All posts by Michaël Samyn

The Unreal Forest: step 22 – beta 1

More than five years after the crowdsourcing campaign we’re happy to announce that the remake of The Endless Forest is finally complete! It has taken us a lot longer than expected to recreate in its entirety the multiplayer game in Unreal Engine. But the first beta release is ready for all backers to be downloaded and tested. And we’re already looking forward to continue expanding the forest -after the necessary bug fixing, of course.

If you have backed the project and you have not received an email with a download link, please let us know!

If still you want to support the project, play the beta and acquire some of the perks, please do so now because the campaign will be closed soon. The donation page is here.

The work on the remake began in earnest early 2017. The Endless Forest had been the first game we released, in 2005. At that time we had not fully developed a system for archiving data. On top of that, the old engine, Quest3D, used file formats for 3D models and textures that had become obsolete. And to make matters worse, the file server on which most files were stored had crashed and we had to painstakingly restore the files hidden on it.

Both Unreal Engine and Quest3D have visual interfaces to programming. This is essential for us, visual artists, to be creative with expressing logic. The paradigms of both engines, however, are extremely different. So more than translating the logic into another language, a lot of it had to be rethought within the new framework.

Since The Endless Forest is a multiplayer game, one of the first things we had to figure out was how to program networking in the new engine. Unreal Engine is set up quite well for match-based networked play with a limited amount of players of whom one acts as the server. This model, however, is unsuitable for a massively multiplayer game like The Endless Forest. We needed a server to be available at all times and no limitation the the amount of players that could log on. Sadly, the process of creating such a thing, is quite cumbersome in Unreal Engine and not very well documented. After a lot of trial and error that involved compiling Unreal from source code and converting our game to C++ we figured out how to do it. But it remains a complicated task, each time we want to release an update. Add to this the limited ways in which networking logic can be tested within the editor, requiring that this tedious compilation process must be followed simply for testing and debugging many network-related issues.

That being said, Unreal’s visual programming system, called Blueprints, is a joy to work with. And the editor contains wonderful tools, paradigms and interfaces to make many tasks easier to do, once one figures out how to use them.

In this early stage, we also implemented the endlessness of The Endless Forest, which means that the game world wraps around itself. This is quite tricky, especially in a multiplayer context. Unable to re-use the logic from the old game, we came up with a new system that works quite well.

Next we implemented controls so we could actually play the game. That was encouraging. Followed by new activities and animations of the avatar.

The Endless Forest, while extremely important, was not the only thing that we did in our artistic lives. We were also invited for art residencies in Poland and Rome, during which we worked on other projects. This of course slowed down the work on the remake.

But by the end of 2017 we did manage to add Forest Magic to the remake, a major feature by which players can change each other’s avatars’ appearance. This feature was finished when we came back home in early 2018

In 2018, work was interrupted several times by an invitation to present at the Freeplay festival in Melbourne, by participation in the Videogames exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, by the presentation of our VR theater Cricoterie in Warsaw, by an award at Indiecade in Paris and a panel presentation about The Endless Forest in Dundee.

Nevertheless, in the summer we made a spectacular step forward simply by adding the floor model and textures of the first phase of the game. Suddenly the remake started looking a lot more like The Endless Forest! So far we had been working on flat floors with symbolic colors. It was nice to feel that forest atmosphere a little.

By the end of 2018 (in October, November and December) we had implemented the buttons and animations for emotions and activities such as dancing, the trees and bushes and flowers of Phase One and the elements that make up the area of the ruin. And as a crowning achievement, we managed to compile a server for the game so that we were able to release a first playable version of the remake as a Christmas gift to all backers.

In January 2019, we finished the first phase of the Endless Forest, the area around the ruin and in February we implemented weather changes. In March, then, the new game was connected to the database of the old game which allowed players to login with their own accounts. Thanks to this, we were able to hand out the first perks to the backers in an Easter release that included a whole new outfit to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the game that triggered the crowdsourcing campaign for a Second Decade of the game.

After this, work gets interrupted again by presentations of Cricoterie in the Foksal gallery in Warsaw (our first solo gallery show!), the Tinguely Museum in Basel and the Game Happens festival in Genova. Simultaneously, we also organized our move from Belgium to Italy, which was accompanied by a lot of hard work and stress.

Once settled in a little in Rome, at the end of 2019, we added the second phase of The Endless Forest, the area with the pond, which we continue working on in the beginning of 2020. In February, after finishing Phase Two, we release another playable build for the backers.

After this I started working on a completely new project, a VR piece called Compassie, that I had been fortunate enough to get funding for in Belgium. By this time, the money from the crowdsourcing campaign had completely run out and we needed other sources of income.

The work on this new project was interrupted for adding the third phase of the forest environment and many of the elements that bring it to life. After adding the Drinkplaats, we felt that the remake was sufficiently complete to release a first alpha build to our backers in October 2020.

I then returned to Compassie and continued to work on it until its release in April 2021.

After this break, I dove back into the Forest, so that in the summer of 2021 we were able to release a second alpha build of the remake that includes the fawn character for beginning players and lots of interface additions.

To support ourselves further, I accepted a commission from an old client for an interactive museum exhibit. This project dominated the second half of 2021.

