GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an ongoing investigation of the social history of this artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed how game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
After two successful seasons, in May 2012 we launched the third.
Tracy Fullerton is a game designer, educator and writer with fifteen years of professional experience. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab. Recent credits include faculty adviser for the award-winning student games Cloud, and flOw; and game designer for The Night Journey, a unique Game Art project with media artist Bill Viola. She is currently designing a game based on Henry David Thoreau's experiment in living at Walden Pond.
The conversation between Tracy Fullerton and Mathias Jansson took place via email in May 2012.
GameScenes: You collaborated with Bill Viola to create "The Night Journey," a project that began in 2005 and was presented to the public in April 2010. Can you describe the development process?
Tracy Fullerton: The project began in 2005 and was actually shown to the public for the first time in 2007, at the SIGGRAPH art gallery. I've attached a list of all of the showings of the piece, which is more accurate than online sources. (The list is attached in the end of the interview.) I know that the Wikipedia entry has some incorrect info, which is where I assume you got the date 2010. All of these showings have technically been called "work in progress" showings because we continue to add material to the game. The first two years of development were all about developing the basic structure of the game, the mechanics, the feel, the tone and the visual style. These were the real heart of the development process; and finding these elements was intertwined with the ongoing discussions of the theme and the experience that players would go through while playing. The version of the game that has been exhibiting for the past five years has continually evolved as we've added more and more material, and it is now about 90 of the experience we envision. We are currently finalizing the game.
GameScenes: Did you experience a "Bill Viola effect" afterwards? Viola is one of the pioneers of video art and it is fascinating to see that he is experimenting with videogames as well...
Tracy Fullerton: The response to the game has been very positive. It seems to attract the attention of both art patrons and people interested in experimental games. Obviously, there are a lot of people interested in the game because of their love of Bill Viola's work. I would say there are also an equal number of people interested in the game because of its experimental game design, and because of the reputation of our team at the Game Innovation Lab for creating rich and beautiful game experiences that go beyond our typical understanding of what games can be.
GameScenes: You are now working on Walden. What inspired you to chose a classic American novel for your next videogame? How big is the development team?
Tracy Fullerton: The basic idea of "Walden" is to have the player take on the experiment in living that Thoreau set for himself at Walden. The game starts, as does the book, with the building of the cabin and the understanding of the "economy" of the experiment. It takes place in both the woods and in a section of Concord. The player takes on the task of fulfilling the basic needs of life that Thoreau discusses — food, fuel, shelter and clothing — and balances those tasks with seeking out the more ephemeral experiences that make up much of the book — sounds, solitude, visitors, reading, etc.
We have a small team in my lab, that has been working on the game for several years. Our process involved deep reading of the text, as well as prototyping of the underlying game experience. We started with paper models of the core game system, then we made 2D prototypes to further test our ideas and now are working on the 3D world. Right now we are building out all the features of gameplay and the simulated environment, including the changes to the environment season to season.
From our close readings, we made a database of all the plants and animals that Thoreau talks about and interacts with in the book. These became the basis of our world along with the basic mechanics like finding food, fuel, building a shelter, etc. We've also done a number of site visits for reference, are in consultation with the scholars at the Thoreau Institute. Also, our sound designer lives right near the pond. So our world will really informed by both his writings and the pond as we know it today.
This game is something I thought of making about 10 years ago when I was visiting Walden Pond and rereading the book. I only jotted down some ideas back then, but I kept it in mind over the years. I then wound up working on several experimental games, such as Cloud and The Night Journey, and this brought me back to this thought about a game in which you could play out Thoreau's experiment in living. The way he writes about his ideas, the choices he made, that we all make and their effects on the quality of our lives seemed an interesting and topical basis for a game.
I think a lot of people can relate to the fact that Thoreau was writing at a time when life seemed to be getting more and more complex, to move faster and faster. We're also living at a time when the speed of communication and technologies seem to be making our lives more and more complex. It would be great if everyone could take some time to conduct an experiment like Thoreau's, but that isn't likely for most of us. So this game is an experiment itself, one I hope will challenge the audience and awaken ideas in them about the balance of our lives and the way our choices determine our experience of the world.
GameScenes: Introspective, spiritual, poetic videogames are clearly on the rise. I am thinking about the aforementioned collaboration with Bill Viola’s"The Night Journey", but also Tale of Tales' "The Graveyard", Jason Roher’s “Passage” and now, "Walden". How can videogames contribute to a conversation about existential themes?
Tracy Fullerton: One of the areas of inquiry that I've been interested in for a long time is games that allow for a kind of reflective play, that have time for the player to bring their own interpretations and experiences to what's going on in the game. The experimental games that I've been involved with in the past – Cloud, The Night Journey -- are examples of this kind of experience. So, in Walden, we are not creating a frenetic experience where you have to be constantly on your feet. You are playing out a simulation of an experiment that took just over two years; we abstract this, of course, making time play out faster, but we still allow you time to reflect and think about the choices you're making in the game and we give you feedback, like your changing relationship to the woods, that will prompt you to do so in relation to Thoreau's writings.
GameScenes: You have been teaching and writing about interactive media for several years. From your vantage point, how do you think interactive media are changing our culture and the way we understand our world?
Tracy Fullerton: I think interactive media is already changing how we make and experience culture, it is a part of culture and both reflects and changes it at the same time. In my own work, I'm interested in making playful experiences that allow us to engage with ideas while we participate in them, experiences that may resonate with what we know or challenge it, but in either case, are in dialogue with us intellectually, emotionally, socially and culturally. It is the most interesting and demanding aesthetic form I can think of to be working in today.
LINK: Tracy Fullerton
LINK: Walden the game
LINK: BIll Viola's "The Night Journey"
related: Bill Viola's "The Night Journey" presentation (Anderson Ranch Arts Center, August 11 2010)
Interview archives: Contemporary Practitioners; The Early Years
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti
Bill Viola, The Night Journey, interactive game, 2010, still.
Touring dates for Bill Viola's “The Night Journey”
ArtEZ institute of the arts, Zwolle, the Netherlands (April 27, 2012)
Coordinator: Catelijne de Muijnck
GAME ON 2.0
KINOKINO Center for Art and Film, Sandnes, Norway (March 8, 2012 – April 8, 2012) Curator: Daniela Arriado
FOKUS VIDEO ART FESTIVAL
Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center (February 9, 2012 – February 26, 2012) Curator: Andreas Broegger
Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center (November 12, 2011 - January 30, 2012) Curator: Andreas Broegger
Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, New York (Jan 15 2011-June 12 2011)
Curator: Carl Goodman
SPACE INVADERS: Art and the Computer Game Environment
FACT, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, UK5 (Dec 18 2009-Feb 21 2010)
Curators: Heather Corcoran, Petra Heck
MEDIATECA EXPANDIDA: ARCADIA
LABoral, Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijon, Spain (Oct 2 2009-Dec 7 2009)
Curator: José Luis de Vicente
VIDEO GAMES: Tales of Play, Adventures of the Unexpected
Centro Fundación Telefónica, Lima, Peru (Jul 23 2009-Oct 4 2009)
Curator: Daphne Dragona
IndieCade, The International Festival of Independent Games
Belleview, Washington (2008)
Award: Sublime Experience
IndieCade at GameCity
Nottingham, England (2007)
IndieCade at E3
Los Angeles, California (2007)
IndieCade at E for All Expo
Santa Monica California (2007)
SIGGRAPH Art Show: Global Eyes
San Diego, CA (2007)
Chair: Vibeke Sorensen