Full Steam Ahead, an Interview with Bryn Oh

In the virtual world Second Life, we've been spoiled by people who create things. 

I have a virtual house that is full of beautiful furniture and an inventory with more styles and choices of clothing than I could ever possibly wear. The other day I rode around with my friend in her brand new car- a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future. We are truly spoiled by all of the amazing things that people make for us in our digital world.

Most of these items are modeled from things in the real world, or from movies such as the DeLorean. The migration of ideas and design from the real world to the virtual one is endless. You can probably find many exact copies of things you own in the real world and own them in your Second Life too. 

At last the stream is reversed and something is going from our virtual world into another realm. Second Life artist Bryn Oh has created one of her Art installations in game form. Lobby Cam is available here on Steam.

We've been spoiled to have her to ourselves all these years in Second Life and now people outside of Second Life can experience the amazing world of Bryn Oh. She creates beautiful stories full of rich characters in a world that is not ours but close enough to see our own reflections in her work. 

Bryn Oh stories stand on their own, but then, as an Immersivist artist, she actually builds the streets and buildings and rooms that they take place in. We can sit in the chairs and open the cupboards and explore the spaces that her stories inhabit.  She practically invented and named "Immersive Art" which is currently very popular in real life art spaces. 

Bryn Oh is an important artist, she has had shows in real museums and articles written about her in major magazines. There are classes taught about her work. And we've had her all to ourselves in Second Life until now. 

I was lucky enough to sit down with her recently and talk about this new experience she's created using Unreal game engine. The Sluggle gets italics and Bryn's words are in this fine font.

First, I want to thank you for sitting down with me, I know you're an incredibly busy person and I truly appreciate your time. 

Bryn Oh: Oh my pleasure to.

Second, I need to make sure that when you become a famous game designer you'll still come back and hang out with us in Second Life every once in a while, can I get some assurances there?

Bryn Oh: Haha yes I enjoy hanging out and creating things in Second Life so as long as I have land and a desire to create I will be lurking around the grid.

So, I LOVE the game version of Lobby Cam. It is absolutely gorgeous, which I'll circle back to in a bit, but I want to ask you to tell us a little about the story itself first. The mood and themes fit so well with our global, post-pandemic experience I wondered if you have a time-machine somewhere because you wrote this story long before the pandemic, right? How did you choose to use Lobby Cam for this project and how has the story changed over time?

Bryn Oh: Sure! well there is a lot so not sure where to start.   So with all my work each portion is part of a larger narrative that spans 120 years or so and Lobby Cam is around the beginning of that timeline.  It is also a type of diary so Lobby Cam includes some parts of a childhood farm I lived on for five years starting at when I was 7.   The shed in the field was actually my clubhouse.   You will notice at times your height in the experience will make you feel like a child and at other times as an adult.. kind of how I feel on a daily basis actually.   Anyway I digress,  yes I did write the story long before the pandemic but after I got the Canada Council for the Arts grant to create it I decided to rework and make it more relevant to our current time.  It is not meant to be specifically our world and our pandemic but almost like a parallel world where a chance event or invention here and there guides the society in a familiar yet different direction.   Where we can associate but also where there is enough mystery in the story so we can not predict the outcome.

The fact you already had created this in-world didn't make the process of bringing it to a game much easier, it's my understanding that you rebuilt Lobby Cam in Second Life and then recreated it piece by piece in the Unreal Game Engine, which meant learning a whole new set of tools and a whole new process of working with mesh and lighting and scripting. Can you talk about this process a little? How long did it take to do all this?

Bryn Oh: For me the hardest part for all my work is creating the initial conceptual narrative, so having that helped but yeah it took a long time.   It took just over a year to learn Unreal Engine and build Lobby Cam in it, then even getting it on Steam took a month or so.  To be honest I have wanted to learn Unreal Engine for a long time but there are always things to get in the way so that it gets put off.   With this grant I told them I would build Lobby Cam in Unreal Engine because I wanted to be forced to learn it, so when I was awarded it I really had no choice but to sit down and figure it out.   I didn't actually say in my grant that I didn't know how to use Unreal so there was a bit of pressure but it all worked out.

Now that you have a black belt in Unreal, will you do more games or was this a one-off? Did you find that there are things you can do in Second Life that you can't in Unreal and vise versa? From a user perspective, the visuals of the game were jaw dropping but I found myself wanting to click everything and see what I could sit on as if I were touring in Second Life. From the artist's perspective, what is that like to work with both?