In early 2022, I implemented a lot of the Abiogenesis systems that we use for doing live performances in the game. And even though the results of this are not immediately visible to the players, we did release a third alpha build, in order to test these features on the network.

I dedicated the lent period of 2022 to the remake of The Endless Forest. In an effort to release a first beta version of the game (meaning the game is complete except for bugs) by Easter, the day of the Resurrection, I removed all other activities from my agenda. So in the meditative atmosphere of a life of fasting, with no Italian lessons nor playing music, I managed to stick to the schedule almost perfectly. Backers can now download and play the first beta of the remake of The Endless Forest! While this is a major milestone, it doesn’t mean that the project is finished. There’s lots of known bugs that still need to be fixed and undoubtedly many new problems will come up during this testing phase. But the finish is in sight!

Thank you for your support and patience!

Michael Samyn.

The Unreal Forest: step 21 – alpha 3

In the third alpha release of the remake of The Endless Forest we have concentrated on a number of special features such as the seasonal environment changes and Abiogenesis technology. So these may not be immediately visible unless you catch us testing. The idea is to evaluate these features before we proceed with the next step. And as mentioned with the previous alpha, testing server-client interaction is not fully possible in the Unreal Editor.

If all goes well enough, this will be the the final alpha release. The next release should be a beta version. So this version is still incomplete. But we’re getting there.

Work on this release was interrupted for a while by a client commission the proceeds of which were invested into The Endless Forest. And by a long overdue trip to my homeland Belgium. I had not seen my parents and brother in two years because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Some time was also lost by attempting to upgrade to a newer version of Unreal Engine but failing to compile the editor from its source code. So we’re still using version 4.25.1 at the moment.

The remake of The Endless Forest is taking a lot longer than expected. So we’re happy to see that the current game is still running and that the player community is as enthusiastic as ever. We’re grateful for all the moral and financial support and are looking forward to seeing you in The Forest!

Thank you all and see you soon!

Michael Samyn.

PS: If you backed the game on Indiegogo or via PayPal and you have not received an email with a link to download the alpha 3 build of the game, please email us!

The Unreal Forest: step 20 – alpha 2

A second alpha build of The Endless Forest Second Decade has just been released. Backers should have received a download link. It contains almost all features of the original game. The biggest chunk missing now is the Abiogenesis effects. But there’s also a lot of bugs remaining. I wish I could fix them already but I have to interrupt the work for another project now. We are compensating for our hopeless underestimation of the budget collected through crowd sourcing with income generated by such other projects. This delays things a little more but we are getting closer!

Lots of things have been implemented since the first alpha release of October.

The loading of saved data (for the avatar’s appearance, among others) was restructured. This is particularly complicated because we’re combining local saving and online saving.

Bug detection in online features is particularly complicated in this project because one cannot run an online game in the Unreal Editor and it takes an entire day to build a new server package. And Unreal requires perfect compatibility between servers and clients.

The Action Bar display was tweaked a little and a slider was added to the menu to change the size of the buttons. Many other items were added to the menu to the point where it can be considered complete for the remake. Several things from the old game were omitted because they are not relevant anymore. And new options were and will be added.

An option was added to invert camera zoom and to change camera rotation speed and direction. And a switch was added to put the camera behind the avatar

Joystick control of the avatar and of the Action Bar was added as well.

A system for localization of the menu language was implemented, starting with English to Flemish. But it doesn’t seem to work in the build yet.

The screensaver feature was also added: now the camera turns around the sleeping deer. And the option to observe other players in this rest mode was added as well.

Our beloved fawn is back!

A big feature is the implementation of the fawn avatar that new players use in their initial month. It turned out to be impossible to import the original files used in the current game correctly. But thanks to Blender we managed to put the fawn back together and even succeeded in having the adult deer and the fawn share animations. Then all the fawn’s textures and antler meshes where excavated from our less than perfect archives. And finally all the ways in which the fawn logic differs from the adult deer were implemented (magic that times out, for instance).

The game menu was further expanded with toggles for pictograms visibility, morphing (used for blinking and roaring), Abiogenesis performance camera and sound. Volume sliders were added for ambient sound, sound effects and music. The credits were added to the menu, including the names of the backers of the crowdsourcing campaign.

An exciting new feature was added too: a slider to increase the density of the forest, which may now be feasible on fast computers.

A lot of research was done in the Abiogenesis system, especially with respect to initializing semi-permanent changes (such as time of day, weather, huge crocuses, confetti, etc.). Different approaches were implemented in this alpha to test which work best. So that we can finalize the system in the next phase of development and add all the Abiogenesis content. After which the remake should be complete and ready for a beta release.

This project is taking a lot more time than expected. We are grateful for the patience of the players and also for the fact that, against our fears, the current game is still running, despite of the ongoing evolution of technology. Hopefully it will continue to do so until the remake is done. Soon!

A big thanks to all the backers for their support!

Michael Samyn.

Compassie postmortem

Compassie is the work that I wanted to create. I made it so it would exist. Even if just for a brief moment in time. A whisper in the wind. I knew that from the start. I made it with that intention.

