HIVE Optimisation

Even though the game runs very well on my laptop after the first round of optimization, it was still running badly in the HIVE. I went back to the GPU profiling tools I had been using before to find out the issues. My biggest problems were lighting, HZB, translucent lighting, and particle injection.

Lighting was brought down by taking away the light attached to the player. Since I have some more static lightmaps in the night scene now this wasn’t really needed and took some stress off of the GPU.

HZB is a type of occlusion rendering that ue4 does in the background that I really don’t need, so I just popped a line into the defaultconsole.ini that set it to 0.

Translucent lighting was a big deal, so the directional light that is pre-baked was set to not light transluncey and I went back though some of my materials and unlit them. I was worried about the rain and grass, as I had unlit materials on them before and they looked quite bad, but spending a bit of time getting a balance between colour and light in the emissive slot gave me a couple more milliseconds on the GPU per frame.

Particle injection was a tough one – this is only an issue when particles first spawn, but things like the rain can’t be pre warmed as they switch on and off. Turing off problematic emitters within fx didn’t seem to change this – its not the effect but the fact that its being spawned that’s the issue, so I had to leave this one.

These changes brought the game to 90-100fps on my pc, so I thought the HIVE build would be fine. I was wrong – it didn’t even run at 15. I was getting 14fps at maximum. I noticed when I ran the game in windowed mode that I got about 20fps, so I tried setting the screen percentage to 50. What this did was stay fullscreen, but render at half the size of the screen and scale up. This gave me 30fps! Whilst it might not be “true” 30, it works, and that’s what’s important. At that res I don’t notice any pixelisation on the HIVE screen, which is fantastic. Had this occurred I think I’d have had a very difficult decision between performance and artistic fidelity!

I then capped the frame rate at 30, as it jumps around a lot and I wanted it to match the pc build, which is capped to make sure the fx run optimally. 60 was just odd and too fast feeling.

Prepping Posters for Print

I designed a main poster for my exhibition which has the branding assets talked about previously but has images of each of the lighting states. I tried a portrait version and a landscape one, and the landscape one was much stronger, so I went about getting it ready for print. This was very difficult, as there was high contract and some very dark blacks in my images which both convert very badly to CMYK.

This was my first print after setting the image mode to CMYK using the default profile and making no changes. It was far too dark and the only bits of the image that come out ok is the greens.

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I upped the brightness and contrast in the image and did another print test. This was better, but still very dark.

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Brightening the whole image and upping the saturation made it more ready for print, but the greens jumped out far too much and made the colours completely unbalanced.

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I then went for the same level of brightness with lowered saturation and made some edits to the curves. Whilst a bit washed out looking, the level of contrast in this image was much more suitable for print.

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I then took saturation down only for the greens, to bring them in line with the rest of the image.

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It looks no where near as good as the RBG image, but its the best I can do for now – print media is a mystery to me!
I’ll return to this once I’ve got my HIVE optimized build running well and I can focus on the showcase.

Bug Fixing

Testing in the hive revealed a lot of bugs, so I spend the last couple of days getting as many off my list as possible. Since they were mostly minor fixes, I don’t have any images, but I handled things like obvious texture seams, things spawning slightly in the wrong position and issues with collision and blocking volumes (no falling off the map please!).

The biggest thing here was getting rid of that rain bug – it turned out to be something really silly! I forgot to reattach the branch that detected that the player had left the overcast level and called the event from the character to switch off the rain. Oops.

New Hub

I felt that the hub level didn’t have the same level of fidelity as the rest of the level. I decided it needed a bit of a redesign, as the assets carried over from the second prototype didn’t quite cut it. I had the idea of taking some of the water from my level, so that the player is barred from approaching the tree before they’ve finished the game. I figured that this would make it much clearer that the tree is how you leave the game.

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I adapted the current tree model for this.

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I had a play around with different sizes to work out what felt best. In the end, I went with something much larger than the original hub in here and more like the hub in the second prototype.

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I ended up creating a sort of ring around the water, as it made it fit into the level better. I then created steps. These appear as the player progresses, and the blocking volumes I’ve placed disapear, so that the player can reach the tree.

