CryEngine & The British Library: 2013’s Unusual Team Up

The winning team presents their virtual map at GameCity
It’s October 2013 and I’m sitting in a large auditorium at the UK’s best games festival, GameCity, awaiting the reveal of the Off The Map competition. Student developers were given access to three different historic maps from The British Library as their inspiration: The Pyramids of Giza, Wiltshire’s Stonehenge, or London around the time of the Great Fire in 1666, allowing them to interpret the information into CryEngine scenery and architecture.

They’ve been working on their interpretations since January with support from the experienced Crytek team. I’m not sure what to think at this moment: earlier in the year I’d attended a GameCity Nights event where a Crytek employee found out I was that woman who was mean about Crysis 3, and there was slight awkwardness in the moment just before he hugged me really quite warmly. But as the teams’ 3D interpretations of their chosen British Library maps and illustrations are projected onto the stage in front, I begin to see something being connected up. They’d created a place where history and games could do more than just gouge each other for content or rudimentary education, but could become symbiotic places to preserve, excavate, explore.

The crowd awaits the verdict at GameCity

It’s no mere Time Team reconstruction, this Off The Map stuff, I say to myself as I sit there, stunned at the images. The CryEngine can do things other than render futuristic killmen. Off The Map’s three most potent ingredients, CryEngine technology, beautiful old British Library documents, and the talent of the participating teams are what made it one of my favourite collaborations of this year.

Often the GameCity festival focuses not on what games are doing, but what they aren’t doing. It provides a space for innovative, interesting, experimental things to be done by talented designers, artists and other diverse creators. Previously, GameCity has hosted collaborations between EA and the NHS, or Eric Chahi and a chef. The British Library and Crytek provided GameCity with the opportunity to do something different with a design competition.

Where the cats miaow
One of the illustrations supplied by the British Library: Stonehenge.

“For us it was about establishing a new platform in the festival to play around with and build on, to start new conversations about videogames with,” Iain Simons, the GameCity festival director explained. “Like most of the bits of the show, it’s about trying to make the best possible conditions for brilliant people to be brilliant in – so we were really hoping to be surprised by the entries, and we were. The best outcomes for me, were the different kinds of conversations it started. The British Library brings along a certain kind of discussion, obviously Crytek does the same, and the net result is a lot of different people having different kinds of discussions about video games and what they can do in the world.”

Tom Harper, Curator of Antiquarian Mapping at the British Library, gave a talk before he presented the award to the winning team on the project. In it, he emphasised that the modern differentiation between maps and art is a recent distinction. Speaking via email, he told me: “The difference is simply a question of degrees and until the late 18th century it didn’t exist at all. Military surveyors were as capable of producing a pretty picture as a large scale military map. The opportunity for immersion in an artificial landscape is incredible. The distinction between the two suddenly disappears with the videogame view or simulation. I personally believe that simulations are maps as much as views are, and I don’t think you’d find much disagreement generally about that. Even when you introduce a story or narrative there isn’t a problem, since maps contain stories too. They are just static.”

Hans Memling's Scenes from the Passion of Christ

Tom gave the example of Scenes from the Passion of Christ by mid 15th century painter Hans Memling (above) as an example of a virtual world that the eye could travel through to create narrative, one that existed well before video games started plotting out their fanciful art. “Firstly, it is another virtual landscape (a map!), secondly, it has a narrative embedded in the landscape – that of Christ’s passion and death. Moving your eye from one scene to another, surely you are creating the idea of movement? I know this is obvious, so apologies. But I guess what I am saying is that the relationship between types of representations is very very strong and instead of trying to distinguish, we’d be far better doing the opposite.”

But Tom is not ignorant of the power of games to create imagery just as powerful as some of the antiquarian maps he curates. Speaking at GameCity he told us: “SimCity will go down as one of the great ‘maps’ of the 20th century – in fact I say so in my book, ‘100 maps of the Twentieth Century’, to be published Autumn 2014.

One of the great maps of the 20th Century

“It is of its time, absolutely, undeniably and brilliantly. And it has fashioned the world view – through maps, 3d perspective views, information expressed geographically – of a whole generation of European and North Americans. The video game environment may have reflected much of their makers but subjectiveness is to be expected with the creation of any virtual world. …The player begins with a blank canvas: some grassy ground, some trees and a river on which to develop a city from scratch. Now, one might suppose from the idea of creating a city from scratch, the grid pattern development, or even the idea of undeveloped land as somehow a blank canvas, that the maker of the game was American in origin.”

