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The Man Who Stares at Plants

Alex Swaim's interest in the technical side of video game art has prompted him to spend lots of time looking at the parts of virtual worlds we hardly ever think about.

"Strange plants for a strange planet."

The Internet has websites for every kind of interest, and that includes plant life in games.

Alex Swaim's Video Game Foliage blog on Tumblr is one of my recent favorites in what I'm currently calling the "oddly specific" category of games coverage. Video Game Foliage highlights what the title implies, and does so with equal parts fascination and dissection.

We don't often consider the plant life around us in video games, and that's probably for good reason. Have you ever stopped to look at the crowd in a sports games? It's often like that with plants in games, too. Often, it's just good enough to convince our brains it's like the real thing.

Swaim, who works as a pipeline programmer for a visual FX company by day in Dallas, became entranced by this overlooked part of the video game aesthetic while playing Dishonored late last year.

"You start to look closer," he said, "you start to break down how they’re made, and these are total flimflam jobs. They’re con jobs. They look just enough like plants, but have almost no relation to how real plants are structured."

Here's what he means, as illustrated by an early entry in his blog:

Who hasn't done something similar, such as walking up to a texture until it degrades into a blur? In some ways, it's part of the countless push-and-pull being designer and player, as one tries to dismantle the limitations of the simulation in front of them, especially ones that mimic reality. The facade can only be taken so far.

But even as Swaim's blog often reveals how the illusion can be shattered simply by changing the camera to the right angle, it only goes to underscore the respect he has for the artists behind it.

"I always thought it [Dishonored] looked amazing," he said. "But at some point, you looked at it, and realized it had no relation to actual plants. It’s trying to mimic, but it’s not trying to replicate. [...] I’d been playing games a long, long time. I never really stopped to think hard that all [of] these plants [are about the question] 'how can we cheat the brain into thinking about plants as closely possible, as easily as possible, as cheaply as possible?'"

In addition to working in visual FX, Swaim's currently finishing his last semester earning a masters in fine arts degree in arts and technology. (He used to have an interest in exploring the outdoors, but that was, um, before he started making games.) His schooling focus has been on games, and he's spent a lengthy amount of time examining the technical art that drives video game worlds. It's part of what makes Video Game Foliage so fascinating, especially as you start to consider the games you remember having great-looking trees and grass, and discover Swaine has done some of the research to learn why those games are able to look so good.

For me, that game is Flower. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I can imagine the grass swaying in my head. Swaim discovered thatgamecompany had actually disclosed how it achieved the uncannily realistic grass in Flower. (The company would eventually disclose similar details about the sand in Journey.)

"For years after its release I was wondering how they managed to simulate and render so many blades of grass" he wrote back in December. "I couldn’t figure out what kind of clever trick would let you do that. It turns out the answer is that there was no trick. The PS3’s architecture has something called an SPU that lets you do a ton of parallel operations efficiently. Sometimes brute force is the best way to do things."

Over time, Swaim started to notice technical patterns. It became obvious some techniques were common, especially when it came to 3D. He found much more variety in 2D, as it turned out.

"The questions that the artists are answering when they make this foliage are 'how do we use those techniques to create the aesthetic effect that we desire?'" he said. "I was going into it expecting it to be looking at one question, and it turns out it’s a slightly different question. [...] You really respect games where there’s obviously just this huge amount of craftsmanship, this huge technical and artistic ability behind here."

The word "trick" can have a negative connotation, but when it comes to Swaim examining the techniques of video game artists, it's a similar satisfaction to knowing how a magic trick works. Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational is a good example of this, as Swaim highlights how the crops shown on a rural-set golf course seem full, deep, and rich. In reality, it's cleverly placed textures.

All of this, naturally, has been leading to this next question.

As someone that's been spending lots of time walking in the the virtual woods, Swaim seemed like the logical expert for a particularly burning question about gaming foliage. Can he accurately spot Speedtree, the industry's premiere middleware tool for producing trees in a video game?

"[laughs] When I started this, I thought for sure 100% that I’d be able to. I don’t know anymore. The more I look at it, the more I go 'well, that’s probably not...but it might be.'"

The blog only started in late November, though. There's still time. We'll have to check back in.

If you're interested in blogs like Video Game Foliage, Swain's compiled a list of other "oddly specific" blogs.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
46 Comments
Posted by tclangham

Cool

Posted by Enns

why

Posted by Wes899

Very nice plant blog.

Online
Posted by karanvish92
Posted by Brodehouse

I like stuff like this.

Posted by Dan_CiTi

GREAT blog, makes me wish more games had no-HUD or minimal HUD and screenshot options just to appreciate their aesthetic and views. I remember so many times playing Red Dead Redemption wanting the screenshot feature of the PS3 to be implemented in the game.

I think the first game I appreciated the foliage in a lot was MGS3. It had such wonderful environments.

Posted by Pudge195

yup patrick is bananas

Edited by patrickklepek
Staff
Posted by pornstorestiffi

@enns said:

why

Why do people cut off their penises and share the pictures online, why do people believe in God, why do people ask stupid questions?

Edited by climax

I think this is the reason why I enjoy and sub to Giant Bomb. I get all sorts of information in these articles that I would just glance over in other places. Good stuff @patrickklepek! You keep writing these, and I'll keep reading them.

Edited by CornBREDX

Ya, I've looked at the plants in games on many occasions when I get bored.

In most games the plants are obvious flat textures (especially when they are behind something you cant actually go through). Plants that you walk through are clearly added in on top of another flat texture.

I don't know the technical reasoning for this but I have always assumed it's because of lack of time for making it better as well as limitations of console hardware (because they haven't designed a big budget game around PCs in years). With MMOs they use interesting tricks like that so lower end PCs don't have to draw in more than they can handle.