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I then went into maya and photoshop and created some new leaf colours and some bells to add. I also put in some candles from the previous prototype.

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Map Check Errors

I wanted to get going with looking at fps and scripting my rain fx but I’ve ran into a massive problem with my map check. After building lighting, it still claims that 78 objects are unbuilt. At first, I had lots of NULL staticMesh property issues. After spending quite a while googing, I went though and found that these were duplicates of objects that had no static mesh assigned and were just empty. I had hoped that getting rid of them would fix it, but it didn’t do the trick.

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After this, I still had a world settings rebuild error and an error to do with a sky sphere that, to my knowledge, doesn’t actually exist. Not good.

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One solution offered online was that having lights in blueprints caused this. As a test, I deleted the light from MyCharacter, but it didn’t change anything. I added a lightmass importance volume, but this didn’t fix the issue either. I then found that it could possibly be that meshes being called from blueprints weren’t set to movable, but looking though, all of my objects were. This led me to wonder if maybe something that I was changing about the lighting in my level blueprint was the issue. I unhooked the work I’d done on the overcast level and rebuilt the lighting.

This got rid of the error – so I isolated the problem to this part of the level blueprint. What I did then was disconnect each node to find out which was causing the issues. I didn’t expect to find that actually it was none of them, and this part of the script just needed to be recompiled. It works now, but I’ve lost about 2 hours on something that wasn’t even an issue…

Introduction and Reworked Methods

I’ve been doing a little more work on my dissertation, finishing up the introduction and adding more to the methods section. I added more about presentation methods, as I feel these haven’t been mentioned enough, and am planning to expand it to talk about commercial potential, as I’ve mentioned this in my introduction. Here’s the current draft:

Title

  1. Abstract

Table of Contents

Table of Figures

  1. Project Background

Computer games are capable of provoking strong emotions; Richard Lemarchant, designer of the critically acclaimed “Uncharted” series, states that

“Games are a very ancient form of culture and they produce many powerful experiences for us. Experiences of emotion, intellect, experiences of self-discovery and discovery of others”(Abertay University TV Channel, 2014).

Despite this, Jenova Chen, designer of games noted for their use of emotion, states that

“There is actually a whole spectrum of feeling that games are capable of creating, but not a lot of them are on the market. Right now there are a lot of action games, there are a lot of horror games, sports games…but where are the dramas? Where are the documentaries? The romance?” (CoCreate, 2012).

Chen uses cinema genres to depict the lack of variation in emotional gaming content but the experience interactive media can offer is not the same as film (Wolf, Perron eds., 2003). This is exemplified in Chen’s “Flower”.

“Flower” presents an entirely new kind of physical and virtual choreography unfolding in real time, one that invites participants to weave aural, visual and tactile sensations into an emotional arc rather than a narrative one”(Smithsonian, 2013).

Games have the possibility to create unique, personal and emotional experiences that push emotional and experiential boundaries in art.

An example of a little explored emotion in interactive media is that of introspection, relaxation and meditation. (Abertay University TV Channel, 2014). Successful games such as “Flower” (thatgamecompany, 2009) and “Proteus” (Key, Kanaga, 2013) approach this, however directly meditational games such as Robin Arnott’s “Soundself” (Arnott, 2013) and Owen Harris’ “Deep” (Harris, 2015) tend towards existing as trade show installations and are certainly far from the mainstream. (ref – can I pers comms this?) Considering that games are known for producing feelings of freedom and escapism (Kremers, 2009), feelings experienced during meditation (McGee, 2008), it is hoped that meditational games can form part of the fabric of conventional gaming, becoming ingrained into the mainstream in the same manner that once-controversial narrative games and “walking simulators” have become. (ref)

It has been proven that flow theory and immersion are key elements in creating catharsis and escapism in games (Chen, 2006). When used together, they help create Player Presence, a theory rooted in studies of virtual reality that states that a player is present in a game world when it becomes their dominant reality (Mestre, 2006). This idea echoes the concept of being present in meditation, where the practitioner is encouraged to concentrate fully on the current moment, allowing them to relax and forget worries tied into the past or future (McGee, 2008). It is hypothesized that by utilising Player Presence, a game can be created that evokes meditational feelings.