But what of the outcomes of this amazing project? How did the teams fare? Runners up to the competition Team Faeriefire, five students from Newport University, interpreted Stonehenge as an ethereal, dreamlike place in Cryengine, as evidenced by their bright, bold artwork.

Where the cats miaow 2

Runner up team Asset Monkeys also took Stonehenge as inspiration, but burrowed deep below it to create eerie catacombs.

But the winners of the competition, six students studying Game Art Design from De Montfort University who formed Pudding Lane Productions, looked very closely at the maps of London around the time of the Great Fire. Working from Claes Janszoon Visscher’s London, 1616 and Wenceslaus Hollar’s London, 1666, they did a very detailed breakdown of how they imagined the streets and buildings of the city to look and feel. A section from Claes Janszoon Visscher’s London is below.

Visscher's London, 1616

It was an unexpected joy to be rendered silent by what the team had produced.

“They used [the given maps] as a way into the period and the place,” Tom Harper said. “They got a feel for it. They then went out exploring primary and secondary sources to detail their virtual maps.”

In fact Pudding Lane Productions did much more research than just looking at the maps: they went to visit The Shambles in York to get a real sense of 17th century architecture. “We got a real sense of just how tightly packed the streets of 17th Century London would have been,” team member Joe Dempsey wrote in March. “At some points on The Shambles street you could literally outstretch your arms and touch the buildings on opposite sides of the street, the tops of buildings were actually inches from touching.”

From Pudding Lane’s development blogs, some interesting problems arose. One was that houses from the period were not all of a regular shape and size, and many streets were winding and irregular, and so modular buildings had to be made. Another problem that the team encountered towards the end of their project was that a lot of streets began to look the same, and so team member Chelsea Lindsay began making props for the map. Joe explained on their blog in April, “Whilst it has been my job throughout the project to plan and produce concepts for Pudding Lane I was happy to take on the important job of designing and building the model for Farriner’s (or Faynor) bakery which is located on Pudding Lane. The bakery bears some significance to our project for a number of reasons, first of all our teams name ‘Pudding Lane Productions’ and the fact that our level has expanded outwards from Pudding Lane. As well as this Thomas Farriner was actually the Kings appointed baker, but most importantly Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane is the location in which the Great Fire of London is said to [have] started.”

The extraordinary amount of research undertaken for the project is obvious from the blog: even tavern signs were taken from documented evidence of the period.

The winners, Pudding Lane Productions, and organisers, Keith Stuart of The Guardian, Crytek, and Tom Harper of the British Library

I asked Tom Harper if the abilities of the developers and CryEngine had impressed him. “Amazed,” he said. “I’m certainly not a gamer – though I have tried Proteus! – so I was really impressed with how illusionistic and immersive the experience can be. Yes there’s a screen, just like there is a piece of paper. But the degree to which the technology was able to break that barrier was really subtle. The Cryengine is clearly a very powerful tool. I think Pudding Lane were pretty good as well. I know Scott from Crytek was pretty blown away by their skill. Where does their skill stop and the beauty of the Cryengine start?”

Is this use of sophisticated technology to recreate historical locations becoming more commonplace? “Certainly the heritage sector are using it,” Tom said, “though in a moderately superficial way. Certainly one can make extraordinary connections by placing things together and animating, in order to compare them. Our Georeferencer project – where old and new maps are matched up and overlaid, does that to an extent. We have an incredible amount of documentary evidence – photos, maps, views – of our urban spaces over 500 years – in the British Library. Getting this material into digital form, so that it can be used, recreated, animated in ways similar to Pudding Lane, is one of our major goals.”

Pudding Lane Productions' award winning work

The GameCity competition will return in January. Meanwhile, you can gaze at the entrancing details of Pudding Lane’s work here. Someone employ them. They were my favourite developers of 2013.


Top comments

  1. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Also please do more interviews with ducks.
  1. Lemming says:

    I started watching that Pudding Lane video thinking ‘Shambles, York’, then read further down they used it as a source. Good to see! York is a wonderful city.

  2. Kirrus says:

    Might be interesting to see what can be done, pulling data from the british library, and artifacts from the british museam, to make a game.

  3. Zekiel says:

    Wow. I want to live there.

    Can we have a game in this city please?

