Prototyping a new VR project

Most of the past month was spent in Coronavirus quarantaine. The eternal city was silent as its citizens were forbidden to leave their neighborhoods. Not being able to visit churches and museums as I’m used to was tough at times. But I did not let this stop me from beginning the work on our new VR project. After all, isn’t this what we do: create virtual projects from the comfort of our homes?

Compassie is the working title for a new Virtual Reality diorama in the context of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. The theme of the diorama is the pietà, that is the Holy Virgin Maria holding her deceased son in her lap. It’s one of the great classic themes of Western art history, and as such often parodied in contemporary art.

And even though as a 21st century person I cannot avoid being a contemporary artist, parody could not be further from my artistic goals. To be honest I find it hard to understand how one can be so cynical as to make fun of a scene in which a mother mourns her murdered child, not to mention the divine nature of this child.

I was inspired by our own piece Cricoterie in which you move life-size ball-jointed mannequins around on a theater stage. Playing Cricoterie, I started to imagine what it would be like to hold a body that represents the dead Christ in Virtual Reality. I imagined it could be a very powerful experience. And I adore the idea of working with traditional artistic and mystical themes in computer technology. In this technology I find encouragement to return to the sincerity and the beauty of the art from before the modern era.

Since Virtual Reality hardware and the fast computers it requires are not widespread commodities, from the start I thought of Compassie as an installation. I started prototyping by sketching the setup in 3D.

The player would sit on a large throne-like structure while wearing the VR headset and holding the two controllers. In the real world this structure would look very bare bones. But in VR very detailed and ornate. This throne in fact references many depictions of the parallel traditional scene of the holy mother with her infant son on her lap.

When experiencing this scene in VR I was immediately confronted with an unwelcome problem: it’s very difficult to manipulate bodies in a physics simulation in VR without things getting out of hand. In this case quite literally: it was very easy to have Jesus slip from your lap and fall on the floor in a must undignified manner. This is where the static arts of painting and sculpture have an advantage.

There is a traditional scene in Western art that is very closely related to the pietà: the deposition, or the scene in which Jesus’ corpse is taken off the cross before it is given to Mary.

A form of deposition had always been how I imagined the start of the VR experience: a host puts the body into the hands of the player.

One thing that fascinates about many depictions of the Deposition of Christ is the number of hands that support the body of Christ. It’s always a group activity that involves several people. This allows for the maneuvering of the body to happen in a serene, dignified fashion. This got me thinking: what if the player in VR has more than two hands? What if there’s a hand for each limb of the body but they are all controlled by the two real hands simultaneously. And what if a few of these hands are cherubs?

I did some research into such controls and was relatively pleased with the result. But even though a severely limited the freedom of movement, it was still far too easy to put the body in awkward positions.

I radically simplified the controls by turning the players hands into large cylinders that could not rotate.

I liked this restriction, it felt good in VR, even if the real hands and virtual hands did not correspond completely, since rotation of the hands was ignored. But it suddenly struck me that this dead body feels very light in VR. To solve both problems I imagine I could mount each controller in a relatively heavy sphere that the player needs to balance on the palm of each hand. Such “input devices” would allow the player to feel the weight of the body, ensure a certain slowness and dignity in motion (lest they drop the spheres in reality) while creating better correspondence between real and VR motion.

The simplicity of this prototype also confronted me with a problem that affects many interactive art pieces. When an art work allows you to impact it by doing something, people definitely will do that thing, all the time. Even when the work is more beautiful when you don’t touch it or only once in a while or only in a certain way. No, people will jump up and down, dance like clowns, wave their hands, and so on, in order to see the reaction of the machine. So much so that they forget to even contemplate the art, they’re just playing, moving their body. Not exactly the goal I have in mind.

The original concept included a sort of reward system: if you hold the body gently and still, beautiful things would start happening. Lately I have been a bit annoyed by these types of structures of cause and effect, so I neglected this idea. But now it seemed like such a mechanic could prevention the problem with interactivity described above: Jesus would only appear when you hold your hands still in the right position.

Initial experiments with fading the body in and out were disappointing. It made Jesus seem like a ghost and the mechanic of hold-still-for-display felt a bit too prescriptive, too simple.

Instead of making the body appear from thin air, I want to compose it from elements that are already floating around in the environment. Most of these elements would be undefined fragments but some could be cherubs, or flowers, or ornaments with certain animations. This idea matches up with my original vision of a garden that surrounds the player and starts blooming when they are properly contemplating.

So that’s where I am at now. The first experiements have been a bit disappointing in terms of performance. A few thousand individual pieces with their own behavior still bring a very powerful workstation to its knees. Story of my life: in the twenty years that I have been using computers for creating art, they have never been fast enough to run my imaginations.

