The Art in Mortal Combat

Micz Flor

Robert Adrian X is one on a team of artists who have been working on levels for the deatchmatch arena SYNREAL. Adrian X has decades of communication technology based art up his sleeve, so SYNWORLD decided to approach the artist in order to find out more about the ins and outs of level editors. Press start to enter the development zone, where potential killers become harmless nuisances, where the White-Cube merges with the grim dungeons of Doom and where sound plays a key role in bridging the Unreal with the Real.

SYNWORLD: Robert Adrian X, you are on a team of three artists who have been working on a level for SYNREAL. Those levels are built, using the editor for the game Unreal. What was your approach to the deathmatch-arena in artistic terms?

Adrian X: The SYNREAL project sounded very interesting from the first planning phase. After I got a mail from Public Netbase saying it would go ahead, we all sat through a workshop with Max Moswitzer, who is a great teacher and technical support. At the time, the editor was brand new and not many people knew how to use it. Once everything was ready to go, there were only two months left to build our level, and that's what we did. The zero level of the SYNREAL game is built on the Public Netbase logo, like a wheel with spikes sticking out. It is very active and busy with a tremendous amount of different textures and tricks and gimmicks. That was very impressive to see and we thought we are not going to be able to do anything like that. But after two days of working with Max Moswitzer it looked more manageable. I invited Markus Seidl to work with me and later in the game we also got August Black on board. He designed bots for us. These bots are little animated figures which appear periodically in the level and generally do stuff. So in the end three of us were working on it. The space we designed is more or less like a garage, like a cement space, there are no textures on the wall, we simply used white for the walls and only later began working with reflexions and lighting, and most importantly with a lot of sound. We didn't use music, we tried to avoid techno and the usual kind of material you would encounter in such games. Instead we used more ambient sounds, very different sounds, which we had produced ourselves in various other works. For example I had been working with a Swiss poet, creating sound poetry in Linz. I also brought some airplane sound I've been using on a project. About ten years ago I worked on a project for Kunstradio at the ORF which was called Dancing In The Dark, where we had invited a tap dancer into the studio and recorded him. The tap dancer brought a record with him which he used for his students which was called Paper Moon, and he beautifully tap danced to this terrible record in the studio. Quite sharp, so we used it for SYNREAL. Now the whole level is called Paper Moon. But today it seems that other parts are more relevant, like the sound of jet aircrafts we used. They fly through different parts of the level.

SYNWORLD: The Unreal game is goal-oriented, competitive kind. Your approach seems more exploratory than goal-oriented. How did you approach the nature of the original game?

Adrian X: I treated the editor like a sculptural tool and we agreed that that was a good way to think about it. When working with Unreal, what you have is a huge block of solid substance. And this block is more or less infinite, not technically speaking, but it is massive. Using the editor, you carve space out of this world. So what you are doing is carving, which means you are working very sculpturally. The editor allows you to create spaces and then you can fill the spaces with objects and things which are happening and of course you can connect spaces. We built different rooms connected by passage ways, lifts and stairways which allow you to explore a sculptural territory. We didn't use any colours aside from certain light colours at times and certain light effects. We also use only few textures, like in the waterroom which gives a feeling of infinity, where only jet airplanes are cutting through. Also there is a room which has a lava floor. We decided against working extensively on the dangers of being attacked or being killed by some aggressor but opted for dangerous spaces, where you can easily fall off the edge or die by slipping into the lava or falling off a high place.

SYNWORLD: When you say you use the editor like a sculptural tool that makes me think of the different approaches one can have towards the SYNREAL space. You either step back and look at it from a god-like distance or you are right in the middle of it, with 'all you see is all you know'. Computers seem to amplify the same paradigm shift that architecture was going through with the introduction of fibre optic technology, allowing to be a subject view point inside the architectural model, rather than the distant observer.

Adrian X: I remember ten years ago someone was showing me these video cameras with tiny lenses and you could go through an architectural model which would be pretty accurately built. Then you would get all the different views and you could create a video tape, kind of walking through the model. Small firms did video presentations for architects so they could approach potential clients. People often are not visually equipped to imagine spaces. That is also one of the attractions for architects to use CAD systems where you can built 3-dimensional models on your laptop. Using the CAD system means designing only once and printing off what you need, floor plans, 3D views, animated sequences. Then there is also the CAVE program on Silicon Graphics machines where you actually walk through these spaces in real time. The Unreal editor allows you to do this kind of work on your desktop machine with a reasonably cheap computer. You need a pretty good screen and a 3D acelerator will give you a nice presentation. All in all you need high-end consumer electronics equipment, but it is not unaffordable. These kinds of technologies are no longer so high-tech that you have to go to institutions and buy your way in, either by joining the institution or by getting grants. You can actually get this on your table at home, you can run it on a machine that you've already got. And do it yourself!

SYNWORLD: In SYNREAL you are working in two ways. One on hand the game is created to simulate a 'real' environment, on the other hand the 'unreal' part, the simulation is what makes it special. Within this split, did you build in any reality-checks?

Adrian X: This question could easily lead us into several days of discussion on the cultural effects of modern media, representation versus simulation. I don't know if one can even make the distinction between representing something and simulating it. This thing on the screen is not a simulation because there is nothing real about it. You are playing with optical tricks of perspective and other things. You are basically working on a flat surface. At the same time you are working with a real space, which you carve into. I am a visual artist, so I think in those terms. You are cutting into spaces, you can move around objects, rotate objects, so you have a sculptural space. I decided for myself that it is very useful to think about it in sculptural terms. I'm building spaces which are to be looked at. People can go around them and look at them. They can be frightening spaces, they can be all kinds of different spaces. In many of these games you encounter dangerous antagonists within these areas which may kill you. And the bots we designed feature maximum aggression so they are extremely unpleasant and they are always in your face and a nuisance. But they don't have any weapons. If they had any kind of weapon you would be dead immediately unless you are one of the best players in the world. It's quite astonishing, in terms of cultural politics, what kind of objects you are being asked to create, the degree of aggression you can allocate to objects, to things, to bots. And then there are all kinds of tricks and traps, and a selection of death cries. The sociology or psychology of game noises needs to be written in a thesis. We brought our own sounds or sounds, taken from art pieces, where they have been used because they do belong to contemporary history. It's an artwork we made.