Quarterly Reflection: January – March 2019

This is the first entry in Quarterly Reflections, a quarterly tribute to some of the things that inspire me. I’m glad I decided on a quarterly post instead of annually (as originally intended), considering how incredibly lengthy it has gotten already. Stranger, I can’t imagine how you wander and stumble upon my post, but I hope it can be useful to you in some ways.

If I had to choose one word to describe the first quarter of my 2019, that word would be “inspired”. Most of my favorite 3D software receive major updates, and their new functionalities are much to be excited for. I suspect that there will be a lot to learn this year, and it has never been more fun.

Software

Real-time rendering is the biggest gift for newcomers.

Despite that 2019 has just started, it is unlikely that anything coming later this year could outclass the significant progress of Blender 2.80.

I remember stumbling across Blender in 2016 when I first learned of 3D modeling. As a complete beginner at the time, the software UI was beyond overwhelming. After half an hour struggling to perform even the simplest action, any vague intrigue I had had of the 3D art world basically evaporated. I later learned that (relatively) complex UI was an unavoidable reality for any decent 3D software. Still, Blender was especially convoluted even by professionals’ standard. I struggle even now to fathom why pre-2.80 Blender was often recommended as a good first software for newbies and enthusiasts. There was nothing about it that help first-time learners familiarize themselves with fundamental 3D principles.

Fast forward to the last quarter of 2018, I had acquired some beginner familiarity in 3D rendering and texturing. The beta version of Blender 2.80 had just been released, and to say that the change was drastic would be an understatement. It actually seemed appealing to work with now! But at the time, there was little documentation on how to use it. It has been a few months since then though, and the strength of using an open-source software really showed; there are new tutorials on everything from procedural modeling to grease pencils. Blender obviously has inspired a community passionate about sharing knowledge and love for creativity. It’s a privilege less often found in, say, Cinema 4D community. (I love their UI though and was actually contemplating on making a switch. But then Blender 2.80 came about, so…. Maxon you lost a customer.)

The most anticipated feature of Blender 2.8 has to be Eevee, the realtime rendering engine. If I was on the fence before, this basically sealed the deal. One of the major struggles I had while learning 3D in Poser (R.I.P.) was how time consuming it is to be learning something like node-based texturing. The main obstacle is that the change you make does not appear properly, unless you render a test image with it. It was frustrating because as a beginner, you need to fidget around, making minor adjustment each time and compare to see how each adjustment affects your overall look. A rendering engine like Superfly (Poser’s in-house pathtracing render engine, equivalent to Cycles) simple takes way too long. It became too taxing and inefficient to learn. Eevee, while still having some limitations, abolishes this time constraint issue. It solidifies Blender as a legitimately great choice for anyone wanting to try out anything 3D related.

Marvelous Designer is staying true to its premise for optimizing efficient workflow.

Marvelous Designer remains my favorite specialized software for many reasons, which are further improved in the latest major update.

I have seen a lot of raves for the new addition, sculpt mode. This functionality allows users to tidy up garments with sculpting details inside Marvelous Designer. It’s meant as a finishing touch, as any sculpted iteration will disappear if you simulate the garment afterwards. However, I’m not entirely sure about this, but it appears to be due to the program recalculating the garment, rather than overriding the change completely. So it could be useful as a way to manipulate part of the garment (to make fabric fall into the right place).

What I appreciate the most, however, is the quad remeshing functionality. While still in beta, it’s already worlds apart from the Quadrangulate feature. It’s not perfect; I noticed that it still generates triangles in certain area when it doesn’t need to. This was observed when I tried generating a rectangular piece of fabric. It was then remeshed immediately (without any simulation applied). The result was perfect rows of quad polygons, with the exception of the last (smaller) row being turned to all triangles. I don’t know MD’s quad remeshing algorithm, but I would guess it prioritizes equal quads with some triangles over unequal quads and no triangles.