A number of artistic strategies can be utilised to create presence and immersion within virtual environments. One of these is ambience and atmospherics, elements that build the character of the space and support the artist’s intended mood (Kremers, 2009). This is often created though lighting and effects work, with an effects artist aiming to convey ideas rooted in emotion, but without the representational aspects of character or environment (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012).

Due to this, comparisons can be drawn between effects art and abstract art, where

           “…there are no characters with which to identify, there is no dieresis to transport the viewer to a different time and place” (Furniss, 2007).

Non-representative art encourages the viewer to be introspective and create their own meaning, with meditation being a large influence on the work of many abstract artists (Furniss, 2007). These animations create feelings of euphoria and timelessness (Furniss, 2007) and use meditational imagery to enhance the emotional impact of their pieces. This suggests that influence may be drawn from abstract art to create a meditational experience, with interactive media being a suitable medium as “These kinds of work rely heavily on personal interactions” (Furniss ,2007).

A toolset to support the audience in these personal interactions is provided in the shape of the formal elements. When designing for emotion, regardless of the choice of medium, they communicate meaning (Gamasutra, 2013). Techniques such as shape association and colour psychology (Stirgis, 2000) can be used to support the artist’s vision and intended meaning.

“Video games rely on the same design principals – perspective, form, value etc –    which classical artists employed to create the illusion that the television or canvas is a window to an imagined world” (Gamasutra, 2013).

This project aims to create a relaxing, meditational experience that pushes for diversity within the emotional bounds of interactive media. In addition, it seeks to explore effects art as a vehicle for player presence.

2.1 Project Aim

To create a piece of aesthetics driven interactive media that explores how the formal elements of art can be applied to game effects to create player presence and relaxation.

2.2 Project Objectives

  1. Examine how emotion and aesthetics driven game experiences influence their players.
  2. Create effects animation for games that uses the formal elements of art to affect a player emotionally.
  3. Create a relaxation driven experience in the form of interactive media where the player feels present within the game world.
  1. Contextual Review

3.1 Aesthetics, Emotion and Presence

3.1.1 Aesthetics Led Design for Emotion in Games

Games theorist Grant Tavinor proposes that the emotions a game player feels can be split into two distinct categories: Higher Cognition Emotions (HCE) and Automatic Appraisal Mechanisms (AAM). HCE are an emotional reaction to an event taking place in an imaginary world, whereas AAM are reactions to what the game is doing to the player in the real world (Tavinor, 2009).

Games have an additional power over other media to cause emotional impact and speak to the inner self, as the audience actively participates and contributes to the experience (Kemers, 2009). The control over content that a game developer has allows them to predict some of the emotions of the player and enhance, alter, reward and reflect upon these (Kermers, 2009).

A way to create emotion is through the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) design methodology. This framework breaks games into three distinct components: mechanics, the features of the game; dynamics, the actions that happen at run-time, including emergent gameplay; and aesthetics, the anticipated emotions that the player expresses in response to this (Hunike, LeBlanc, Zubeck, 2004).

Hunike suggests that using this backwards creates successful emotion driven games.

“Think of the aesthetics first…think of the feelings you want to bring to players. I believe that if you start with the aesthetics and move backwards towards the mechanics through the dynamics, you can create successful games” (Gamasutra, 2013).

The highly anticipated “A Light in Chorus” (Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 2014), uses this emotion first principal.

“One of the feelings I’d like to evoke is that calm you might get from walking around a small town or suburb at night. It’s the familiar made strange by emptiness and quiet. Suddenly what’s mundane is full of mystery and possibility, the smallest light or sound takes on new significance, it clears a way to think about things differently” (Johnson, E. 2014. pers. comm., 2 October).

