By Mahreen Fatima
Before a few months ago, before Global Game Jam 2015, I felt like I would be lying if I told people that I was an environment artist for games. I was afraid that someone would ask about my experience or to see my work – some proof of passion. An environment artist works to design and create architectures, background props, terrain, and atmosphere. I didn't have a portfolio consisting of any environment art or any experience with game development so I felt like a lie. Apart from old digital paintings from late high school and a simplistic 3D model, there was no work that could vouch for me as an artist let alone a 3D artist. It felt as if without a portfolio and résumé, I couldn't be who I wanted to be. If I couldn't show proof, was my passion just wishful thinking?
I had a small belief that I knew what I was doing and that it felt right. Always enchanted by the marriage of architecture, scenes, and narrative, I felt that being an environment artist would be fulfilling. However, these thoughts were always shy and easily open to insecurities. It was hard to justify that just saying “I'm an environment artist” would be enough since I lacked a specialized portfolio. Not knowing where to start, what software and tools were needed, or if being a game artist was even a career option held me back. My solution: I rarely declared my passion.
Instead, I let my parents decide what I would do for a living. From a very young age, it was drilled into me that a doctor was the most respected and objectively best career choice. It didn't feel like there was a point to digging further than becoming a doctor so though my parent's opinion was rather extreme, I went with it anyways just to feel like I had some sort of goal. It wasn't until towards the end of high school that I started entertaining the idea of exploring game development.
A close friend of mine at the time was studying game development and introduced it to me. That was my first real exposure and it made me realize that this was a viable career option. The opportunity to see someone close to me indulge in their passion with such motivation and drive tempted to me to try and find if there was work that I could enjoy. Taking the things I loved such as games, architecture, and drawing, I came up with environment art. Feeling like I knew what I was doing, I moved forward to try and chase this passion.
In the assumption that I knew myself and my potential career, I decided to start studying game development at an art college this past fall. I came prepared to class each day – completely professional and ready to go the extra couple miles. I learned the basics of 3D modeling and made sure to excel in all of my assignments, raising them to what I thought was a professional rather than a student standard. The various clubs having to do with games and/or game development found me a regular attendee. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't in an attempt to seem like I knew what I was doing. I had a quiet but strong need for validation and the next chance I would get to prove myself would be the upcoming Global Game Jam 2015 in January.
It's been three months and apparently I'm still processing the jam. When forming teams, participants were encouraged to declare their specialty so that they could be picked up for that skill set. That was one of the first moments I confidently declared, “I am an environment artist." Having already established myself as someone who is hardworking, efficient, and easy to work with, it wasn't difficult finding my way onto a team. However, I would have never expected how the experiences of Game Jam would affect me.
One moment, I was questioning whether or not I was in the right field and the next I was thrust into a team acting as the lead environment and texture artist. Working with that team over 48 hours, I created my first game, Brought To Light, and over each passing second, I was changed. I didn't have time to think about how crazy it was to be working not only on a game but also as a lead artist. Granted, I did work hard to absorb techniques and skills but I hadn't expected to be entrusted with such a vital position in crunch development. It almost seemed as if people didn't care about my invisible insecurities.
I pushed those doubts away and proceeded to work with the necessary confidence and clarity to advise and lead team members. Going back and forth with my concept artist, we cultivated the art style and atmosphere of the game.. These ideas were passed on to the modelers who worked astoundingly quickly to create and prepare the models for the texture artists. In the beginning, we didn't have an appointed texture artist but I was confident in my abilities and took point. No one knew that I had only worked on three models before, but it seemed like a trivial detail.
If anyone ever asks me how I learned to do that or where I learned this technique, the answer was often Google. Keeping a tab open with a new search every few minutes throughout Game Jam helped me to expand my abilities. In the span of a few hours, I was creating seamless, reusable textures, designing the atmosphere for the game, and helping create environments – things I had never done before. And they weren't too shabby. I was doing good work that someone in my field would do and I was enjoying it.
Somewhere around 4 a.m. on a Sunday, after you've been working tirelessly over 36 hours, you start to lose yourself to fatigue. But it was around then that I had a chance to sit down with the producer and art director of our team to have a brief postmortem. I pointed out how crazy it must seem: working continuously without sleep, watching our health deteriorate. My producer, Chloe Mortensen, replied, "That's how you know you love what you do".
Everything clicked when Chloe said that. It suddenly didn't make sense for me to be insecure when I obviously knew what I was doing. I had the drive to keep moving forward, to constantly improve and actually enjoy my progression. With this realization, I worked through the rest of Game Jam. Even though the last few hours were hectic with things falling apart at the worst times, all I can recollect from those moments were feelings of happiness, achievement, and satisfaction. The act of doing the work that I thought I'd want to do was making me feel good and confirming that I did know myself all along.
When I woke up on Monday morning after the conclusion of Game Jam, I felt an intense amount of dread. I would have to return to my usual lifestyle, working a little, playing a little, and mostly taking life casually. The words Chloe said stuck out and it made sense why I felt so depressed. Somewhere in the craze of Game Jam, I hit a revelation that I was doing what I loved. I didn't mind only getting some three hours of sleep over the weekend nor the high-stress, constantly productive environment I was in. In fact, I loved it and came to crave and miss it.
Later in another reflective conversation with Chloe, I came to further understand the feelings and thoughts that passed through my head during Game Jam. She pointed out how you know what you're doing is right when you “not only fit into your role but also really enjoy what you're doing.” I shared my personal revelations from Game Jam with her and she and I discussed how she could tell that I would enjoy myself in my field since I often push myself to do more and try new things.
Now I'll catch myself being reflective in the silent moments after exchanging a reference with friends to an instance, emotion, or experience from back then. Deciding to participate in Global Game Jam 2015 to create Brought To Light was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. Now that I am instilled with this unwavering confidence in myself, I can proceed forward knowing that not only do I know my craft but I'm also constantly getting better at it.
My changed self, along with Chloe's thoughts now bleed into my artistic process when I'm working, especially during the birth of new game projects. Without silly doubts and insecurities holding me back, I dive into my craft – devouring and learning in a rush. I see the world in texture maps and polygons, lights and render passes, meshes and materials.
I am a different person now. But I was always an environment artist.
Mahreen Fatima is a 3D environment artist and writer usually residing in Savannah, Georgia. As an artist and game designer, she dips her fingers in a number of projects ranging from experimental design for mobile games to silly games with her friends. She occasionally writes a few words for Haywire Magazine. Her thoughts and monologues can be found on her Twitter @kuroudee and her work on mahreenfatima.com.