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The Bestest Best WHAT Of 2014: Secret Habitat

Procedural Paintings

Secret Habitat is an artgame. Its procedurally generated islands are full of procedurally generated paintings, which have been created by (unseen) procedurally generated painters. Fascinating and fulfilling, it is without a doubt the Bestest Best WHAT of the year. Adam, Alice, Graham and Pip donned their finest berets and sat down in a procedurally generated Parisian cafe to discuss.


Alice: I'll just fetch my pipe and pour a glass of port. I saw this painting and thought of you:

Adam: I submit to you a painting that I believe to be the worst in the history of the world. A painting that is the crowning achievement in a career of spraying shite onto canvas. I give you 'Chest Nose'.

Adam: It's the sequel to the artist's earlier work, 'Village Respect'.

Adam: I hate that guy. I hate him so much.

Alice: Isn't this a pop art exhibition - a collection of advertising materials framed? I assume Chest Nose is for Lemsip, a still from an animation of phlegm.

Graham: This one reminded of both of you.

Graham: That's why I called it alice.jpg.

Adam: Ah! Because of the imagery, like raindrops on a neon-lit city street? Because it reminds you of the thrilling dark heart of the night?



Alice: Normally I'd be puzzled, but I feel I understand where you're coming from now I've studied Man Feeling.

Adam: So - who made all of this art? Where does it come from? Who are the artists?

Alice: A computer did, Adam! A computer did all of it! The picture, the gallery, the wallpaper, the whole chuffing island - a computer invented all of it because Strangethink Software whispered special inspirational messages into its ear.

Adam: Incredible! I didn't even know computers could use bristly art brushes. But wait - they can't, can they? This is some clever coding thing.

Graham: Alice, your comments are very arch. Do you perhaps come from the...

Alice: Is this joke getting a little worn out? Maybe we need some...

Adam: These are pictures from the procedural art galleries of Secret Habitat. Which, as Alice quite rightly states, is a computer program created by Strangethink Software's tender whispers.

Pip enters, stage left.

Pip: Am I allowed in?

Adam: Oh god. Pip's here now.


Adam: No! I was embarrassed because you walked in during a conversation conducted almost entirely in the form of pictures with mildly insulting titles. Will you write actual words for me to reply to?

Graham: I'll write stuff too! You are all of my favourite people to be...

Adam: Sit down.

Graham: Cor, that's a clever algorithm.

Adam: Ha ha - that's actually a photograph taken by famous cinematographic artist Vinnie Van Gogo.

Pip: I just jumped out of a gallery window rather than listen to the sound installation a moment longer

Alice: I really like the sound installations, but I once got told off by a hospital technician for grooving to the sounds of an MRI scan.

Pip: Some of the sound installations are interesting, some are window candidates.

Adam: Pip and Alice are talking about the game Secret Habitat there. It has sound installations as well as procedurally generated pictures.

Alice: The paintings aren't just from the procedural art galleries, they're from the procedural artists exhibiting in the procedural art galleries. Each floor of each gallery is dedicated to one artgorithm. That's a word. So while we're cherry-picking the best insults (those names are procedural too, of course), these will all be surrounded by works with similar motifs - colours, styles, patterns - and it's all very splendid.

Adam: Yes, procedural artists, not just procedural art - which is why I have found myself snootily dismissing some artists and pondering the work of others with hand on chin. Some of them really are producing absolute tosh.

Pip: If I launch the game again will I get a new set of artists or artgorithms or whatnot?

Alice: Yep, the whole island's new each time as far as I've seen. I've been so delighted by finding galleries containing one single, wonderful painting. That's all I'll get from that artgorithm.

Graham: Aye. Each island has quite a lot of galleries on it too, and there's surprising variety. Like, I've never seen anything like Adam's most hated procedural paintings.

Alice: A hundred or so galleries, I think.

Adam: I was about to say the same thing about the single paintings, Alice - the artists who have just one or two pieces are such treasures. I get quite excited when I see a tiny building.

Graham: I did find one artist that had six canvases, five of which were entirely black. The sixth was amazing.

Adam: I like to think the amazing one was the first thing he did. And then he just lived off the proceeds. "I'm having my avant garde phase. It'll last until I die or run out of dosh."

Alice: Oh gosh, when you find one jarringly different painting... amazing!

Graham: It's a very good artgorithm at confounding your expectations. I continually think, "Oh, I get this" and then head somewhere new and am surprised. I think that's why it's so good. I don't think its procedural artists are as good as real artists, but its procedural galleries do a good job of giving me some of the same feelings of exploring a curated space. Strange juxtapositions. New angles on old ideas.

