Friday, April 10, 2020

Day 21: Mapmaking and the essence of art

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 20 or Day 22.

"At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender." The famous line from Abba refers to a point in time (1815), where the political landscape changed drastically. The French revolution seemed to have lost and the ancien regime took over again. But the people had experienced a different world they could and would not forget. As they could not express their more radical thoughts outwardly, they headed for safer pastures, more inward. This led to a new art style that nowadays is referred to as "Biedermeier".  Maybe in 100 years, Corona too will be the name of an art style, epoch or philosophy (or even all of it).

At least on my side the Corona has spawned quite some philosophical thoughts (at least philosophical by my standards). And today the ongoing crisis has infused another one. Please follow me on a long and winding road that leads to that door.

As one of the three regular readers of the blog you may have noticed that thanks to Corona I turned to playing our pen&paper RPG online. Looking for inspiration, I was pointed to a convention that (again thanks to Corona) was held online. Beside a round of Online RPG (in which I will participate tomorrow), I noticed a workshop on Fantasy Map Making. This idea went well together with me digging once again into creating maps. So I attended those 90 minutes this evening.

It was time well spent. The workshop was done by the Studio Donnerhaus who are currently doing a crowdfunding for their book about fantasy maps (link currently points to German website, sorry!). They talked about how to (and how not to) create maps for your game. During the workshop I sat there fearing for my neck as I was nodding so much.

What is the purpose of a map? To give players in my RPG campaign some orientation. Here is the rural village of honest, hard working farmers and there is the castle of the ruthless baron. But what is the purpose of the game? For me, it is the cooperative telling of a story. And in order to be a good map, the map too must tell a bit of the story.

And that is what a good map does according to the workshop.

Why is this map of a local rulers castle looking so organic, so good?

Because it tells a story all by itself. You may not notice it consciously, but the castle developed there over time. It was not just planted there by an overambitious game master who needed a roof so his antagonist and his lackeys don't get wet.

The castle was original a motte that was built in a hurry with a restraint of building materials, time and available infrastructure.

It was built there because the location fitted the need. And the motte did not turn into a full blown castle like a caterpillar into a butterfly but it gradually developed. The influx of people and resources gradually changed motte and village through intermediate steps.

The ferry is replaced by a bridge, land is parceled into smaller pieces and the real estate close to the castle becomes the most favored (promising safety and access to power).

In order to create such a great story telling map, you do not have to make all three (though it helps), but you should at least think about "Why is this castle here?" and "How did it become such a place?" This will also make your RP adventure a much better one. Because it makes your whole story much better. The baron does not rob the harvest and conscripts farmers just because he is an evil character but because he is under threat by a neighbor and has little time to become ready for a conflict and bring his castle from the last to the first state in a hurry.

They did tell a lot more about how to do good map making, but those points do not add to the story of this blog post. Because at this point did I ask, if they thought that a map generator could do this job and create a map of such a quality.

They replied (quite politely for such an insensitive) question that current city map generators suck, that they do not expect map generators to be able to do this during their lifetime and that they are artists and need to earn money too (from their art).

I perfectly with the first and the last third of the statement.

Map generators really do not produce good city maps. The best of them known to me is the medieval fantasy city generator by watabou. It is the best because you can generate dozens of cities per minute until you get one that "feels right."

Their work and I was love on first sight. I am known for my quick index finger when it comes to buying but today it beat it's record on becoming a Patreon for them. I also participate in their crowdfunding campaign and I think that the money is well spent. It is clear to me that they only can produce maps if they have something to chew (also an important aspect to think about when creating city maps).

But it is the middle part of the statement I disagree with. And my key witness is one of the most graphically unappealing computer games in history: Dwarf Fortress. The graphical style can make a 1990 game designer blanch in shock. It reminds me of games like Nethack or Empire (which was created in 1972).  It doesn't help that the game was created and is maintained by just two people.

So how can this mess of colored letters give me the pretension that a computer could make a good city map? Have three weeks of Home office robbed me completely of my marbles?

The reason for my disagreement is because Dwarf Fortress has a very, very unique feature. While creating the fantasy world to play in, it also creates thousands of years of history for those lands. Empires rise and fall into ruin, heroes set off to their quest and succeed or fail, their stories become myths and legends of the land. When playing in that world you cannot the escape the past history of it. This creates an unrivaled organic feeling. If the game had better graphics and a less steep learning curve, people would fall over themselves to play it.

So when a computer can create a believable world, it also can create the story of a believable city. All that would be left to do is the visualization. That is something current city generators can already do. So I am completely convinced that a computer already today could create a good, organic feeling city map.

This leads to two questions:

  • Why doesn't a good city generator exist?
  • What is the job of artists like the Donnerhaus Studio in a world where such a generator exists?
Those two questions are intrinsically linked. And it has to do with the question what makes up the essence of art.

If you look on how Dwarf Fortress creates it's believable world, you see a top down process. It has simple basic plots like "Empire A rises". Step by step this is broken down to rising cities, trade routes being established and religions coming into existence. The trade routes being established in turn leads to routes and bridges being created. The road in turn leads to villages coming into existence that receive a temple of the new religion. This goes down to "story atoms".

Then at the top level, the next story arc begins. Kingdom B goes to war with the empire A. The army of B marches over the road created by the merchants and it's bridges to loot and burn the village. The temple is destroyed and it's inner sanctum below is buried until rediscovered by the player hundreds of years later. The cave is not there because a designer put it there but because of the war between A and B.

Dwarf fortress breaks down a larger story arc into story atoms and translates their impact into a (in this case textual) description for the game.

Though the creators of Dwarf Fortress did an amazing deed by disassembling story lines and re-assembling a world from it, they did neither discover nor invent the building blocks. Also they relied on existing translations of story events into impact on a world. That is what other artists have done for them.

And this is (from my very subjective point of view) the essence of art. The art lies in discovering patterns in human behavior and development and translating it into words, music, design and other languages. The process of analyzing the pain of a lost love into a song is of the same kind as merging human anatomy and contemporary art style into statues of marble or discovering the impact of politics, economics and nature on the development of cities and using them to create imaginary ones.

Art is a translation process.

Therefor artists will always be needed. On the left side of the equation there are always new events and on the right side we have the eternal demand on understanding. We need to people to do the transfer. They create the building blocks a software can use to create believable worlds.

It is one of the main tasks for a civilized society to enable artists to do this job. We depend on them. People like me can write software but such translation (except on a very small scale) are beyond my capabilities. Therefore I have to do my part to create an ecosystem in which art may flourish.

All images are (C) 2020 by Donnerhaus GbR.

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