Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a number of exhibitions by the fantastic art collective teamLab. Ever since attending one of their smaller shows back in 2017, I’ve been captivated by everything they’ve done. After a recent trip to Tokyo, I attended the larger original version of the ‘Borderless’ exhibition as well as one of their newer pieces, ‘Planets’. I’ve been thinking a lot about how they used sound and physical space effectively, and wanted to share some of those initial thoughts here.
Note: Although this is all relatively high level, there are some things mentioned here that could be seen as spoilers for the content of the ‘Planets’ and ‘Borderless’ exhibitions. Keep that in mind if you are planning to visit anytime soon, as it’s worthwhile experiencing these without any prior knowledge.
The primary large rooms in Planets are incredibly bright, colourful and overwhelming. Between each of these large spaces, there are small dark corridors that connect each of these rooms together in a progressive series. The corridor lowers the lights and sound to almost nothing, funnelling you through a straight linear path and giving you time to readjust, whilst making the arrival into the new room all the more impactful.
I noticed that the corridors seemed to use right angles, with dark curtains implemented as you enter/exit the spaces. This presumably reduces the light and sound bleed from the larger area into the transitional space, keeping the corridor quiet and dark so you have a clear moment of separation between the outside worlds.
This is completely applicable to level design and audio implementation in games and digital experiences. Linear transitional spaces reduce choice for the player and keeps them moving forward. This lack of distraction, light and sound creates contrast against other spaces, setting up a more rewarding arrival into the next destination.
“Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it… A tall, bright space will feel taller and brighter if counterpointed by a low-ceilinged, softly lit space.”
– Matthew Frederick
Verticality and expansiveness
When designing spaces for games and digital experiences, we are not constrained by the same physical limitations with regards to real world architecture, and can apply techniques to make spaces seem larger than they are. TeamLab used their own techniques to adjust the sensation being in a room, to create the illusion of depth and size.
The most obvious example is the mirrored surfaces in their ‘Infinite Crystal Universe’ room. Floors, walls and ceiling are covered in mirrors, with hanging LED installations creating movement and interest. Standing in that room, it really feels like which ever direction you look, you are observing the vastness and infiniteness of space. It is difficult to grasp the actual size of the boundaries of the room you are in.
That said, they seem to have designed the space in mind to prevent the overall experience being too disorientating. The paths are constrained and narrow to keep movement slow, and the hanging LED light strips are the primary feature of interest to anchor your awareness on a specific location.
In another room, they do the opposite and turn all the lights off and just use mirrors on the walls. Again, walking into the space initially makes you feel as if you are in a vast open ocean.
This highlighted the fact that creating the illusion of expansiveness in space is rewarding in and of itself, regardless of the actual size of the room boundaries. It also reminded me of how impactful skyboxes in games can be. If the wrapped image is placed and set up correctly it will appear to have no edges, creating an illusion of depth that extends out infinitely.
Impermanence and experience
One of the most inspiring features didn’t hit me until a day after visiting Borderless, even though it’s part of the core thinking behind it’s design. This is the idea of a shifting and impermanent state of content in the space – that every individual experience in that moment is unique and cannot be replicated again.
In the case of Borderless, it’s really something special. The art on the walls are ‘alive’, moving across walls and surfaces into other rooms, creating an ever changing visual canvas. When you have multiple instances of this, you start to see these images overlap and interact with one another in interesting ways. In one room you may see a flock of birds flying across waves of the ocean, and you begin to notice that they will continue to move on into another space or perhaps disappear for a while. You just managed to catch them at that precise moment when those images overlapped, by being in that space at that particular time.
This creates a breathtaking feeling of aliveness to a space that I haven’t really experienced before. Sounds, lights and images move and interact in ways that genuinely feel unique in the moment. This doesn’t feel the same as a lot of other generative art to me; it’s seemingly just a series of pre-determined content that is set on a timed loop, overlapping with lots of other looped content. But it’s this intermingling of content that becomes the emergent and rewarding experience for the viewer. The size and form of the space also will affect how these images look and move in different environments, adding further dynamics to the range of artworks that can be viewed.
To me this is a reminder of what games can do so well. A well designed game has a series of systems and properties that can interact with one another in interesting ways. As level designers, we can facilitate for this, and craft spaces that accommodate for those emergent properties. As a player, one of the biggest rewards is this engagement with a series of events that overlapped and/or happened in succession to create a very personal gaming experience. Seeing this sort of thing used in social spaces was really something special, and it feels like an exciting area to be further explored in physical and digital media.