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      Yes, please! An adventure game would be nice. (Either with the PC or the console definition of the term – I’m not that picky.)

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Or perhaps a stealth game? Or an adventure game with stealth elements!

    • TomSchaffer says:

      A game would be fine of course, but for starters: just releasing it as a 3d environment would be great.

  4. Smashbox says:

    I really love project like this – these multimillion dollar real time 3d engines certainly have wide applications outside of commercial video games.

    It’s sad to see it in a theater setting though – they should just render it in Max at that point or let people explore it themselves.

  5. Orija says:

    See, Cara, you can write decent articles too when you decide to write about the topic rather than yourself.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      You’re right! For this article I didn’t write about myself and my thoughts on the importance of the project. Instead I expressed the personal opinions of the Off The Map project from the perspective of a small frog named Bert. Bert decided when he attended the event that he thought this project was amazing! Bert was also quite moved by the outcomes of the project, and Bert directed the questions he asked Gamecity and Mr Harper from his own personal froggy feelings on the topic. Bert is receiving all profits from the commission on this article.

      • Ich Will says:

        I like Bert, may we hear more about his adventures of trying to be like a real human in your future, consistently excellent articles?

        • Cara Ellison says:

          I asked Bert if it was okay. He said he’s okay about me writing more from his perspective but only if I get him an interview with the Christmas Duck from Gone Home. (He’s a fan. )

          • Ich Will says:

            Bert Fan Fiction
            (The following is not Canon)

            Bert sat on the bench and watched the shop through furrowed brows. He was confused. Everyone knew serious writers were at their best when sipping a frappachino in Costa using the latest Macbook Air. Bert had ordering coffee down to a tee. After experimenting with soya milk, he had decided his skin looked better for it. Surely after the trials and tribulations of Medio vs Massimo how difficult could ordering a computer be? Yet there was the shop and still Bert could not figure it out. God like beings shimmered around the space in their blue robes, tapping devices that were surely from the future. They seemed to obey the manager known as Siri without question, but no actual sales seemed to be taking place.

            Bert had conquered Argos, he had “won” at the worlds most miserable bingo game. Yet this was something else. There were products on display, the blue robes buzzed around them attentively as the shopping public appeared for all intents and purposes to debate them on the finer aspects of the UI, whatever that meant. And even though people regularly left the shop clutching minimalist paper bags stuffed full of electronic equipment, no sales seemed to take place. There were no tills and there were no price tags. In fact, the beings seemed positively allergic to cash. One man walking past the front of the shop pulled out his wallet to count his change, the servants of Siri shied away like oil from detergent.

            Bert sighed and shook his head. It seemed he would not become a great writer today, time to medicate the rapidly approaching headache. He hopped back home determined to enter the store tomorrow, maybe wearing sunglasses.

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            Bert the Frog FanFic? Who knows what else this will *COUGH* spawn

          • SominiTheCommenter says:

            Curse you, Ich Will!
            Bert would never use an Apple product, he’s a die-hard Linux user. He doesn’t even use any graphical program, only vim.

          • christmas duck says:

            I’m afraid I am a deeply private individual.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Also please do more interviews with ducks.

        • CookPassBabtridge says:

          Just don’t take them to a restaurant. You’ll end up with a massive bill.

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            Well, shoot. Some days a man just can’t start a pun thread.

    • Lemming says:

      No such hope for your comments though, clearly.

  6. DanMan says:

    Reminds me of Fable or The Witcher. But then again, I can’t tell the difference between old architecture over here, and old architecture over there.

  7. LegendaryTeeth says:

    Oculus. Rift.

  8. kwyjibo says:

    This is way more of a game than Dear Esther, I wonder what score PC Gamer will give it, at least 80% I bet.

    • kwyjibo says:

      “I’m certainly not a gamer – though I have tried Proteus!”

      • Smashbox says:

        I suppose if you spend enough time with game art nerds …

    • tormos says:

      I would give it 5 cinematics out of 5 in the being a game category but only 4 cinematics out of 5 in the making roger ebert cry category. All told that’s a 9/10, so the game has been critically panned.

  9. Hahaha says:

    “100 maps of the Twentieth Century’, to be published Autumn 2014.”

    Is this the new way RPS are doing ads now.

    • kwyjibo says:

      This sounds like the greatest expansion pack of all time, or the kind of once in a print run cover disk that you actually keep.

      HIPDM1, Facing Worlds, de_dust…