Ama­teur bio­hack­ing in Seed.

How ama­teur bio­hack­ing in­forms the award-win­ning VR project, Seed.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - Philippa Warr

There is one fan­tas­tic story about a botanist called [John James] – the self-de­scribed ‘Franken­stein of flow­ers’,” says Seed’s lead de­signer, Olie Kay. “He scraped the ra­dium paint from watch di­als and used this on his bud­ding roses – don’t try this at home! He said that the best way to dis­pose of the ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial was to sim­ply bury it in the far­thest cor­ner of the gar­den!”

Sto­ries like that com­pletely cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of Kay and the rest of All See­ing Eye. The small studio’s game, Seed, is a vir­tual re­al­ity project where you can breed and grow pro­ce­dural plant life, ei­ther to com­plete mis­sions or to en­joy a play­ful sand­box. As well as ap­peal­ing to fans of pot­ter­ing about in sheds, Seed scooped top hon­ours (and $150,000) in a com­pe­ti­tion held by Well­come and Epic Games which fo­cused on us­ing sci­en­tific ideas in en­ter­tain­ing games.

The con­cept of garage biotech – where ama­teur plant breed­ers were de­vel­op­ing their own va­ri­eties of plants at home in their own sheds and green­houses – was in­tro­duced to the studio by Dr He­len Anne Curry, a se­nior lec­turer in the his­tory of sci­ence at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity and a key col­lab­o­ra­tor on Seed. The spe­cific ter­mi­nol­ogy is rel­a­tively new – garage bi­ol­o­gist, bio­hacker – but, as Curry points out, there is a long tra­di­tion of ama­teur ex­per­i­men­tal bi­ol­ogy.

Ger­mi­nat­ing an idea

Her own in­ter­est in the field is rooted in the en­thu­si­asm these hob­by­ist breed­ers from the early-to-mid 20th cen­tury had for tin­ker­ing. “In some cases this tin­ker­ing took the form of hy­bri­dis­ing dis­tinct types but at other times it meant ex­per­i­ment­ing with X-rays, chem­i­cals, or ra­dioiso­topes in hopes of turn­ing out some un­ex­pected new thing,” she ex­plains. “It was pre­cisely this ex­pe­ri­ence of tin­ker­ing with plants, test­ing out com­bi­na­tions and treat­ments to see whether they might pro­duce some­thing good, that All See­ing Eye wanted to cap­ture, and did cap­ture, in the game.”

In or­der to rep­re­sent plant breed­ing the de­vel­op­ers broke the prac­tise down into sim­ple steps: grow­ing a batch of plants; ob­serv­ing their char­ac­ter­is­tics; se­lect­ing the ones with the most de­sir­able at­tributes and then go­ing back to step one to grow the new batch us­ing the se­lected crop as par­ents.

Ex­tra stages where you can in­duce mu­ta­tions or cross­breed plants could be slot­ted into this ba­sic cy­cle. The ra­dium-dial clocks ac­tu­ally make an ap­pear­ance in the game, as does a tech­nique which uses the plant al­ka­loid colchicine to al­ter chro­mo­somes.

My own gar­den­ing ex­per­i­ments have taught me that some­times seeds just don’t grow, or they be­have in some un­ex­pected, will­ful fash­ion. That’s not the case in Seed. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant that a player’s ac­tions are al­ways pos­i­tive and that play­ers al­ways feel like they’re mak­ing progress. Plants grow quickly and pre­dictably – there’s never any duds or seeds that just don’t grow,” says Kay.

Seeds also grow while you watch. Longer growth was an op­tion but, Kay ex­plains, “The in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion of see­ing a plant grow be­fore your eyes was re­ally beau­ti­ful, re­ward­ing and sat­is­fy­ing for a player.”

Real plant breed­ing can also be fid­dly – seeds can be tiny and pro­cesses can in­volve del­i­cate work us­ing tools like tweez­ers. In VR, that level of pre­ci­sion would be a prob­lem, so the team don’t de­sign any ob­jects smaller than a ping pong ball. “For this rea­son, when a player wants to make a new hy­brid from any two seeds they put them both in a big mi­crowave-style ma­chine, close the door and press the big green but­ton,” says Kay. “Us­ing the his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial as in­spi­ra­tion to cre­ate a com­pelling set­ting and story but not be­ing slav­ish to it seemed ex­actly right,” adds Curry.

Seed also of­fers Curry an­other way to share her re­search, so I ask what she’s hop­ing play­ers take away from the game. Broadly, she says that it would be great to en­cour­age play­ers to think more about plant breed­ing and how it’s done. More specif­i­cally:

“It would be great if the mis­sion struc­ture of the game also ul­ti­mately led some play­ers to recog­nise that most of the plants they de­pend on for food or shel­ter or cloth­ing or other uses are the prod­ucts of sig­nif­i­cant hu­man labour and in­ge­nu­ity. I think that’s some­thing that of­ten goes un­recog­nised to­day.”

Main­tain­ing im­mer­sion

A key part of Seed, and one which All See­ing Eye is still cur­rently work­ing on, is how to com­mu­ni­cate key in­for­ma­tion to the player. “In a con­ven­tional screen-based game you can pause the ac­tion and dis­play a panel of tu­to­rial text to the player,” says Kay. “But if you do that in VR you break the im­mer­sion.”

The cur­rent so­lu­tion is a lot of con­tex­tual voiceover work as a guide when you start, plus “sub­tle vis­ual in­di­ca­tors de­signed to push the player to­wards cer­tain ob­jects and interactions”.

There’s still work to be done on that front, he says, but the ap­proach to im­part­ing that in­for­ma­tion may have a knock-on ef­fect in Curry’s own work.

“Sto­ry­telling is an es­sen­tial part of his­tor­i­cal work,“she says. “Here the sto­ry­telling hap­pens through an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing through the play­ers’ ex­per­i­men­ta­tion within that ex­pe­ri­ence. This was re­ally eye-open­ing for me, and it has led me to think more about the ways that I use vis­ual and au­dio ma­te­ri­als, and the op­por­tu­ni­ties that might ex­ist for me to al­low read­ers or stu­dents to ex­per­i­ment and ex­plore within the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that I have to share.”

“The grat­i­fi­ca­tion of see­ing a plant grow be­fore your eyes was re­ally beau­ti­ful”

You can watch the plants grow in front of your eyes.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.