But that doesn’t stop the doubts from pouring in. What am I doing working in a medium that has no future? Why do I choose the most unpopular of themes? Is distributing Compassie for free the wisest decision? Who am I to imagine walking in the footsteps of the old masters? Why don’t I just make my life easy an create contemporary art like everybody else? Or videogames for that matter?

The death wish of technology

When is the last time I have been enthusiastic about a computers? As technology production stagnates around a very small number of monopolies, invention is reduced to the absolute minimum required to ensure survival. And every invention stands or falls by that tiny thread. Virtual Reality is no exception.

Virtual Reality is amazing and I’m happy to have been able to discover it as a creator thanks to a revival of the idea in our times. But since this technology is controlled by large corporations, it does not have a future. These corporations have no real interest in VR, let alone in its artistic potential. They have no vision either because in the current stage of capitalism, vision is a liability. The question is not whether VR has a future but when it will die.

It seems fitting therefore to create a pietà in a moribund medium. It adds to the sadness and the feeling of loss to know that this miraculous technology that allows us to experience fictional worlds in such a wondrous way is destined to die. When you experience Compassie you don’t even know if you will be able to experience it again. Tomorrow, yes, probably. But next year? Maybe. Five years form now? Probably not.

There’s a romantically heroic aspect to this suicidal form of artistic creation. And it pleases like a form of revenge to embrace this medium against all reason and pour an enormous amount of effort into the creation of a wonder that will be blown away by a breeze tomorrow. Like setting yourself on fire in protest. But without anybody paying attention.

The temptation of the present

The logical essence of creativity is doing something that is uncommon, something that others are not doing. Creativity implies originality. Making something that already exists is not creative. I consider art to be a creative act. So art creation implies taking risks, requires doing things that are uncommon, at least in one’s context.

So I decided to be serious. To make a work of art that is sincere and modest. To resist the temptation of the modern age to make light of everything or to overwhelm with spectacle. But I had underestimated how difficult it would be to not make contemporary art.

It would have been easy to add a flashy sci-fi element to my pietà scene, or to contrast the traditional inspiration with hard contemporary irony. And while from the very beginning I knew I didn’t want to do that, the temptation remained great throughout the process. Certainly because to appear edgy or cool would reap more likes on social media 1. But also because I know how to do that. It comes natural to any 21st century Westerner. We love having fun. We loving making fun. For Compassie I had to go against not only the spirit of the time but also against my own nature.

A pietà offers us introspection into sadness. We rarely get the opportunity to be sad, even if we all seem to be depressed all the time. I could offer something here. In Virtual Reality I could create a private space where the user could indulge in their desire to abandon themselves to the sadness to is a constantly looming presence in our lives. A valuable gift for those who take the time, the few minutes required to allow the endless blackness of virtual space to wash over them.

After a long period of prototyping and experimenting with many failing ideas, Compassie ended up being a very easy piece. All it takes is a bit of sensitivity, a bit of stillness. I’m simply asking you to not blow your nose during a theater performance, to not shout in a museum, to not jump around in a church. To give yourself this moment. Two minutes of your life. Give yourself these two minutes.

Two minutes with the dead body of God. Or in fact only one minute because it disappears simply to make its absence more tangible. To turn the knife around in the wound. Because there is pleasure in finally feeling the pain that you knew had been there all the time. Finally realizing that something is missing. The body of Jesus is extremely important. It’s crucial because it demonstrates that God was manifested on Earth in corporeal form. Alive or dead is a detail in this respect.

The beauty of the past

There’s a certain quality of beauty in Renaissance paintings that inspires me greatly. It’s not just the charm of their narratives. There’s also an incredible balance of shapes and colors. A certain fullness, maybe abundance that keeps the eye fluttering about without ever tiring. An abundance that is never exhausted and to which one can only respond with a sort of resignation: alright, I’m here, I’ll stop thinking, immerse me. And one allows the wave of pleasure to happen. I think this effect is achieved by the weight of meaning imbued in the elements in the scene. This tickles the brain into a rational activity that contrasts with the desire to simply enjoy while simultaneously pleasing us that we’re not just enjoying, that we’re involved in something greater, spiritual. We let go, yes, but in a warm and secure embrace.

When I compare those paintings to what I did in Compassie, it’s safe to say that I have failed 2. But that doesn’t embarrass me. It’s like starting to study music when already middle aged: there is no hope that one will ever reach the level of conservatory students. If I’m honest I don’t see any value in my creating art. There is already so much beautiful art in the world. We can just go and look at it and be perfectly satisfied. I know I am.

But I am stimulated by the existence of new technologies that have not been used for the kind of artistic experience that I enjoy. So my work is one of research: can I create a computer program that offers its user an experience that is similar to that offered to me by an old master painting? And I tell myself that perhaps the use of this technology will help my contemporaries to reach this pleasure. And when I’m feeling vain, I imagine that this technology may even be more suitable for it than pigments smeared on wooden panels.

But overall I want to affirm this link of familiarity that I feel with old art. The modern age feels alien to me. I do not understand Picasso, Pollock or Hirst. But Cranach, Van der Weyden and Perugino I get. I know what those guys are talking about. I feel it too. As an art lover, but also as a creator. There’s a direct connection between older art practices and the digital that skips over photography and most modern concepts that erupted in its wake. Because just as the old masters we create realities, and not pictures of realities. We create spaces and characters that live in our world, not pictures of things that happened elsewhere a long time ago. We celebrate existence, we wonder at its miracle, we enjoy its mystery.

