Interview: Liene Birka on digital papercraft project Dawn

The Abertay Honours graduate uses digital paper to evoke appreciation for hand-crafted arts in an interactive medium

Liene Birka is a Honours graduate from Abertay University whose digital papercraft project formed part of the showcase of the recent degree show.

The 24-year old is a generalist video games artist from Latvia. “I chose games because of the collaborative nature of the industry as well as the interactive outcome of said collaboration,” she explains. “I find seeing the collective efforts come to life incredibly satisfying.”

DA: What was the brief or concept for your piece ?

LB: "Dawn is the product of my research into the concept of handcrafted video games.

I wanted to create a visual language that would challenge and expand on what we perceive as conventional video game graphics.

"'Craftsmanship' is not a word commonly associated with video games (or in fact a lot of other digital media) but I believe it should be. A lot of people with unique talents apply their imaginations and work tirelessly to bring the world new and innovative titles.

"I wanted to see if I could evoke that appreciation for the hand-crafted in a purely digital medium without direct traditional roots by using digital paper as my bridge-building material."

Use the slideshow controls above and right to discover more about how Liene created this project

DA: What were your influences for the project?

LB: "My project started from research into low-poly illustration, as I was briefly involved in the early development of a student project (Timothy J. Reynolds and JR Schmidt) with a low-poly look.

"To find the direction for my Honours research I looked for a common factor in the games that I found strikingly beautiful: Shelter by Might and Delight, Little Big Planet by Media Molecule, Incredipede by Northway Games and Kentucky Route 0 by Cardboard Computer. Later Tearaway, also by Media Molecule, and this year's Tengami by Nyam Yam.

"All of these games were tapping into traditional media for their inspiration. My conclusion was that I found them easy to relate to, I understood them just based on the visuals. I wanted to push that aspect in my own project.

DA: Tell us about the creative process your went through for Dawn, and what form the final project is in?

LB: "I created media tests where I digitally experimented with different media that most of us would be familiar with from childhood experiences: paint, modelling clay and paper.

I felt that the virtually unlimited textures and shapes that can be created by the first two would lessen the relationship I was aiming for. There’s only so many ways to use paper - you can cut it, tear it, fold it and glue it and that’s about it, so it’s easier to create something familiar.


I studied the traditional media, paying particular attention to all imperfections and then took those observations and applied them to my models and textures.

Most of the digital paper elements could be recreated in the real world with actual paper and some were created following origami patterns. I choose to define the final piece as an interactive video game art style demonstration as it lacks any substantial game play. All you are able to do is wander around and look at the environment. It’s still a work-in-progress. I am developing it further in my free time and it could definitely become a game.

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DA: Why do people find digital projects that are styled like craft creations so appealing?

LB: "I think that it brings a level of familiarity. We can relate to something as soon as we see it. Most of us have had a hand at different crafts when we were young either as play at home or as education at school. It is almost universal.

DA: Is it the sense of reality that you get from the imperfections, or that those imperfections signify the hand of the human creator?

LB: "It's both. Digital media has always struggled to convince a lot of people of its appeal. I think it's because of the perfectly rendered shapes and gradients, the computed animation curves - it's all just too perfect. It's unreal, it's non-human.

"Our reality is one of flaws. Faces are rarely symmetrical. Everything is in some stage of entropy from the moment it's created. When I placed each frame in my animations by hand, when I destroyed perfect symmetry in my models, I was working on a hunch. I didn't know if it would work. I was making my task slightly harder by not letting the computer do its job, but as a result I left an imprint of my own craftsmanship within Dawn."

DA: Is nostalgia inherent in the notion of craft, or could your approach for Dawn be adapted to something without a nostalgic component?

LB: "I chose to define that feeling I got when I played my own game as nostalgia. It seems linked to my memories of folding paper animals and making paper houses as a child.

"However the technique of looking for imperfection and replicating it can be applied to almost any digital pipeline. My project started out about stylisation, but in the end turned out to be about realism. Realistic graphics have always been one of the goals of the games and VFX industries. I think my approach, adding flaws where there shouldn't be any, is a part of that."

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The first build of the project, then titled Midnight.

"I remember how excited I was when I created this first build," says Liene. "All the assets were still placeholder, but I could see where it could be pushed. It was amazing to feel that way."

"Midnight became Dawn (almost symbolic) as I played with light."

A very early sketch of Midnight.

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