Musical Interlude

The complete title of the novel I’m working with is The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. Really long titles were a thing back in the day. As the full version of the title indicates, there are actually two plot lines developed in the text, one about Tomcat Murr and the other about Johannes Kreisler, who is a musician (Kapellmeister = ‘musical director’). Because this is his profession and because music plays a central role in the novel, it seems fitting that virtual-Kreisler should have an instrument. In the novel, he has a “guitar” made in 1532, which is interesting, since the history of the development of the guitar suggests that it may be a bit of an anachronism. There most certainly were hollow, stringed instruments around at that time, but the most popular one was called a vihuela. I have taken the artistic license to model my virtual instrument after the ‘baroque guitar,’ which was developed in the following century; this comes close to the age of the fictional guitar and preserves the detail that it significantly predates the period in which the novel takes place. In addition, the aesthetics of the baroque guitar – its long, sleek shape and sophisticated design – seemed to fit Kreisler’s serious commitment to his art as well as the Romantic atmosphere of the novel.

I modeled the guitar in Blender using the image that would later be mapped onto it as a guide.

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Then, I made a UV map and fitted it to the texture images, which I had assembled in GIMP. Here is the completed mesh after being imported into Unity:

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Humongous guitar sticking out of a building … it must be downtown Nashville

Interesting things happen when you first drag in a new mesh.

Please do not strum actual guitars with a wrench.

Please do not strum actual guitars with a wrench.

The image of the guitar body is from a photo of a reproduction made by Sebastian Nunez & Veronica Estevez in 2004. I found this lovely image on and they kindly allowed me to use it. The site has several mp3 samples that give an idea of what a baroque guitar sounds like.


Emergent Houses / Emergent Gameplay

The landscape in Sieghartsweiler is still undergoing some modifications, and will probably continue to do so, but the basics are mostly taken care of. Over the past couple of weeks, the houses have been my first priority. Due to the limited availability of suitable pre-made object meshes in the Asset Store, I realized that I would need to be able to make my own. Thus I needed to learn how to do 3D modeling in Blender. (There are other options, but Blender has the decisive advantage of being free.) After a series of YouTube tutorials, a good deal of experimentation, and transient bouts of frustration, I managed to build and import several meshes that will become the houses.

Here are my house meshes in Blender, before importing to Unity. I built them all in the same file so that the scale would match exactly, but then saved each piece in a separate file in order to simplify the importing and texturing processes.

Here are my house meshes in Blender, before importing to Unity. I built them all in the same file so that the scale would match exactly, but then saved each piece in a separate file in order to simplify the importing and texturing processes.

The house meshes are modular so that I can vary them in Unity by adding different textures and different numbers of storeys. So far, I have only placed a couple in the landscape as an initial test. One extremely helpful thing that I did find in the Asset Store was an “18th century doors and windows” pack. I stuck one of each onto one of my houses, again just as a test – these required a fair amount of scale adjustment in order to be human-sized.

Because of their modularity, it's easy to vary the color of the stucco. The guy in the yellow hard hat is for scale testing purposes, not a stray member of the Village People.

Because of the houses’ modularity, it’s easy to vary the color of the stucco. The guy in the yellow hard hat is for scale testing purposes, not a stray member of the Village People.

I’m a little concerned that my birch trees aren’t rendering in very much detail in the background – have my models got too many polygons already? Are my specular textures too complex? I guess we’ll find out as I continue to build.

As I inch closer to the point at which I will be making more decisions about gameplay mechanics and fewer about appearances, I have been pondering the issue of emergent gameplay, particularly as formulated by the ludologist Jesper Juul:

[…] most computer games are the combination of two different ways of presenting the player with a challenge, one which I will term emergence (simple rules combining, leading to variation) and one of progression (serially introduced challenges).(1)

As I develop quests for this game adaptation, I will have to consider how to balance these forms of interaction. The implementation of these gameplay dynamics will have a significant impact on what the players can potentially learn through the game. It would seem that progressive play gives the game designer much more control over the narrative arc of the game. As theorists have widely noted, emergent gameplay is often distinctly separate from the narrative elements of video games. Narrative is often presented through cut screens or other devices which offer little or no player interactivity and occur “in between” episodes of gameplay, such as at the beginning or end of levels or other markers of progress. On the other hand, one of the most appealing aspects of games is their very interactivity, such that too-severe limits on emergence could compromise the effectiveness of a game. I have been wondering about possibilities for integrating both emergent and progressive elements: Would it be better? In what situations? Is it even possible?