Lastly, Marvelous Designer also introduces the ability to sew clothes directly in the 3D viewport. Having worked in the previous edition without this functionality before, I don’t really make good use of it. However, I appreciate that CLO cares enough to add this feature. It goes in accordance to their vision — to make the 3D pipeline as smooth and intuitive as possible. Unlike many old-school artists, I personally find lower entry bar for beginners to be a positive thing for the industry. Less time spent fussing with technical difficulty means more effort can be focused on the creative aspect, which should be the drive behind any creative industry to begin with. Sure, it means we will see more newcomers making the same pretty, easy-to-make creations that would have been difficult to make in the past. But it also means creators as a whole will have to be even more creative. They need to be pushing technical or creative boundaries even further, if they want to stand out. This competition is what drives progress in art. The more players because of lower entry point, the higher the expectation of what a good artist should be able to do. It doesn’t serve to make art an exclusive trade that few can get into.

zBrush: the sculpting software for all

As always, Pixologic delivers yet another free major update for all existing users. The new ZRemesher has (deservingly) received a lot of positive support, but I’d like to focus on some of the less hyped additions.

While some artists have been lukewarm about nonphotorealistic rendering, I am blown away by how much thought Pixologic has put into developing this functionality. NPR isn’t exactly the most popular feature because there’s practically no use for it in a lot of fields (non-animated film production, archviz, etc.). That didn’t stop Pixologic from putting so much thought into making them extremely customizable. I simply cannot think of any rendering engine that allows for this level of customizability, where it could really be opening doors to a lot of potential. It’s really unfortunate that we cannot make use of it outside of zBrush, which is not even meant to be a rendering software. I really hope that, in the future, there will be an add-on or a way to integrate this in other software.

Another thing worth mentioning is Snapshot 3D. This is a new and improved version for zBrush’s Spotlight. After initial launch, I have heard mixed reviews. My favorite CG channel, FlippedNormals, say they don’t foresee it being a part of their procedure and that it may just die out of popularity, similarly to Shadowbox. That could be the case. But I personally find it an efficient tool for my workflow. This highlights one of my favorite things about zBrush. Their weakness is also their strength in many cases including this one: they have a variety of tools and functionalities to accommodate artists with various workflows.

There are some future changes I would like to see, still. Beside a more user-friendly interface, I really wish they make it easier to do procedural or generative work. As of now, I find Blender much more efficient, especially with many add-ons being introduced. I have high hopes for zBrush though. Their fixation in delivering new features with high customizability, with attention shifted to procedural method, could let this software outclass its peers even further (as if it had any legitimate competitor to begin with!).

Artworks

Check out the turntable here and also a black and white “sketch” here for an even more mindblowing experience.

Is it even possible for anyone not to be impressed by this? I am both surprised at this masterpiece and at the fact that painterly texturing isn’t more popular. It’s impressive how intentional the model looks, regardless of what angle you are viewing it. To my understanding, the artist utilizes single-sided polys. Opacity maps are painted and applied on poly strips. And it looks like the mesh is composed of two layers, one on top and one on bottom with differing opacity, to create a distinctively ethereal impressionist effect. On top of everything, it appears to be game-ready as well.

An obvious drawback to this method is that the lighting info is painted onto the model. So it will not react well to external lighting in render. I wonder though, if there are workarounds. Maybe painted specular, reflective, or AO maps to go with?

I am a big fan of generative methods, so this pleases my heart greatly. You can even use boolean modifier to slice the cake real-time in Eevee. And I am now convinced that procedural 3D is the art of god. All because of a slicable virtual cake. I am glad someone took advantage of Blender’s latest mindblowing functionality and demonstrate just how glorious it can be. (Yes, I am aware I’m talking about a nonexistent dessert.)

