Thursday, October 30

Development of Presentation in Paintings of the Last Supper

I'm taking a Renaissance Art class here in Italy. It's my first art history class ever, and I'm really enjoying it. Yesterday, we looked at Leonardo da Vinci's very famous the Last Supper, and particularly in comparison to earlier renditions of the gospel story. And to what tract of thought did this analysis lead, why game design of course. I'm no art history expert, so my commentary here will be highly limited, potentially incorrect, and mostly taken from my textbook and the comments of my professor, Dr. Adrian S. Hoch.

Leonardo da Vinci's presentation of message in his fresco of the Last Supper was highly innovative for its time; there is a reason the artist introduced the High Renaissance era of artwork. Whereas earlier paintings of the story employed contrived, blatant symbolism, da Vinci eschewed these methods for a more naturalistic, seamless conveyance of message.

Let's look at three earlier paintings, all of the Last Supper.

Last Supper, Tree of Life, and Four Miracle Scenes. Taddeo Gaddi, 1360. In the Refectory, Santa Croce, Florence
Last Supper, Andrea Del Castagno, 1447. In the Cenacolo of Sant' Apollonia, Florence.Last Supper, Domenico del Ghirlandaio. 1480. In the Refrector, Ognissanti, Florence.All of three of these paintings came before da Vinci, all ascribe to a similar form, and all convey the gospel messages through similar means. We need to review the gospel story in general before we go on. These paintings depict the last supper of Jesus story found in the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament. The story recounts Jesus' final meal with his twelve disciples, one of whom, Judas, would soon betray him for greed. Also notice how the apostle John is asleep atop the table. The major themes are all presented in the same way throughout each of these three paintings. And their message is effective; the depictions clearly present the story.

Most obviously, Judas, the betrayer, is sitting on the opposite side of the table as Jesus and the rest of the disciples, clearly setting him apart as different. Furthermore, Jesus and eleven of the disciples are painted with halos; Judas, meanwhile is bare-headed, indicating his sin. These messages are clear and well-portrayed. But they're also a bit blatant. Leonardo da Vinci changed all of this.

Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci. 1495-1497. Refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
The differences between da Vinci's painting and that of his predessecors and contemporaries is stunning. Leonardo depicts the moment exactly as Jesus states that one of his apostles shall betray him. The apostles are all painted with extreme motion and emotion, each reacting heavily to Jesus' pronouncement. The extremity of facial expressions could have been drawn from Ghirlandaio's painting, as the History of Italian Renaissance Art notes. But unlike previous paintings, da Vinci places Judas on the same side of the table as the rest of the apostles.

But this does not mean we can't identify which apostle is Judas. Far from it, we can find Judas three figures to Jesus' right, covered in shadow, drawn back in horror, knowing and afraid of his guilt. With one hand, Judas grasps the money back given to him for his betrayal. With the other, he reaches for a loaf of bread, as written in the Gospel of Luke. Furthermore, the apostle John is no longer sleeping, and gone are the circlular halos. This I think is particularly apt point in regards to game design. Jesus is naturally haloed by the window behind him. The effect is a naturalistic, seamless one, not bogged down by the triteness of blatant circles.

All of these paintings are excellent. But da Vinci took the established standard and compltely surpassed it. Whereas before, symbolism, message, and theme were conveyed through obvious representations in the painting, e.g. Judas on our side of the table, visible haloes, da Vinci managed to present these exact same messages naturally: Judas in shadow and in shock, Jesus haloed by the window light.
I think its clear what I'm getting at. Video games are moving fast towards a more seamless presentation of information. Look at the very recent Alone in the Dark, Far Cry 2, or Dead Space. All of these titles eschew the traditional HUD in favor of a more natural, realistic, in-world presentation. Alone in the Dark has an inventory system wherein players look at the pockets of their vest. Far Cry 2 keep players in-line with the vision of the character at all times: when he gets into cars, when he pulls shrapnel out of his body, etc. Dead Space displays information on Isaac's back or on the hologram in front of him, which is visually skewed as the camera is rotated, nor does the game wrest control from players. The upcoming Mirror's Edge places movement in the first-person-perspective like never before. Players can see, hear, and feel Faith's running limbs and wheezing breath. Are we now moving towards our own High Renaissance of Video Games? All of these games are doing amazing things, and as time goes on, as we enter the next-generation of video games only 2 or 3 years from now, the bar is certain to raise ever higher.

History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture 6th Ed. by Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins. Published by Prentice Hall, 2007.

Andrea del Castango painting from Wikimedia.

