A few projects have been as challenging or engaging for me as this modular game level pack. And I knew this from the very beginning, when I began to conceptualize this whole mess. Which is… why I procrastinated on it for an entire year. Don’t get me wrong, I am not the kind of procrastinator that sits around and does absolutely nothing, I just worked on every imaginable project BUT that one. I even did a Dieselpunk Santa Sleigh! But eventually I looped back around to “you gotta do this!”. At this point, I had been listening to these cool Japanese Horror podcasts by YouTuber Tara A. Devlin while I worked on other assorted stuff. I already liked Japanese culture, but these stories made me fall in love even deeper with it and that was what pushed me that final bit to start. And it started the way it always starts; Research.
Japanese Design Philosophy, For a Japanese Modular Game Level Pack.
One of the things that baffled me the most as I started reading about Japanese architecture and culture is how Japanese artistans, architects and artists meshed nature and living spaces together in a perfect harmony, it really is amazing to me how their design philosophies take into account the living world, rather than fighting it to deliver right angles and concoct new artificial substances to avoid using impermanent natural materials, liable to rot and decay. This was especially true during Edo period. Perhaps influenced by Shinto and Buddhist teachings, these makers incorporated nature itself into their creations, using only wood, leather and earth as building blocks, lending the final products a certain dignity, difficult to portray on screen. A certain smell, a certain weight and a certain look that is difficult to explain away as just “rustic” or “primitive”, which is what these items came to be known as, as soon as the industrial revolution kicked into full gear, and it is this essence I tried to portray in this project.
How it all came to be: Setting a time period
I knew I wanted to do something set smack-dab in the middle of Edo period Japan, but the Edo period comprises 250 years of history and not all of it was as thoroughly documented, so I decided to pick the part of it that was most likely to have photographic evidence; The end. And here’s where it got interesting. You see, one of the things that characterizes the Edo period was the isolationist policies taken by the Tokugawa shogunate, the family ruling Japan at the moment. At the end of this period, Japan was starting to loosen up with this isolationism, immigrants and trade were coming fast and steady to Japan through the Nagasaki port from the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal, so at the end of Edo, all the traditional items, furniture, architecture and building techniques were already tainted by western influence. Some might say tarnished. This was a blessing in disguise for me, however. I’m a western dude, living a western life. Look at my western pants! Have you seen my western house, full of western furniture and western utensils? You get the picture. This is a familiar territory for me and this played to my advantage when designing this modular game level pack. Sadly there was a thing I had to do first. A Shinto shrine outside the house. I didn’t speak much about it in the previous blog entry, when I posted it, but since we’re here…
The Shinto Shrine
One of the things most prevalent in Japanese horror stories is some creepy, overgrown Shinto shrine, probably infested with ghosts and spirits of all kinds. As previously stated, these shrines blend with nature, especially in the countryside, they don’t stand out too much, nor do they fight the environment. They’re surrounded by trees and grass, deer and other animals, and seeing them overgrown is perhaps not that uncommon. Although due the tidy nature of Japanese people these shrines are usually well maintained. Shinto shrines aren’t inherently haunted and they most definitely aren’t evil by nature, they are places of worship but they also are the traditional Japanese equivalent of a cemetery in horror stories. Culturally speaking, at least. Most of them don’t have burials, but their stone lanterns (Toro) rise up like headstones, lending them some of the same sinister atmosphere as western cemeteries. Meshed with tales of spirits, both, good and bad roaming these hallowed grounds. These Toro aren’t headstones, however. They are lanterns to light up the way at night. The specific ones I picked for this modular game level pack were Tachi-dōrō, stone pedestal lanterns, featuring the traditional Kasuga style, as does the Torii gate, painted in the traditional vermilion color, this gate marks the entrance to the shrine. The visual story telling with these set pieces is subtle: Chipped rock, old paint, mold and overgrown vegetation. It is clear these landmarks are being restored and maintained, but not as often as they should. Candles still burn inside the Toro, suggesting someone cleans them up and changes the candles from time to time.
As part of the religious paraphernalia, we also have Shimenawa ropes and paper amulets. These are used in Shinto religion to ward off evil spirits, I am not completely familiar with the correct usage, but they are often seen tied up around Torii gates or affixed to trees or rocks and that’s how I used them. As is the case with every Shinto shrine, the elements connect and entangle with the surrounding nature, and thus, there must be vegetation.