  • BEYOND US by Maxime Tiberghien, Sylvain Favre, Maxime Hacquard

The creators of Beyond Us have accomplished much in this 4-minute film. Great cinematography. For a film with such limited color palette, lighting has to be excellent so that viewers can easily discern objects of interest. Good use of volumetrics for that purpose, and it serves to create a compelling atmosphere too. I feel like my eyes are always led to the most important part of the picture, but subtle detail is also readily present no matter where my gaze lies upon. (The slight distortion at 1:42 just goes to show the thoughtfulness of its creators.)

A drawback is one found most 3D films I’ve seen so far: when visuals and moods are that strong, deliverance of the message and concept behind it tends to be on the weaker side. It’s a tad predictable. It simply portrays a sheer sense of the situation at hand, but offers little insight into the inner working of it (which will expand our understanding of the issue) or how to go from there (which will result in at least vague ideas of what we should be focusing on). Admittedly, I am prickly when it comes to “social commentary” media or anything that hints at a grand message. It just seems like many works can get away with it for simply picking up “serious” topics, while ambitious depiction (in a non-visual way, in a visual-heavy media) receives less emphasis.

I must reiterate — the creators of Beyond Us did a marvelous job at creating the atmosphere. I find their visuals incredible inspiring. They indeed succeeded at instilling emotions. Their work will definitely serve as a reference point for my future progress into 3D. So, kudos to them. Any shortcoming it may have obviously doesn’t stop it from winning awards, especially when competing against other 3D animated films. I’m aware that I’m asking too much from a 4-minute film. But I really wish for a day where this is less of a norm and I couldn’t simply brush it off with “oh well, that’s typical for this genre”, like I used to do with comics.

Games

“The fact that you think I am broken or frustrated says more about you than about me.”

The Beginner’s Guide has been in my library for a few years now, but I only got to take a look at it recently. I have a bad habit of hoarding games on sale. (My Steam’s library literally has over 100 games — a fact of which I am both proud and ashamed of, but mostly the former.) Several of those games are left untouched due to lack of interest over time. But the Beginner’s Guide remained on top of my mental list, for the reason that it is made by the creator of Stanley Parable (which is in my top 5, or maybe even top 2, of my all-time favorites). Yet, it had been left sitting on my digital shelf for so long, as I suspect it could be an emotional experience. My suspicion was correct, but perhaps for a different reason than what other players experience.

The Beginner’s Guide is less of a game and more of a story. As a player, we listen to the protagonist narrator’s detailed account about his game developer friend’s “Coda”, while we play through every single one of Coda’s game. We get to experience these games and “understand” how these games reflect on Coda’s state of mind through the narrator’s narrative.

I started to find the narrator to be unlikable half-way through Beginner’s Guide. His assessment of Coda was plagued with assumptions. My suspicion was validated in the “final game”, where Coda asked the narrator not to contact him anymore. We finally get to hear first-handed for who he really is — a self-assured developer who sees value in his creations in a way that is “beyond the self”, who experiences dark days yet regards those days as a normal, fleeting part of the creative progress and, most importantly, who doesn’t need to (or can) be “fixed” by hearing people’s praises. This makes Coda my most relatable fictional character ever. The final twist felt so deserving; it’s a revealing example of how we all could be looking at the same thing, yet perceiving so differently.

The narrator’s obsession in wanting to “fix” things around him is maddeningly sad. I may not be able to relate to him personally, but I could imagine how anxiety-ridden a person in that world must feel. Anyone can get upset, but selfish reactions aren’t a given. They typically come from those who are discontent with themselves or their surrounding, rather than that particular instance. One thing that stands out, as depicted in the final scene, is how egocentric this type of person can be. Even after Coda explicit told him to not contact anymore, the narrator still persists by publishing this game so that he could feel better about himself. If he truly wants to make amends (or at least “do the right thing” for once), the most rational thing to do is to leave Coda alone. It would be the fair thing to do, because he would be putting Coda’s wish first for once. Alas, the narrator makes it about himself again. Coda isn’t the one benefiting from this apology; the narrator is.