3.3.2 Flow States and Player Presence

When meditating, a practitioner expects to find themselves in a timeless state, where they are aware and present in the current moment (Grossman, 2004). A similar feeling, known as a flow state, is experienced whilst playing games and performing tasks. In his studies on happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyai defined flow as a state in which “Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.” (Csikszentmihalyai, 1990) He also states that “Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time becomes distorted.”(Csikszentmihalyai, 1990). There is a distinct parallel between meditative and flow states, therefore flow theory could be a powerful tool when designing a meditative game experience.

Csikszentmihalyi developed a series of theories to aid the emergence of a flow state, the most relevant of these being the idea of a “Flow Zone”, sometimes referred to as “The Zone” in video game circles. (Chen, 2006) This is the space where the activity that a person is performing is balanced between providing challenge and being appropriate to the participant’s abilities. A challenge that is too punishing provokes anxiety, whereas one that is effortless creates boredom (Kremers, 2009). The flow space is a safe zone, where “psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur” (Chen, 2006).

Along with their resemblance to meditation, flow states are comparable to immersion in video games, where the player loses track of time and forgets external pressures due to being drawn into the game (Chen, 2006). It is clear that digital environments and visualizations can be used to immerse the player in a virtual space, creating a flow or meditative state; “Virtuality is conceptualized as a sub-component of interactivity: for us in digital environments, 3D display technologies are a meditating presence.”(Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, 2014)

Immersion is a perceptive and psychological phenomenon that can be seen as a physical reality or as a subjective condition. To be immersed, there must be a degree of absorption into an environment, with either the exclusion of the real world, or the media reality being the dominant actuality. (Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, 2014)

This is a vague concept, however the factors that contribute to an immersive experience can be analysed. Presence, a form of spacial immersion, has been defined as the sense of being in a mediated environment with the perception of non-mediation (Witmer, Singer, 1998). Presence is a psychological, perceptual and cognitive consequence of immersion, where the player feels they exist within the virtual environment they are immersed in (Mestre, 2006).

Wibel and Wissmath found that “spatial presence can intensify existing media effects such as enjoyment” (Wibel, Wissmath, 2011), cementing presence as a powerful tool for creating enjoyable media. However, it is more than that, being especially useful within interactive media that aims to provoke emotion. A present player will experience natural reactions and emotions while interacting with the game (Kuntz, 2013). Tavinor’s theory of AAM and HCE, as discussed earlier, comes into play here, as these natural emotions are a real version of HCE, where a player is truly moved by something they now feel is real, even though they continue to be aware of its virtual nature.

Along with special presence, a player can be made to feel present when a sense of cognitive presence is developed. This is when the mind, as opposed to the senses, believes it is a part of the virtual environment. To create this, the player must believe that their actions have a credible effect on said virtual environment, which stems from a sense of coherent game rules, with expectations being met (Kuntz, 2013).

Kuntz, a board member of the French National VR Association, suggests that presence is easier to generate within a non-realistic styled environment, as the human brain expects real life physics and feedback when it is given something that is visually real (Kuntz, 2013). When the player accepts a stylized, non-realistic environment as their “new real”, only the previously mentioned game rules apply, and when combined with the idea of coherence, create a new reality for the player to be present within (Kuntz, 2013).

It is clear from the idea of presence that interactivity can be described as a perceptive reality. On top of dominating the senses, how real this feels is determined by the engagement and personal involvement of the user (Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, A, 2014).

3.2 Methods for Creating Presence

A number of strategies exist to create presence and immersion within virtual environments. Ambience and atmospherics are one of these. Ambience is a method of creating mood that is linked heavily to an environment and focuses on creating a believable world though elements that build the character of the space (Kremers, 2009). An example of this can be found in David Cage’s “Heavy Rain” (Quantic Dream, 2010). The bleak and desperate mood of the game is conveyed though natural elements of the environment. The low saturation of the dark, overcast sky and the oppressive, heavy dripping of constant rain effects induces a low mood in the player, without including any unnatural elements.

Effects art is commonly used as an atmospheric device. “An easy way to add to the natural ambiance of an environments is by logical and consistent use of particle effects” (Kremers, 2009). An example of this can be seen in the environments of “Bioshock” (2K, 2007). These mainly consist of destruction related effects such as sparks, water dripping, fire and smoke, supporting the idea that the city is in complete disrepair. This heightens the sense of danger that the player feels, affecting their emotions by assuring them that not only should they worry about the game’s enemies, the environment could kill them too.

