With the completion of the entire area of The Endless Forest, the end of the project seems to become in sight. There’s still a million things to do but we’re getting there.
In this step all the forest assets of Phase Three (ground, features such as the Drinkplaats and the Playground, trees, rocks and bushes) have been implemented. This time it was a lot easier to find all the 3D models and textures in our archives. Apparently by 2007, when Phase Three was originally released we had started being more organized about our game production. And I have also developed a useful system for analyzing the implementation of all these assets in the old Quest3D engine in order to approximate the look of the original forest.
While massively encouraging, this is really just the raw 3D assets. There’s still many features that remain to be implemented (the birds, the Drinkplaats activity, actually being able to jump on the rocks of the Playground, the soundscape, and so on) and a lot of tweaking to be done in terms of aesthetics (lighting, color palette, etc). As advanced as Unreal Engine may be, it really has trouble rendering transparency. And there’s a lot of transparent grass textures in this area! So working around technology limitations is still a major part of the job in 2020.
Next to Phase Three, we also fixed some bugs, added WASD navigation and an interface for switching window size and mode.
This work has been done over the course of the past month (*). If the current rhythm continues, I’m hopeful that we may be able to release a first real alpha version of the remake by the end of next month. Meaning a build of the game that gives a good idea of the finished product but lacks features and contains bugs.
Step by step.
Thank you for your interest and support!
—Michael & Auriea.
(*) This month has been entirely sponsored by generous donations of the players! Thank you all, in the name of the community!
I’m trying to avoid the undignified effect of errors in both human use as machine function. But errors and clumsiness were in part what attracted me to this theme. Holding a dead body is awkward. It is difficult physically. Especially for a (older) woman to hold the body of a grown man. And it is odd mentally, because we feel we owe this corpse an enormous amount of respect while it cannot respond and we are in control of its motions.
But while I am quite sure anybody would handle this situation gloriously in real life holding a real dead body, the same is not true in VR. In a simulation we know things are fake. We’re in a magic circle where we can experiment with irreverence. The opportunity to interact with a human body beyond the repercussions of every day society is alluring. Moreover we love interaction as such, we are fascinated by machines responding to what we do. We want to see what happens when we do something or other. There is no way that a work of art can demand the same reverence as a dead body. Art is play. Even when it deals with serious themes. Art functions only when we play. We enter the art through play. We have to participate.
While sculptures, paintings, films and poems completely ignore whether or not you’re playing them right, an interactive work of art can actually know if you are. And we can make it respond to this data. So there is a temptation to attempt to force a proper experience. But is that wise? Other art forms leave it up to the player. And the only judging that happens is social. If you burst out laughing in front of a crucifix, a Rothko or and photograph of a starving child, you can expect a reaction from people around you. But the work of art does not change.
In a simulation, however, the art can be changed. The player’s interaction could create a grotesque situation in the virtual space, one that may in fact be humorous. Ideally, in my general philosophy, this should be accepted. Real-time art is for exploration and the creator should not prescribe too much or expect anything specific. If the player decides to fool around, it’s their loss. The problem is that this seems to apply to most players. Maybe interactive art is really only suitable for lighthearted entertainment. And even if the player would devote themselves earnestly to the exploration, there still remains the computer that makes mistakes all the time. Accidents happen. The simulation starts freaking out, often causing a horrific effect that we can only protect ourselves against through laughter.
I decided to abandon my initial inspiration of clumsiness. I figured I should remain flexible and respond to what happens during creation. After all, this is still a very new art form, and definitely very new to me. Just because a simulation can be interactive doesn’t mean it needs to be. There’s a lot of unique value to realtime art outside of interactivity. The only thing that matters is giving the player an experience of beauty. There is nothing to prove. No statement to make. No debt owed to technology. No pride or arrogance or purity.
