Computer Graphics Volume 33, Number 1, February 1999
Gaming and Graphics

Looking for Some Art Amidst the Technology


 
 
Just why is Myst so popular?  This seems to be a question whichhas stymied the computer gaming industry for the last couple of years.  Cyan's adventure game Myst, with its finely rendered 3D appearance and"slideshow" style gameplay has continued to sell well to this day, whilegames which on the surface appear to be of quite similar content and qualityhave sold dismally, not even making blips on "best seller" charts. The dominant industry opinion at this point seems to have chalked the wholeMyst phenomena up to timing and dumb luck.

I'm certainly not one to be overly concerned with sales of productsas an indicator of their actual quality.  I can name lots of gorgeous,brilliantly conceived games that have tanked horribly in the sales department. But at the same time, I think that when industry professionals sneer atMyst and call it a bad game that "got lucky," it's just a case of sourgrapes.  Granted there certainly was good timing and marketing involvedin the game's financial success, at least initially.  But it seemsthat for Myst to have been that popular for so long, there must be somethingthere which draws people in, keeps them interested, and which has in turnled to the phenomenal success of the game's sequel-of-sorts, Riven.

One of the major complaints leveled against Myst by those in the industryas well as by hard-core gamers is that Myst is so simple in its gameplayand technology.  With 1997's release of Riven some four years afterthe release of Myst, many of these hard-core gamers were aghast to discoverthat nary a technology improvement had been made.  One couldn't even"free-look" around the environments in Riven - something QuickTime VR madesomewhat possible - let alone fully roam around the countryside, as onecould in games like Quake.  But, when one thinks about it, is it thegames which offer the greatest technological improvements that tend tostick with people the longest?  Who plays Wolfenstein 3D anymore,even though it was one of the first games to offer fully scrolling, first-person,texture-mapped environments, and which was tremendously popular when itwas released?  As I think back on my favorite games - Prince of Persia,Lemmings, Tetris, Millipede, Loom, Railroad Tycoon - almost none of themoffered any sort of ground breaking technology.  Yet still they fillmy gaming memories, completely influence the way I design games, and Iam still happy to go back and play them when I get the chance.

Artist and animator Steve Ogden, it seems, has thought a great dealabout Myst's success.  His answers are not quite so simple however,and in the following article he delves into the tricky interaction betweentechnology and art.    Could it be that Myst has somethingwhich its imitators - and in fact most computer games - do not?  Readon to find out.

- Richard Rouse III

But is it Art?
Steve Ogden
Cyan, Inc.

As technology has become more tightly entwined with art, we have seensome great examples of a balanced marriage between the two. In this article,I'm going to discuss this tricky balance as it relates to the special effectsin George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster movie Star Wars, and to the graphicsin Cyan's 1993 blockbuster computer game Myst. I have intentionally pickedolder products for my two main examples so that I'd be talking about classicmembers of each product's genre, and not some flash in the pan. Star Warshas had over 20 years to prove its longevity. Myst is markedly younger,but in terms of the extremely young computer game market, it's very old,and continues to be extremely popular. But I'm also going to talk a littleabout the other, unfortunately more common pairing of art and technology,in which one discipline is overindulged at the expense of the other. Asfor this latter phenomenon, I believe it is embodied in the current stampedetoward better and faster real-time 3D (RT3D) engines in computer games.

I've got nothing against RT3D, mind you. I think it's incredible. Itis, in fact, a step on the road to the Game of the Future. It's just thatit appeals to that primitive part of your brain, the one that slumps youslack-jawed in front of the TV muttering, "Ooohhh... pretty lights..."

There's nothing inherently wrong with appealing to that part of humannature. It gets the bell ringing. We're attracted to flash and dazzle,the way we may be physically attracted to a visually appealing mate, andonly later discover what a fine person awaits beneath that outward beauty.Base level attraction can attract us to something greater. But there hadbetter be something greater there. Otherwise, all you've got is a beautifulairhead. So it's important not to appeal to the primitive brain at theexpense of substance. And since you've gotta have substance, why not goall the way and produce Art?

In the past, I have worked with artists who were fond of pointing outthat as commercial artists, what we do is not Art. I would just point outthat it does not necessarily have to be so. As a professional artist, youuse the tools of art daily. You have to have color and contrast, lightand shadow, style and substance, text and subtext. While you're at it,why not try to create a little Art? You are a hack only as much as youallow yourself to be.

