2013 was a year of growth for me. Painful growth, thorny and weedy and out-of-place.

The start of 2013: I was still coming into my own, still ill at ease with my sense of personal and cultural identity, feeling at odds and far away from home. This was despite that I had found work and rent in my place of birth: Hong Kong.

And then I fell in love with the city, despite my own fresh heartbreak, plus the feeling of hopeless inadequacy without the perception of my grandparents’ generation to guide me through its labyrinthine sociopolitical heritages (unlike them, I have a myopia for war and conflict). I was barely making rent, but my want for independence still played to fit the colourful, liminal spaces. I was breathing in the smog, but also the omniscient lights and the throngs of people from all walks of life. I dared myself to persevere, and by consequence I saw that each neighborhood has a life-beat of its own.

I threw myself into work, of twisting vertices and bones, and setting them to an animation track. Stress tests. I walked out of the office at 9pm for fast food congee and walked back in on a sudden Eureka moment because I lived 5 minutes away, in one of the most condensed metropolitan centres in the world. And, somewhere along the way, the colour palette shifted, like a filter under the cinematographer’s technique. An orange warmth of the hues as I scraped up the Mid-Levels escalator with new friends, local and cosmopolitan, and felt like I could touch that sky that had never seen snow.

Dichotomies exist in all cities. The old and the new. Hong Kong's captured me.

Dichotomies exist in all cities. The old and the new. Hong Kong’s captured me.

I knew, then, that this was what I was meant to do: Observe, fall in love, and tell a story through art and language.

It was a new kind of disquiet when I came back to Toronto in March 2013, five months after I’ve left for Hong Kong. There would still be frost on the ground for another two months. But what was once familiar had a kind of emptiness in gestures, because the person I thought I would always share them with had left me behind. I lost also the kind of crowds and colors that I thought I could hide in as a personally demarcated “foreigner”.

It brought to the forefront of how I am so compelled to re-examine my identity. I have never been more hyper-aware of the ambiguity of my Westernized personality and socialization. It wasn’t a question posed within the walls of academia for once, but in everyday perceptions and conversations. Those missed opportunities for grasping something meaningful about one’s social roles and beliefs, especially. In the case of those who have had their foundations in mainland China, there was such a gap of shared cultural experiences with me as to be a chasm.

Babel is that project about identity. It was born from staring at a mirror shining with naiveté and idealism, and wondering how they’d be lost. It was losing track of language, signs, faces and realities, and gaining it again. Babel is the understanding that many people in a city state goes through this transformation in various ways.

In Hong Kong, I was taking photographs for the express purposes of documenting memory and being able to reproduce it in 3D. For an interactive experience.

In Hong Kong, I was taking photographs for the express purposes of documenting memory and being able to reproduce it in 3D. For an interactive experience.

It’s a work of fiction that aspires to be art. It’s primarily inspired by the many contemporary concerns of an advanced capitalist state where demarcations of East and West are rarely clear. There were many times when I am writing Babel as a script that I had rewritten again, so that the core themes have a deep presence that can be read across multiple tonalities. It’s not until I’d become more embedded in the local game development community and met so many diverse talents in the latter part of 2013 that I have a true confidence that storied experiences can have local flavours can also be universally approachable. I had always known this in theory, but it was different to put into practice as a content producer.

Loss and rediscovery of identities and culture?
That’s lingua franca to everyone.

Where-ever you are, where-ever you’re thinking of: There’s something to be said about loving a place so full of pastiche. A localized cinematic examination, I’ve found, can give such homage to a place as to add to its breathing structures. With the demarcations of light and movement, the artistic compression of a city onto film patch a unique intentionality. And an unspoken intimacy, even if we don’t understand a single line of dialogue.

It’s never going to get easier. In 2014, and in the years to come, the stories I want to create as well as those foisted upon me will only become more textured. The plot will be convoluted. But that’s part of the challenge. That’s part of the hope.

 

Babel’s team had a great time in its first outing at Bit Bazaar’s Arcade. Bit Bazaar is a Toronto celebration of comics, arts and crafts, and the local game development community, brought to life at Bento Miso by Jennie Faber and her team of awesome volunteers. For the short amount of time that I was able to peel myself away from Babel’s station, I was able to get to know some really diverse and engaging talents from Toronto’s comics and game development scene.

