Lev Manovich on Thu, 11 Feb 1999 08:52:00 +0100 (CET)

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Computer Game Prototype



By Lev Manovich and Norman Klein


In the summer of 1928 Sigmund Freud meets with the avant-garde Russian
designer El Lissitzky and his wife who are spending some time in Vienna
after a stressful period working on the Soviet Pavilion at the
International Press Exhibition in Cologne.[1] They talk about
psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Freud tells Lissitzky that in 1908
he visited Coney Island and went to a park called "Dreamland." There he got
the initial idea for the architectural realization of his theory. Lissitzky
gets very exited about this idea. They decide to create an architectural
construct based on Freud's model of the mind. What shall it be? Lissitzky
points out the parallels between Freud's model of the
consciousness/unconsciousness as articulated in Interpretation of Dreams
and Marx's model of base/superstructure (they don't know that it also
parallels Saussure's model of signified/signifier). Freud still thinks of
the "Dreamland" park, but Lissitzky convinces him that rather than building
a one of a kind museum or park, they should design mass housing -- a
popular idea with the avant-garde architects of the second half of the
1920s and something which Lissitzky, who until now could not realize any of
his big-scale architectural projects, was eager to do. Freud's first
impulse is to have a house with three vertical levels corresponding to his
typography of id, ego and super-ego. He wants to put a second, smaller
house inside a garden, also with three levels corresponding to his first
typography of the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious, with staircases
to allow communication between them.[2]

Lissitzky persuades Freud that the modern house should have only one level
with horizontal divisions, i.e. it should follow horizontal rather than
vertical development. They discuss how to implement the concepts of
condensation and displacement via mobile walls, an extension of Lissitzky's
design for the exhibition pavilion which he did in Dresden in 1926.[3]

Around the same time Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein happens to pass
through Vienna and he meets with Freud and Lissitzky. He tells them that he
is planning film "adaptation" of Marx's Capital. Eisenstein is having
difficulties with realizing his film project in Russia; however, there is
funding for the mass housing projects in Vienna. Eisenstein realizes that
he can try to test his ideas by "displacing" Capital into Interpretation of
Dreams. He convinces Freud and Lissitzky to commission him to do a short
film which presents a "walk through" through the model of a house.[4]

Eisenstein now faces a fundamental problem: how to reconcile his method of
montage with an essentially continuous experience of navigating through a
space? He keeps thinking about this problem when he gives a lecture in the
Institute of Psychoanalysis in Berlin in 1929.[5] Later this year he visits
Bauhaus where he talks with Hungarian artist and Bauhaus professor
Moholy-Nagy to see if his students will build a model of the house which
Eisenstein can film (Moholy-Nagy is in charge of the Metal Workshop).
However, Moholy-Nagy is frustrated with art school politics and he already
made plans to go to Berlin to start his own advertising agency.

While at Bauhaus Eisenstein happens to catch a lecture by a young American
engineer Edwin Link about his flight simulator design. The Link Trainer is
a simulation of a cockpit with all the controls, but, in contrast to a
modern simulator, it has no visuals.[6] Eisenstein conceives of adding a
projected film to the simulator.

Link has connections in Hollywood; he arranges an invitation for Eisenstein
so they have an opportunity to work on this new project in America. In
Hollywood Eisenstein completes a twenty second film test. After meeting
Disney, Eisenstein, who was in love with Disney cartoons, adds Mickey Mouse
to the film. He send a print to Freud and a copy to Lissitzky who is now in
Cologne. Lissitzky soon has to return to Russia. Sensing changing political
climate there, he leaves his notes on the Navigator in Germany.

As many of Eisenstein's other projects, the Freud-Lissitzky navigator
remains unrealized. There are notes in his archive dating to the late 1930s
about constructing special movie theatres with moving platforms; he wants
to use his montage theories to script the movement of a platform against
other dimensions of a film. He also shoots a scene for Alexander Nevsky
where we see the battle through the POV of a character who flies over the
battle using the wings he constructed; but Stalin who understands that
Eisenstein is making a reference to Russian avant-garde artist Tatlin's
"Letatlin" (flying apparatus Tatlin has been developing for years) orders
this scene to be cut.[7]