Art makes the difference between Star Wars and its imitators, and likewisebetween Myst and its clones. I don't think the differences between theseoriginal works of art and their wannabe cousins can simply be ascribedto generational degradation, in the way that even a laser copier degradescopies. I think the would-be copycats missed the point of the originals.I believe that even though Star Wars and Myst both used technology thatwas state-of-the-art when each was created, each was more than the sumof its technology. At the heart of each, there was an idea, and the technologyserved that idea. The copycats went wrong when they copied the technology,but did not force it to conform to any idea greater than a desire to replicatesomeone else's financial success.

At the heart of any creative endeavor, if it is to have any sort ofvalue beyond novelty, there must be an idea. The product, all other componentsof the creative endeavor, are simply attached to that idea. But those componentsall must support the idea, or the entire structure breaks down.

Let's look at Star Wars. It's not my favorite movie, but I think thatits stunning popularity over time allows its blend of art and technologyto stand as a positive role model. I would suggest to anyone sublimatingart to technology for short term reward that they rethink their stand infavor of the more balanced approach Star Wars used. The long term rewardmay be far greater, and the product certainly will be.

The heart of Star Wars, despite its more melodramatic overtones, iscomprised of classic themes. It's a fairly simple tale of knights and empireand rebellion. Once that idea was nailed down, the characters were definedin terms of classic literature, and the story pretty much could have writtenitself. So when it came to the special effects, all the guys at ILM hadto do was just not screw it up. And they didn't. They created special effectsthe likes of which the world had never seen cameras in motion, explosions,aliens, lasers, spaceships zipping around like gnats. But even though StarWars contained special effects and technology which for their day wereincredible, they really only served to support George Lucas' idea. Andyet, he wanted to do more. Scenes hit the cutting room floor because thetechnology he needed hadn't been invented yet. That's one reason why in1997, he re-released the Star Wars movies with a bunch of new special effects.

But what George Lucas didn't do, even in the 20th anniversary re-releaseof that film, is as important as what he did. For instance, he did notrelease Star Wars in 3D, using some sort of special glasses to communicatea 3D experience to the audience. It's not beyond the realm of possibilitythat the prospect came up. The technology certainly existed. Had the moviebeen released that way, I'm sure it would have been a sensation. It wouldhave been cool to see all those ships buzzing around like that in 3D. Butin reality, it would not have been the same film. Attention would havebeen diverted from the development process to the delivery medium, andthe technology would likely not have been used as much in support of theidea as in an attempt to maximize the 3D effect. The film would likelyhave ended up as little more than a gimmick. I doubt that it would be theicon it is today. It is possible that the production costs of doing a filmlike that in 3D would have tipped the balance against it. But I preferto subscribe to the notion that Lucas knew what he was doing, and understoodthe distinction between technology used in the development of a piece ofart, and technology used in the delivery of a piece of art. In the developmentprocess, technology can be tossed around with abandon, with little effecton the audience. But in the delivery, technology must be exercised withcaution.

Perhaps the computer game genre is in that half-dreaming state thatthe science fiction movie biz inhabited back in those days prior to StarWars' release. Perhaps the computer game equivalent of the cinematic StarWars is just around the bend. But when a new game comes out now, we don'thear so much about how the gameplay will be, or how fun it will be, butwe get this intense sales pitch about the fantastic technology with whichthe game will be delivered. All this technology is brilliant, but whatdoes it mean when a game comes out, just a simple little game with no fancyengine at all, and it blows the doors off of the entire biz? It becomesthe King of Computer Game Sales and it's just a... a... slideshow?

Ah, we must be talking about Myst.

How could this low-tech game attract such an incredible audience withno RT3D? By its numbers alone (according to Richard Watson at Cyan, Inc.,Myst has sold over 5 million copies worldwide since 1993, and its successorRiven has sold over 2 million copies in just over a year), it actuallyis the Star Wars of the computer game genre. See? It already happened,and without the great stride forward in technology.

