Ambition tends to get the best of me. As someone who is future-oriented and passionate about their work, it can be difficult to reign in my ideas for a project. My senior thesis is no exception.
During the summer of 2017, I fell deep in love with the sky. I started to notice the countless beautiful versions of the sky above me. Not only the time of day and season, but the weather and celestial patterns affect how we view the sky each day. Pale pink hues turn into deep blues and everything in between, and each day it’s different from the last. That’s when the idea came to me. I thought about a world in which a person’s actions would change the environment around them in a way unthinkable on Earth. What if when we wanted it to be sunny, the sun arrived and the clouds disappeared? What if when we desperately needed rainfall, we could will it to be? What if the moon could be summoned? This might sound absurd, but in a human-created world, this is possible.
The type of world I’m talking about is of course not a tangible one. This world I speak of is virtual, and in this world anything is possible. Yes, you guessed it— I’m talking about video games. With modern technology humans are able to create believable environments that other people can move through virtually. This has always fascinated me, as I’ve been playing video games since I was 3 years old. As a child these worlds were immersive and convincing despite their lack of realism. At the beginning of the semester, I boldly thought I could create my very own video game demo so people could explore a piece of the world I envisioned. But as the sole person working on this project, and with roughly four months to complete it, this just wasn’t a realistic option.
Due to the fact that I originally wanted to make a video game demo, I organized my ideas from the perspective of a independent game developer. This meant I had to approach my idea as a product — I needed to create something worth packaging and selling to the masses. Every decision I made as the developer would affect the overall experience of the player. My brainstorming sessions in the beginning showed a tenacious desire to produce a playable demo, which just didn’t happen.
I planned on using tools I was familiar with, like Photoshop and my drawing tablet, to create 2D representations of my work. From there I would model the main character in a 3D modeling program called Blender, then import this model into the game development software Unreal Engine 4. I knew the steps it would require to get my idea where I wanted it to go, but I simply didn’t have the manpower or time to accomplish all of it. So I worked with a more realistic goal in mind — get the concept and designs clearly laid out. All good 3D designs begin from drawings, so I could at least lay the foundation for a grander project. In addition to the visual designs, I aimed to give the viewer an idea of how exactly the game would work. The consequences of a player’s actions tie in with my narrative, so I felt it was important to show exactly how this would operate in the game.
Essentially, my original idea of producing a video game demo transformed into creating a blueprint for the game itself. Rather than make a half-baked version of a demo, it seemed more productive to give a more fleshed out guideline for the game design. Although I was no longer working in an actual game development engine, I still forced myself to think like a developer. This project made me put on several hats — concept artist, game developer, graphic designer, and storyteller. Each of these roles required me to view the project through a different lens, which proved to be tremendously helpful with forming a cohesive idea.
Early brainstorming sessions consisted of outlining my objectives, what I needed to design, the tools required, the narrative, and the schematics of the game. During these sessions I tried not to become too attached to any one idea, because many of those ideas would be left in the ideation stage. Nonetheless, these initial sessions helped significantly with organizing my thoughts and planning the execution of my project.
One of my favorite hobbies growing up was drawing people. I loved imagining a new character and thinking about their personality and all the things that make them unique. It’s no wonder I created a thesis that allowed me to focus on character design, since I’ve always been fascinated with people.
Right from the start, I knew I wanted my characters to be based off of people I know in the real world. I’m continuously inspired by the beauty of my friends and even strangers, so my character design naturally reflected this. Another aspect that I considered heavily when designing my characters was a representation of a wide variety of people. So often in media we see stories revolving around cisgender heterosexual white people, and I wanted to create something that doesn’t fall into this trap of hegemonic whiteness. My goal was to create characters that people could see themselves and their friends in, regardless of their background.
Considering that I based my characters off people I know in my life, one might think I would model the main character from someone very important to me. Well, they would be wrong. I modeled the general aesthetic of my main character(MC) after someone I knew for less than two months in my life, in my foundation painting class. Her English name was Lorraine, and she was as charming as her name implies. She dressed in comfortable linen pants and loose T-shirts. Her glasses were oval, and sat delicately on her button nose. She had a bob haircut that seemed very easy to maintain, with it parted down the middle. Her style was simple yet refreshing; casual but stylish. I sketched her a few times immediately after class so I wouldn’t forget how she looked. When I drew these sketches, I did them simply because I admired her beauty. I had no idea she would inspire the design of my main character until I began doing concept sketches and I kept seeing her in them. If there was a way to thank her, I would, but unfortunately I don’t have any way of contacting her.
The issue with choosing Lorraine as my main source of visual inspiration for MC was that I had no images of her to use as a reference. So I kept her general style and found another person to use as my face model for her. This time, however, it was someone I actually knew. To be fair, I only know him through the internet, but Alexander John Nebrida became my main reference for MC’s face. I had always admired his features and even drew portraits and sketches of him, so the choice came as no surprise.