The player plays the role of Virgin Mary. The corpse of her adult son Jesus is on her lap. She can move her arms to lift up the body by the shoulders with the right hand and by the knees with the left. When I simplified the interaction radically to lifting the right arm very slowly up and down over a distance of about 40 centimeters I felt exhilarated. It feels pleasantly naughty to design such minimal interaction in a medium of which interactivity is often considered its pivotal component. But the thing that made it really work for me was slowing down the response. The body is not lifted up with your moving hand, instead it follows the hand very slowly. This encourages one to slow down one’s own movement. And this slowness of motion gives a feeling of weight, solving that other problem. I’m calling this ambient controls.
Part of the initial design of this project is that the environment changes along with your behavior. So the world would become bright when you lift up the head towards your own and dark when you allow the body to fall back into your lap passively.
But with the radically simple interaction came an in hindsight obvious realization. When you cast the viewer in the role of the subject of a scene, the environment around them becomes more important than the main character. The latter in fact becomes as invisible as the viewer’s own body is to themselves. Suddenly my attention shifted to the environment that surrounds this scene.
Now I want this simple gesture of moving your arms 40 centimeters up or down to take you through the 12000 years of human civilization. From the electric darkness of the Anthropocene to the sunlit harmony of the Garden of Eden. I was inspired by how Timothy Morton in Dark Ecology points out that Genesis can be read as a justification for (or lamentation of) agricultural civilization. And the side effects of the Corona virus crisis gave us all a glimpse of what the planet could be like without the impact of industry. It was like traveling through centuries in just a few weeks.
As I was dealing with such dramatic content, I felt drawn once again towards the Flemish Primitives, the artists whose works initially inspired the Cathedral-in-the-Clouds project. Especially Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of the whole of human history from creation to apocalypse. So I made this desktop wallpaper based on the top of the left panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights, which represents the Garden of Eden. Since the panel is vertical and my monitor horizontal I decided to mirror the tiles to make a continuous picture.
Two things came out of this.
First I noticed Bosch’s use of perspective. As in many Northern Renaissance paintings, the landscape seems to be depicted from above while the objects and characters are seen from the side or the front. It only feels weird when you start noticing it. The picture still immerses despite of this lack of realism.
I had been bothered a bit by how the naturalism of a horizon on eye height in VR caused half of the scene to consist of sky. And there’s nothing happening in the sky. Everything happens on the ground. Bosch’s solution is genius: put the horizon at the top of the image so you can show all the things happening on the land. I can achieve a similar effect if my ground in VR is in fact a hollow hemisphere in which the viewer is positioned quite low. In combination with some scaling of the elements drawn on this hollow ground a rather pleasant fake sort of perspective appears.
I never thought of the environment in this piece as being a naturalistic. Instead I wanted something ornamental, as one can often see in early paintings and tapestries.
My desktop wallpaper suggested a method of creating decorative patterns out of figurative elements: through repeating and mirroring. As a bonus I would only need to produce one segment of a world and then simply repeat it.
Of course, in the sphere of computer creation there is no such thing as simple. All this technology barely works if you try to do anything other than what its unimaginative creators want you to make. Which in this case would be static environments. But my world needed to be highly dynamic: I want to browse through 12000 years in the lift of an arm. From my previous experiments with dynamic objects I had learned that in 2020 computers still can’t handle a few thousand of them simultaneously on screen. Except, I realized, for particle systems! Originally presumably invented for simulating explosions, smoke and fire, particle systems could do all sorts of things these days.
As it turned out a new particle system technology, called Niagara, was being added to Unreal Engine. Since I did not want my work to disappear when they phase out the current technology, I started learning how to use it. It’s quite a powerful system with a reasonably adequate interface. But I did run into some problems, even a bug, that hopefully will be resolved soon.
To aid in my experiments I needed some assets. I figured cubes and spheres would not help me make aesthetic decisions. So I imported some of the models and textures created by Mary Lazar based on concept drawings by Vicki Wong for our sadly cancelled project An Empty World. An Empty World is also structured along a transition from natural to cultural and industrial landscapes.
To end this little report, please enjoy some screenshots of the current state of the project taken in the Unreal editor, because the aforementioned bug causes none of this to show up in an executable build.
Providing the technical issues are resolved, I consider the design of Compassie done. Can’t wait to start production and bring it all together!
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.
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.
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.
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)!
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 net.art 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.
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.
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.
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.