“It seems video games have a thing for world-pivotal trees.”
November 1, 2017 5:16 PM   Subscribe

An Ode To The Greatest Trees In Video Game History [Now Loading] “With trees being a fairly common sight in all but the harshest environments found on Earth, it's only natural that they soon made their transition into the digital world. From the blurry emerald blobs found in the top-down games of the '80s, to the fluffy 3D structures seen in Super Mario 64, trees have been with us gamers all the way. Sometimes, they have a purpose beyond aesthetics. As in Black and White where your divine avatar is able to pick them up and use them for ungodly purposes, or in today's MOBAs where the fog of war created by trees is an essential part of the mechanics. But mostly, they're just there to create a recognizable and immersive world. Let's take a closer look at some of the defining trees in the history of games”

• From The Elder Scrolls to the US Secret Service: where videogame trees come from [PC Gamer]
“The forests in The Force Awakens, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and an episode of Sesame Street are all hiding something. They’re family. A significant amount of Mother Nature as represented in games and film starts life at SpeedTree, a small middleware company out of Lexington, South Carolina. Stranger still is that co-founder Chris King credits Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard for the company's success and the eventual deforestation of the Star Wars pines. Todd Howard and the timber in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are also indirectly responsible for the alien forests on Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. You can blame Howard for the best trees in videogames and even in a rival series, The Witcher 3, with its vast windblown forests. You can also blame him for 3D models of the White House and surrounding shrubbery, likely tossed around the US Secret Service’s network to this day. ”
• Videogame gardens can be spaces for reflection [ZAM]
“These are games that understand that a garden makes no sense without its deeper connections. We could even say that a garden is a relationship much more than an object in itself. There’s no garden without a gardener, without someone to cultivate it, to preserve and nurture it. The same could be said for gaming—there’s no videogame without players—but those verbs aren’t the ones usually associated to videogames; rather: jump, shoot, and ultimately do. If gardening is “the purest of human pleasures”, how do videogames compare? How does it all connect? There’s no reason for gardening if we don’t get something out of the act, if we are not made better by it; and maybe gardens silently teach us to be more humane, more sympathetic to others’ necessities, and to appreciate the flourishing of those around us. In a world that is increasingly erratic, it’s natural to seek solace and refuge in our gardens, real or virtual.”
• The Arctic Flora of Tamriel: Botany in Video Games [Canadian Museum of Nature]
“Some Skyrim plant species are direct copies of their real-world counterparts, like juniper (in-game juniper) and wheat. Some, like gleamblossoms, are completely fictional. Others are re-named versions of terrestrial species; for instance, you or I may recognize snowberries as holly. Skyrim‘s mountain flowers—very, very similar to real-world Castilleja species—are easily distinguished based on flower colour. And in the game’s universe, they are additionally differentiated by chemotaxonomy: the differences in the health effects that they impart on the player indicate that different chemicals (secondary metabolites) are produced by each species. Just like all real-world vascular-plant species, the virtual plants of Tamriel have been placed in different environments associated with that species, which enhances the realism of the virtual ecosystem. Aspiring e-botanists will have to search high and low to find them all; don’t worry, just like with real-life floras, high-quality “dot maps” of where they are located also exist for the Elder Scrolls series.”
• Gardening with Geralt: understanding The Witcher 3's lore through its plant life [PCGamesN]
“The use and representation of horticulture through aesthetics, actions, and people, makes The Witcher 3’s environments among the most complete in videogames. Attention to detail right down to the subtle placement and angling of a flower take them beyond everything else. Its diverse and faithfully recreated array of typologies, crammed full of topological, geological, and geographical characteristics, would not be as accurate or as impactful without the attention paid to those smaller-scale elements: the plants, the trees, the gardens. The game gets the necessary ‘realistic representation’ right, but also the horticultural accuracy, too. This is a rather specific art as certain plants grow in certain ways, requiring particular conditions to thrive - it is here that The Witcher 3 really nails it. Its plants look naturalistic but considered...”
posted by Fizz (29 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Oh you have no idea how up my alley this is.
posted by LMGM at 5:25 PM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Witcher 3 seems like it was the game that discovered that Foliage Moves.

Of course, then they got really excited and made it move A LOT more than maybe it ought to, but still.

It's one of the only games where the foliage slider needs to be as far right as you can make it. Also one of the only games where I can reasonably pretend that there's dirt under my feet.
posted by selfnoise at 5:30 PM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh man... the Tamriel article alone... I have so many people IRL to distribute that article to!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 5:30 PM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Now do wind turbines!
posted by biffa at 5:36 PM on November 1, 2017

Bah … The trees in Deathchase are magenta and red (and, well, whatever colour's in front of them because attribute clash) toothpicks with little green tufts on top. No matter how comical they look, they always get you in the end. Always. A tree, you're dead.
posted by scruss at 5:38 PM on November 1, 2017

I think I shall never see / A game as lovely as a tree. / A game whose hungry interface is prest / Against in-game purchases' sweet flowing breast; / A game that looks at users all day, / And collocates profiles to make 'em pay; / A game that may in summer release / broken updates despite increase; / Upon whose exaggerated bosom pixels are stacked; / Who intimately crave matters of lack. / Games are made by users like me, / But only developers can make a tree.
-- apologies to the estate of Joyce Kilmer
posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:53 PM on November 1, 2017 [18 favorites]

