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“It started with nothing.  Literally nothing.”

Last week’s lecture, titled “Cave Paintings and Video Games,” featured Media and Communications instructor Cullen Thomas sharing his experience with his latest project: creating his first video game.  Known as a filmmaker and writer, Cullen has been working on this project for the last three years, during which he has learned about the art and physics needed to create a virtual world from scratch.

He explained the initial process: “We had to learn the math behind light in order to create light in a 3D environment.”  Then, when he wanted to create people, the thought process became, “now we need to invent physics.”  Once the laws of physics are established, “we decide when we want to ignore them.  Because we are the gods of this universe.”

The program Cullen uses is the Unreal Engine 4, and he showed us how, once a variable has been created, he can modify that variable.  He introduced the principles of light and color he has learned and showed us how they can be manipulated.  For example, a cave painting of an animal on a wall can be interchanged with a painting of a hand.  Or the light intensity of the object can increase or decrease.  


A student from the audience tries out the game

Cullen’s game is a character-driven platform puzzle game, with the concept that all the magic has been stolen from the world and put into a tower.  “It’s about figuring out how your environment works” with the objective of progressing through rooms and climbing the tower.  “The whole aesthetic is inspired very much by cave paintings.  As you go up the tower it goes forward in time.  As it does that, the art that decorates the walls will do that as well.  It has themes of personal development and evolution.”

He talked about trends in video games and how he hopes to contribute something different:  His game is about “problem solving your way to a better future rather than punching your way.  You don’t have to murder to level up.”

With video games, Cullen says we are still making B movies.  “Where’s Gone With the Wind?  Where is the great literature of video games?  It hasn’t been made yet.”  One possible explanation: “even the best video games are still very much marketed at adolescent men.”

While the idea of starting with nothing and creating an entire reality definitely sounds daunting, Cullen talked us through the process with an inspiring message: “You have to start — even though when you start, it’s nothing.  Each step after that becomes something automatically.”  He commented on his artistic background, “I don’t consider myself an artist. But I had to learn to do art-like things.”

He also said that these days it’s easier than ever to make a game.  There are free engines like the Unreal and Unity engines, so “you can get started doing something like this.”  And although it’s been a long process of learning, “at every phase is discovery.  You have to invent the whole universe.  Which is awesome.”

In response to questions from the audience, Cullen gave some tips to art and media students who are interested in entering the video game industry.  Regarding the industry’s employability, he said, “This is a great place to find work.  If you’re into texture work or if you’re into character drawing — they’re always looking for artists.”

Cullen has been working on his game for 3 years and hopes to have a marketable product by summer 2016.