I don’t know who most people find more relatable between the narrator or Coda. I would assume the former. His sentiments and insecurities are what I have seen a lot from people my age. You know the type — a dangerous combination of lofty ambitions, low achievement (this is meant factually and not disparagingly; their path to self-attainment has only begun recently after all), but with a self-destructive crave for external validation. For the creative sector particularly, it’s that emotional reliance on the mass to tell us that our work is good. This isn’t to say public recognition has no meaning beyond serving as an ego boost to the receiver. But requiring external validation, as if every single one has the same weight regardless of circumstance or whom it comes from, will likely just result in a cognitive dissonance trap. It’s an unfortunate irony how some people get into their profession, hoping for occupation success to build up their self-esteem, only to find out they are not going to get it that easily. And that, in turn, damages their already fragile sense of self when it’s the last thing they need. It’s counterproductive to be attached to idealized image of a job, or your idealized self as a professional before you actually are.

Focusing on career and developing skills are often painted as “culturally acceptable” ways to build a stable sense of self. Yet there is so little to address handling mismatched expectations. Doing things, even ostensibly altruistic or self-attaining, for mainly egoistic reasons is ironically counterproductive to our purpose. Taking up a skill in expectation that the recognition will “save” you, honestly, isn’t any less detrimental (not to mention futile) than directly tying your self-worth to a person’s affection. I’m frustrated by how this bit seems conspicuously absent in today’s self-help books. (Admittedly, I am not a fan of the genre and this just fuels my disdain.) I genuinely believe that you really need to work because you are standing up for something greater than yourself. It can be either a lofty goal or a surprisingly mundane reason. It can be something you believe will make the world a better place or just something fun. But it has to be genuinely that, and not because being good at it holds the sole key to your self-esteem. This isn’t even about being ethical. It’s about being pragmatic.

“‘My imagination is as real as my body,’ he told me.. It was hard to argue with him.”

This game is a golden example of why I feel so drawn to indie developers. When done well, indie games can transcend mainstream appeal with polished depiction of humanity. In this case, game becomes much of an art form as it is entertainment.

What Remains of Edith Finch did a marvelous job at turning gaming into an interactive storytelling platform. The Finch family is rumored to be “cursed”, as most of their members die unexpectedly through various causes. As a player, we get the first-person perspective of what happens to each of the family members. A plot sounding so sinister, it could easily be a horror game but isn’t. I am impressed by the art direction of using vibrant colors to match with melancholic soundtracks. The result is a powerful experience that fills its player with nostalgia. What I find so captivating is how this is a disillusioned story, told in a romanticized ambiance. It feels uniquely personal and inexplicably human in how this story is delivered.

There is something special about each and every of the Finch member’s story. But the one that left me in awe was Lewis’s, because this is the first I’ve seen any form of fiction media tackles the topic of maladaptive daydreaming. A more glaring issue this game brought to the table, though, is the limits within the field of psychological counseling.

When I first started college, I barely knew what I wanted to major in. But even then I knew I wanted to understand more about the way people think, so my initial major of choice was Psychology. (It’s ironic how this field seems to have an allure to depressed individuals.) While the material was interesting, I soon became disillusioned by just how limited the scope of this field can be. Counseling, especially, is so rooted in the ever-changing norms of the society. The professional guideline of how to treat patients is confined in what we (within this field) know and accept at the time. This is actually fine. It seems like an acknowledged constraint that’s being addressed through continuous research. But then…

The end goal is confined in what it means to be a “proper human being” at the time.

What Remains of Edith Finch sheds light on this painful, invisible barrier of the profession. After regular visits, he finally quits his reliance on marijuana. He maintains civil relations with his family members. He is even employee of the month. Moreover, his excessive daydreaming isn’t recognized in DSM-5 as an unhealthy coping mechanism. By all accounts, Lewis is a normal and “healthy” person. He is not addicted to anything. He has decent social support. He has a stable job. What more? He passes the bare minimum of what it means right now to be a normal, productive human being in the 21st century, alongside billions of others.