For the record, I'm not one of those misguided souls that believes thatmovies and games are almost the same thing. I only draw the parallel betweenStar Wars and Myst because they both used art and technology in supportof their ideas. The problem I see is that certain sectors of the computergame industry seem to be obsessed with technology to the exclusion of thegameplay just as Hollywood appears to be so enamored with glitzy specialeffects at the expense of story and/or character development.

Yes, Myst was a point-and-click slideshow format game. But look at what'son the screen in Myst. The user was given everything he needed to playthe game through that interface. There were no radar screens, or healthbars or buttons or any other "interface" nonsense. In this game, you didn'tneed it. Cyan's artificial world was its own interface. If you wanted togo somewhere, you clicked there. If you were presented with a puzzle, youlooked at how the world behaved in that universe, and solved the puzzleaccordingly. In Myst, the puzzle solutions made sense in the same way itsinterface made sense, at least in the context of its universe. It was internally,logically, consistent, and in this way its design supported its centralidea.

This is where the horrible Myst clones of the early 90s went astray.For some reason, many of those infernal games wanted you to practicallysolve a crossword puzzle in order to do something as simple as open a door.In those cases, the games' design was actually getting in the way of theirideas. If the puzzles had been more subtly laid into the environment, theywould have helped form an experience worth having, in a more or less believableenvironment, not just a collection of puzzles loosely strung together.It's fine for a game to be so loosely glued, but wouldn't it be worth itjust to go that little bit further?

The artwork in Myst is interesting to consider. In terms of supportingthe idea, Myst's graphics are perfect. There is an odd air about them,as if from some sort of half-remembered dream. There is a strangeness,yet a familiarity about the environment in Myst. That's fitting, becausethe best puzzles in that game are at the same time strange and familiar.The core of Myst (the D'ni, who write books that link to innumerable worlds)is surreal, and its graphics are, too. It's a perfect match between subjectand artwork. In fact, the less detailed graphics of Myst may have suitedthe D'ni idea better than those of Myst's hyper-realistic successor Riven(as painful as it is for me as an artist to admit that).

It's funny the little ways our brains trick us. In Riven, the waterrippled, and the sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds. In Myst, therewere no clouds in the sky, and the water didn't move. If you were to compareimages from the two worlds side by side, the differences would be painfullyobvious. Yet there are people who swear they remember clouds and movingwater in Myst. So, is it that Riven gave us more than we needed, or isit that Myst gave us just enough? It seems the human mind will fill insome details.

Which brings me to my other point about Myst's artwork. In Myst's ChannelwoodAge, there were about 500,000 polygons. At this time, RT3D technology isjust about to the point where it can comfortably handle that many polygons.Where RT3D fails currently is in the texture department. We effectivelyhave a graphic size limit of 256 pixels square for a texture, where theimages in Myst, because it used pre-rendered graphics, were in many casesmuch larger.  (And in Riven, they were ridiculously large 60 MBor more!)  So we can effectively set the user down in a RT3D gamefull of the same quality of geometry used in Myst, but we can't textureit as extensively, which breaks down the game's environment into blurrypixels at close range.

It's a tradeoff. Some people want the extra freedom of movement, andare willing to accept the image degradation in return. In a graphic adventure,however, we can't accept that degradation. It's not that the graphic adventureaudience is a bunch of morons who can only immerse themselves in a painstakinglydetailed environment, although I do believe the more detailed environment,even without the freedom of movement, is easier to believe in, and certainlynicer to look at.

But the real reason for clarity in the images of a graphic adventuregame is that clues can be lurking at any turn, and puzzles can be hidingin the details of the scene. If the environment is to be a believable onein support of the idea, the way these clues and puzzles need to be deliveredmust not violate it. Therefore if something is to be hidden in the detailsof a scene, there must be an appropriate level of detail available in thescene in which to hide it. If not, clues and puzzles wind up as metaphoror iconography, neither of which fades very gracefully into the surroundings.Once a piece of entertainment violates its internal logic, it breaks theaudience's suspension of disbelief. Internal contradictions force a creationto collapse under its own weight.

Riven was created with the same attention to internal logic that helpedmake Myst such a success. But when Riven was released, using that sameold slideshow interface, gamers and critics screamed aloud about its lackof technological innovation. Where was the flash? Where was the next greatstride forward?

