Part 1 [18/12/2000]

Mark Ahlin ·Odd Squad
Mark Ahlin, Sr. Realtime Modeler

I’ve learned my lesson. As much as I’d like to brag about my cool job, I never tell anyone what I really do. I can’t seem to get the reaction I feel I deserve. You know, that wide-eyed look of wonderment followed by a long, breathy “wow.” Instead, I get a wrinkling of the brow and a scratching of the head and a “What the hell’s a Realtime Artist? You one of them fancy lads?” People seem to get confused when I mention polygons and texture maps. They don’t even know what tri-linear filtering is. And here’s the real kick-in-the-pantsÑwomen don’t get it either! Chicks aren’t impressed with soft, pale, sedentary guys with computer jobs. Inconceivable you say? Oh, it’s true. You thereÑthe chubby kid in the Darth Maul T-shirt, plopped in front of your computer, dreaming about a future in the exciting field of video gamesÑwise up, fat boy! It’s too late for me, but you still have a chance. Take a bath, comb that hair, brush those teeth (and for God’s sake, use that deodorant). There’s a party down at Mary-Ellen’s tonight. Forget about playing D & D, there might be a wild man in you yet. Why waste your time simulating adventures when you can go out and live them? Still not convinced? Nah, me neither. There’s no hope for you. Best to learn a good skill, ideally something arcane and totally useless when society crumbles and you’re forced to live by your wits (this way you’ll die quickly and not have to suffer much). I chose Realtime Art.

So you want to make a groundbreaking game.

“Why does it look like that?” On the road to becoming a Realtime Artist, this will be the common response to your work. Do not take immediate offense. Rather, save your rage for later. This is a vulnerable moment for you and is not the time to act on your frustration. Half of the job is acting as a psychological strategist. In due time, your antagonist will show his or her own moments of weakness at which time you may exact your vengeance.

“What do you mean? Look like what?” you’ll say.

“You know, all blurry and chunky and kinda fake lookin'”.

You can try explaining exactly why your work is fake lookin, but what’s the point? John Q. Public doesn’t really care why, he just wants you to try a little harder, maybe go back to art school for a while. And for a fact, he’s right. Most 3D games just look plain bad, partly because of the no-talent artists but also because prevailing technical limitations simply do not allow for anything better. Frankly I’m astounded that some games look as good as they do. The never-ending rage against the machine has created a kind of brewing pot of brilliance. What the casual observer might note as a subtle visual improvement in a new game might actually be the result of countless hours of R & D on the part of the artist.

There are also epiphanies. The realtime artist longs for that one moment of clarity, when the world slows down and a funnel of light descends from above, showering him or her in a wash of trans-dimensional thought, where the logical brain merges passionately with the creative brain, producing a love-child of pure ingeniousness. This is when the artist leaps from his seat in the theater, or makes an abrupt U-turn on the way home, or pushes away his lover in mid-embrace to stare, mouth agape, into the darkness, proclaiming that he has just spoken to God.

As one of His divine messengers, the realtime artist will often find himself working through the night, making manifest the glory which was bestowed upon him. As dawn breaks, he may be found curled up under his desk, muttering insanities. With a crazy grin he will gather the group around to show them the fruit of his night’s labor, hoping to inspire a sense of awe amongst his disciples. They will peer into the computer monitor, skeptical of any new “technique” that could conceivably cost them more work. They will whisper to each other, giving him quizzical side-long glances. At last they will either grudgingly accept or enthusiastically reject his ideas (after all, no one wants to be upstaged, especially during the Christmas bonus season). If no other artists oppose him, and all of the programmers pronounce it “do-able,” the Holy Realtime Artist must run his Big Idea through yet another gauntlet of criticism: the game designers. It may look great and run perfectly, but if it doesn’t fit in with the original design plan, the game designers will calmly hand you back your Big Idea, pat you on the head, turn you back the way you came and give you a great kick in the arse.

Normally, this is where it ends. If your idea has progressed this far, in most companies, chances are it will have a good chance of making it into the shipping game. It might be a new lighting technique, or a clever use of multi-texturing, or maybe it’s a whole new approach to faking tree shadowsÑwhatever the case may be, at Oddworld, your journey is not yet at an end. Like a mountain looming in the distance (a tall mountain with long hair and frighteningly sharp boots), there stands the most critical presence of all. He is Lorne, and he will club your idea like a baby seal. If it can take his beating and yelp for more, than son, you’re gonna be A-Okay.

Which brings us full circle. The game ships, complete with your big idea. The competition is sufficiently impressed and immediately begins copying your technique. You are hailed (at least in your own mind) as a legend. The fat kid in the Darth Maul T-shirt buys your game and takes it home, only to announce, “This is fake lookin'”. He turns off the game and leans back, dreaming of a day when he’ll make a game that “actually looks good.” Then, my oh my, how the women will flow like wine.

The End