But luckily for my mood I have developed this theory that art happens where artists fail to achieve what they really wanted. When they need artifice to compensate for shortcomings in technology or technique, magic appears. So I hope I find some tricks to replace the original idea that ultimately make the piece better. Wish me luck.

The Unreal Forest: step 16 – Phase Two!

In step 16 of the remake we have implemented Phase Two of The Endless Forest, originally released in April 2006. In this Phase the forest doubles in size to include a new area that features the Pond, the Crying Idol, the Twin Gods statue and the Old Oak and new activities such as swimming/bathing and worshiping.

To celebrate this joyous occasion we have released a new pre-alpha build of the game. If you have backed the remake via Indiegogo or Paypal you should have received an email with a link to the new game.

Apart from implementing the final aspects of Phase Two we have also corrected a few errors. This by no means means that this build is error free. We will continue to implement features and keep things working but the actual bug fixing is pushed back until the remake is complete. So there’s no need to notify us of any bugs just yet, unless the game completely refuses to function.

Generous Forest Believers who opted for the secret perk will be glad to hear that Black and Red pelts are enabled in this release.

We hope you will enjoy this update and remain endlessly grateful for your continued material and spiritual support.

— Michael & Auriea.

The Unreal Forest: step 15

First update of the year. Hopefully 2020 is the year in which the remake of The Endless Forest will see the light of day! We can’t make any promises other than we will do our very best. Because our lives are complicated and remaking this game is a surprisingly complex task (finding assets, figuring out programming logic, finding alternative methods, tweaking aesthetics, and so on). I can’t wait until it’s done so we can start working on additions and expansions! We’re getting so many ideas while working on this remake.

In this step we have added two fun activities to the “Phase Two” area of the game: falling into the pond and worshiping the Twin Gods.
When you fall, or run, into the water of the pond, your avatar changes into a frog and you can swim. When you get out of the water, you change back into a deer but lose any decorations (special antlers, masks or pelt): you are clean, reborn!
When you are near the Twin Gods, a special button appears that allows your deer to kneel before them. After worshiping like this for a while the deer turns white and is considered “devout”. After a while, the effect wears off. Next I will implement the ability to “convert” other deer.

I have also added small features like the dragonflies, the rings that appear on the water when you step in and the frogs that scurry away when you run around the pond area. Also implemented were the sounds of aquatic nature (water, ducks, frogs) and the Old Oak drone.

When adding the tiny symbols in the border for locating the Phase Two features (Pond, Twin Gods en The Old Oak Tree) I discovered and fixed an error in their display.

There’s hundreds of small features and fixes that need to be taken care of. But instead of fixing all of them before proceeding I have decided to go ahead and implement the main features first in order to arrive at an alpha stage of the complete game as quickly as possible. Then we would be able to release a playable build of the game and simply update it with bug fixes and additions of minor elements.

But we’re not there yet. A few more elements need to be added to Phase Two and then there is the entire Phase Three forest and its features to add.

If you would like to support this gargantuan project, you can do so here.

Thank you for your support.

—Michael & Auriea.

Another year, another book

In 2019 I again kept my thoughts on art, music, politics, media, etc, offline and unshared until now. You can read my seconded “untweeted” book here or buy a printed copy here.

Next year I’m writing this in Italian. So that even fewer people will read it!

—Michaël Samyn.

The Unreal Forest: step 14

It has been a long time since we have reported on a step in the remake of The Endless Forest. We have been busy with another project but above all, we have moved to another country. After twenty years in Belgium, we decided to embed ourselves in a different context. We now live in the eternal city of Rome, Italy. Settling in is still an ongoing process that impacts our ability to work. But we have managed to implement almost all assets of Phase Two of The Endless Forest.

With Phase Two, originally released almost 13 years ago, we double the size of the forest and add an idyllic pond surrounded by reeds and weeping willows and covered with waterlily pads. Of course, Unreal Engine offers its own options of dealing with reflections on the water surface. Other notable features of the Phase Two area are the bridge, the crying idol and the statues of the Twin Gods. And we have also added the big Old Oak tree.

It’s a spectacular update that came with a number of interesting challenges. But implementing these visual assets is only one part of Phase Two. Next we will add all the simulation features (sound effects, frogs, fish, dragon flies, etc) and activities (falling in the pond, praying to the Twin Gods, walking through the idol, etc). We hope to be able to do that over the course of next month and release another pre-alpha client by Christmas. But there’s a lot of things on our schedule already so cross fingers and send positive rays!

As mentioned before, the remake of The Endless Forest is taking a lot more time than expected. As such the funds so graciously collected by the players need to be supplemented with our own resources, slowing things down even more. Any new contributions are still very welcome here!

Thank you for your support.
See you in The (old) Forest (for now)!