Very few developers have actually made attempts to make game plants better. I think games like Farcry and Crysis were the first games where I noticed the foliage even really interacted with you on any level and even in those games it's not really there as the AI still sees you. So, as with everything in video games, you focus on one thing and another is worse for it.

It is interesting that even today flat textures tend to be used for plants.

Posted by seveword

I love it when as much craft and care goes into creating environments as it does characters or gameplay systems. Very nice read.

Posted by EarlessShrimp
Posted by Teoball

I often walk around looking at stuff like this in games too. Cool article.

Posted by Phantomjak

I love this story and I am glad that there is someone out there who is looking at the parts of video games that we take for granted. I know a lot of the games that I have played the experience has been ruined as I sneak through a bush only to find it is made up on flat images turned at different angles.

What always made me curious where the flora and fauna of MMO worlds. Why are there so many wild pigs running around? What are these spiders eating? How is there mold in a cave with no water in it?

There was a book series that I read ages ago that faced this problem. The Coldfire trilogy by C.S. Friedman has a character she wrote who tried to design an ecosystem in a forest to protect his lair. It was a an interesting look into how hard it is to create a world, or part of one, and not leave things out.

Posted by tclangham
Posted by BillyMaysRIP

plants are cool. video games are cool.

I like Far Cry 3 plants.

Edited by Feller13

You know there's a release drought when we get articles about a mad mans plant ramblings.

Posted by geirr

One of my pet peeves in games is how most trees lack roots, they're sculpted prims jammed into the ground. Plants irk me too when crappily made but I usually mostly get over these things if the game part is fun.

Online
Posted by Ronald

I like thatgamecompany's explanation for how the grass looks so good. They used all of the power of the PS3 to render each blade instead of using tricks. Of course, in most games they are too busy building the guns and muscles on muscles to worry about things like how the enemies are all the same or that those flowers are made out of cardboard.

Posted by TanookiSuit

Good read - but left out one crucial bit of information:

The bushes in Super Mario Brothers are a palette swap of the clouds!

Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

Neat article.

Posted by Glottery

Lovely read.

Posted by mrsmiley

Great little article. I am definitely one of those people who always pulls out a magnifying glass when it comes to video game foliage, water, textures, etc. The whole "cardboard cutout" method of creating foliage drives me nuts, particularly when it's used in "next-gen" PC games. I'm sure that, in my lifetime, we'll see water, foliage, and other natural elements that actually look and behave realistically, rather than just being a single gimmick in a game. ("We have the most realistic water!" "We have the most realistic grass!" etc)

Edited by Budwyzer

@enns said:

why

Why do people cut off their penises and share the pictures online, why do people believe in God, why do people ask stupid questions?

lol,, cracks me up that you compared believing in a deity to sharing pictures of a severed penis and asking stupid questions.

Edited by Trilogy

I'm not really sure what the intended focus of this article is, but I think about video game foliage from time to time. I've been playing AC4, and that game is full of tropical foliage. The first time I saw that early build of Dying Light, I was blown away by how realistic the foliage looked. I do get a little bummed when foliage looks like shit in a game, but it must be hard to get the movement of vegetation to look real, while also not having it hog up resources. I'm no developer, so that's just a guess.

Posted by Hazelnuttz

Love your articles, Patrick!

Posted by Evilsbane

plants are cool. video games are cool.

I like Far Cry 3 plants.

The Far Cry 3 plants are prettty good.

Edited by StealthRaptor

I visited his blog for a laugh and got sucked in! Great article.

Online
Edited by machinerebel

Oh man, I'm SO happy to see this article up. I love his tumblr. Such a weird thing to be interested in, but hey, someone has to pay attention!

Posted by gbrading

Dat foliage? *apologies*

Posted by Carlos1408

An intriguing article. It's provided some interesting insight into game development for me, particularly in the sense of how game developers might perceive games and their construction. It's fascinating how much the perception of a work can differ between its creators and its audience. For example, as a composer I have come to realize how differently I perceive music to a listener that doesn't partake in creating/writing music.

Posted by EuanDewar

i go mental for grass me

Posted by HellknightLeon

Nice to know people are still nuts.

Edited by PimblyCharles

@patrickklepek This is exactly the sort of material I like to see, read and think about on spare time. Been seeing these gaming "technical patterns" in much more than plants over the years. There's a true art in trying to replicate the natural structure of everything in nature in 2d texture work and corresponding 3d modeling/animation. That art lies in convincing the viewer this clearly abstract limitation is the real thing.

Posted by BasketSnake

Snake Eater has excellent videogame grass. Spiky, bends when you walk through it...you can hide it in. Yeah, great stuff.

Posted by The_Nubster

Ya, I've looked at the plants in games on many occasions when I get bored.

In most games the plants are obvious flat textures (especially when they are behind something you cant actually go through). Plants that you walk through are clearly added in on top of another flat texture.

I don't know the technical reasoning for this but I have always assumed it's because of lack of time for making it better as well as limitations of console hardware (because they haven't designed a big budget game around PCs in years). With MMOs they use interesting tricks like that so lower end PCs don't have to draw in more than they can handle.

Very few developers have actually made attempts to make game plants better. I think games like Farcry and Crysis were the first games where I noticed the foliage even really interacted with you on any level and even in those games it's not really there as the AI still sees you. So, as with everything in video games, you focus on one thing and another is worse for it.

It is interesting that even today flat textures tend to be used for plants.

Don't both Far Cry and Crysis (at least the second installment of both franchises) specifically have plant-based cover? I know Far Cry 3 had foliage that obscured enemy view, and I seem to remember it being almost a feature in Crytek games.

Edited by selbie

I've always thought there was never enough attention paid to landscapes in games. Some do, but others just make shit up and call it 'natural'.