This is something I’ll have to keep thinking about, but for now, it’s time to start building some humanoid meshes!


German Romanticism, Waterfalls, and Birch Trees

In my CSLS project, I have decided to focus on the Romantic novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann (commonly known as the author of The Sandman). I will be using Unity 3D to create a video game based on selected scenes that could function as one part of a course on German Classicism and Romanticism. I already have several ideas about how I would develop a syllabus around this, which I plan to discuss further in a future post.

Hoffmann’s novel takes place in a tiny (fictitious) town called Sieghartsweiler, which must be located somewhere in southern Bavaria. I assume this because the characters mention that they can see in the distance a (real) mountain called the “Geierstein,” which is located on the border with Austria in the Bavarian Alps.

The initial challenges mostly involve learning how to use the software. Shaping the landscape into hills gave me some limited familiarity with the toolbars and commands, but the real progress started when I had to build waterfalls. Lots of them. And why would I do that? Well, when you place water in Unity – in my case, so that I can have a stream running through Sieghartsweiler – it exists as a flat plane. So if you need to change elevation, which I most certainly do, since the stream flows downhill, you have to do something so that your two planes of “water” are connected. Otherwise, there will be edges of water planes poking out awkwardly in mid-air.

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Here, I’ve hidden a drop of about a meter and a half using a combination of rocks, grass, and a “water particle generator.” The latter isn’t readily visible in this image, but it shows up in gameplay mode.

The next major undertaking was to populate Sieghartsweiler with trees. The novel mentions birch trees by name, and photos from this region confirm that tall, straight, spindly trees are the norm here. Unfortunately, none of the free tree assets from the Unity store fits this description; on the other hand, this compelled me to learn how to use Unity’s built-in tree creator, as well as how to paint and import textures and materials for the bark and leaves. I made three different versions, so that there would be variety, and then used the nifty “mass place trees” tool to rapidly stick several thousand trees in my scene.

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Here’s the empty scene where I built my tree prefabs. The little red and yellow thing is a humanoid figure that I placed as a scale reference.

The only problem was that there were then trees growing in the water, so I had to go back and erase those. Although Hoffmann’s writings are full of bizarre and uncanny elements, there’s no mention of lake-trees.

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Lake. No trees.

The next step will be buildings, at which point the landscape will really start to look like it “belongs” to the novel. I’ll keep you posted!

Introducing Myself

I’m Rebecca Panter, a seventh-year in the German department and CSLS Graduate Student Affiliate for 2014–2015. My first experiences with teaching were as an English Teaching Assistant at a vocational school in Germany, where, among other things, I taught a conversation course to a group of high school students learning to be carpenters. In the years since this introduction to pedagogy, I have gone on to teach all of the beginner and intermediate German language courses at Vanderbilt, some of them multiple times.

A recurring feature in my classroom teaching is the use of games or game-like activities for language instruction. Uncertain outcomes, goal-orientedness, and a degree of competition bring elements of suspense and fun into the activities. One of my aims as a teacher is to facilitate an energetic atmosphere in class that encourages everyone to show their most talkative side.

As a language instructor, I see my role as more than just a conductor of exercises. I believe that students learn best when they can form an emotional connection to what they are learning, so I strive to create situations that involve, for example, curiosity, suspense, humor, or surprise. In the attempt to realize this goal, I am continually looking for ways to incorporate narrative into my classes – be it in the form of literature, film, other media, or student-generated narratives. In the past, I have also enjoyed experimenting with using social media such as YouTube and Twitter for class assignments. At the moment, I am hoping to combine three of my fascinations – narrative, games, and technology – by using the game engine Unity 3D to build a virtual world based on a literary text.

I look forward to blogging more on this topic as my project develops!