Well, to state the obvious, you've got to use what interface works bestfor the nature of your beast. The comments I heard upon the release ofRiven have indicated to me a lack of reason prevalent in the game industrycurrently. Perhaps it needs to be said: RT3D won't work for everything,and doesn't need to, any more than I'd recommend the slideshow interfacefor every game. All delivery systems should be viewed as valid, but ofvarying degrees of appropriateness. The finished product must be viewedin terms of how well it supports its central idea, and delivery can bea huge part of that.

And the slideshow interface is not necessarily dead, folks. It lurksthere, just under the surface, in disguise. Look at Oddworld Inhabitants'Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. What a strange hybrid that game is. It's partMario Brothers-style side-scroller, part screen troller, part twitch game.And yet, the environments in the game are served up slideshow-style. Theuser maneuvers animated sprites of the main character, Abe, through thisenvironment, jumping, rolling, running, sneaking, searching, and yes, flatulatingon cue. But even so, when Abe leaves the scene, the "camera" does not trackhim. He vanishes off screen. Then the next background loads, ready to bestowthe next page of the adventure upon the user, at which point, Abe reappearsat the opposite side of the screen, ready for action.

Someone made the comment to me the other day that he was frustratedthat Abe's Oddysee did not scroll, but I think that Oddworld Inhabitantsactually used this function to their benefit. There are many cases wherethe slideshow delivery actually helps the gameplay. For instance, Abe canlose guards who are chasing him just by running off screen in the early,tutorial-style levels.  The limited use of technology doesn't makefor an inferior game, just a different one.  And as far as the qualityof the art involved in Abe's Oddysee, I have heard rumors that Abe's Exoddus,the follow-up to Abe's Oddysee, might just snag an Oscar.

Lucas Arts' game Grim Fandango is another interesting hybrid, whichuses pre-rendered graphic backgrounds served up slideshow-style, and rendersreal-time characters over it ala Westwood Studios' game Blade Runner orCapcom's game Resident Evil, among others. Even though some of its puzzlesseem a bit arbitrary, I think that Grim Fandango is an example of art andRT3D technology being used properly in a game. The real-time elements presentthe user with enhanced interaction, while the pre-rendered backgroundspresent the environment with the necessary detail. It's a nice mix. So,I just can't see the harm of pre-rendered graphics in a slideshow interfacein the context of a game that needs the user to explore the environmentin detail. But that's why I don't have a problem with Myst and Riven, andwhy a lot of my peers do.

So, it bears repeating: I'm not against RT3D, really I'm not. It's justthat, when I set out as an artist to convince the user of the reality ofmy artificial world, I want my work to get to the screen as realisticallyas possible. I want to be able to present the elements of a convincingworld: light and shadow, reflection, textures that do not obviously repeatand surfaces that do not break down into pixels upon close inspection.I do not want polygons to be the obvious building blocks of this world.

Right now, unfortunately, that list of items that help convey a convincingpicture of a world reads like a list of things that can be achieved bestthrough the dated, unfashionable slideshow interface. It's also a listof things that currently are very difficult, and thus rare in RT3D work.As I said, to some people, it's an acceptable tradeoff. But not to me.I know we can do better, and that we will, but unfortunately we must passthrough this rather unsightly and uncomfortable stage first.

RT3D is getting better. Look at Legend Entertainment's forthcoming action-adventuregame The Wheel of Time compared to the RT3D games from a couple of yearsago. There are cathedral shots in The Wheel of Time that are remarkablyrealistic. Maybe... just maybe... RT3D is almost where it needs to be in orderfor the end of the slideshow interface to be a realistic proposition. Maybe.

Time is such a funny thing. In 1998, I can sit here and say that RT3Disn't quite up to snuff, but in 2000, who knows? After years of defendingand explaining the slideshow interface, I find myself for the first timeseeing that soon the two different approaches will be just about even inwhat they can deliver. Rest assured at that point, I will want to be inthe thick of it. But even then, in the midst of glorious RT3D with fullfreedom of motion, I hope that we all will continue to use art to servethe idea and avoid being seduced by technology.

---

Steve Ogden is an Artist/Animator who until recently worked atLeaping Lizard Software, where he always talked about how much he lovedMyst.  You might not know it from reading the peceeding column, butMr. Ogden didn't start working for Cyan, Inc., makers of Myst and Riven,until after he wrote the article.  He can be reached at ogden@achenar.cyan.com.