Asset Modernism / Shalev Moran

How a new generation of game makers invites us to take a modernist look at the materials that make up digital worlds?

September 2018

It is a weird, though not too weird, scene of modern still life. On the ground are several items ranging from the mundane to the ominous: several crumpled papers and cardboard boxes, a couple of rocks and a cup of coffee; a vase and a suitcase, and a couple of weirder items – a telescope and the skull of a buffalo. All in muted sepia tones. And in the bottom of the image, closest to the viewer: a hole.

The hole is of course a key to reading the rest of this image – from the dark, round openings of the mug, the vase and the skull’s eye sockets, to the peeping hole of a telescope, to the emptiness of containers such as the suitcase and boxes. The hole is also you, the player, in this scene which opens the first level (not counting the intro) of the 2018 videogame Donut County. In this game your only possible action is moving the hole about, using the joystick or your finger on a touchscreen, and swallowing everything around you. The more objects fall into your hole, the bigger it gets – so you begin with the crumpled papers, then move on to rocks and perhaps the telescope, until your hole is big enough to swallow a suitcase, a vase, cardboard boxes.

And then onwards to swallow furniture, people, animals, cars, houses and parts of the landscape itself – until the entire town is undone by the gaping hole in the ground. There is an undeniable sensual charm to this action, akin to a prolonged toppling of a Jenga tower, together with the punk attitude of trashing the town.

The game echoes the hole’s mechanics through its narrative, centered around a careless raccoon (animals known for their dumpster-diving) who treats everything and everyone like trash, aided by a mobile app on his phone that can open magical holes in the ground.

There’s a formal and material quality that reigns over the entirety of Donut County; a sort of phenomenological unity, and in the act of swallowing the player is tasked with enacting this unification. To our racoon protagonist the earth is hollow, and all people and things are the same kind of trash, devalued to the point of similitude, something to be swallowed and owned.

While the raccoon worldview is potent as simple social and emotional commentary, it is also fascinatingly close to how the game software itself sees all the objects within it. Game developers have a term for these things: assets.

An ‘asset’ is the common jargon for an individual component of the game as understood by the game-making software, and through it, by the game-making person. Every object in the simulation is based on an asset, which gives it properties like its shape and texture, its color and weight, they ways it can move and the way light refracts on it. Assets are not just a 3D models. They can be all sorts of components, from visual and sound to pieces of code; certain behaviors and properties of the gameworld can be packaged in assets, which the game software can then reference and reuse. Assets are the material from which games and simulations are made.

The computer assigns very few properties to the assets in a typical Donut County scene: they have a 3D shape and a 2D image that is wrapped around this shape; Some have a simple animation, though most are completely still; and virtually all have the same material density and texture. And while our mind is trained to assign more discreet meanings to each of them, the hole asks us not to.

In the eyes of Donut County’s hole all things hold but a single quality: they fall down when there’s a void beneath them. When first viewing a scene, be it the subdued still life of the first level or a dense Los Angeles traffic jam towards the end of the game, we assign different meanings and qualities to the people and things we see; but once we take control of the hole, and embody its purpose, we only see them as different sizes of the same thing, soon to disappear down an ever-hungry hole.

By seeing the gamespace from the perspective of a hole, Donut County invites us to see virtual worlds as our computer sees them. The hole strips away cultural meanings from things, treating them as equal objects that only vary slightly in weight, size and shape. The slapstick humor of the game arises mainly from the way all people and things act as similar props, generic game-objects once touched by the hole: easily tossed around, stiffly colliding with each other and eventually falling in similar velocity into nothingness.

By calling into the player’s attention the sameness of game objects and of the digital material, Donut County’s creator Ben Esposito invites a modernist look at simulations. The mimetic desire of popular culture to create believable worlds for players to inhabit, exemplified by granularly-simulated worlds such as the Grand Theft Auto series, is playfully challenged by bringing the constraints of the digital medium to the foreground; not unlike how modern painting drew our attention to the canvas itself.

This isn’t the first time Esposito deals with this subject. Before Donut County he was most known for designing the levels on the 2012 playstation game The Unfinished Swan. Its memorable opening level has players traverse the outskirts and courtyard of a fantastic castle filled with statues, animals and architecture – but entirely devoid of color, texture or even directional lighting. In other words, every pixel on screen shines with the same stark whiteness.

To make sense of this senseless world, and give meaning to the act of traversal, players can push a button to splash black ink around them. The act is both exploratory and expressive, revealing shapes by way of marking them, and turning the gamespace into a canvas for an impromptu ink wash painting. The splashing of ink helps to make sense of this world, and at the same time further cements its material and logical unity.

Esposito isn’t alone in exploring this quality of virtual worlds. Over the past decade several game makers have been creating virtual worlds that, while operating as a simulation, also highlight their own digital materiality.

David OReilly’s 2017 Everything uses the mechanical and material sameness of its simulated world as a broad metaphor to our own world, juxtaposing the gameplay with quotes from beat philosopher Alan Watts about the connected nature of all things. The gameplay gives a literal, almost-ironic interpretation to this worldview: with the aid of programmer Damien Quartz, OReilly created a universe in which every object can be the avatar, occupied and controlled by the player. But the controls have no variation: every object behaves the same, has the same animations and same performative affordances – be it a bacteria, a bus or a galaxy. The 3D models differ, but the system’s logic adheres completely to Watts’ ideas, seeing all of them as one and the same.

Drawing attention to sameness, be it in the style of Donut County’s satire, The Unfinished Swan’s canvas-like world, or Everything’s zen musings, is but one technique to challenge simulation culture. A proper understanding of Asset Modernism lies in seeing it as a range of techniques, and OReilly’s previous game, 2014’s Mountain, offers a good example.

