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Generative Video Game Puts You Inside Mind-Bending Art Galleries

Procedurally-generated art galleries are the setting for Secret Habitat, Strangethink's latest psychedelic exploration video game.

This past July, the anonymous, experimental video game designer, Strangethink, unleashed the glitched-out Error City Tourist, a game in which players drift through a world of hyper-colored skies, clouds, and geometric structures while encountering baddies that look like robotic cows. Created as part of Game Jolt's Glitch Jam, the game served as a break in Strangethink's ongoing projects.

The first of these endeavors, Electric Pilgrim, is a game that will feature discarded electronic items used in weird monastic rituals. The other, Goodbye Solid Ground, will find players living on a spaceship rescuing alien cats from a “mysterious cataclysm.” In the intervening months, Strangethink has finished neither of these projects. Instead, he's had his energy focused on creating something altogether more conceptually mind-bending:

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His latest work, Secret Habitat, which takes place in what he calls, “an almost entirely procedurally-generated world consisting of hundreds of alien galleries containing thousands of pieces of computer generated art, music and poetry,” debuts today. In signature Strangethink fashion, the exterior colors are vibrant pastels and neons, and the space a combination of three-dimensional structures and flatter, with 2D objects like white trees and blades of grass. From within the game's galleries, players can look out at the exterior environment through glass suffused by soft refraction.

The generative art that viewers can find in Secret Habitat's galleries features the organic crossover of real world imagery, replete with hilariously-automated titles like “Nut Job,” “Ant Scream,” and “Brass Sex.” Among the best is “Position Spoon,” with its luminous algorithmic shapes looking strikingly different from the gallery interior and exterior. Also notable are “Push Pocket,” which features hypnotizing parallel veins of rainbow colors that intersect and melt down in static glitch; and “Right Arch,” a work that features similar generative effects.

In addition to the art, each Secret Habitat gallery contains reading machines that spit out poetry and, in a relatively new process for Strangethink, tape machines full of generative music. When players walk into a gallery, they can look for a music terminal and turn it on, then walk around to experience algorithmic art with the generative music as its background. Strangethink was interested in the ways in which atmospheric music can influence how players perceive and interact with the game's visual art.

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“This ritual seems to make things feel so much more real, like when people come home and turn the television on then go and look in the kitchen for something to eat,” Strangethink told The Creators Project. “With the music being procedurally-generated, it varies wildly in tone and musicality. The same piece of artwork is interpreted differently depending on whether there is a pleasing melody in the background or a low rhythmic hum, or harsh noise.”

Strangethink doesn't want to reveal any spoilers but he promised that, submersed throughout this sea of art, music, and poetry, the game still has a story. “Amid all this random creation there are handmade clues and instructions which when spotted will guide the player towards discovering the secrets of the artificial world,” he said.

He explained that the game's basic code was begun as an entry into Procedural Generation Jam 2014, “a game jam about making stuff that makes other stuff.” As with Error City Tourist, the program and idea—designed on the Unity 3D platform—quickly grew into something more substantial.

“The thing that interests me most about computer games at the moment is simply the space the player exists in and how they respond and move around that space,” he added. “I want to almost overwhelm the player with space and objects, [and] I want them to be able to move around a space led only by their curiosity and read a space on their own terms rather than construct a space that tries to manipulate them.”

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Strangethink said that this is a reaction against AAA video games that are “heavily stage-managed” to the point that they feel like theme park rides. He doesn't deny that these experiences can be beautiful, but for him they still feel fake.

“[It's] like the set of a film that exists only to serve one camera move,” he said. “When I walk through a world like that I can't help but hear the voices of the designers coaxing me along the path they have planned.”

A purely generative world like Secret Habit, on the other hand, seems more “wild and fagile” to Strangethink. When he happens upon a courtyard or other environment, he understands that it likely never existed until that very moment, and may never exist again.

“Even better, there can be rare coincidences of numbers and space that the programmer never expected and never saw happen because the chances are too slight,” he said. “A pile of rocks in the middle of a building, stairways leaving one building and entering the window of another, a level of a building with no stairs but maybe you can climb over the roof and jump onto a balcony.”

Strangethink's Secret Habit places the player directly in this generated world. He insists it's not a generated world pretending to be real, but a generated world in reality, created when you run the program and interpret the game's storyline.

“I didn't want to require much suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, or want them to have to put themselves in the position of the person in the game,” he said. “This is a generated world and I want them to react to it like it's a generated world. I think that mindset breeds an interesting type of curiosity, which is something I am very interested in.”

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