Eskil Steenberg’s Labour of Love

On: September 11, 2010
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About Laurent Hubeek
Laurent Hubeek is currently participating in the UvA New Media Master’s program. He has also spent time studying at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where he received a Master’s degree in information sciences. Before making the switch to the UvA, Laurent worked at Accenture, a large multi national IT consulting company, and participated in a variety of projects focusing on HR systems automation. Activities ranged from functional design and requirements elicitation to offshore team coordination and system configuration. Having left behind the world of business IT, Laurent is now exploring his interests in Web culture, social media phenomenon, the security and privacy aspects of IT use, cloud computing and (online) gaming and its design principles. Having an appreciation for old media (and old curiosities in general), he is also developing his skills as a writer on Masters of Media, Xi and his own blog.

In a media landscape dominated by online collaboration, DIY content and crowdsourcing, it may seem like the notion of the Renaissance artist-savant really does belong to an age long since passed. The idea that an artist must have a keen grasp of mathematical perspective, optics, geometry and anatomy can sometimes seem distant on a Web ruled by lolcats. What I would like to do is remind you of what a single individual can accomplish with enough skill, determination and the right tools. I would like to talk to you about Love.
Love is an online multiplayer game conceived, designed and built by Eskil Steenberg. The core concept of the game is to cooperatively build and maintain a settlement while gathering resources and defending against AI controlled settlements. Even though the gameplay warrants a proper discussion all of its own, I would like to focus on the amazing visual presentation of this game and the technology that lies at its base.


The image above is what the game actually looks like. Steenberg has managed to create a painterly visual style that leans heavily towards Impressionism. The official screenshot gallery is filled with dreamlike images that are quite literally out of this world. Seeing this game in motion is a whole other experience. I highly recommend you watch Steenberg’s demo video and see for yourself how wonderfully immersive and otherworldly Love can be.

Love isn’t just an artistic triumph, though. Technologically speaking it’s an amazing achievement as well. Steenberg has managed to create this game all by himself using an array of incredibly smart self designed tools. The technology relies heavily on procedural generation and adaptive AI routines. Not only does this provide a unique world filled with responsive and adaptable AI’s, it also elegantly circumvents Steenberg’s biggest handicap: he is only one man. Creating a multiplayer game (aimed at around 200 players per server) is a massive undertaking. World building, modelling, texturing and scripting usually consume large quantities of development time. Steenberg manages to avoid these hurdles by making the software do all the hard work. For more details on this I suggest watching the tools demo (the Verse application is particularly impressive).

To me Eskil Steenberg is a shining example of the artist-savant. The man possesses technical skill and artistic vision and manages to combine the two in a beautiful whole. Could one go so far as to say that Steenberg is an auteur in the grand sense of the Auteur Theory? Without a doubt, Love is the product of a man with a singular vision who purposefully twists conventions of style and technology. I don’t recall ever seeing a game that looks even remotely similar to Love and I dare to speculate that uniqueness was at least one of Steenberg’s goals. Technology wise Steenberg deliberately ignored existing tools in favour of creating his own. Does all this make him an auteur, though? In a way, I think it does. The fun part for me lies in what exactly he delivers as his product. Steenberg’s tools are all available as free open source downloads, opening up avenues for further use and development. If anything, Steenberg is not an auteur jealously guarding his secrets. And what about Love itself? The game is an open world, collaborative experience that thrives on players experimenting with the world. It’s a sandbox with endless potential. This is where Steenberg’s Love making is different from, say, Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. Where Godard had a singular vision that led to the unique viewing experience that is À Bout de Souffle, Steenberg had a singular vision that led to the creation of Love, an open world game that allows players to craft their own emergent experiences; it lets the narrative unfold based on the interaction between the players and the world.

So yes, Godard and Steenberg can both be considered auteurs in the classical sense, but they are very different in what they produce. Both are strikingly unique productions, but the difference lies in how the player/viewer engages with the material. The level of interaction allowed by their respective media is the key difference. If all this talk has gotten you in the mood for Love, please try out the free client first to see if it will run properly on your computer.

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