This part was harder than it seems. I am certainly no botanics expert, looking at a picture doesn’t tell me anything about the particular flora in it. So it took me a bit longer than I wanted to figure out which plant species would grow around these places. In fact, the smaller flora like weeds and bushes just ended up being inaccurately generic, yet, if I couldn’t tell, I doubt anyone else could. All this boils down to, is leaf shape and specific branching structure, as long as they are close enough, you won’t be able to tell unless you’re a botanist. I just couldn’t tell the smaller species apart at all by looking at the photos found online. This is why for the large flora, I had to be extra specific and accurate, because those are easier to spot. So, to make up for the inaccuracies with the smaller vegetation, these had to be closer-looking to their real-life counterparts. I picked Momiji (Japanese Maple), Kuromatsu (Black Pine), Sakura (Japanese Cherry) and of course, bamboo.
As a side [technical] note, one thing I have always hated of 3D trees is how the branches are all separate objects, stemming from a primary trunk object, as if they were nailed to it or built in a shop. I can’t even begin telling you how much of a pet peeve that is for me. I decided to make mine as a single object, all of the branches share a common normal group so their surface looks like free-flowing, organic, uninterrupted bark.
Sadly I couldn’t find detailed pictures of the branch structure or super-accurate textures for the bark and leaves of these very specific plant species. You’ll find mostly similar. But similar is not good enough, so most of it is improvised and extrapolated from photos found online and textures that came from different trees, modified by hand to look like the trees I am trying to portray, up to the bark texture, details and leaf shape. Some of them are complemented with complex texture node tree structures to build realistic bark in the thinner branch areas of the trees, while bitmaps were used for their trunks. And for a small foliage section in an asset pack, it’s so comprehensive that I ended up selling it separately as a foliage pack just because people liked it so much.
The stonework was another super-challenging bit. Aging it, making it dirty, moldy and overgrown was the easy part, the problem was to make it historical and region accurate. Each region has its own type of stone available to them, style of masonry and how builders bind these stones together. In this case, I had no idea whatsoever what’s the type of mortar or stone this was, so I settled for a white granite-like stone/limestone, laid in a cyclopean fashion. At this point it’s all speculation based on tourist pictures of the south of Japan, but I tried to, again, give it a visual narrative based on timelines; The stone work would be the oldest, so it’s consistent with feudal Japan stonework, stones are smoothed by erosion, cracked due to temperature changes, mossy and ancient-looking and historically-layered on top, there’s the Toro and Torii gates, closer to 1400-1500’s Japan, everything bound by endless fields of vegetation, collectively as old as the earth itself, but each individual plant no older than a couple of hundred years.
When I started this first stage, I knew I wanted a detailed Edo period home, and at this point wasn’t sure what style but most of my effort and work had already been expended on the exterior. I didn’t want to take more than a month per project so the building had to wait, but I couldn’t just leave this “pyramid” uncapped, even tho its production was nearing a month of work. I decided to make a simple building, just to make this a stand-alone asset pack.
The architecture for the exterior had to be modular, of course. Easy to snap together and versatile. Therefore, the list of usable architectonic styles from this era was somewhat narrowed down to a handful. I always liked the Japanese curved roofs and consciously decided to use greenish-dark ceramic tiles with brass accents. Despite my every wish to make this a lazy addition so I don’t leave the asset pack incomplete, it was taking me way longer than anticipated but nearing its end. The interior consisted in wood planks and tatami mats, the Shoji screen doors were generic at best, the plaster work, both, eroded and normal had no particular era nor specific style, it was simply “Traditional Japanese”, finished, but waiting to be replaced by its rightful successor.
Edo Period Japanese House Asset Pack.
After I finished the Shinto Shrine Asset pack I worked on a few different projects to avoid burn out and finally came back to the crown jewel of this Japanese-themed extravaganza after a couple of months. In the meantime I had learned a few things both, from the Shinto shrine pack and from subsequent works and I decided to apply these knowledge to the new project. For instance, in the building used in the Japanese temple model pack, I had used wood textures with specific sizes and ratios, this made it hard to make building blocks larger than 1.5 mts across, anything smaller would give away the block tiling, anything bigger would leave weird artifacts due to the internal texture tiling process to conform 1.5 mts textures to 2 and 4 meter assets, for example. Wood is tricky like that. It’s extremely hard to seamlessly tile and therefore physical textures had to be dropped.