Atmosphere is slightly different from ambiance. Though it also produces presence and emotion in an audience, it often involves unnatural elements in addition to natural ambience (Kremers, 2009). Colour, light and shape are used deliberately to heighten drama or emotion, with the audience being aware of this, but still moved. An example of this would be atmospheric lighting, commonly seen in film and theatre, where the colour of the lighting is directly related to the emotions the characters are feeling.

Increasing believability by suggesting that a game level is part of a real world that the player is not the centre of is an effective way to aid presence. Including flora and fauna can add a natural feel that suggests a whole ecosystem at work, whilst also adding vibrancy and interest to the game (Kremers, 2009).This can be seen in “Proteus” (Key, Kanaga, 2013) where the combination of a rich ecosystem and procedural sound effects create a beautiful and immersive virtual playground.

Another common method used to anchor players into a game experience is through use of temporal grounding. This is when an area appears natural because it possesses older architecture, wear and tear and natural foliage. References to the world’s past or personal histories of characters can also be included to enhance the richness of the world (Kremers, 2009). This is an issue when creating a meditational game, as references to the real world will interfere with the player’s disconnection from their everyday life. (ref) Auge’s theory of non-spaces could be used as an alternative.

Auge states that places are defined by history, culture and language (Auge, 2009), so they are temporally grounded. Without these it is a non-place. One of the main differences between places and non-places is that places are organically social, whereas non-places are isolating (Auge, 2009). While existing in a non-place, a person loses their identity, and takes on the new identity that the space assigns them;

“a person entering the space of a non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver. Perhaps he is still weighted down by the previous day’s worries, the next day’s concerns, but he is distanced from them temporarily by the environment of the moment…the passive joys of identity-loss.” (Auge, 2009)

The aim of meditation is to be present in the moment and to forget the worries of everyday life (Grossman, P, 2004) and this certainly seems to be a product of the non-space. Perhaps the design methods that cause people to distance themselves from each other, become anonymised and give into pre-defined narratives in an urban design context, can be used to bring them closer to themselves, explore how they feel within and give them power to warp those narratives in a game context. ”what reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment…the passenger in non-space has the simultaneous experiences of a perceptual present and an experience with the self” (Auge, 2009).

3.3 Use of the Formal Elements to Aid Presence and Meditation

3.3.1 Visual Strategies in Film and Game Design

The artistic direction and visual strategies used within games are a powerful tool. “The visual direction used in a level touches every other aspect of the level’s design. It simply cannot be left till last; it is the designer’s responsibility that the consequences of related choices be well understood and implemented” (Kremers, 2009).

Visual strategies and meditational imagery can be used to create a relaxing experience. William Moritz believed that mandalas, a common visual aid in meditation, can make a viewer concentrate on the centre of the screen (Furniss, 2007). This method is utilised in computer games to aid visual clarity, with bright lights being placed in the centre of the screen in “Diablo III” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012), to help the player orient their character in a landscape full of enemy figures (Lichtner, 2012).

Light and colour entrance a viewer and increase their ability to absorb sensory information (Furniss, 2007).

”There’s something enticing and hypnotic about bright coloured glowing lights. It’s not something I’m qualified to explain but if I had to guess I’d say that it’s something to do with perceived warmth and how the eye is drawn to areas of high contrast (we’ve certainly got plenty of those) It’s almost sickening how attractive it can be” (Johnson, E. 2014. pers. comm., 2 October)

When a meditational piece is designed, each element should be created purposefully, with meaning at the forefront.

This may come in the form of a poetic structure in place of a narrative, determined by colour and audio.

“In one sense the game can be said not to have a story. The central idea of the game is that there is a formidable challenge for the player to surmount. It is reflected by the way the colours of the background and the tone of the music         changes as you progress”(Siliconera, 2008) .

This loose structure can create “an instrument for meditation – microscopic, universal, and personal.”(Moritz, 2004)

3.3.2 Applications of Shape and Colour to Game effects

Colour schemes are also used in art to communicate feeling.