Bryn Oh: No it is not a one off I actually got a new grant from the Ontario Arts council to build my SL artwork called The Brittle Epoch in unreal for Steam.   I am really excited to do that as it is a snow storm so it should be really fun to try and capture that feeling in Unreal with their tools.  Both are very different and each has their own strengths.  For example after watching the movie Wakanda Forever I saw in the credits that Unreal Engine was used.   So it has the power to be used in top games and movies and pretty much it can do anything I dream of but I have to actually figure out how to do the things I think of.   It is all node programming which is very new to me and since I am already an awful coder it takes time to just figure out how to open a door when clicked.  But aesthetically and with coding it can compete with anything provided you can figure out how to do it.   

Second Life is not meant to compete with this.   It is a virtual world where Linden Lab have given us ground to stand upon and the users figure out how to create everything with their in house code and imported mesh.   If I used a book metaphor I would describe it where Unreal Engine gives you words and you assemble them into sentences to create a book.   Second Life gives you individual letters and says create a language and do what you like.  Another difference is that with my Unreal build you enter the world alone and explore.   With Second Life you are in a community where you might go to Lobby Cam and meet a person from the other side of the world, you might discover they don’t speak the same language as you but you use a translator to communicate and explore the story together.   You may discover that you really like this person and over years you learn their language and eventually marry them.   Sounds unlikely?  It is actually what happened to a friend of mine in SL.   The art to me in Second Life is not just what I build but what happens when people are in it too.  For me the draw of Unreal is so that I may exhibit my work in Museums and galleries in an easier fashion that I do with Second Life.   Where a gallery can download and run one of my narratives on a computer quite easily.   But that can not replace the unique and very important elements that Second Life brings to art creation.

Let's talk about the game version a little. I think I told you I ran through the giant field in the game for a solid ten minutes, it's just gorgeous and the grain moves so perfectly, and ohmygod that sunlight! Was there a specific mood or visual you were going for with the game version?

Bryn Oh: Often when I create an environment I will contemplate what leaves an impression on me personally.   So it can be experiences in my life or fond memories.  For example a simple fond memory of my childhood is a day when I was with two friends and we found a giant field of a type of grass that must have been four feet tall.   We went to the centre and lay down watching the clouds drift by, and the wind blew the grass like waves in the sea, sometimes quite dramatically.   I often try to capture that peaceful yet exciting moment.   For Lobby Cam one thing I wanted to try to portray is a certain time of the day in Summer where the sun is big, warm and bright and at an angle where you have to hold up your hand to block it if you are facing its direction.   Where you subconsciously play or work facing away from it only to occasionally face it and feel it envelop you taking your full attention for a moment.  It is the type of day where the warm orange of the sun leaves its colour over everything like a light painterly wash.  In the game itself I wanted to convey a bit of melancholy and nostalgia.   The main character collects toys and vintage things yet lives alone with nobody to show them to.  I wanted to show a pace of life that is so far removed from our current world which is designed to alleviate any moment of boredom.  Boredom is when we are most creative I think.  If we approach boredom and then watch a tv show or look at cat videos on our phone we never are given the moment where we can do the real creative imagining.

As a fan of your work I was thrilled to see that there were so many sculptures from your other works and to also find original poems scattered around as we do in your Second Life builds. Was there ever a temptation to veer away from the original concept or try something different stylistically since this is a new medium for you? How do you feel this experience will impact your work going forward?

Bryn Oh: No, so the way I see it the vast majority who find my work on Steam will never have heard of Bryn Oh before so they will be introduced to my artistic style for the first time.   The way I create art has evolved over many years and while it can be seen as a distinct aesthetic it also is tightly connected to the conceptual ideas within the narrative elements.   I don’t see a single sculpture I create as defining the art of Bryn Oh the same way a single sculpture in a museum stands alone and represents an artist in that space.   For me I think the sculpture within the narrative within the environment is my true artistic form.  I do often experiment, the pink cyberpunk kawaii room is one such place.   I generally work in shadows with earth tones such as umbers and siennas but for that space I challenged myself to go neon pinks with lots of glow etc.  After I have introduced my style to new people through Unreal and Steam then perhaps after a few such projects I will begin to change again.  This experience has made me want to keep working in Unreal while also building in Second Life and doing traditional painting haha.

What do you have coming up next for projects?

Bryn Oh: Next project is to finish a movie for Lobby Cam, to  build The Brittle Epoch in Unreal Engine for an OAC grant and to then film it.   I am also building a project in Second Life called Algorithms.

Thank you Bryn, you're an inspiration to many Second Lifers, myself included, and I'm truly grateful for all that you give us, including this time to talk to us today!

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If you would like more information about Bryn Oh... her blog is here and her Patreon is here. Bryn's Youtube videos are amazing. You can see Lobby Cam, Hand and The Brittle Epoch in Second Life at those links!