Pip: The thing is, when you don't get lucky for a while it's like one of those horribly unforgiving trudges round the commercial galleries of Piccadilly and Mayfair. "Why has everyone had the same idea? Why is there nothing here I like?" - very different answers in both cases though!

Graham: But then you can jump out the window and the movement speed picks up and you can sprint across a procedural island which is always lovely. "I'M COMING FOR YOU, ART"

Alice: I had a horrible string of galleries filled with paintings by people who'd pirated Photoshop and Googled "Matrix computer art tutorial."

Adam: I genuinely like the fact that I'm sometimes frustrated. There's an actual objective when you're searching for a diamond in the rough.

Alice: Right, so, the movement - it's rare for walk 'em ups to fiddle with that much. The reverential pace is the presence of Art is great. I still swear it differentiates between shuffles and steps, accepting a small amount of shuffling but then forcing you into a full step. Which is how I walk around galleries.

Pip: I like the swimming and the slides. I wish I could actually slide down them.

Alice: Though, of course, the landscape and buildings are all procedural too. They're made the same way as the paintings. Then we're talking about The Art and The Rest.

Graham: I like the procedural wallpaper.

Adam: I didn't even know the wallpaper was procedural for the longest time.

Alice: I like staring out of windows, framing the landscape like paintings. Because, really, what's the difference?


Alice: Thanks, Adam. I like to think I'm...

Pip: Are the proc gen algorithms linked at all? I don't think they are because one of the things I'm less keen on is the naming.

Adam: Yeah, I was very excited about the names at first but they're all a bit samey.

Pip: It feels like that's kind of more sarcastic, in a way. more on the "poking fun at GCSE art students/YBAs" spectrum, you know?

Adam: Is the whole thing maybe a joke? I certainly detect a wicked sense of humour but I think the tech itself is earnest. (can tech be earnest? does anyone have a picture that will mock that turn of phrase?)

Alice: I once had an unfortunate conversation with someone about how technology was neutral. It was at an art opening, actually. It was their friend's show so I didn't want to say they were super-wrong. But back on topic - sometimes name and painting work together beautifully. I've had a few that I really, really liked. It's pure chance, but then that's the "diamond in the rough" again.

Adam: I think certain algorithms are quite friendly. Some are very rude.

Graham: I think the names definitely feel jokey, but I like the serendipity when they do work well with the images. That might be lost if it happened more often, or if they weren't willfully obscure/randomy.

Pip: Kind of, although I'd really like the naming to have more personality. Or more of a sense that it's distinct and coherent in the way the image sets are.

Adam: I just wish there was variety in the phrasing - not just WORD WORD.

Alice: I would like more variety in naming, yes. It'd make me hunt harder for MEANING in them. I really like, for example, how I could see an outline of a person on the right here, with that wound deep inside them. WOUND. PAIN. ART.

Adam: Is Secret Habitat a thing that you'd like to see plugged into something larger - a city or district generator, f'rexample? Making galleries that are neighbours to other buildings? Or do you like the island of galleryhomes?

Pip: Both, I think. This does a decent job of creating the illusion of other lives happening without you because you try to ascribe meaning and see patterns despite your best intentions or despite knowing it's not true. As a result I think you could plug it into a wider world, but I'm also enjoying roaming.

Graham: That illusion of other lives is important, I think. I find a lot of procedural games, if they don't have NPCs, feel empty or cold. Even if there's music and things to poke at, they feel abstract. Secret Habitat is full of abstract art but feels warm and alive to me.

Adam: Graham - you do realise we must somehow plug this into Ultima Ratio Regum?

Graham: Yesssss.

Pip: That game needs to hurry up and add detective work.

Adam: Is part of the appeal the thing that makes us lie in fields picking out faces and animal shapes in clouds? What's the clever word for that? The imprinting of meaning on just about ANYthing. The cornflake Jesus.

Pip: Pareidolia?

Adam: Somebody should make a game called 'Procedural Pareidolia'. Pareidolia would be the name of the main character. It'd mostly be about looking at random patterns of noise that morph into photographs of horses and bears if you look at them for long enough.

Graham: That's a great picture. Top arting.

Alice: I'm not sure what I have to say on this. I've proven, in games and in life, that I will happily spend hours marvelling at small, inconsequential, and accidental things. Secret Habitat rewards the way I see the world. Every building, every tree, every slime pool is a special thing and all exciting to me and my child's mind.

Pip: This is a good one.

Alice: This is an actual favourite of mine.