“Renewed interest and research into this area during the latter half of the twentieth century have proved that colour has profound effects on the emotions, behaviour, and body”(Withrow, 2011).

There is a link between emotions such as happiness, showiness, forcefulness, warmth, elegance and calmness and colour attributes such as hue, lightness and chroma (Ou, et al, 2004).

Game effects artists use this to communicate themes and emotions within their work.

“So when we sit down and design a class, we do talk at a really high level about    what kind of themes we want to evoke with that class. And inevitably, there are certain colour schemes that come out of that. And so we do end up with a little bit of a mental chart of colours that we would rather not have associated with a certain class” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012).

When designing the holy monk character, the team chose whites, silvers, golds and blues; liturgical colours associated with the Byzantine Rite in Catholic traditions(Woodfin, 2012) and the colours of the Buddha and the Buddhist flag (Chaudhary, Vyas ,2013).

This concept can be applied throughout an interactive experience, with the changes to the colour scheme being used to donate changes in mood, theme or pace.

Baiyon talks about this whist discussing “Pixel Junk: Eden” (Q-Games,2009) .

This is used in “Diablo III” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2013), with the changing rhythm of the environment and colour used to show the player that they are progressing though the story (Lichner, 2012).

When these formal elements are arranged in a purposeful way, they come together to create symbolism and meaning. (Gamasutra, 2013)In the past, painters encouraged their audience to actively find meaning when interacting with their pieces (Janson, 1997). As interaction is an inherent part of games, symbolism is well suited to this medium. No need for an objective update, or a character telling me what to do next – the messaging and motivation is implicit in the level design architecture” (Harper, 2012)

Concluding sentence?

4.0 Methodology

4.1 Research and Media Examination

Initial Concept

What it was trying to achive

Relation to specific media studies

The research project began with informal analysis of existing media. The media chosen used effects art to create feeling or communicate its message. From this, strategies on use of effects art as a vehicle for expression were drawn. An analysis of Proteus, an experimental game which explores relaxation, was undertaken in order to discover the techniques used in meditative games (see appendix 1).

Whilst looking into these games, it was found that the main commonality between the most evocative games was their ability to induce relaxation and positivity in their players. An investigation into more games of this type revealed a gap in the market as these experiences were few and far between.

To support the media analysis, an exploration of literature regarding the formal elements of art was conducted. This revealed colour theory and shape techniques that could be used within effects art to bolster the message being provided though its use in game.

This led to a discovery of the meditational feeling produced by abstract art and film, the thread that, at this point in the project, tied the aspects of research together. It was found that abstract animators used visual strategies to create a sense of timelessness and relaxation in their work. As effects art does not make use of characters or environments, but representations of energy and force, there was a clear argument for a similarity between abstract and effects work.

Further research into meditation techniques revealed sensory deprivation as a key component of meditational experiences, which inspired investigation into alternative display methods for interactive media works. Player presence, the idea that the media reality becomes the player’s dominant reality, was an idea that surfaced repeatedly during the investigation. This concept steadily grew to encompass the project, replacing abstract art as the main vehicle for creating relaxing feelings within the work.

4.2 Interactive Experiments with Shape, Colour and Abstraction

As a practice-based project, two game prototypes were developed alongside the contextual research. These drew on ideas and motifs found within the investigation and allowed for early experimentation and testing of ideas.

The first prototype was created to house effects that had been developed as part of ongoing skills acquisition. The research undertaken into colour, shape and meaning was translated into a series of effects that were designed to provoke calm, relaxation and positivity. The aim of this prototype was to discover whether effects art can affect emotions as hypothesized. This was tested informally by participants who played the game and then discussed their feelings whilst viewing each effect. Mechanically, this prototype explored player choice as a means of interaction within aesthetics driven games by offering the player several doors that they could enter, suggesting they were in control of the feelings that would be found behind those doors. A major issue with this mechanic however was that there was no indication of each room’s content.

