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volume 1, issue 9

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Guest Editorial:
To See, or not to See

 

 

 

 

By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford

 

 

pinions and personal taste combine to ensure that we live in a world that is both interesting and frustrating at the same time. Without individuality, wars and arguments would not exist, and yet it's this same individuality that makes life worth living.

Everyone has an opinion about any given game, and at a deeper level, also about the graphics, the design, story, music, menu system, deathmatch balance, box artwork, fun factor...the list goes on. The curious thing is that for any given element in any game, and in fact this applies equally to anything at all, a sampling of every person on Earth will give you results covering every single possible opinion, from "I absolutely detest it" through to "it's my lifeís joy".

Does this mean that there is no such thing as being correct when it comes to personal taste? Knowing that there will be people out there with an opinion diametrically opposite to yours, and certainly more valid to them than your own thoughts, surely means that opinions are essentially meaningless to anyone but the person with the opinion, right?

As it turns out, either by the quirks of evolution or some other unaccountable event, opinions can sometimes be more correct than others. Not only that, it's a skill that can be learnt by simply being aware of it!

What I'm going to describe here is a fairly deep, albeit obvious, concept that some people just arenít going to get. But those that do understand that idea will hopefully pick up something insightful into the difference between "opinion" and "being right".

Now, I'm not going to pretend this is some well documented feature of the human mind, it's simply something that I became aware of a while ago and, as obvious as it appears to be, I've never seen it mentioned anywhere even though the concept can potentially improve oneís view of anything you care to examine closely. Its relevance to the game industry is almost immeasurable, as I'll talk about below, so I thought it was time to lay it all down in the interest of world enlightenment (yeah right!).

I've never found a good word for this skill, but in the past when I've tried to explain it to people who have asked me about "art", I usually use the term "seeing". This is the ability to "see" deeper into the "worth" of any given item than you would otherwise be able to see (yes, it's a very conceptual idea, readers looking for something simple to read best look elsewhere).

About now you'll be wondering what on Earth this guy is talking about, so perhaps it's time for a nice clear example. Art is a big personal interest of mine and something I've spent a lot of time reading about (I have a personally library of more than 200 art books), so letís use Picasso as an example, we all know him, right?

Show a Picasso painting to any large random sampling of people off the street and you will more than likely get just as many different opinions on the painting. Who is right? Surely everyone, since opinions only matter to the individual, right? Well, Picasso is acknowledged in art circles as being one of the greatest painters in history and thatís not just the "average opinion", it's actually based on a large number of usually easily definable "tricks" (for lack of a better term) which the human brain reacts positively to.

Do you understand color theory? Complimentary colors, and Triassic color sets? How about all the theories of composition? Picasso did, and he used them in his paintings to great effect. Art critics know about these things and so when they view a Picasso painting they are viewing it not only from a "does it turn me on" angle, but also from the direction of these other much more subtle facets of art.

It could be argued that these "rules of art" have no real value, and are themselves simply one set of opinions of an infinite set, but the human mind really does responds to these things. There are actually a very large set of these triggers which effect the human mind in a positive way, with a fairly equal mix of the obvious, and the not so obvious.

Why our mind would enjoy seeing colors that are exactly opposite each other on a "color wheel" made from the visible light spectrum (in other words, complimentary colors) rather than colors 1/3 apart on the wheel is probably something even a brain surgeon couldn't explain, but that, along with hundreds of other facets, are very much a part of real life, just waiting there to be used by artists (of any nature).

There are a number of important points to be made about this phenomenon. Firstly, being able to "see" any given facet well doesn't necessarily mean that you are able to make use of it. The term "critic", as in "art critic" or "movie critic" for example, generally defines people that are aware of all these elements (either by schooling or experience) and can readily see them in the item they are reviewing, yet probably can't do any better themselves. The exceptions are people that have previously worked in that particular field, and also people that review/critique something when they've really got no clue what they are talking about (which covers a LOT of people who have web pages, unfortunately).

The second point is that there are an infinite number of these things to learn, so the learning process is ongoing. Learning to "see" one particular aspect of, for example, making game models, such as realistic weight distribution over the feet (something a lot of people get wrong), doesn't necessarily mean that you can see another aspect, such as realistic inertia/momentum in an animation.

Additionally, while something as simple and well documented as complimentary colors are widely accepted as being a very real tool for artists, you can never assume that everyone will be effected by these colors in the same way. For example, people who are either partially or totally color blind will have a hard time being convinced that orange goes best with blue. It's not limited to people with a clear reason either, there will always be people who prefer the opposite of what the "rule" suggests. This is simply a part of life, but on average these rules are worth every cent (especially being free).

