and these are only excerpts from much larger vertical panoramas.

ValePaulista1
ValePaulista2

The creations made with Spore are far better and more interesting than the franchise's (pathetically unchallenging) gameplay. Spore is, to my mind, the corporate gaming industry's greatest failure to date, an example of the marketing department destroying a potentially brilliant game's appeal by making sure it's condescendingly easy and linear, thus 'appealing to a broad market'. Still, just look at the creatures that people have made with its deceptively simple looking creation tools. Hydromancer's Paleoquest series is artful and understated. Each 'adventure' is a minimalistic recreation of an epoch in Earth's history, with you playing a largely accurate reconstruction of an appropriate prehistoric creature. These adventures use the sensory tools available to create genuine challenge. In one adventure you sit on a vast landscape and you must find a mate within a span of time. There is no intrusive music, just ambient noise, and it can take the player a long time to realise that sound is what will reveal the goal, not vision.

Player creations like these are what sustain the game. Without the players' work Spore really is a triumph of style over substance (and ultimately I don't think the players can save the franchise - gameplay is pretty essential to any game and Spore just doesn't have much of it). The fact that players can share their Spore creations with each other in complete form, that opens up the way for serious artistic ventures. Maxis has led the charge in this regard, allowing players to share their animals and adventures in Spore, their cities in Simcity, and their narratives and architecture in The Sims. Only the continued stigma against gaming prevents this - but gaming is mainstreaming itself like never before, especially through carriers like Facebook. The problem is now that most industry-developed games look underdeveloped, intellectually, compared to work in almost any other artistic mediums, with the exception of player driven creation tools like the Sims franchises where lots of the development is left to the player. Although the film industry's continuing race to the bottom could eventually see film and gaming in similarly dire territory, it's the film industry that the gaming one must feed off for narrative success. This lack of intellectual depth is especially true of Facebook and Myspace games - arguably the future of gaming - where the tools available to developers are limited by other widely varying factors like the average players' bandwidth. Still, these little games are engrossing, people need play and in sufficiently reasonable doses gaming is very good for our mental agility, or perhaps just our peace of mind.

The Sims really is the best current vehicle for spawning emergent and engaging narratives in the gaming world. The Sims 3 is a buggy and badly supported game, but the creation tools it offers to players eclipses its many issues. This is at least partially because the game is not developed by Maxis Studios anymore, instead it's developed inhouse at the abominably arrogant and destructive Electronic Arts. EA's idea of implementing a micro-transaction system, The Sims 3 store, apparently means charging customers the same amount as for the game itself to get a handful of digital furniture and clothing. There's nothing 'micro' about it at all. Thankfully, after a decade in existence, The Sims franchise has enormous third-party support from players and modders themselves. With luck, in the next twenty years or less, we will see player creations from these sorts of games that are not just amusing, but that are serious artistic statements. I once saw that a player was recreating Auckland in Simcity 4. It would be a great and simple statement if she or he had made the city in two versions: One simulating the current Auckland transport system, and another with an efficient public transport system. This would be, by no means, an accurate simulation of real Auckland transport, but combined with images of the pollutions stats and quality of life standards generated by the game, it'd be a playful and artistic jab made in an accessible medium. In the longer term, we might hope to see serious artistic statements akin to great films like Yojimbo or Chinatown, but with emergent, unpredictable qualities to them - a variability that would make for very different 'game-going' experiences to our 'film-going' ones. The question is really, how can such games exist under Capitalism, where the educated market is always going to be small and snobbish rather than broad and mainstream as it could potentially be under Socialism?

All of this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that I made an island for The Sims 3 during spare time over the Summer. It was a project with lots of problem solving using difficult, beta-quality tools, and to be honest the final version still has some serious kinks that players have pointed out to me. I decided to make something I knew, so the world I've created draws on the Pacific and its cultures, but like my sandcastle, the medium has made it substantially different. The initial idea was that this would be a coral island, like Tonga, with no hills, but the romantic and familiar structure of volcanic landscapes got the best of me. I thought of Ruapehu and of the volcano that erupted in the ocean off Tonga last year, and ultimately I compromised. Niua Simoa, a composite title of 'Niua' from the Tongan island group, Sim from the gaming franchise, and Samoa, would be a volcano with a reef formed around it. As you can see, a new island is forming off its coast.

AerialNiuaSimoa

An aerial view of Niua Simoa

In some senses, it's the sandcastle I would make if I had more malleable sand. I often dream of landscaping an entire garden into a little world, with outlandish islands and oceans and animals. Due to the medium, the only animals I could put on Niua Simoa were humans (or Sims), but I vowed to make each individual and yet open enough that the players who downloaded and played my world would not feel boxed in. I made a king based loosely on Tonga's Tupou legacy, Henry Tapuwhai I. I wanted to weave more than just Pacific landscape, so there is a weird fusion of Pacific languages in the island's culture. Tapuwhai was a name composed because it was a backdoor for hinting at animals in the world, stingrays being a regular motif in Niua Simoa if players ever cared to look hard enough. The island is not a democracy, it's a somewhat crazed monarchy. I tried to make the king's daughter something of a Pacific Island Paris Hilton just for fun.

HenryTapuwhaiIarticle

King Henry Tapuwhai I

ElesabetiTapuwhaiIIarticle

Princess Elesabeti Tapuwhai II

MargoTumekearticle

Margo Tumeke

The scope for characterisation was much broader than I had anticipated, and I constantly had to hold myself back from making excessively restrictive and clear storylines. At every juncture I had to remind myself that the island and its population was a vehicle for other people's stories and not just for ones I wanted to tell. Everything needed to be open ended. Margo Tumeke, above, is a personal favourite of the island's inhabitants. She's an alcoholic, or at least I hint at it in the island's flavour texts. The ability to add descriptions to each Sim in the game is invaluable, and there are plaques you can hang on walls that will display short text for players to read, about the length of a tweet, meaning you can create an incredibly rich sense of history. I aimed to educate players, who are quite an international mix, about the Pacific Islands, but keep the experience light-hearted and cohesive. Players are introduced to concepts like tapu, very gently, and also to essential material elements of our culture as Pacific Islanders like pounamu, tapa and fale. It was very difficult to make passable fale in the game. Really I think I failed, most of them look like boxy, plate-roofed monstrosities, but the concept is there and now those who have downloaded and played the world (about 15,437 since I uploaded it) will know what a fale is. I consider that alone a small success.

Fale1article

A large Simoan 'fale'. Of sorts.

Fale2article

A little museum 'fale'. Of sorts.

It's easy for anyone to read this and decide I'm some crazy dude with too much time on my hands, there's still a serious stigma about interacting with people and/or creating through games in any serious way. I have to remind myself that it's NOT mortifying at all to see my mother on Facebook requesting pieces for her Farmville stable, there's nothing wrong with that. It's healthy and I'm glad more people are gaming openly. There is such creative potential in games, and sure they are time vampires, but they're cheap to create with and they don't require great deals of space. Ultimately, it's the game developers themselves who are making the medium who need more freedom and more respect. Here we all are on Facebook, and there are whole groups dedicated to opposing the Facebook games culture. I want more of the opposite. I'm glad to see intelligent people are gaming shamelessly, and in public, many people who I previously wouldn't have suspected. Game critically, with a mind for challenge and artistic merit, even if that leads just to Bejewelled Blitz because the only other options are two-dimension farming simulators. Of course, it shouldn't take over our lives, and any creative and competitive endeavour can, so on that note, I'm off to a cafe to do some reading and writing in the sunshine.

(Kiwi tea 02:53, November 21, 2010 (UTC))

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