Nah, you're good.
posted by Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, Imaginary Jersey Turnpike at 6:12 PM on November 1, 2017 [29 favorites]

My favorites are always the ones where the (2D) flowers are always facing the camera...bonus points for if the flower clusters also rotate in addition to turning to face you. For some reason these always look more real to me...especially for really heavily flowered plants (dogwoods, cherry trees, hydrangea, etc) than 'fully rendered' flowers. It seems they use them a lot less these days, which is a shame...forests and gardens always look more real the more different rendering techniques you mix in, including some totally static plants that don't move in the wind, because some plants just don't.
Fun Fact: there are approx. 3 trillion trees on planet Earth.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:27 PM on November 1, 2017

posted by Parasite Unseen at 6:46 PM on November 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

Niven's Integral Trees, Weiss and Hickman's Elvan Star - when I was a kid, I gloried in the enormous canopy of the backyard trees in nigh endless summers, with fireflies dancing about even the highest boughs. I would spy on squirrels and birds with cheap binoculars, and wonder at how fantastic it would be to live on a world-sized tree. Even if there were Tytans and Slave-runners.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:47 PM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

...and wonder at how fantastic it would be to live on a world-sized tree.

The Great Deku Tree!

Not the size of a world but definitely a world in the tree.
posted by Fizz at 7:03 PM on November 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Disappointed to not see the Moiety Age from Riven get a mention . The tree itself didn't play a big role in the story, but considering this was the first FMV video game I ever played, it was a hell of a reveal when you saw it.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:17 PM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

The ZAM article about gardening in video games gave me an urge to dig up Viva Piñata. What a fun game, in which your goal is to cultivate life instead of dispense death! Although whacking the bad guys with a shovel was enjoyable too.
posted by ejs at 7:21 PM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can't even get started in Minecraft without punching a tree, yet no mention. Feh.
posted by monospace at 8:47 PM on November 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

After playing Witcher 3 obsessively for several weeks, I started experiencing that thing in real life where I kept spotting flowers and shrubs while driving, and immediately my brain went to that place trying to identify them, wondering if they were an ingredient needed to make a potion. The ancient oak tree in which the quest The Whispering Hillock takes place in Witcher 3, along with The Great Deku Tree in Zelda, are the two most iconic video game trees, imo. For giving me the feels.
posted by the webmistress at 9:27 PM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's slowed down quite a bit lately, but there's a pleasant Tumblr devoted to showcasing varying kinds of plants from video games: Video Game Foliage.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:37 PM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Night Elf starting area in World of Warcraft is a gigantic tree anchored to an island. It is called Teldrassil, an obvious nod to Yggdrasil.
posted by xyzzy at 11:30 PM on November 1, 2017

Faxanadu, 1987, takes place entirely within a tree.
posted by darksasami at 1:46 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Niven's Integral Trees, Weiss and Hickman's Elvan Star

I never realised this before, but Aldiss' Hothouse world could make a splendid gaming backdrop. You couldn't help but create a marvellous environment from those words.
posted by Devonian at 3:53 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Apparently we're getting an Ubisoft open world style game that is set in the Avatar universe. So that could be interesting with regards to the flora.
posted by Fizz at 5:18 AM on November 2, 2017

One of the many unfulfilled promises that Peter Molyneux made for Fable was that trees would grow over time. This would have been a pretty pointless feature, but it became emblematic of the huge gulf between the hyped game and the one that was delivered.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 5:47 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Secret of Mana series hinges around giant trees, and Quest for Glory 3 features an extremely large tree as one of its objectives.

I think trees appeal to game developers because it's something familiar that has a long history of being tied to magic (especially very large trees), and a lot of games are fantasy because with fantasy you don't need to model reality very carefully. There's something about a big tree that speaks to a human soul.
posted by Merus at 5:54 AM on November 2, 2017

Amazing how far we've come in rendering techniques. One day, graphics programmers may be able to walk through the woods without even thinking about the word frustum.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2017

Apparently the hardest thing about making Firewatch was the trees, specifically because they couldn't use SpeedTree.

And thanks, Fizz! I'm really enjoying your quasi-regular video game themed roundups.
posted by cosmologinaut at 7:30 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was thinking the other day how nice it would be if I were to play a game set in the real world where plants were as important as Skyrim and The Witcher 3. Then after a while I might be able to identify the plants around me every day, instead of recognizing 20 Skyrim flowers by sight while barely knowing five from my home area.
posted by Harald74 at 8:40 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

This one's my favorite.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:36 AM on November 2, 2017

I *loved* the trees in Star Wars Galaxies. I'm sad they didn't mention them at all in this article. Every planet had a different ecosystem and well-designed trees. The Wookiee expansion even had the Great Tree quest.
posted by jillithd at 11:10 AM on November 2, 2017

Thinking on it, pretty much any fantasy game that has some kind of Eleven Kingdom is going to have foliage/plants/trees etc. It leans heavy into the woodland/dark elf trope but I'm ok with that. The environments in these parts of video-games are always enjoyable to just inhabit.
posted by Fizz at 11:58 AM on November 2, 2017

Wasn't Crysis essentially a foliage simulator? And no speedtree, apparently. GPU Gems chapter.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:00 PM on November 2, 2017

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