Learning these various tidbits that define what is "really" good/bad rather than just having another opinion is actually a double edged sword. You suddenly see everything with a slightly sharper focus than everyone else, so what clearly looks poorly realized to your eyes seems perfectly fine by others. The other problem is that becoming aware of them doesn't instantly mean you can make use of them in your own work, which can prove incredibly frustrating when you know something you created doesn't look quite right. However, being aware of it is a major step towards being better.

Looking back at my own progress over the years, and I've still got a long way to go, I can actually pick out many of these "insights" that have subsequently made a big difference in my work. Things like realizing that certain colors work better together than a random choice from the palette, or even something as simple as thinking about the contrast of the image when I work. It doesn't just apply to art, of course; in the realm of music, since learning what "in key" really means (or sounds like), I now wince at the slightest detectable intonation in singing or music.

Music is another good example of what I'm describing; why do we like specific sequences of notes rather than a scale of every note? Why does a chord sound better than a collection of random notes? Why does a G7 chord lead well into a C chord? You don't actually need to understand the "why" (although I'm sure if you could work out "why" you'd become a very rich person), simply knowing the tricks and being aware of them when you create music can make a world of difference.

It actually hits you in the face when you suddenly realize something, but probably only if you are looking out for these things, otherwise they could pass you by without even a second thought. One second you're merrily spitting out Quake skins, perfectly happy with the results, and then you'll come across a skin by someone else that looks identifiably better, but you can't tell why. Shadowing! Yes, shadowing is something you'd never thought of, apart from the usual darkening on the "under side" of everything, yet now it is apparent that strong realistic shadows make a very clear impact on the realism of the skin. You now find that looking back at your past skins is an uncomfortable process, not to mention looking at other peoples skins that haven't picked up on that key.

By making a concerted effort to constantly be on the lookout for these "rules of seeing clearly", you begin to see differences where once things appeared comparable. The Quake 2 models are a good example; if you sit down and analyze every aspect of the model to a reasonable degree, putting aside prejudice and taste (taste could benefit from an article of it's own), then do likewise with any other comparable game around right now, and you find they are seriously well ahead of the competition.

How you take a statement like that depends on whether you accept my contention that something which is generally "artistic" can be subdivided into identifiably easy to judge in a meaningful way. The average punter is going to look at the Quake 2 models, then look at the models from other games, and after some brief contemplation exclaim, "wow, polygon aliens!", but if you take the time to understand things such as weight, momentum, proportions, contract, coloring, and even shadowing, you'll be able to look at them both and make clear, quick, and more "on the mark" observations for the comparison.

Another facet of "seeing" worth highlighting is that it works on many, many levels. If we go back to the Quake 2 models for example, I could simply look at those models next to some others and just get an instant feeling that the Quake 2 models are better, even without trying to define "why". Additionally, I could then break the comparison down into the individual aspects of the models, like the skins, modeling and animation, and I might again state that the Quake 2 skins are better, still just by way of my instant reaction. Further on, I could then break the skins down into the individual aspects, still trying to quantify my immediate impression, and compare things such as the choice of colors, details, quality of rendering (i.e. does it look like a face?), anti-aliasing, balance of the design, sharpness of image, is it interesting, does it look good from all directions, etc. I could even take one of those elements, such as the coloring, and really examine things like the interplay between colors, such as rust on metal, or a nice choice of highlight color on a section of dull plastic.

I probably couldn't go much lower than that, short of deciding which models used the best selection of atoms, but it does demonstrate the depth of "seeing" that is required to really understand what you are looking at. Few people get past the first or second level and even then the grounding of the opinion is often swayed by prejudice and taste.

It's worth remembering that the gaming environment isn't exactly like real life, so rules that may apply to reality may well have no place in a game. A perfect example is a character flipping over backwards after being shot, which Paul Steed animated for some of the baddies in the original test release of Quake 2, and the community feedback was that they were "too fast". His original animations were actually correct if you think about the weight of the characters combined with gravity, yet they didn't work in the game environment. In this case it can be traced back to the fact that the characters were animated at a frame rate of 10fps which, when animated correctly, had them doing a full flip in just a couple of frames. Plus there's the speed at which players run around in the game - fast actions tend to get a bit lost - so for the final version they were slowed down to what would probably be a bit slow for a realistic flip, but they did work better in the game.

In other words, there are always exceptions to the rules, although they aren't really exceptions, they are actually rules for the rules. Perhaps a case of one particular rule being more important than another. Ooh, it's getting complex!

So there you have it. In a nut shell, the real story here is that learning through experience alone is going the long way about it; if you take the time to actually identify each and every "rule of seeing" rather that just relying on experience, your progress will be so much faster and far more substantial.

You may relax now.

 

- Rowan Crawford is an artist, and member of Team Impact, the developers of the innovative Quake mods Quess and Quake Rally.

 

 

Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1998 Rowan Crawford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.