The presence of interactivity

In the end Compassie was a simple piece to create. It just took a lot of experimentation and prototyping to discover this simplicity 3. But I think I have learned something now. My plans for the next diorama are very straightforward.

The prototyping phase of Compassie has been a deep experiment with interactivity: a long path to arrive at almost nothing. Motivated by the delicacy with which I felt a dead body should be handled. But with results that are applicable beyond that. In the first prototypes, attention was focused on the body of Christ. Inspired by the handling the ambiguous bodies in Cricoterie, I wanted to make a simulation of holding a body that was explicitly dead, in a context that demands respect and reverence. I assumed that the awkwardness of interacting with objects in VR would have an interesting emotional effect. But it didn’t. So I spend a lot of time figuring out how to remove or hide all the ways in which such interaction could go wrong. A second phase was started with the realization that when the user plays the role of the principal character, the attention must go to the environment, since we do not see ourselves. So I invented an elaborate landscape machine that would change in response to how you treated the body: the landscape would shift through thousands of years of human history when you lift the head of the Son of Man. After a few months, however, it suddenly disappointed me that all the attention went to something not directly related to the theme. In the end, after the body and the environment, I decided to focus on nothing (which I think turns the user’s gaze inwards).

The best answer to many design questions is often “nothing”.

During the experimentation with the cause and effect structures that interactivity implies, I was troubled by how interactivity often feels didactic 4. Rewarding certain actions, even by as little as responding visually to input, stimulates a certain behavior. I don’t want to tell people how to behave or how to feel. Not so much for moral reasons but for aesthetic ones: the pleasure will be greater when the user arrives at it through their own choices and actions. I did cower away a little from this idea. In principle I want to leave it up to the user to play whatever song they want on the instrument that I am offering: it is their own responsibility to extract pleasure from the activity. But I couldn’t bear the idea of Jesus’ dead body being mistreated. So I did my best to limit the possibilities to do so. If safe, I’m not sure if it was the right choice. There’s a problem with freedom in interactive art: there are no customs and there’s no social context. When we know we should not spit at a painting or shout at an actor, we have not really established how digital objects should be treated.

A big part of interactivity in VR is simply presence. What is interesting from an artistic and emotional point of view is not so much what you do with your hands, but how you behave in the virtual space. In Compassie, for example, the direction in which you look is important. It may not be not much in terms of mechanical interactivity, but it can make for an enormous impact. And that’s what matters: the effect on the user.

Technically, my approach to interactivity may have become extremely modest, perhaps reductionist in terms of design. But conceptually it’s not modest at all: it moves much of the responsibility to the user. They have to make it work, they are responsible for their own experience. In this sense my work requires a much greater activity than blindly following instructions. After all, art always happens between the spectator and the work and does not simply reside within the work.

The trouble with music

Music has been a difficult issue. First in terms of decision and later in terms of production. I generally like working with a composer to compose new music for a piece. And I enjoy adapting the atmosphere of my work to what the music evokes. But I couldn’t think of any living composer for Compassie. The music that seemed right to me was music from the baroque era. I did look into contemporary composers who attempt to work in this style but while I found some interesting experiments, nothing seemed suitable. It also feels a bit disingenuous to compose baroque music now. It’s always going to be fake, right?

I have also developed a problem with enjoying recorded music, which has only become more acute due to the lack of concerts during the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m an amateur musician myself. I play the classical guitar and the viola da gamba. And even though I am not very good at it, I enjoy the feeling in my body of sound produced by an acoustic instrument in a physical space. Likewise I enjoy attending concerts, preferably on the first row, almost surrounded by the orchestra. To be present in that universe of sound is so much more than just listening to music.
But in my medium, the computer, I am forced to used recorded or generated sounds that will be reproduced through speakers. It hurts me to have to do this to music, to sound. Especially, I think, because of the contrast with how I feel about the experience of my art: the diorama is a living environment, and experiencing it is a sort of performance, a unique event.
When developing the original ideas for Compassie, presenting the work as a physical installation was an important part of the concept. And in such situations, I would have the experience of the user be accompanied by live music on the viola da gamba (the resonant and mournful sound of which fits a pietà splendidly). But the Coronavirus pandemic ruined that idea. Even when we will all have been vaccinated and live events become normal again, I don’t know how we will feel about sharing VR goggles in public places.

Around that time, I was studying the intro of Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi on viola da gamba. A piece, by the way, that I discovered when looking for music for the very first Tale of Tales game that was never released. It has a very compelling bass line for cello that was easy enough to play on the viol. I especially enjoyed playing it an octave lower on my 7-string instrument. So I started experimenting with that little piece of music in the Compassie prototypes, initially only using samples of bell sounds, because I fondly remember the intricate effect of them in the first prototype of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. Since I couldn’t have a musician be present, I chose the next best thing: I created a software musician.

How to make Unreal Engine play baroque music.

When I experimented with a fixed soundtrack it felt too flat, compared to the giant space the event took place in. So I developed a system that would play each note at a random location in space, different every time. Basically a little sequencer programmed to play one beat of the music every x seconds.