In 1961 at MIT Steve Russel writes the first computer game. He calls it

In 1968 a French new wave filmmaker is working on a film about Mao's China.
He wants to present it as a happy utopia which finally left alienation and
exploitation behind. One part of the film is taking place in the future
when America attacks China. The filmmaker wants to film using montage
strategies of Eisenstein's October. While on the train from Paris to
Brussels, he reads in the paper that Russian tanks are going through the
streets of Prague. Completely pre-occupied by his film, the filmmaker
ignores the larger political context of Prague events; he is exited about
the opportunity to get some footage for the film. He rushes back to Paris,
grabs his hand-held film camera and takes first train to Prague. There he
indeed finds Russian tanks in big numbers but there is a problem: the
medieval streets of Prague look very different from China countryside where
the scene is supposed to take place. The filmmaker pays the crews of two
Russian tanks to drive to the countryside for half a day where he films the
tanks. Happy, he returns to Paris where he finally realizes what actually
took place in Prague. His first thought is to destroy all his footage but
his old Fluxus friend convinces him to donate it to the audio-visual
division of the National Library. The librarians have difficulties deciding
under which category to file the footage; eventually they file it under
"travel films."

In the same year a Hungarian scholar of Russian avant-garde is working on
the first large exhibition of Russian avant-garde art in Stockholm. While
doing research in Germany he discovers Lissitzky and Freud notes on the
Navigator project. He publishes them in Hungary in a Hungarian art history
journal. During the 1980s a great deal of computer development for American
computer games was done in Hungary. One of the computer programmers has a
girlfriend who studies art history at the University; she shows him the
journal issue where the Lissitzky and Freud notes were published. The
programmer begins to work on a game based upon these notes in his spare
time. He completes a prototype in 1988 and there are plans to publish the
game in the US, however, following the events of 1989 they fall through.
The programmer who previously was happy to be paid a tenth of his US
counterparts salary now starts asking for outrageous amounts of money.
Through the programmer's girlfriend the American game publishers steal the
prototype and give it to their in-house development team to develop
further. She and the programmer break up. Frustrated and heartbroken, the
Hungarian programmer moves to Berlin and takes up painting.

The US game designers run into difficulties. They say that the reward
system in the game is not clear. And what is the point of traveling through
Freud's model of the mind anyway? Having realized that what they have is
not a game but a "scripted space" (Norman Klein's term) they try to talk to
the Disney Imageneering to see if they would make a ride based on the
prototype. But Imageneering people do not believe in unconscious and hence
are not interested.

However, one of Disney designers wonders if they can incorporate some
elements from the prototype into the design of Euro Disney. He thinks that
European visitors would like the references to Dr. Freud and Russian
avant-garde. In Paris to work on the site, he spends some time in the
National Library looking through amateur French films to see how French
navigate through landscapes. Looking through the "travel films" section, he
comes across 1968 Prague footage and is struck by the similarity between
its camera's moves and the computer game prototype he saw back in the
States. Inspired, he goes to Café du Dome on Montparanasse, which in its
time served as a hangout for Lenin, Picasso, Soutine and other exiled
intellectuals and artists. Keeping himself awake through the night on
oysters, black coffee and cigarettes, he completes a detailed sketch of a
Main Street design for Euro Disney by the morning. His design makes it
through two committees and three focus groups but eventually is scratched.
But some elements of it are incorporated in the final plans for Fantasyland
at the Euro Disney, now renamed Disneyland Paris.
>The game company makes another attempt to make money on the prototype:
>they approach a company which develops expensive simulators for the US
>Army. But, with the end of the Cold War, the company lost most of its
>orders and it is now busy converting a multi-million dollar simulator into
>an add-on level for the popular computer game Quake. They make one more
>attempt approaching the US Navy Simulation Division directly; but their
>engineers are also not interested. They are converting their own simulator
>(which is based on customized computer game Doom) into a commercial game
>for Sony Playstation. Frustrated, the game company recycles part of a
>computer code from the prototype for their own internal database which
>tracks employee benefits, and permanently shelves the project.[8]


The Freud-Lissitzky Navigator is an early version of this prototype. It is
converted from the original assembler code written in 1989. Following the
usual practice of computer games to begin with a FMV (full motion video)
sequence, we have added Eisenstein test (1930), re-edited by the American
game company (1993). At the end of the prototype we appended a number of
sketches and screen shots. They come from the 1993 version of the game
developed by the company and from the presentations it did to Disney
Imageneering and Navy Simulation Division (1990-1995). The last image is
the sketch of Euro Disney Main Street done by Disney designer at Café du
Dome in Paris after he came across 1968 Prague footage.



Dr. Lev Manovich / http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~manovich
University of California -- San Diego / Visual Arts Department, 0327,
9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0327 U.S.A. /
phone: +1-619-822-1012  / fax: +1-619-534-8651
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