The first sketches of MC show less detail in her facial features, but as I drew her more and more you can see the influence AJ had on her appearance. Not only this, but because of AJ’s background I decided to make MC Filipino. It seemed only right that the primary inspiration for her face had an influence on her ethnicity. In addition, this choice helped me find a name for her. In the narrative MC not only represents the celestial element of smog, but also the human spirit. When searching for names in Tagalog, I came upon the name Diwa. It means spirit, soul, or sense. I thought this was the perfect name to represent not only her cultural background but her meaning in the context of the narrative.
The rest of my character design process followed a similar vein. I found a person to model the character’s primary aesthetics off of, and either used their face or another person’s face to complete their features. I go into each of the inspirations for them in the character book, so for now I’ll only show my process for Diwa.
In any story, the environment it takes place in plays a huge part in setting the tone. Since the beginning of this concept, I knew I wanted Diwa to wake up on an island in the sky. This choice came down to a couple main reasons. First and foremost, I aimed to make the environment seem dream-like and mysterious. An island in the water is realistic and believable, but once you place it in the sky it’s whimsical and surreal. This aspect was extremely important to me, because I wanted both Diwa and the player to fully believe this takes place in a dream. Additionally, because all explorable areas in video games are finite, I wanted the area to end naturally. Meaning, since the playable area must have some boundaries, I wanted it to be as natural as possible. The edge of the island functions as a boundary in the game, but because it’s not an invisible wall it doesn’t seem as artificial. As a kid, seeing these areas that you couldn’t explore in a game drove me crazy, so I wanted the player to be able to explore every visible area in the game.
Another aspect of the environment that I kept the same throughout this process was the spawn point. The beginning of the story starts with Diwa waking up under a large oak tree on top of a giant grassy hill. My intention was to make this awakening seem as if it were planned by a greater power. From this point on the hill she can see most of the island, but because of the smog in the air she cannot tell that it is floating. I wanted the player to discover this on their own, similar to how Diwa would experience it.
The island has different natural landscapes that coordinate with each of the celestial elements. There is a grassy plain area with a field of sunflowers that Elena is often found roaming around. Neil can usually be seen hiking through the mountains high up in the clouds. Omba enjoys exploring the forest and walking along the river while it rains. Klenam passes the night by hanging around the lake and watching the reflection of the stars. Luna loves to relax by the beach and watch the tide ebb and flow with the moon. And Diwa just like to enjoy the scenery from the top of the giant hill.
As I mentioned earlier in this book, I initially planned on creating this demo in Unreal Engine 4. So I spent a good amount of time attempting to translate my idea of this landscape into a playable map in the engine. This required me to generate heightmaps — which are essentially topographic maps that can be turned into 3D landscapes. The highest elevation was left white while the ground-level areas were colored in black. I first drew these with pencil and paper, but then created digital versions so I could import them into Unreal Engine. There were many technical problems with getting just the right scale for my landscape, but in the end it proved to be a dead end anyway. However, designing these heightmaps gave me a better understanding of how I wanted the overall design to come out, 3D or not.
I can safely say the most difficult part of this project was planning how to present my ideas most effectively. Because so much of the work occurred during the ideation stage, it was a huge challenge to make sure all of this work was accurately depicted in the end product. I’ve also never done any kind of exhibition design, so this was all new territory for me.
As with the other aspects of this project, I began the exhibition design under the expectation that more 3D digital design would be completed. Ideally, viewers would have been able to view the non-playable demo that I prepared, or at least interact with the 3D models of the characters and landscape. If I had completed the video demo, I would have created a sort of “room” made of pipes and drapes where viewers could sit down and watch the demo. In this idea, it would have felt like you were surrounded in the world because the demo would be projected onto the walls of the makeshift room.
Another version of my exhibition design featured a monitor or iPad that presented the 3D models of my characters and landscape. Through a website called sketchfab, you can view 3D models in any internet browser. Another benefit of using sketchfab is that you can share your models with the 3D design community and get input on your creations. However, because I only completed 2D designs I had to change my presentation all together.
If I could not introduce my world to the viewers in 3D, I at least wanted them to have a small window into it. This is how I came up with the idea to do a digital painting panorama of the spawn point. Using canvases with posters adhered to it, I could give the impression of an actual window into the world. Underneath these canvases, I would present booklets with my character designs, environment design, and a guide to the game and story.
If it was not already painfully obvious, I have been extremely hard on myself throughout this project. Especially during the final stretch, I had to grapple with the disappointment that my grand ideas in the beginning would not come to fruition. But despite this let down, I am not pessimistic about the future. This concept is very dear to me, and I truly think it is only the start. Considering that I am only one person — a full time college student who is just 22 years old — I am pleased with my exploration of this idea. But it just makes me want to go further.
Video games, even ones produced by small independent companies, require entire teams to complete. It also takes years to even come out with a demo. When I imagine a whole team of concept artists, game developers, graphic designers, and programmers working on Moments in the Sky I am filled with excitement. The more people I tell about this concept, the more real it seems. And the more I speak this into existence, the more likely it is to become what I originally envisioned last summer.