Yet it isn’t enough for Lewis. His counselor couldn’t operate outside the bubble of 21st century nor the logic formally laid out in the “bible” of the profession. His underlying dissatisfaction with the mundane was not recognized. His yearning for prestige was overlooked. His choice of coping mechanism was glazed over. There’s a price to be paid for letting things manifest for that long. It happens when we fail to recognize certain aspects (be it of the individual or of the society) as problematic. We cannot fix or change what we don’t recognize as a legitimate issue. I’m not trying to disparage the practice nor the rich embodiment of knowledge behind it. But there are limitations that come with insisting on playing the zero-sum game of inward vs. outward viewing of the world, which happens to be implicitly fundamental in this field. And the scale is heavily tipped toward the former. I remember that sense of disillusionment during my college days very well. I suppose this is why this game inspires such melancholic nostalgia, for it highlights how many things are dismissed under effects of the zeitgeist.

“Their lives weren’t perfect, their choices were far from ideals, and the consequences of these choices are painful. But they had their own choices, their own happiness and their own ‘mercy’.”

Totalitarian state seems to be a hit topic among indie developers. Still, Alawar shines, leading the pack. I am a major fan of the first Beholder and its deadpan, outlandish humor delivered through paradoxically cartoonish artwork. So it’s a given that I will jump the wagon on its sequel as well.

Beholder 2 is somewhat different from its predecessor in terms of game format. One of the things I like about the first Beholder is how it’s really about the story told through actions. Beholder 2 differs, definitely requiring player to grind through mundane tasks in order to progress the story. The “Carl cloning” particularly took a toll on me. Regardless, I think the story, as well as its message, is depicted better here.

The game’s premise can be summed in a quote featured at the beginning and during the true ending (see clip above).

You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.

Despite my usual cynicism with popular aphorism, I happen to like Beholder 2’s chosen one. Apparently, everybody else does too for the very reason famous quotes become famous: they are highly interpretative to the point where it can serve to validate any point of view. Many of those views are contradictory to others. But for the sake of entertainment, let’s jump the bandwagon.

The first Beholder forces you to confront your own conscience of choosing between being a good employee in order to progress, taking care of family, and “doing the right thing” by betraying the state. It’s almost a given that we would attempt to do all three; it feels so right as a player. I consider the realization of the innate call to be a highlight of Beholder. But the endings pale in comparison. They are more like mere summary of your in-game decisions. Meanwhile, Beholder 2 is more theatrical (please, see their intro), but the significance of each ending lingers even long after I close the game.

If you happen to be on the right side of the fence in the right part of the world, then it may be hard to fathom why it’s important to preserve personal liberty. But from the perspective of those who aren’t, it’s akin to handling your life to be judged to other (likely) imperfect humans who believe their worldview is the correct one. Except that you also feel justified that yours is, also. Differing opinions is a reality for all sorts of society. But there is no ground for negotiations in a world that does not respect personal liberty. There is also no such thing as a real discussion if the eventual outcome is either “the golden example” is accepted or face the consequences. You don’t have a choice whether to jump off the cliffs or not. And they are the one deciding whether you will be assigned wings. You get to suffer the consequences you never believe is justified, from decisions that you never make. You don’t get to “build” because you never own anything in the world, not even your own actions.

The world of personal liberty is far from ideal. It’s not a world of perfect people making choices all the time. (Honestly though, does that kind of world even exist outside of theory?) But the most compelling part is that it entitles you the right to suffer at “your own mercy”. It acknowledges not only the imperfections of humans’ decisions, but also capacity for growth. More crucially, it acknowledges a possibility of the mainstream ideological framework not being completely correct for time to come. That alone is worth considering, for it is at least not in denial about one of the few universal facts reflected throughout the entire history of humanity.

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