Gaddi , Ghirlandaio, and da Vinci paintings from the Web Gallery of Art.

Dead Space image from Gamespot.

Monday, October 27

Berber Games

For fall break I went on a camel trek in Morocco. I went hiking with a Berber guide through the Sahara for three days, from Mhamid to the Erg Chigaga dunes. It was awesome. While camping, my guide taught me a few games. All of which were played by drawing lines in the sand and using nearby rocks or sticks for pieces. And though at first the games seemed familiar, I quickly learned that the Berber have their own native rule-sets. It was really fascinating seeing a different cultures take on the classics. Also, my guide is way smarter than me.

This was actually taught to me by my guides son, Hassan, who joined us on the trek. something interesting of note: most games in the US are played with squares or grids. All of these games were played with dots, usually on the intersecting points of lines. Which were far more suitable for their rule-sets than grids could have been. You'll see why in a moment.

Tic-Tac-Toe was played by drawing 4 intersecting lines in the sand. One vertical line, one horizontal, and two diagonal cutting through the two, which forms an 8 slice pie. Players take turns placing down pieces, we used rocks and sticks, until each player has three pieces on the board. The first piece must be placed in the center. In the version of tic-tac-toe I'm used to playing, this is where the game ends. But in the Berber version (and I'm sure in other cultures' versions as well) the game continues past three pieces, insteading of calling it cat and starting over. 

The seventh turn begins the moving process, wherein players alternate moving their pieces around the board to achieve three-in-a-row. Pieces can only be moved to adjacent points, either horizontally, vertically, or diagnally. Pieces can not be jumped or lost in any way, and only one piece can occupy a single point at any time. And thats it. Its really quite fun. You'll counter one move only to have another unseen move make a row. The lines, instead of a grid, function to connect the points and better display potential moves.

Berber Checkers
Berber checkers is played on a cross-hatched 4x4 grid constisting of 24 lines: 5 vertical, 5 horizontal, and 14 diagnal. Pieces are placed on the points of intersecting lines, making for 41 spaces total. At the start, each player puts their 20 pieces on the first grid and a half of their side, leaving the center space open.  Players may only move to empty points or jump over enemy pieces. Players cannot jump their own pieces. Usually, pieces may only be moved forward. However, pieces may also be moved laterally if jumping over an enemy. Additionally, moves can be chained together in a single turn if you can connect multiple jumps over enemies. If a piece reaches the end, it is kinged, allowing it to move as a bishop does in chess, except with the added ability to jump pieces across the board and to connect multiple jumps. The most interesting difference between this version of checkers and the version I grew up with, is that the cross-hatch points offer only 4 moves whereas the other points offer 8 moves.

Berber Mancala
I learned about this from trying to teach it. I was trygint o show Hassan, the son, the game mancala. But I couldn't remember the rules exactly. But he recognized what I was trying to do and then showed me how the game is really played! I initially drew the board as a grid, but my guide, Mohammad, came over and replaced my squares with cups. 

Berber mancala is played with 12 cups, 6 cups per side, and without any end-zones or goals. In each cup is placed 3 pieces. Players can only intiate a move from their own side. Players take all pieces from a single cup and, moving clock-wise, place one piece per cup until your hand is empty. If the last piece is placed in a cup that already contains pieces, the cup is drawn and the process is repeated. No points can be scored until the third turn. If the last piece in a hand lands in a cup of 3, therefore making 4 total in the cup, then all of the pieces are taken by that player, regardless of the side. However, if a cup accumulates exactly 4 pieces during a pass, then whosever side the cup belongs to obtains all 4 pieces for him or herself. If any cup contains 12 or more pieces at any time, then the entire cup is taken by whosever side the cup belongs to. The game ends when all of the cups on one player's side are empty, the winner being the opponent. 

But the game continues. All of the pieces are counted and placed back in the cups, and whoever has more pieces progress his or her area of control forwards. So if one player has 21 pieces and the other has only 15, then the player with 21 now controls 7 cups, encroaching upon the territory of the opponent. The game ends definitively when one player obtains all of the pieces and controls all of the cups.

In return, I taught them how to play The Very Clever Pipe Game! which they thoroughly enjoyed, and tried to teach them Arrowgame, but with the language barrier this was a much more difficult task.

What are your experiences with cultural takes on games?

Saturday, October 4


GamesRadar has a list up of The Evolution of the Tree, and other things. The list is entertaining at the very least, but actually pretty interesting. Give it a look.

Thursday, October 2

I Wish You Were The Moon

Pixels, hearts, the moon, and photography? This game was basically made for me.

I wish you were the moon by Daniel Benmergui