Later I took advantage of the silence of the Coronavirus lockdown to record all the notes for the bass line on viola da gamba. But I kept the bells for the high voices. They sound strangely disconnected without the bass line, almost random, and that fit perfectly with the feeling of staring into the void.

The choice for obscurity

I stopped making commercial videogames six years ago with the purpose of making things like Compassie. I would never have been able to make Compassie if I had thought about it as a game that would be offered for sale. There’s too many cooks in the kitchen of my head when that is the case. All I wanted for Compassie was to be something that deserved to exist.

A side effect of giving art away for free is that it is ignored. We learned this in the game industry early on. Few people noticed our first release, The Endless Forest in 2005, which is still available for free. So for our second game, The Graveyard, we experimented with commerce for the first time. And suddenly the games press paid attention. The situation in the art world is different but somehow most discussions about contemporary art tend to center around money too, the current wave of non-fungible tokens being no exception whatsoever.

So I knew from the start that creating a piece that was going to be distributed for free meant that it was going to be ignored. But I tried thinking of that as a good thing 5. My desire was to simply create this work. I had no desire whatsoever to promote it. And frankly there would be no point. Things get attention in as far as they are conventional. Maybe after the pandemic when I can present Compassie as an art installation in a museum, somebody will care. But the thing is: Compassie moves me. No other work that I have made has had such an impact on me.

My previous art, ten years ago: an embarrassment!

I am reminded of the previous piece that I made just for myself, ten years ago. While creating Bientôt l’été I was torn between the desire to appeal to an audience (of gamers) and the desire to explore the aspects of the medium that fascinated me. That doubt is gone now. If only because I wouldn’t even know who the audience for VR is.

“Working in a popular medium as videogames where serious cultural consideration is rather scarce, I’m always torn between the desire to do the work I know I should be doing and to make things that are easier to enjoy for the existing audience of said medium.”

Michael Samyn, development journal, 2012

After Bientôt l’été, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed about the self-indulgence. And I decided that I would stop making such selfish things. But a decade later here we are again. I’m not embarrassed this time. But I do wonder if it makes sense to make art that nobody sees. On good days I think of it as a prayer. God sees everything and that should be enough. Even for a non-believer. I think Compassie is beautiful. Can that be enough? Can I simply make things that I find beautiful?

I don’t want to not care about my work. I want to tell the world about it and give everybody the opportunity to experience it. I love hearing the thoughts of people about my work. But I don’t want any feedback in terms of numbers. Knowing how many, or rather always how few because no number is ever high enough, is detrimental to my spirit and my motivation. For me Compassie is already a success: I finished it, it’s beautiful and it makes me feel things. That is my only goal. I get frustrated when people tell me that my work should be more well known. I agree. But should that be my responsibility when activity towards that has such a negative impact on my creative ability?

Compassion for the sad

Compassie is the first piece I made on my own in a very long time. I mean without Auriea Harvey with whom I have collaborated for almost two decades. I’m happy to have found three wonderful artists to collaborate with on Compassie (Jessica Palmer, Moné Sisoukraj and Zoe McCarthy). I like collaborating. I don’t like being the only author of a piece. I’m not an individualist. I’m a product of space and time. And for a while I was able to dissolve in a union with a partner. But Tale of Tales is dead. Song of Songs is a fitting new name: a poem about separation and longing. In part, the sadness that Compassie indulges in, is sadness for this loss. The god that we once were is dead. Though I doubt that this sacrifice will save humanity.

But Compassie is much more than that. It’s not really about sadness, it doesn’t generate sadness. It’s a place where you can bring the sadness that’s already inside of you, any sadness. Maybe in the end the beauty of Compassie is that it gives compassion to you, the user. More so perhaps than demanding it from you for its subject, as the traditional pietà might. By allowing you to indulge in your sadness, it expresses compassion. It’s alright to be sad here. You have plenty to be sad about. There is no shame here, no guilt. You are sad. Come here, and be sad. Just, be sad.

—Michael Samyn.

(1) We live in a time of numbers. And the numbers make us feel like failures. Because there’s always something that gets higher numbers. And it is invariably something that doesn’t seem as interesting as your own. To the point where we almost have to consider quantity to be diametrically opposed to quality: the more popular, the worse the art. If this is childish then it fits perfectly with the spirit of social media which turn us all into envious teenagers trying hard to seem cool.

(2) In my stubborn devotion to sincerity I may have fallen into the trap of austerity. I may have fallen in love with the void too much and forgotten about the sensations of sensuality that pervade even the most terrifying works of the old masters. I may have made it too easy for the user to be satisfied, to be fulfilled. There’s not enough unanswered questions. Literally: not enough. In my next piece I will pay attention to quantity. It’s more important than I thought.

(3) It seems normal that a new creative technology would invite a lot of artistic research. But in the current social economic climate this is just not the case. We have seen this in web design, in videogames and now it’s happening in virtual reality. Or rather not happening. Most of what we use new technology for is trying to do the same thing we did with slightly older technology. So we make books in websites, board games in videogames, and videogames in VR. To the point where it seems like every time we may be discovering something interesting in a some technology they make it obsolete by inventing something that allows us to start back from zero, where we feel more comfortable.