—Michael & Auriea.

The art of failure

Cricoterie is a Virtual Reality program that explores aesthetics of failure, of things not working as expected, of lack of control. This was not necessarily what we intended. But art tends to happen exactly where the artist failed, where they had to fake things, or where they ran into the limitations of their medium: in the simulation, in the pretense, in the imagination, in the discrepancy between the achieved and the desired.

In the thirty years that we have been using computers creatively, they have remained promises that never delivered. The hardware never became fast enough and the software never useful enough. In fact each and every technology we have used has destroyed itself before it could even be explored. From desktop publishing and CD Roms to the world wide web, from HTML web sites to Flash to executables, from desktops to laptops to mobile devices, from to videogames and now VR.

Every technological invention seems to be destined to fail. Almost always for a single reason: profit. New technologies are created within the capitalist system. But they remain underdeveloped precisely because of the commercial context.

Cricoterie is the first project we finished after abandoning both the medium of videogames and the practice of commercial distribution, in favor of a more sincere and focused approach to artistic creation. We’re proud of Cricoterie like any parent would be. But we are also skeptical. It’s hard to not make games in an interactive medium. And it’s hard not to make contemporary art in general. We love Virtual Reality. But there will not be enough time to explore it before this one fails too.

There is nothing we can do but accept this. We have to accept that our work is in fact to a large extent about failure. Not just our own failure to live up to the artistic quality we aspire to. Not just the failure of technology and its capitalist context. But ultimately also about the fatal failure of humanity to avoid being the cause of the sixth extinction.

Working with technology becomes a very melancholic activity. We are creating beauty with things that are destined to crumble. Drawings in the sand. Only far less poetic and a million times more difficult. Never to be able to reach a goal. Always falling short. Always losing. It’s a humbling sort of work. And perhaps this humility is exactly what is needed. Maybe there is some beauty in this weakness, in this failure. Maybe there is love to be found, or at least sympathy when we can recognize that we are all massive failures, the few that win perhaps most of all.

So we connect back to the inspiration behind Cricoterie: the theater of death of the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor with its themes of war, holocaust, suffering and death and its aesthetics of poverty and misery. We did not relate to his work when we first encountered it but when we started exploring it we began to see if not beauty, then at least some kind of honesty.

Our horribly destructive era does not deserve beautiful art, art that celebrates the human spirit, the beauty of nature or grand spiritual aspirations. We get the art we deserve. The best we can do is steer away from cynicism and to seek a sort of forgiveness through art, perhaps even redemption. A new form of praying.

Solving this problem is impossible. Solving problems has caused enough trouble already, anyway. Let’s just slow down and look this monster of our own creation in the eyes. And try to forgive each other.

The Unreal Forest: step 13 – it’s Easter!

In this step we implemented a major feature on our way to a full remake of The Endless Forest: database connectivity. And we have released a new pre-alpha build of the remake that includes the appearance perks for the backers of the crowdsourcing campaigns, including the new Tin Deer set. All backers should have received an email with a download link. If you haven’t, please email us.

Oddly, Unreal Engine does not come with a straightforward way to access web-based data. But through a plugin called LE Http Request we could access the Endless Forest database in the same way as we do in the current game. So we started building the options menu of the game with the Network section to log in with username and password. When a login is successful, a code is received from the database that represents the deer name, or pictogram. In Unreal we created a shader to convert this code to a unique pictogram for each player.

Another code received from the database represents the appearance of the deer: antlers, mask, pelt and body. So we added logic to parse this code so that the avatar looks the way it did when its appearance was last saved. Since the new and the old game share the same database, an appearance saved in one can be loaded in the other. So to flaunt your well deserved perks in the current game, you need to acquire the mask, antlers and pelt you would like in the new pre-alpha build of the remake and save your appearance to the database in the Network menu. Then when you log into the current game, your deer should look the same. But first contact us to let us know the account name to which the perks should be applied. Otherwise it won’t work.

Everybody loves the Tin Deer! On Instagram it became our best like post ever.
Everybody loves the Tin Deer! On Instagram it became our best liked post ever.

The Tin Deer was created to celebrate the ten year anniversary of The Endless Forest. Only Indiegogo backers of 10 Euros or more can get the new antlers, mask and pelt. Forest Lovers of 100 Euros or more get access to the Valentine set and Forest Believers of 300 or more can get the Golden Pelt for their deer. The latter two are still available via the fundraising campaign. When saved in the remake, they will show up in the current game too, including the new Tin Deer set.

To facilitate playing together we have also added the display of the pictograms in the border of the game, so you can find each other easily.

The game also saves your login information to disk and logs you in automatically on startup. And we have added a way to shut down the game which also saves your login data before quitting.

