Synecdoche, Universe

No Man's Sky
In the delightfully quirky, postmodern film, Synecdoche, New York, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a movie director obsessed with creating a set that realistically represents New York City for an upcoming movie. But as he tries to incorporate more and more people and bits that represent the city, the set grows and grows into a micro-city itself. As Wikipedia describes it:

The plot follows an ailing theater director (Hoffman) as he works on an increasingly elaborate stage production whose extreme commitment to realism begins to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. The film’s title is a play on Schenectady, New York, where much of the film is set, and the concept of synecdoche, wherein a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa.

I feel much the same thinking and obsession went into the creation of No Man’s Sky, a sandbox (“action-adventure survival,” plus trading, exploration, fighting, gathering, building, mining, refining, upgrading, flying, meeting aliens, and more) science fiction computer game of enormous size and scope that attempts to cram everything imaginable into one game.  Synecdoche, Universe might be a suitable nickname for this sprawling, all-encompassing game.* Again from Wikipedia:

Players are free to perform within the entirety of a procedurally generated deterministic open world universe, which includes over 18 quintillion planets… nearly all parts of the galaxy, including stars, planets, flora and fauna on these planets, and sentient alien encounters, are created through procedural generation…

Eighteen quintillions? That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond comprehension. I can’t vouch for anything close to that number, since in about 25 hours of play, I’ve only been to five or six of them in No Man’s Sky (NMS).

My first four game starts (three on similarly difficult planets, one sandbox in a more habitable clime) were all just learning experiences that, after fumbling, failing, and even dying, I deleted having played only a few hours each. My currently-running game has more than half of my game time logged, spent entirely on one planet with a couple of short visits to a nearby orbital space station. Most of my time on this one planet has been running or walking around, exploring. I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, I’m still poking about on one planet while the rest of the universe awaits.

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PE5: Corel’s Wrong Direction

Way back in 1990, a program called Fractal Painter was published by Fractal Design. It offered a “natural media” approach to digital art: mimicking real world art tools and media in the digital environment. You could  – if you had more artistic skills than I – make an image onscreen that looked like it was a photo of a real-media image. Images had texture, oils had highlights. You could mix colours like you do in real life.

It was brilliant, exciting and ground-breaking stuff.

In 1997, after gobbling up several other products (including Poser 3D), the company became Metacreations, but it and extended itself a little too far, and split into fragments that were individually acquired by Microsoft and Corel.*

Corel continued to publish – and enhance – Painter. It turned Painter into the foremost “natural media” digital art program on the market. Its latest incarnation is Painter 2016, a remarkable and powerful art program that sells for $500.

The price, however, deterred many users who wanted a simple art program for non-commercial uses or to just make art-like variations of their digital photographs. So Corel developed Painter Essentials,  at a modest (under $50) price. PE was, essentially, Painter-light, offering a stripped-down subset of Painter tools.

The big draw in Painter Essentials (PE) was its auto-paint feature. It automated the brush and pen strokes. With a few clicks, users could turn a digital image (a photograph, for example) into an art-like rendition. Oil, charcoal, pencil, watercolour, impressionist, modern, pen-and-ink… just a few easy clicks to create an art-like image. Even watching the process work was mesmerizing.

Want a photo to look like a charcoal sketch? A watercolour? A Cezanne or Van Gogh painting? PE 4 had those options. But better yet, it had options to control the brush size, colours, canvas, stroke frequency and so on in each category. That meant users could personalize images in many ways previously unavailable except at much higher cost.

People loved PE. It filled a need for creating beautiful art without the effort, time or cost of Painter, but without the talent required to use all those tools. It offered enough control to make each resulting image unique and give users a feeling they had accomplished something other than just clicking.

It had many powerful tools and features – Painter’s brushes – to make it more than a toy.

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