(4) I consider art with a message to be propaganda. And I do not have a high esteem for propaganda. I consider more valuable an art that allows me to explore myself and the world, and the ideas that connect the two. For that reason the artist needs to refrain from communicating too much.

(5) Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, psychologically, for not wanting to be successful. Is this fear? Am I a coward, afraid of failure? But my real problem is that I actually do have a desire to please people but that I’m simply not very good at it. And what makes matters worse, and unacceptable, is that my art suffers under my attempts to please. I can only make things like Compassie when I devote myself to the work. When my only goal is beauty. This is my sacrifice. I nail my vanity to the cross. And I weep. And I pray.

Compassie (sphere)

I have created a version of the Compassie scene that can be explored in a browser thanks to the <model-viewer> script.

The models in this version have a smaller number of polygons, lower resolution textures, simpler materials and static (baked) lighting. And there is no sound and no interactivity or animation apart from rotating and zooming the view. But it offers a different way of experiencing the scene accessible even on cell phones.

Compassie is here!

On Holy Saturday 3 April 2021, Compassie was released.

Compassie delights me more than anything I’ve made before. Because it gives me an opportunity to be sad. Hiding behind the VR headset. Where no-one can see me cry. It feels so luxurious to be able to be sad! Just sad, just to be filled with this enormous feeling of failure and desperation, to let it expand and take over my world, with nobody telling me to cheer up or look at the bright side or to relax or fix myself. Just sitting there in the dark, in the absolute, endless darkness of empty cyberspace.

I’m extremely pleased with the result. Please have a look the Compassie webpage to learn more about the project or to download it and try it yourself, if you have access to VR equipment.

—Michael Samyn.

Un nuovo anno: un nuovo libro

For the third year in a row I did not tweet a single thing on @MeneerSamyn. Instead I have gathered my oh-so clever thoughts in a little book that you can read or download in PDF format or purchase in print on Blurb.

Quest’anno ho deciso di scrivere il libro in italiano. Per esercitarmi nell’apprendimento della lingua ma anche per diminuire ancora la quantità di lettori. In un’epoca in cui tutti sono famosi per 15 persone, considero un atto di eroismo scegliere la modestia. Eh sì: sono un eroe.

—Michael Samyn.

Merely Pietà

A rude awakening

Returning to the Virtual Reality Pietà after four months, while a bit daunted by the amount of production work remaining to be done, I took courage from the idea that the design of the piece was finished. All I needed to do now was to make an epic landscape that transitions over twelve thousand years. Daunting in terms of work, but simple in terms of concept.

But then I tried the prototype.

While aesthetically appealing, I didn’t understand why this scene of a mother holding her dead son required such a spectacular context. A simple transition from day to night in a mundane scene would suffice. I also felt weary about the lesson the piece seemed to be preaching with its manipulative albeit minimal interactivity: lift the dead body in a gently embrace to make the light shine. I felt that the “now is bad, then was good” mantra, or the “we ruined the Garden of Eden” rhetoric was a bit pedantic. And all those cheap glowy lights at night looked too much like cheesy science fiction. Maybe this “edgy contrast” between a traditional religious scene and high tech graphics would increase the appeal of the piece. But how would that interest me?

Two characters in a small garden area would be sufficiently poetic and dramatic. This is how the pietà scene was always depicted in the renaissance and baroque art that I admire. That is how it is done. The strength of a pietà is its simple familiarity. It’s a modest tragic scene. The dramatic consequences should happen in the mind of the viewer, not be expressed by the art.

This is not a deposition

I had always considered this piece to include aspects of both the traditional Deposition scene (taking the dead body down from the cross, a scene that often involves many characters) and the Pietà proper (just a mother and her dead son). In the months away from the project I had developed an idea for a Deposition piece. And so i decided to separate the two. This one needs to focus on the Pietà itself.

Vasari’s wonderful Deposition in Galleria Doria Pamphilj versus Michelangelo’s lonely Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

It’s all about her sadness, it’s all about her tears. She’s cradling her dead son like a baby.

Any modern invention I might add to the pietà (and it’s easy, and seductive, to come up with ideas) does not improve the scene. We think we’re being clever as contemporary artists, but anything we would add would only reduce the impact of the work. Of course, before modernity, many artists have added new elements to the pietà scene. But, as far as I can tell, this was always done with a sincerity that contemporary artists, including myself, seem virtually incapable of. The old masters always created in service of the scene, of the meaning of the scene, even when they were showing off their skills. As opposed to today’s desire for personal original ideas that “criticize” or “subvert” or in whatever manner add something to the scene that doesn’t belong to it. Or is it just that this is the easy thing to do? The safe thing to do? To make a crude joke about a mother crying over her murdered son is safer now than expressing compassion and grief and allowing that pain to silently exist and grow in meaning.

The creativity of the modern age of freedom of individual expression.

To maximize the impact of the work, I need to not only trust my own sincerity, but also rely on the tradition of depicting this scene. My own judgement does not suffice. When I imitate, I speak with the voice of thousands. This work requires modesty and respect.

The eye does not see itself

I was also again troubled by the viewpoint in Virtual Reality. Since you do not see yourself, the environment becomes what you look at, when you are cast as the protagonist in the scene. Hence my attention to the landscape that surrounds the scene. But the fact that you don’t see yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t know which role you play! It’s not only about the environment, it’s also about who you are and who you are with.