P1140569_ed_size

Although we are really only one month into crucial development time, and even less if we count that towards building our showcase level, it was a great way for us to really come to face how to develop as part of a community rather than in isolation. It was also a great milestone for us to aim for. Some might say a little prematurely, given that we were rubbing shoulders with game devs with over a year in development for the games that they are showcasing. At the same time, we already share a common understanding that, regardless of the game, the development process comes not only great design and focused themes, but a lot of consistent hard work. We learned a lot from these experienced developers and how they connected with their audience at the Bit Bazaar Market.

P1140561_ed_size

We generally got great critiques and feedback from people who engaged with our niche game, and we really want to thank people who tried out our game to give us such thoughtful feedback! We heard back that the atmosphere clicked with a lot of people who tried our game. Some found that the pacing and melancholy was different from the norm but was an interesting vision that usually isn’t articulated in video games. Some really got it, that it was meant to be an artistic interactive experience in the same vein as games like Dear Esther and Cat and the Coup, or even closer to arthouse cinema, from which it gained its inspiration (Chungking Express and other Wong Kar-Wai films). Personally, I am delighted by the interest from academics, who see potential of Babel as a way to describe and contextualize difficult narratives of political and personal identity within the format of interactive puzzles.

At the same time, we want to push the boundaries a bit further to blur the categories of artistic and emergent gameplay experiences, so we will look to redesign better puzzles, both relying on logical and lateral puzzle-solving. We know that we can push the emotional emphasis to the game a lot better, while more gradually revealing themes and conflict of the narrative. We will keep honing the script, level design, art, and game logic to that end!

Thank you Bento Miso and the Bit Bazaar organizational team for such a great experience.
_DSC0284_ed_size

Alexander Martin (@Droqen of Starseed Pilgrim fame) checking out our game! Thanks for the feedback! Looking forward to incorporating the changes.

P1140566_ed_size

_DSC0302_ed_size

Yasin really liked our game! Thank you for all the fantastic feedback!

_DSC0297_ed3_size

Thank you team! From L to R: Me (Tanya), Blake Withers, Mikki Benaglia, and Rob Richard.

_DSC0292_ed_size

For the video walkthrough of the prototype level, click here!

 

Just newly built on Dec 7th, 2013!

Here is the artwork from Babel’s first prototype, built in Unity and 3DS Max. Story and art driven, Babel was a challenging one month build because I had to ensure that the first chapter’s script was comprehensible to the world that I had to level design for, while keeping the authenticity of East Asian urbanity. I had over 75% of all model assets to complete for a six-minute puzzle game.

It is an experimentation with a painterly acrylic look to the art assets. The rest of the models – including the NPC – are created by Mikki Benaglia and Blake Withers. Rob Richard was the lead for programming, real-time deployment and optimization.

Gameplay: You throw a projectile to hack into electronics, in order to reveal game dialogue. We are going to continue to develop this gameplay mechanic further so that there’s more iterative puzzle solving.

Our timeline for this build:
2 weeks of preproduction: Script writing, script editing, level design, asset list, concept art, core systems
2 weeks of production: Voiceover recording, promotional printing materials, modelling assets, building the level, coding scripts, lighting, video editing

In engine (Unity):

Screenshot_ResistenceBldg

Screenshot_Rooftop

Screenshot_Stoves
In Max:

 

Babel_Preview_TopDown_01_ed

Babel_Preview_TopDown_02

Babel_Preview_TightCorners_02

Babel_Preview_TightCorners_01

Babel_Preview_FavoriteElectronicsSome of my favorite electronics.

 

This is the first concept art that I did for Babel. It was at first just a vague idea in my head that I wanted to do something about Eastern Asia and mass consumption. I started the drawing in Hong Kong, specifically in the Wan Chai neighborhood. I finished it in Toronto.

Postcard_Front_02_1000x680

Babel is a single-player 3D video game that encourages the player to explore and solve puzzles to piece together a complex, narrative-driven world. This world is set in an alternate-history, current-day Hong Kong. This vertically structured urban jungle will tell the story of a people with contrasting cultures and ideologies, with dreams of improving their social standings, coloured by their personal ethics and fears. As you search for a missing friend, you are drawn into a brewing discontent between an underground group claiming to speak on behalf of the people, and a conglomerate that owns most of the city.

I’ve since changed the art direction for this significantly, since I created this in a few days in time for an ideation roundtable with local game devs! Nonetheless, it shows some of the themes that I will be developing for, even though I will likely change the Engine from UDK to Unity.


Please view in full screen in HD for optimal quality. Thank you.