Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Creative State of Mind

The Graphics-Fire-Triangle
So now that there is a playable game, -no, demo in early alpha stage- it is time to beautify a bit. As you may have read before, obviously I need some artists for that. But since I hate waiting for some Good Samaritan to walk by, I tried to pick up the chisel and craft some assets myself as well.

For the visual part, my work as a programmer is mainly to get the technique right. Whether those are shaders or correct lightmap baking tools. But technique only won't save you. As with the fire-triangle, Good-Looks requires three complementary elements; Technique + Ideas + Assets. Missing one of them doesn't just pull down the graphics with 33%, there won't be any fire at all. In other words, your graphics will suck.

Well, not entirely true maybe, some Tech can look catchy without a creative setting or even proper textures / geometry, but in general the triangle needs to be complete. Pretty much any environment I made for Tower22 was horrible in the beginning, regardless the technique. Not until proper textures, 3D props and decals were added, it would look bland, boring, incorrect, unrealistic, faulty and just Ass. And I must notice the "Ideas" part here as well. Having a nice library of textures still won't save you if you are clueless on how to combine everything into one appealing "whole". Despite my eyes being capable of rendering photorealism, I've seen plenty of ugly rooms and buildings. Painting your room in random colours usually isn't a very good idea.
I do like milky white debug-shots where a lot of textures and lights have been disabled, to test Occlusion or Lightmaps. But you can't make a whole game like that... or can you?

Maybe the Tech part is even less important than we programmers may want to believe in these ultra-Engine times. Because when looking back, I can still see lovely game scenery. Today I downloaded "Black Mesa", a (fan made!) remake of Half life, using the Source engine. Of course, the Source engine is superior to the (modified) Quake engine the original game used. But for today standards, it's still an old piece of crap. Textures not very sharp and flattish, no real-time reflections, little dynamic light, 3D props a bit square and bulky. BUT, it didn't bother me a single moment. In fact, I was very curious to revisit Black Mesa in its refurbished coating, after all those years.

They made(or upgraded) the assets as nice as they could using the technology they have (Source), and surfed on the tidal waves Valve once created in terms of a Great Idea, almost twenty (goddamn I'm old) years ago. Still missing eyeballs to capture all the interesting activity happening while the monorail relays you to the test-labs. Still got a very bad feeling when pushing that crystal into the teleporter core. Still wowed by the Osprey mowing over my head when reaching the desert surface. Still awed by those tentacle things in the Blast Pit. You see, Good Ideas can make all the difference, Mister Freeman. 

Writer’s block
Well unfortunately, making great level design is one of those things you can't really learn I think. A mathematician can solve a complex equation any time. Maybe a bit slower if he had a drink the day before, but eventually he will solve it. A cook can make a nice soup any time, also 04:00 in the morning. A cartoonist can draw a funny puppet, horse or car on command. But baking a good idea is something else. As you probably know yourself, the harder you try, the harder you fail. It's not a turd that you can push out by squeezing hard enough. It just has to happen. Pop. And more often, it doesn't happen. Writers call it a "Writer's block". I call it Normal. Because whether you are a writer, musician, comedian or artist - cool stuff just doesn't drop of the trees like overripe fruit. Like these blog topics, it’s pretty hard to write something new, interesting, and in a funny way. Quite often it’s not.

Of course you can improve by doing, and moreover by reading and watching at others. Your brain should become a gigantic library of snapshots. But the process of collecting the right snapshots for "situation-X" is an art itself. It's Eureka, receiving the right cards in your hands. Making that (unusual) connection is probably what you can call "Creativity". Or maybe it's just random luck. What does help of course, is having as much good cards in your deck as possible, thus improving your chances.

Movies, books, games, music, museums. Or just ordinary stuff you see on your way at work. Yet I think gluing the right pieces together also depends on a certain state of mind. As hard as it is to get that Eureka! moment, you sometimes also have these creative rushes, where one after another awesome idea seems to pop up, like a gattling-gun, just too much to write it all down, giving you sort of an High. Or maybe you actually are high. In my case it never seemed to help anything, but quite a lot people do claim to get bizarre ideas while hitting the bong... and forgetting them right after. It does make sense though. Having your brains stirred and shaken, you make connections you would otherwise avoid.
Got a simple square corridor-end here. Now how to decorate it in such a way it looks interesting or spooky? What textures to use? Where to put the lights? What music to use? What general "vibe"? This room looked completely different one hour ago

Being distracted all day
Observing myself, I guess there is a correlation between being creative (or not) and doing certain things. For one thing, it seems you lose creativity as you get older. This has various reasons. Likely, you are more occupied with work, cooking, raising kids, taxes and other “normal stuff”. Thus less time for games, movies, building Lego, or playing GI Joe with friends outside. And even if you wanted to, there is this degree of shame. You shouldn’t be dreaming about flying hero’s, barbaric super strengths or Pok√©mon anymore when you are 33 years old. Why not? I don’t know, but that’s just an unwritten rule. And eventually, you do lose interest indeed and feel a bit awkward when playing Mario Kart overexcited, wife shaking her head in the background. My advice: take a kid or two as an excuse. Or just dump your wife, also a great idea.