Pip: Another problem I have is that there's no way to save it. I like art because I can come back to it. With this there are spaces I will lose forever when I close it. Or even when I leave and can't find the building again

Alice: Yes, that is a shame. Proteus has the same 'different every time' going on but screenshots include tiny bits of embedded data that let you revisit worlds or share them.

Adam: The terminable sadness of Pip art. I quite like the single visit. Makes it feel really important to actually spend time in the good spaces rather than just hitting quicksave

Pip: This one is a case in point.

Alice: But then, isn't EVERYTHING ephemeral? Isn't LIFE ITSELF fleeting? I like needing to enjoy things now before they're gone for good. I'm horribly unsentimental though. Or hate the past. Somewhere between the two.

Pip: That's just your approach though.

Alice: Move on, Pip. Your gallery is dead. Your Mountain is dead. We're all going to die.

Pip: I know that :(

Adam: Are the screenshots not enough, Pip? That would suggest that being able to move around in the galleries is important as well. Spying on paintings through windows, Getting the right angle. I think that's definitely the case - goes back to Alice's thoughts on the movement.

Pip: Yes. I like being inside spaces. You move around and that means you can see different things. There's an act of inspection as well as appreciation.

Adam: It's about space rather than just image.

Pip: I dunno. I get the whole fleeting mindset exists and yes, everything does die anyway, but moments of sanctuary and happiness can be so few and far between it makes me sad when you know you'll never be able to return to them

Alice: Oh! One thing about the screenshots I do like: they're rendered in double resolution, which means in complex, heavily layered paintings they can reveal details you couldn't really see.

Alice: Did any of you spend much time outside the galleries? I had a lark climbing onto roofs, scrambling over buildings, entering by leaping onto balconies.

Adam: Yeah - put me in a game with a jump button and I'm going to jump onto and out of everything. Out of windows, onto balconies, across roofs, into ponds.

Graham: I didn't know you could get onto the roofs. But I did spend time running to the coastlines, staring at the horizon, watching the strange wibbly trees, lining up angles through and out of windows. The tint on the windows makes some paintings look really different/great.

Alice: Modern-build art galleries always look such fine places to climb but for whatever reason they don't allow it. I want to climb and slide all over the Centre Pompidou. Does Secret Habitat contain works of art or is it all the same thing or is the algorithm the art or do you even care?

Adam: I think the algorithm is the art. And we're just skimming across the surface of it.

Alice: You can find new things, but will always mourn for a few that you didn't get enough time with. Editing footage to make that video wot I made, I was mortified to see some of the paintings I rushed past for the sake of brevity.

Adam: For me, it captures the experience of LOOKING at art far better than it succeeds in creating art. Maybe that's the point. I think it is. Guessing or downright fabricating stories that connect one work to its neighbour, seeing meaning, skipping past some styles and fixating on others.

Alice: It is a clever little algorithm. I like to imagine the equation is also gouged into the walls of Strangethink's home. That's the real Secret Habitat.

Graham: I don't even care whether it's art or not. I think we're exploring the innards of an algorithm though, not the surface, and whatever it's producing is all the same. I just booted it up and discovered two artists whose work I liked and I'd never seen before. What a wonderful thing.

Adam: Graham - we should stand outside a gallery shaking our fists at one another. You hold a sign saying 'Innards' and I'll hold one saying 'Surface'. It'll be a Happening.

Graham: We agree about the looking vs. creating, though. It is about the galleries, not the works they contain.

Adam: We probably agree about the innards as well. My surface comment was more about the fact that I don't understand the algorithm - the process of creation will always be a mystery to me - but I enjoy the results nonetheless. Bad Words. Does anyone have a painting called bad Words?

Graham: I like to think these two artists are rivals:

Alice: Hah!

Adam: Imagine if the game created the same images - had all the tools to do what it does - but it was about driving a car down a highway at night and seeing huge billboards at the side of a road. I'm not really going anywhere with that - I just suddenly wanted to be in a car. At night.

Graham: Yep. Would play.

Alice: Yes, yes I would like that an awful lot. A lot of Strangethink's projects seem to build upon previous things. I wonder what'll come out of this. Like Pixelatedcrown, they're building things to learn things to build things to learn things to an unknown end.

Graham: Unless Adam makes his procedural road movie in the next two weeks, is this the best procedural thing of the year? It feels to me that the proc gen is what is remarkable about it, and that it's more intrinsic to what's enjoyable about it than other games which only use it for worldbuilding. The artgorithm is all.

Adam: Yes. This and URR. But mostly this because it's a complete thing.

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