We tweaked the color of the ground a bit. There’s no way we can make the game look the same in Unreal as in Quest3D, the old engine. But we want it to look good in and of itself.

And of course there were a million other things that happened. Some tiny things that take days to figure out. Others huge finished in a few minutes.

We have been working hard on the remake of The Endless Forest over the past months. But as you may know, the estimated time budgeted for producing has been exceeded quite a bit. This means that we are funding the remainder of the remake ourselves. Every contribution to the ongoing fundraiser helps, but sadly it’s not enough. So regrettably we need to take a break now and work on some other projects before we can continue remaking The Endless Forest. But don’t worry. We’re getting there!

We hope you enjoy the new “Easter build” of the remake-in-progress. It’s still a bit early for actual bug reporting. So please ignore the many little errors. Just restarting the game solves most issues. If you would run into a serious problem, please send us an email with the steps to take to replicate the issue (we deeply appreciate the time you would put into this).

Thank you all for your support, encouragement and patience.

See you in the Forest!

—Michaël & Auriea.

The Unreal Forest: step 12

The focus of this step has been changing the weather and the time of day in the forest.

To trigger these changes in the forest, the building of the interface for Abiogenesis has begun. Changing the time of day involves changing the color of the lights but also some materials. In the original game the color of almost all materials is changed but in Unreal only a few are needed to achieve the desired effect. Some other things change as well when the time of day changes: instead of butterflies, fireflies appear above flower beds and instead of doves, swarms of bats fly overhead. The sound changes too when night falls, both the general atmosphere and specific sounds of nature are different. All the sound files of the old game were reused.

Changing the colors for the time of day worked out okay with Unreal’s standard atmosphere system. But to approximate the subtlety (and complexity) of the original game when changing the weather, a new system needed to be built that allowed the reuse of specific colors and numbers in the old game. With the colors of sky and lights in place, it was relatively straightforward to implement the particles systems for rain, snow and mist, using the original textures (although the resolution of snow was increased). And to replicate how the sound is affected by weather changes.

When comparing screenshots of the old and new game, it became clear that our camera setup still didn’t match the original game. As it turns out, the field of view in The Endless Forest is exceptionally narrow. I think we chose to do this to reduce perspective distortion of the tree trunks. A more narrow view also means that the camera needs to be further away. This change required all sorts other tweaks to sound, particles systems, and so on.

Implementing time of day and weather took a lot more effort that anticipated. But I’m glad it’s done. And I love how it looks.

Thank you for your support!

— Michaël Samyn.

The Unreal Forest: step 11

January has been a month of steady progress in tiny steps. In preparation of the expansion of the forest, I have fixed a number of bugs, tweaked a few features and added some pleasant details.

Unreal Engine is completely designed for multiplayer (match-based multiplayer, not the server-based multiplayer required for The Endless Forest, although there is a lot of overlap on the client side). As a result it is in fact a little tricky to make things happen only on the individual player’s computer. This is why in the current alpha, the dance music is such a jumble: every player starts a new iteration of the song. I think I have fixed this now, but I haven’t tested it in an online context (which is surprisingly hard to do in Unreal Engine). The video was recorded with two clients on a single computer (so the music still sounds messy).

In the same vein I have set up a system for local effects and added the floating particles to it. And I have implemented the falling leaves (with procedural animation rather than baked), the flying doves, and the scurrying squirrels. All of these happen only on the local player’s computer. For performance reasons and also because it would make quite a mess when many deer gather.

The motion of the deer avatar has been improved, especially when walking towards a destination such as another deer or a tree to rub. But this might need another pass. I have also removed the bug that would allow the deer to try to rub against grass and ferns next to trees. And two deer should find each other now when sniffing.

The flower antler spell casting has been fixed so that you don’t keep the flowers after giving them away. Some hard edges of tree trunks have been smoothed. And the initial camera view doesn’t end up in the floor anymore.

None of this is very spectacular but it all needs to be done. And better now than when the forest gets bigger, multiplying the problems. We will need to step up the pace a bit if we want to achieve our goal of finishing the remake in the fall. Hopefully that will be possible.

Thank you all for your support. Please spread the word about the fundraising. Since this is taking longer than we had estimated, we could use some extra support.

— Michaël Samyn.

I wrote a book!

At the end of 2017 I decided, as a New Year’s resolution, not to tweet in 2018. Instead of posting to my @MeneerSamyn account, I confided my thoughts to the iPad Notes app or to Google Keep. I have now collected and categorized the notes and published them as a book. You can download the PDF here. Or buy a hard copy at Blurb.

I will no doubt continue not using Twitter next year. I didn’t miss it. And I very much enjoyed taking notes without pressure and then reading them later. I hope you enjoy it too.

—Michaël Samyn.