Less creative impulses will reduce your creative output abilities obviously. Besides just being busy with all kinds of “Adult-things”, I also noticed I’m making less time to fantasize. Typically ideas seem to pop out of nowhere, like maggots, but it still requires some preparation, a piece of rotten flesh in case of Tower22. You have to sit down for it, make room for it. When fishing you need to prepare a seat and some cans of beer first. Same thing.

Nowadays, I’m working all day. And if not, I’m doing dull Adult-things, or programming for Tower22. In any case, my CPU is mostly 100% occupied with logical and practical operations. Getting dressed, write some Delphi or C++ lines, driving a car, cleaning up, reading a book. Basically, even when watching TV, your head is occupied, processing the garbage that’s on the screen. And once I’m in bed, I’m so tired that I fall asleep right away. Basically I’m always distracted. But to generate some creative output, your head needs to be empty! Nothing but the topic you are making ideas for, should be in that void between your ears… But how often does that happen?

Making some Me-Time
I noticed being less creative last years, and I would blame my age, as explained above. But now that I’m thinking, we’re also reserving less “Me-Time” in this modern society. A few weeks ago, we visited my parents in law in Poland. And I wrote down quite a lot useful ideas those 9 days. More than usual. Why? Pretty simple: because I got bored. My family there doesn’t have internet (too old), so no YouTube, no 3D technique papers, and especially no work, reading emails or helping others. During the days, I would fill time sitting in the garden or wading through a creek with my kids – stuff I would rarely do at home because occupied by whatever what needs to be done. Since I can’t speak Polish unfortunately, I had to entertain myself most of the time. And then at night, we would go to bed early. Normally I would sit down until 02:00 with the laptop, but now, being sucked in that more relaxed flow (and not being able to understand what is on television) I would just go to bed. Not being entirely exhausted yet, not being distracted by internet, books or television, and not being bombarded with work overday and tasks for tomorrow, my head CPU would be in Low-Idle mode… generating a nice dark void… gently buzzing… perfect for breeding ideas… Ahhhhh….Serenity.

And now that I’m thinking, I used to have more “low-idle”, “me-time”, “not-being-distracted-time”, or whatever you want to call it, not too long ago. For one thing, I used to take the bicycle to work every day. Giving 2x 30 minutes to Wander Away… Sometimes to work, but also to places like Tower22, or personal thoughts about who knows what. That was, until the car came of course. Time reduced to 2x 10 minutes, and I’d better not wander too far away while driving around. Instead, the radio fills the void now.

Took quite some time to turn this (single!) simple room into something interesting. Still needs some extra decoration props, but the foundation is ok I think. It would have saved a lot of time to think of such an idea at forehand though, instead of just randomly trying different setups.

And how about you? 15 years ago, when I went to school with the bus every day, most people would stare out of the window for an hour or so. Thinking about… school? What to do next weekend? What Samuel L Jackson exactly said in Pulp Fiction? What colours to paint the room? Who the hell the G-Man is in Half life? The reason of life? Lot’s of dirty thoughts also probably. Anyhow, now, 15 years later, in the rare occasion I take a bus, train or just while waiting, nobody is staring out of the window anymore. There is a 4 inch smartphone display in front of them. WhatsUp, Facepoop, Instacrap, Shitter, YouDoodie, whatever.

I feel like an old mourning man for not having one. Being behind a laptop with internet pretty much the whole day, I can miss internet for an hour, or even a week. My fingers can’t operate that tiny screen anyway. Plus in my opinion Social Media makes our youth anti-social. When having interns at work, their heads will immediately start dropping down towards that screen if you don’t talk to them for one second. I hate those telephones, really. It seems they can’t concentrate on anything for more than 5 minutes: that is the average length of a YouTube clip.

See? Now I’m an old mourning man. But what I wanted to say, if you want to stimulate your creative thoughts, maybe it’s a good idea to ditch that telephone, shut down the internet, plug off the television and do something that doesn’t require too much brainpower. Like bicycling, staring out of a bus-window, fishing, counting the ceiling pixels in bed, or having a healthy stroll. Really, it does help!