The Homeless Gods

The Homeless Gods is an interactive, 3D city map of a mythological city, New Eridu. This interface draws its inspiration from adventure games such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.

Users are invited to “visit” this city by clicking on one of ten locations. Each location is features an individual Flash poem, an animated black and white scene which users can interact with to read either textual fragments or complete poems.

This project was assisted by the Australian Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

The work is very much collaborative at its heart, though the original concept is entirely my own.

Visit The Homeless Gods now.

Credits

  • James Stuart – Director, Producer & Writer
  • Karen Chen – Artist & Animator
  • Guillaume Potard – Sound Designer

The project ran from March 2006 to September 2007.

About

Mythology

The mythological structure of underpinning this workis simple: when a civilisation falls, so too do its gods. They become mortal and are forced to eek out an existence as mortals at the edge of memory. New Eridu is one such site. Here, the fallen gods of Mesopotamia reside.

I chose to draw upon ancient Mesopotamian mythology as the central focus for this piece for a number of reasons:

  • Humankind’s first civilisation
  • Emergence of the world’s first written language – cuneiform
  • Stunning epic literature and mythology
  • Issues of cultural loss related to present day looting and destruction of archaeological sites and artefacts in Iraq, following the 2003 invasion

Visual language

I briefed Karen Chen to develop artwork based on German expressionist art, especially woodblock prints.I choseto use this visual language because it was bold, evocative and gritty. It also corresponds to a particularly bleak, but poetic, post-World-War-I Germany world-view, one that suited my vision of society at the fringes of existence. At a more pragmatic level,I felt this was also an art form that could be more easily replicated in vector-based environment such as Flash.

[Gallery: Concept sketches for Flash poem artwork]

Research

Every aspect of this project is based upon extensive, cross-disciplinary research.

Research into Mesopotamian mythology, literature, culture and history were essential to the development of this work. I wanted to create a poem-world that embraced this rich literary and cultural legacy in an authentic and informed way. This research is summarised in the project’s bibliography (http://thehomelessgods.net/sources.html).

The other key research area was architectural, informing the urban design of New Eridu. A key publication in this regard was Bernard Rudofsky’sArchitecture Without Architects(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964), which centred on cross-cultural examples of “organic” architecture that had evolved in response to specific environmental conditions.

This research drew the focus of the project away from its roots in fantasy fiction.

Process

Map interface

After research had been completed, Chen and I spent some months developing the map. This was an iterative process built up from an initial city plan and ending with the final animated Flash map.

[Gallery: 3D map interface, concept development]

Flash poem development

I began all Flash poems with a storyboard that outlined both the scene as well as the desired interactivity, textual content and animation. This was refined in collaboration with Chen. First an artwork was developed. The actual writing of the poems formed the final stage.

[Gallery: Sample storyboards for poem development]

Soundscape development

The soundscapes were the final component of this project, created over the course of several “hands-on” sessions with Guillaume Potard. I would explain the poems, including the desired mood, and he would gradually build up sound layers.

Project Self-Assessment

Despite the many achievements of the project – and the exhaustive research underpinning it – I have always felt this work has not reached its full potential.

The following table determines where these shortfalls may have occurred, while also emphasising the project’s strengths.

Material Basis Material Expression Language-object (materialism)
Terrain (primary) Landing site opportunities Outcomes
  • Subvertpoetry through adventure game genre crossover

Realised

  • Poetry “book” as 3D, navigable map interface
  • Poems hold the key to visiting each location
  • Self-contained “virtual world” with its own mythological structure and urban design

Absent landing sites

  • Goal, rewards
  • Narrative drive
  • Puzzles
  • Web 2.0 interactivity (user-developed content

Actual

  • Gradual unfolding of the city as poem
  • Detailed, immersive world
  • Cohesive visual style and soundscaping help convey meaning

Desired

  • Incentive for users to return/revisit
  • Depth to interface/”game” play
  • Textual interface that is more media-specific
  • Research into Mesopotamian culture, mythology and history
  • Poetry, artwork and soundscapes engaged with issues of cultural loss

Realised

  • Appropriation of source text literary devices
  • Actual cultural artefacts used within artwork
  • Artwork, urban design and poetry underpinned by direct references to source material

Absent landing sites:

  • Cross-references to other sources
  • Transparency regarding research and project development processes

Actual

  • Poetic reinterpretations of ancient Mesopotamian texts
  • References to and reworking of cultural artefacts through poems, artworks and ancillary texts on website and within Flash animation

Desired

  • Inter-disciplinary context
  • In-depth background on research and development processes

The material basis of this work had two clear currents: first, the desire to subvert the poetry genrethrough its blending with the adventure game and fantasy fiction genres; second, a close affinity to a strong grounding in historical research and an engagement with issues surrounding the effacement of civilisations throughout history.

In relation to the poem-game crossover there are number of clear opportunities that were not pursued and which have resulted in the final artwork being caught “in between” genres, rather than comfortably inhabiting both. These relate to some of the key aspects of adventure game gameplay (eg puzzles or quests) that immerse a user in the world as well as a reliance upon poetry that could easily be replicated in a codex format. As a result, while there is a cohesive artistic style and self-contained virtual world, the desired user experience has not quite been achieved, at least in The Homeless Gods’ current online environment.

An immediate reaction might be to examine ways to integrate missing “gaming” elements into the work. However, another option appears when we consider the inter-disciplinary nature of the piece.

At the outset of the project I did not envisage spending anywhere near as much time conducting research into ancient Mesopotamia and architectural design as I did. Nor had I realised how detailed a process developing an “authentic” world would be. I had hoped to create a piece that was far more engaged with a fantasy fiction world, akin to that of The American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

While I feel as though the poetry and artwork all conspire to deliver the desired authenticity, the project became very much inter-disciplinary at its core. It is as much rooted in the field of ancient history and literature as it was in that of contemporary poetry. Failure to explicitly sexplore and acknowledge this crossover lessens its impact.

Through this self-assessment I am able to conclude that the issue with The Homeless Gods is not the work itself but the context in which it is embedded. Based on the material basis driving the project (and which was different to that which I initially envisaged) it is not the material expression that is called into question but its context as a language object.

My conclusions for the piece’s next evolution are thus:

  1. To more clearly integrate the creative substance of the project with its associated research fields, possibly through association with a museum collection
  2. To explore opportunities for large, screen-based installation as part of a gallery/museum exhibition, drawing on the immersive and interactive qualities of the work while eschewing its shortcomings as a “game”.



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