This was rectified in the second prototype, where navigation was structured around a main hub, or “safe zone”, representative of the player’s mind. Three portals, accessible from the hub area, were assigned a colour based on an aspect of self from reiki therapy – energetic red for physical, intelligent blue for mental and calming green for emotional. The spiritual aspect was represented by a tree in the centre of the hub, which gained each colour as the player progressed, symbolic of the exploration of self that the game aims to promote.

By the time this prototype was in development, abstract art had become a large part of the project, marking abstraction as the main theme of the experience. Abstracted versions of the original effects were made, deconstructing them into their simplest forms whist placing emphasis on the shape, colour, movement and sub-sequential meaning that could be produced. This simplification allowed the ideas behind the effects to shine though without being masked behind complex shaders or needless detail. Visual style and indication of progression was also explored here, making use of changing visual styles to demonstrate progress as seen in media analysis. The styles used were realism, stylistic art, graphic art and abstract art. These styles were chosen both as examples of gradually more simplistic art and as proponents of art styles commonly found in mainstream games. The exploration of mainstream styles serves a dual purpose – to promote the commercial potential of alternative games, and to develop skills relevant to the games industry as a whole. To provide a degree of uniformity and create a seamless transition, shape and colour were echoed throughout each style.

4.3 Presence – The Final Artefact

As new ideas emerged from contextual studies, the abstraction found in the initial prototypes was abandoned in favour of a weather based system of progression that defined player presence as a vehicle for meditation. This concept made more use of ambience and atmospherics, found in literature-based research to be a powerful component in creating player presence. It was predicated that the abstract aesthetic would get the game quickly labelled an “art game”, with comparisons drawn too easily between Presence and “Proteus”. Following in the footsteps of “Dear Ester” (thechineseroom, 2012) and “Gone Home” (The Fullbright Company, 2013), it was decided to present the game as something more conventional, where meaning could be derived by the player subliminally. This prototype favoured ambience and pure exploration over linear, goal-focused stylistic changes. These decisions brought the project back towards effects art, as the sheer number of abstracted textures required would likely diminish the time allotted to effects creation.

As previously discussed, the project methodology followed was aesthetics-led design (see contextual review). Firstly, the emotion that players should feel whist playing the game was defined. Though the idea of bringing relaxation to players was also imbued in the earlier prototypes, this represented a direct engagement with the subject as the project moved away from the portrayal of a range of emotions. From that, questions were asked regarding how the player would interact with the game – what would they do to make them feel relaxed? This was the dynamics section of the MDA framework (see contextual review) and was initially explored though concept art and paper level design. Decisions were informed by research undertaken into emotion in level design and exploration of the motifs found in meditational imagery by sketching whilst listening to guided meditations.

To ensure a positive relationship between the dynamics and the mechanics, an agile method, similar to how the initial prototypes were developed, was picked up here. This means that a dynamic would be defined, a mechanic derived from it, implemented, tested informally, and then redesigned based on player interaction.

The dynamics identified were exploration, investigation and interpretation. In order to create these, this prototype retained the hub and exploration features, but opened the space to allow the player to discover the environment for themselves, rather than being constrained by linear corridors. To progress, the player must discover various “points of interest” (POI) scattered around the environment. These POI provide visual feedback to the player when they have been discovered, utilising effects created to generate relaxation and enhance presence. It was intended that, as the game is non-linear and provides no information to the player, each player will have a unique, personal experience that allows them to become present and calm whist generating their own narrative or message.

There was a degree of uncertainty regarding the choice of art style within this prototype. The question had not been met previously, as the variety of styles covered archetypical styles commonly seen in computer games. The goal here was to find a balance between an art style that fully supported the research aims, and a style that had commercial potential and promoted artistic development. Both literature and personal communications with developers in the field of experimental games suggested that, whilst the art style should remain consistent, an abstract style would allow the player to take their focus away from detail and on to the self. This style however, did not align with the conceptual shift that the game had taken, and promoted the “art game” idea that it was intended to avoid.