Mountain is mostly known for its eponymous subject and for inviting contemplation through the absence of any explicitly-meaningful interaction: you play as a mountain, and you do what mountains do, which is nothing except being.

For the purpose of this article the most interesting part would be the game’s secondary mechanic, the event system: every once in a while objects will crash into the mountain. In opposition to the natural mountain environment, accented by day/night cycles and changing weather, these are everyday objects of culture: from baseballs to airplanes to top hats. The randomness and mundanity of Mountain’s objects conveys that the game recognizes them as mere playthings, as props.

The objects are alien to the simulation not just in subject but also in form: they appear in random order and random sizes, disproportionate to each other and to the mountain. When they crash, their 3D model unnaturally overlaps with that of the mountain, “stuck in the geometry”, in a glitch-aesthetic reminiscent of OReilly’s earlier animation works.

They can even appear in multiplicities, seemingly copy-pasted; in the gameplay captured in the photo shown here we see three uncannily-identical baseballs. This of course represents material truth. From a software perspective, these are probably three instantiations of the same baseball asset. From a creative perspective, OReilly put one asset shaped like a baseball into the game, and taught the game to randomly create an object based on that asset and crash it onto the mountain, regardless of whether a similar object already existed. Repetition is a key technique in virtually all complex simulations, but it is usually masked to create believability; OReilly draws our attention to it.

The random subjects, variations, and multiplicities add up to a collage aesthetic. Objects crashing on Mountain’s mountain don’t just explicitly appear like “assets”; through a variety of collage techniques they appear like “ready-made” assets. This stylistic approach could be a key to understanding the timeliness of Asset Modernist expressions.

Perhaps the most significant shift over the last decade in games is the increased accessibility of game-making tools. A rise in the processing power of personal computers and online app stores encouraged more “garage band” game making, and this gave rise to companies that make tool suites for one-stop-shop game creation, dominated by the community-focused Unity game engine. Unity, like other popular contemporary game engines, offers artists ready-made packages of code containing behaviors, objects and properties that make up the simulated world – asset packages – thus streamlining the development of games and making life easier for indie artists. These initial offerings are expanded through online “Asset Stores” where the artist community can exchange objects and code they made for re-use and remix.

The art of making simulations has now reached an era marked by standardization and market exchange. Artists making their first steps in creating world with game engines are all cutting their teeth with the same standard assets, that are also used by many veterans as placeholders in early stages of world design. The increasing complexity of virtual worlds makes handcrafting them an increasingly insurmountable task, especially for small teams, and further cements the reliance on asset stores as an integral part of the creative process.

Asset Modernism is a reaction and a child to these trends. Most of the games mentioned in this article were made in Unity.

To an extent, these developments have shifted the culture of game-making from planning to prototyping, from a craft akin of architecture, to something more akin of choreography. It also brought prototyping and production closer together, a smooth transition inside the same digital tool, where ready-made props and simulated material properties are not only readily available, but also shared, discussed and culturally recognized within game-maker circles.

Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in David Kanaga’s 2017 Oiκοςpiel. This game, also known as the “Dog Opera”, isn’t just based on ready-made assets: it wants them to be read as purchased assets, specifically from the Unity Asset Store, and frames them within the gamespace to be perceived as such, as a remix. Oiκοςpiel’s narrative touches on issues of labor, specifically creative labor and group labor, and Kanaga enjoys marking the tension between the game itself being his “solo” work and the assets representing countless hours of work by a large group of individuals.

Though not a self-declared artistic movement, one can read the works of these different artists as a sort of political reaction; not merely to the evolving tools of game production, but also as a pushback against other ideologies and aesthetics within the game world. The cult of naturalism in big-budget videogames with “realistic graphics” has significant political implications both in the economies surrounding it as well as in the naturalising affect its aesthetics have on its narration. Asset Modernism can be read as an antithetic force to videogame naturalism, pulling player attention to the materiality of the digital work, and thus to its artificiality.

Invoking the century-old term “Modernism” has some benefits, apart from applying some instant-gravitas. It is framing these artists within a wider cultural reaction, and through them framing the mainstream games industry, often painted as cutting-edge, as actually being centuries behind in some regards. But in a much simpler sense, the comparisons to modern artists are sometimes just too evident. The Unfinished Swan, with its stark white world and its ink splashes, playfully shifts between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, between Malevich and Pollock, not only marrying them but also perfecting them. Kanaga and OReilly can be seen as Asset Maximalists. Donut County could spark an entirely different discussion than the one offered here as a Surrealist piece, and Mountain has already been widely discussed as Conceptual Art.

To imagine where Asset Modernism might go next we may want to examine Pippin Barr’s 2017 game v r 3. Here we are met with a very simple virtual environment, a symmetrical gallery populated by rows of identical, labeled containers. Each container holds a different asset of the same kind – a water material – different waters made by different people, all imported from the Unity Asset Store.

Barr acts as an artist-curator, exposing us to multiples of water, which is usually considered and presented a singular material. The collection is a critical one, inviting reflection on our desire for naturalistic simulation, our judgement of what a believable image is, as well as the affordances of the Unity engine itself.

But v r 3 can also function as a direct action, one that can yield external effects. The gallery is not just an meta-commentary, but also a useful tool for game designers looking to compare and choose water for their virtual worlds. Players who are also game-makers themselves can appropriate v r 3 as a creative device. The next step for Asset Modernism might be in this direction, of virtual worlds that are also processes and parts of a game-making culture.