Melancholia was made for a university assignment: the challenge was to make a map that represented an emotion drawn out of a hat.

According to the brief, the map must be under a certain set of dimensions, use no model-based objects (only brushwork and lighting entities were allowed), and contain no writing or images that might tell viewers what emotion it was supposed to represent.

I found this to be quite an interesting challenge. I first decided on a purple lighting, due to its longstanding association with depression and glumness. Then, I created the figure of a seated man with his head in his hands, using a set of cuboids – in real life we read emotions from body language, and so I thought that including a humanoid figure (be he ever so primitive) would be a good way of conveying a sense of melancholy.

Then, I set the scene on a lakeside surrounded by twisted, leafless trees. I hoped that these would bring to mind thoughts of winter, aging and death.

Note the shaft of light highlighting the seated figure beneath the tree.

It’s quite remarkable how much of a difference the lighting made – below are some screenshots I took without it, in order to show more clearly how the map was constructed, and you can see that it hardly conveys a sense of melancholy at all. Firstly, note how I used real-world colours prior to lighting it, rather than simply making everything in different shades of purple and then using purple lighting on top. I felt that by starting with (semi-) realistic colours to begin with the purple lighting would look less unnatural.

The island itself was made simply out of a set of distorted spheres which overlapped one another. It’s bad practice to do that usually, but since we weren’t allowed to use anything other than primitives, and the map was never intended to be played anyway, I decided that it was the best way to create the desired effect.

There are, in actuality, only a few different shapes of tree. Because the goal of the assignment was to obtain a single screenshot to hand in, I simply ensured that the few varieties I made were never seen from the same angle in the same shot. The trees themselves were constructed from increasingly small cylinders, with each branch splitting into two at the joins. The overall effect was reasonably good, especially when viewed in sillhouette under the dim lighting of the final piece.

The shafts of light descending from the sky were slightly trickier. I found that simply using a translucent material illuminated by the environmental lighting wasn’t obvious enough, and using a simple spotlight entity only reached down far enough to create a good shot if it were improbably bright and narow. In the end, I compromised, and made translucent cylinders with spotlights shining down inside them – this both alleviated the excessive brightness of the spotlights, whilst also making the overly subtle cylinders glow more obviously.

The figure of the Melancholy Man was fairly simple, constructed entirely out of cuboids placed loosely together. I did consider using ovoids for a more organic look, but the small scale made that impractical.

Overall, I was quite pleased with how it turned out. When asked to guess what emotion it represented, the majority of the class picked either ‘melancholia’ or something very similar, such as ‘depression’ or ‘grief’. The proportion of successful guesses might have been higher, but when people were asked why they choose ‘depression’ instead of ‘melancholia’, many of them admitted that they didn’t know what melancholia actually meant.

I found trying to create the impression of an emotion with such a limited toolset to be an interesting challenge. Having only primitives and lighting available to me required me to think artistically about what I was creating, rather than realistically. I couldn’t possibly make anything that looked like a real person, but because of that, I was able to focus entirely on how best to make it look melancholy. Viewing the work of others was interesting as well – colour and lighting were used heavily to create emotional impressions, but very few people attempted to include any human representations in their levels. Most were more abstract in design than mine; though this may have been because some people drew quite awkward things to represent, such as ‘chaos’.

I find myself wondering if perhaps there is more to be done in trying to create strong images and emotional states using very simple tools. Increasingly, the focus is on making scenes within games look as realistic as possible, and yet there seems to be no noticeable tendancy for games to become more emotionally involving. One cannot help but think that perhaps this focus on reality is blinding us to the possibilities of more abstract games – where are our Picassos and our Van Goghs?

Published on January 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm  Comments Off on Melancholia  
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