A VR experience is profoundly awkward compared to other visual arts as it puts us in the center of the scene. It puts us in the place that we usually look at. But now this become the place that we look from. We become the subject of the artwork. And we look at ourselves.

Once you realize that the viewpoint is reversed in VR other art becomes a lot less useful as inspiration. What does a scene look like from the viewpoint of its subject? Despite of the sculptural nature of realtime 3D I’m more inspired by paintings than by statues. Because they represent worlds. But when I browse through pictures of the pietàs that have been made over the centuries I’m confused about what I am supposed to think about what I am making. I’m not making a painting, I’m making the scene that is represented in the painting. But I’m obviously not creating reality. I could consider this scene a sculpture if the spectator would be positioned outside of it. A virtual sculpture. Okay. But in this case, the spectator is the subject of the sculpture, or they are positioned in the exact place of the subject, playing its role. So is this a form of theater? Only if the actor is their own audience. And while the scene is fictional, the spectator is not. Maybe it’s like a novel written in the first person? Virtual Reality may be too real, insufficiently artificial for me to think of it in artistic terms. And yet the experience, the emotional effect, is very similar to the experience of art.

What changes when a Pietà is no longer a display to be witnessed but a scene to be experienced? There’s no need for Mary to express her grief visibly anymore. You are Mary. Your grief is that of the mother, not for the mother. You compassion is for the son, not the mother. And you think of the son as your own son, but also as the son of God, and how his death, his sacrifice means the salvation of mankind. His death is the foundation of Christianity, the philosophy that would impact Western culture more than anything. Your grief is minor in this context, and it adds an eighth sword of pain that pierces your heart.

There’s an additional dimension to a contemporary image of the Pietà. Because God, famously, has been declared dead in our era. Not just the Son, but also the Father and the Holy Ghost. And according to some, they died for the same reason: as a sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. We have sacrificed God again, this time in order to be saved by science and technology, by what we now consider truth.

The best answer is often nothing

When instead of looking at the virgin, we inhabit her body and look through her eyes, what do we see? Fortunately this is not just an aesthetic or logistical problem. What does a person holding a dead child look at? Nothing much, I presume, it’s not important, the world out there does not matter in this moment.

The way in which Caravaggio submerges his scenes in darkness came to mind.

So there would be nothing to see but the corpse in your arms? The infinite void of an empty scene in VR is impressive. There is nothing there, as far as the eye can see. I was drawn to the radical character of this idea. Although I do love being immersed in an elaborate 3D world. There could be visible objects in the immediate vicinity of the scene: the throne, the floor, plants, some objects. This would satisfy my desire to see real things in VR.

Our other VR piece Cricoterie also has a caravaggesque feeling with its black background. And in the Cathedral-in-the-Clouds prototype everything is born from emptiness. I guess I’m drawn to this aesthetic in VR. And it makes sense.

I briefly considered filling the black void with abstract decorations, perhaps expressing, supporting the feelings. But can any decoration express these better than darkness? I tried adding contemporary visuals, to express the mood, to demonstrate the vastness of the endless emptiness in which the mourning mother finds herself. But it all feels corny and out of place. I thought the contrast would be interesting but it just reduces the gravity of the piece.

I was still thinking about the simple garden scene. But after some experimentation I realized that anything out there would capture the gaze of the user. They will look at it and that will become the work of art. So I need to avoid that. Because I don’t want to “express” the emotions in the scene. Art should offer context and stimulus for the spectator’s own emotions and is not an opportunity for the artist to manipulate or impose.

What they see out there should guide them inwards. Not just towards looking down at Jesus on their lap. But towards introspection, towards being not seeing. Perhaps my goal/hope should be for the user to close their eyes. After all, a VR headset feels a bit like a blindfold. Instead of entering another world, the VR headset could enable you to enter yourself.

What would a baroque artist do with VR?

Maybe I have been seduced by power of the Northern Renaissance again, into a problem that cannot be solved in the current age. On the one hand because I obviously lack the artistic skill and on the other because we live in a time in which religious faith is not only sparse but also heavily criticized, and by no means supported universally by society. This reminds more of the Baroque times of Counter-Reformation than of the pious context in which the Flemish Primitives were active.

The solemn Northern Renaissance versus the provocative theater of the Baroque.

Maybe I should try to imagine what a baroque artist would do with this technology. How would they deal with the endlessness of simulated space? I’m attracted to baroque art because it contains a certain playfulness and spectacle that seems to fit the digital realm with its abundance, ambiguity and focus on the spectator’s experience. As opposed to the grave and solemn nature of the Northern Renaissance that was the starting point of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds and remains an important reference for the Pietà as well. How would a Baroque artist present a 15th century Pietà in 21st century VR?