Over the next few days I painstakingly worked on a texture node tree capable of reproducing realistic wood made from scratch. Building the basic wood grain first, next adding knots, adding a secondary wood grain structure, wood fiber texture and wood grain reliefs, each separate layer affecting underlying layers in its own way and contributing to the final look.
This artificial wood grain texture had the added benefit of being repetitive, yet random enough to pass as realistic. The keyword here, however, is repetitive. Being a recurring pattern there’s no wild variations to give away blending points, thus the tiling is smoother, on the other hand, being procedurally generated, the texture wraps perfectly around three-dimensional, organic shapes, because it acts as real wood, so even though it has a certain leftover artificial quality to it, as all procedural textures do, this wood-like property gives it a distinctive advantage over bitmaps, which is why I used this technique for every single wooden item in this project, of which there were many.
Convoluted Architecture and Cultural influences
In the last iteration the house was simple and had no distinctive architectural features, in this one it had to be defined, being that it is the centerpiece of the asset pack. This stylistic choice, however, had to be molded by game engine constraints and ease of building, so the modules could be stacked or otherwise repeated in different ways without destroying the illusion of continuity, for this reason, I decided to combine features from late Edo and early Meiji periods: Specifically, the traditional style and materials of Edo period, but the building techniques of Meiji period, which brought with it the industrial revolution. The building is still wood and plaster, but the timber cuts are refined, straight and smooth. There’s visible nails involved, too, which were uncommon in Edo period, as they used a technique called “Kugikakushi “, which means “hidden nails”, however they were commonplace during Meiji period.
And since we are talking about Meiji period, another thing that the Meiji period brought with itself is cultural exchange and immigration. Items such as western toilets and bathtubs, tea kettles, etc. are present around the house, contrasting with traditional fixtures like the Hibachi table or the space-saving Kaidan dansu. The former being a coal-fired stove table combo and the latter being a staircase with drawers, both traditional fixtures of ancient Japan.
I find it hilarious how the final product ended up looking almost identical to the original building, despite the fact that it was basically made from scratch using a completely different set of design philosophies than its predecessor (except for the roof, which was effectively re-purposed ’cause I liked it so much).
Another reason why I decided to go with this particular cultural and stylistic approach is because how much easier would it be to find photographic reference of the items; While a Hibachi table can be found all over the web, photographed from all angles and in all kinds of resolutions, more obscure utensils and items are harder to come by and usually available from a singular angle. Moreover, the fact that these traditional items are handcrafted an artisanally made, means that different artisans have different styles and come up with different shapes, making it difficult to find a set of pictures from all angles of a particular object, while industrially made objects have standarized shapes, meaning that even if it’s a kettle made by two different manufacturers, they still share features and it’s easier to extrapolate missing data from a set of pictures of seemingly different products, which is more difficult with other objects.
Visual Story Telling and Conclusion
As with every model I work on, this modular game level pack is not the exception. A lot of detail went into every model, but most of it is invisible: Burns on the Hibachi table, small chinks and scratches on walls and posts, a chipped/cracked stone surface, tiny tears on pristine surfaces, stains on cloth that’s supposed to be clean tell a story beyond what’s seen. They help convey that these are areas were lived in. Maybe by a clumsy person, maybe by someone who cleans and maintains these living spaces regularly, but is an imperfect human being.
All in all, I enjoyed working on this project a lot and learning all these things about a culture that is as complex as it is beautiful. The why’s and the how’s of every surface and item and all the history behind things as mundane as walls and railings or as exotic for us as coal-fired table-stoves and staircases with drawers in them but that are commonplace for the Japanese. No doubt I will continue researching this culture further and learning new things and when that knowledge pie is ready, I’ll make another one of these, but for now, I hope you enjoyed my brief essay on what I learned, I sure enjoyed sharing it with you.
You can view more pictures of this modular game level pack on THIS page, thanks for reading this far.