A highly saturated, hand painted style was initially used, as it was seen as between abstract and realistic. Its use of complex maps and similarity to styles seen in popular, commercially successful games also justified its selection. However, a tweet by Ed Key, creator of Proteus, stated that an abstract art style was, in part, responsible for the sense of presence and relaxation felt whilst playing the game (Key E. 2015. pers. comm., 18 February).This inspired a change in direction, with a desire to devise an art style that stayed on track conceptually but also utilized abstraction within the technical considerations of use of diffuse, normal and specular maps as well as complex materials.

To design this style, a number of historical art styles were studied. The use of line in Byzantine art inspired the idea of abstracting the detail of objects, whilst keeping the main silhouette representative. This was then combined with influence from the curvilinear designs found in art nouveau, to keep on theme with the idea that circular shapes induce calm. A bright, highly sat0urated colour scheme that primarily featured blues and greens was used. This was again derived from contextual studies, with the hue inciting relaxation and the level of saturation creating a positive mood.

Level design – finish level first!

4.4 User Testing and Evaluation

Formal user testing was undertaken to discover whether the game produced the relaxed feeling that was desired. Participants were invited to individual sessions, in which they were required to fill out a likert scale questionnaire indicating their current mood, how stressed, nervous or relaxed they were and how present they felt in the moment. After playing, they were asked to complete a second questionnaire about their time in the game, being asked the same questions as before. A comparison was then drawn between the participant’s mood before and after playing, suggesting whether or not the player’s mood had been altered by the game.

In addition to this quantitative data, qualitative data was drawn from filming the play session, think aloud protocol and participant interviews. Participant’s facial expressions, body language and reactions were noted whist playing and they were invited to articulate their thoughts and feelings whilst playing the game. This data was entirely more personal, subjective and emotional. Whist it may not provide the concrete evidence that qualitative evaluation does, a phenomenological project benefits greatly from the relay of personal experiences.

Participants A and B performed testing on an incomplete version of the “mechanics level”. Their feedback was used to finish this level, which participants C through I tested. This level was feature complete and utilized the final art style, however it was considerably smaller and featured more repeating assets, less effects and less height variance in level design than the final game.

4.5 Presentation Methods and Commercial Potential

A number of presentation methods were explored as part of the project, as sensory deprivation, delivery of presence, and accessibility were all important concepts explored in research.

The first prototype was developed for Oculus Rift, as it was believed that the physical and mental barrier between a VR user and the real world would be ideal for creating sensory deprivation and therefore an increased sense of presence in the game word. Whist this was found to be true, the Rift also presented a myriad of problems. The Oculus Rift is not commercially available currently, and only comes in the form of a development kit. Whist this would still reach some players, part of the project aim was to come away from trade show only demos that require specific hardware. Physically, the Rift is a heavy piece of kit and whist a player can use it to become fully immersed in a virtual world, there is still a strong awareness of wearing the technology. Most detrimental to the game’s vision was the experience of nausea, headaches and general simulator sickness. Data on the commonality of simulator sickness is inconclusive, with studies finding that between ten and ninety percent of their participants experience sickness. With the risk of this number lying on the upper end of the scale, it was decided that an alternative method had to be found.

As an alternative to the Oculus Rift, the second prototype was developed for surround projection, using Matrox’s triplehead2go to create an experience that enveloped the player without use of virtual reality. This utilised three projectors as one screen, to create a large image that can be projected on to multiple surfaces. Early tests made use of a triple viewport configuration that presented the player with a first person camera and two peripheral cameras, with each projector displaying one of the views. Whist this did work, there was a slight unnatural feeling produced from it, and it was predicted that a wide field of view, projected on to a curved surface, would generate a more natural feeling of presence, as the player is presented with the game world and can see it through their own eyes, rather than that of a player character. This was found to be true, with the experience of standing “inside” the game creating an isolating presence similar to that that was found whist using the Rift. Here, a Playstation 4 controller was used to create a wireless control scheme that allows the player freedom of movement.

Whist this presentation method works fantastically as a standalone installation, it is not available to a wide audience, and is still stuck within the remits of a trade show only demo. Questions were asked regarding how the game could play well as both an art installation and a digital download to be played at home on a normal screen. Colour Profiling, Epocu, Itch.io, Testing, Branding