To do or not to do

I still had the interaction to consider. In the previous design lifting up the body would transition the world from dark present day to bright paradise. Now I was thinking of a simple transition between day and night. Or a sort of focus: when you lift up the body, only its immediate surroundings would be lit. But the dynamics of cause and effect trouble me. I want to create endless environments, not linear stories. I want to create a context in which the spectator can explore their own thoughts and sentiments. I do not want to guide this process towards what I think is interesting. That would be a waste of opportunity and an unnecessary limitation. But I worry that if there is very little to do that causes a change the experience will feel shallow and short. If, on the other hand, there’s is nothing to do that causes any changes, it can feel endless.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened. I was prototyping all sorts of ideas and at some point I ended up in a scene completely empty and dark in front of me but with a bright landscape behind me. I had recreated the situation of the paintings: the mother with her son on her lap sitting in front of a landscape. We do not know what is in front of the protagonists. It is not depicted. But in the physical context of the museum or a church we are it, the spectators. It feels a bit like being on a theater stage with the actor peering into the darkness where the audience is. You can still lift up the body but nothing happens in the scene when you do. It should happen inside of you. You can look behind you, at the landscape, but it’s very uncomfortable, when sitting down. But it feels good to know that there is a whole world behind you while you are staring into the void of your sorrow.

A look around the current prototype with placeholder models and textures.

—Michael Samyn.

The Unreal Forest: step 19 – alpha!

The remake of the Endless Forest has reached the alpha stage! With the completion of Phase Three, I feel confident enough to declare the new release Alpha 1. A link to download the new build has been sent to the backers. The new server is already up and running and replaces the previous pre-alpha build.

Software is released in three stages: alpha, beta and final. For me, an alpha release is like an introduction: it gives a good idea of what the final program will be but several features are lacking and there’s many bugs and errors. The stage after this is the beta release which presents the full program with all features implemented but still many bugs and errors unresolved. It is in this stage that testers are invited to report on errors that the developers might have missed. After all beta stage problems have been addressed, the program can be released in its final state.

The work on this step took place over a period of two months: August and September 2020.
It started with the creation of special effects to simulate the streaming water on the Drinkplaats area, a major feature of the Phase Three forest, inspired by a painting by the Flemish baroque artist Roelant Savery we showed The Endless Forest with in a museum exhibition.

Less natural effecs were also added to the area to illustrate its magic. Upon entering the mushroom circle that surrounds the watering hole, the deer avatars lose all their special attire and return to their natural state. This feature was implemented making sure that the painstakingly acquired looks of the deer would be restored when leaving the area.

The real magic of the Drinkplaats happens on the watery rock: when a deer drinks from the water it shapeshifts into another animal: a bat, a rabbit, a frog, etc, of varying size. This was implemented as well as the animals that come to witness this strange spectacle. When many deer are gathered in this magical place, more and more forest dwellers show up and strange events occur ever more frequently. Stars fall from above, rainbows appear, circles of doves flutter away, fireworks of flowers explode in the air, and so on. These are all effects well known to the visitors of ye olde Abiogenesis festivals and have now been implemented in the remake. It was quite a massive task to analyze the Quest3D logic that drives these effects in order to recreate them in the Unreal Engine. The implementation of Abiogenesis effects on the Drinkplaats was the final big feature to be completed. A fittingly festive finale of the pre-alpha stage of the remake.

Of course, along the way, many bugs and errors were discovered. The most severe were fixed but a lot remains to be done. Thanks to the attention of several players, some errors were discovered in the animations of the deer. These were corrected. And the deer’s autonomous idle behavior was toned down a bit as well.

Perusing the old Endless Forest project, I find myself stumped every day at how much we were able to create in such a short amount of time, with far less experience than we have now. We must have worked like maniacs! Fighting against extreme budget limitations and driven by an enormous enthusiasm for the medium of videogames. Fifteen years later, just recreating the game without even needing to worry about design, will probably take two or three times as long. But it’s a rewarding process, seeing the old program regain new life and energy in contemporary technology, thwarting the death sentence of planned software obsolescence and re-opening the gates towards further expansion of our deer Forest and getting back to the live events we all used to love until everybody’s computer crashed under the pressure of our frantically dancing hooves.

I hope the players who supported this enormous project enjoy the first release of a complete remake of The Endless Forest. And it’s not too late to join them! Since development time has far exceeded our naively optimistic scheduling, the funding of the remake relies entirely on our own finances and the very welcome additional donations. If you like The Endless Forest and you want to see it continue its long life, and you want to hurry up the remake already, please consider contributing to the fundraising. We have some nice perks for you!

—Michael & Auriea.

The Unreal Forest: step 18

In this step detail was added to the Phase Three area, and some to Phase Two as well.

The daytime look of the grassland and birch forest area were tweaked to resemble the original game better. And the nighttime look was tweaked as well. The soundscape was adjusted to match the serene atmosphere.

Interaction with the Playground area was implemented. And the little birds were added, flying all over the place and landing on the deer’s antlers. While creating artificial life forms, we added the beautiful koi to the pond as well.

Phase three is almost finished. Only the Drinkplaats area remains to be done. Over the past month we haven’t been able to spend as much time on the remake as we wanted because another project demanded our attention. So a new build will have to wait until next month, when Phase Three is ready for you. This other project, by the way, is Endless Forest related and very very exciting! But, sadly, it need to remain a secret for now.

We hope all deer in the Northern hemisphere are finding ways to enjoy the summer time despite of the very strange things that are happening in the human world.

Thank you for your support!

—Michael & Auriea.