Over the last couple years, Liz Edwards has been discovering new ways of drawing and painting—in a medium few have even begun to fully understand. By day, Edwards is a character artist in the video-game industry, working on triple-A titles like Ubisoft Montréal’s Far Cry: New Dawn. But in the realm of virtual reality, isolated in her own parallel universe, she finds peace in the bizarro landscapes of Fallout 4, painting whatever her eyes and brain are convinced is right in front of her. Games and hardware haven’t made this process simple, but, like any artist who delights in the act of invention, Edwards doesn’t mind killing a few giant mutant crustaceans to find the perfect composition.
I spoke to Edwards via Google Hangouts to find out how this all works.
Alex Kane: So you do art for video games for a living, and then you come home and you’re able to still enjoy both, right?
Liz Edwards: Yeah, yeah. I never get away from them.
Kane: When did you get into Fallout as a player?
Edwards: I first played Fallout 3. I kind of hopped in when the Fallout 3 hype was going. So I played that; I loved it. I played all of New Vegas; absolutely loved that. I love the series. And then I played Fallout 4 on PC, just normally, and then when it came out for VR—like, of course I’m going to play it in VR. So, yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in Fallout.
Kane: Awesome. Can you walk me through this process? So you’ve got the headset on, and you’ve got a tablet in your lap—how does that all work with getting situated in the game and then painting?
Edwards: Yeah, it’s not easy. I play the game standing up, in the middle of my living room. So I play it normally. And then when I explore, I do my thing, and I’m always keeping my eye out for an interesting place to start painting. Once I find the spot, I save, and then I move over to my desk, which is in the same room with my tablet and my PC and everything. I sit down, and I load it up again so that it puts me in the same spot. And then that’s it—I’m in my spot, and I can’t move.
So I use a piece of software called OVRdrop. If you play on Oculus, you can use the Oculus Dash desktop feature, but I play on SteamVR, so I use OVRdrop. And that lets you put your desktop screen straight into VR, and you can place it wherever you want, at any size you want. So I have this little screen that mirrors my desktop, and I put it in front of me kind of just hovering above where my tablet is in real life. And I get comfy, I kind of rotate around to get the perfect composition, and then I can paint with my graphics tablet in real life—into a Photoshop window or whatever software I like. And, yeah, it’s quite comfortable. It’s surprisingly comfortable, actually.
Kane: Very cool. And usually you’re doing landscapes, right?
Kane: Do you ever have to stop painting and fight off, like, a mirelurk?
Edwards: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if you saw the video in my thread, but I was painting this really beautiful sunset, and all of a sudden I just heard those hideous howls and gnarls and gnashes behind me, and Dogmeat, who was sitting by my side—because I always hang around with Dogmeat when I play—he just dashed off, and held back these two ghouls who were coming for me. And I had to drop everything. I dropped my pen; I think I put it in my mouth. And I had to scramble around on my desk, completely blind, for my controller, so I could turn around and shoot these two ghouls who were coming for me.
Kane: Amazing. Obviously, you’re inspired to do this art, so how does spending all this time in the Commonwealth—inside the VR medium—make you feel?
Edwards: I find it really relaxing. I think a lot of it is VR itself; it’s isolating in a way that I enjoy. It takes me away from my apartment and my life, and I just kind of inhabit this different world, and a different persona. And the Commonwealth is surprisingly peaceful, I’ve noticed. I think when you play and you have objectives, you don’t notice it, because you’re always actively being this force of chaos in the wasteland. But I’m not pursuing combat at all; I’m just exploring. And when I’m wandering around, it’s just this sense of peace and immersion, and sometimes I just like to sit on the physical floor in my room, completely lined up with the world in the game. I’ll jump on top of a truck or something and just look at this beautiful world that’s been created. You know, they have the music, and all the wonderful sunrises and sunsets and atmosphere and radstorms, and they just wash over you. I really love it.
Kane: Do you usually listen to the score, or do you listen to the radio?
Edwards: I mix between them. The radio can kind of drive me a little bit crazy when I’m painting, because if the light is just right, I save it. And then when the light moves, I’ll load it again, and so the same song will play again and again and again. So I’ll maybe switch off to a classical channel on the radio, or just take in the atmospherics as it is.
Kane: Is there anything specific about the worldbuilding of the Fallout universe that inspires you as a creator?
Edwards: It’s mostly just the aesthetics and the atmosphere; it’s the feeling that the whole Fallout universe gives me. I’ve spent a lot of time in it over the last ten years, and it feels like home. But it’s always just full of surprises. It’s a hostile place, it’s an ugly place, but it’s also welcoming and comforting. And, as an artist, that’s something I kind of like to pursue—to give other players that feeling of a world that they can call their own.
Kane: It’s corny, but I’ve always thought that it was very hopeful, right?
Kane: You say it’s hostile, which sounds like kind of our world today, but then you get to go out and help people and make positive change. Even though it’s a postnuclear wasteland at the same time.
Edwards: Yeah, that’s it. You can play Fallout as a horrible player, but I’d never want to. The people I meet are generally good, and they’re making the best of it, and it’s inspirational to see them building these—you know, they took a bomb crater and made it home. There’s something wonderful about it.
Kane: Do you have a favorite environment or location in the game?
Edwards: Basically, anywhere with a radstorm. I really like the nuclear-irradiated zone. And I’m trying to work my way up to have the equipment I need to survive there, because I think it’s beautiful. I love the color palette, and there’s all the twisted trees and desolation. I kind of want to kill a deathclaw and make it sit for me.
Kane: Oh, nice. So you could do a portrait of it?
Edwards: Yeah. I can, but they really go for you. Maybe there’s a perk where I could make them friendly to me or something, but right now they just go straight to kill. But I’d love to get one sitting down, and do a portrait or an anatomical study.
Kane: So you like that area to the south, where everything’s that kind of monochrome green. That sort of Game Boy aesthetic.
Edwards: It’s completely alien.
Kane: You’ve done the cityscapes and the landscapes. Have you done any super mutants or anything like that?
Edwards: No, because I run into the same problem, where they’re just really trying to kill me, really intensely. I’d love to do more portraits. It’s difficult, because they don’t stand still. But I did a sketch of Dog, which I quite like, and I managed to get Nick Valentine to stay in place long enough for me to sketch his handsome face. But mostly it’s the landscapes; that’s what draws me to the game.
Kane: I love Nick. He’s a great character.
Edwards: Oh, he’s amazing.
Kane: You’re trained as an artist, and do this stuff professionally. Does VR feel the same as drawing from life? Is it the same as going to the park and doing a painting there, or is there something unique about it?
Edwards: It’s surprisingly similar, but I also don’t have the tactile sense of the sketchbook and a real pen, or the feeling of actually being in a location. There’s still a large sense of detachment, but it is a million times more immersive than sitting in front of a computer screen. I never thought about painting a video game before, because it’s just on a tiny box and you’re looking at it, and it’s not that interesting. But when you’re in VR, you get this extra sense of immersion and presence. Obviously, you know, I love video games, and I’ve always been fascinated with video-game worlds, and that we spent so much time in them. People spend hundreds and hundreds of hours in our worlds, and they were all crafted with love by all kinds of different people. I like exploring them, and I like the feeling they give me. Every game gives me a different atmosphere and feeling, and it makes me happy when I find a game I love enough that I just want to jump in. And this is the first time of being able to do that.
Kane: Have you tried Skyrim in VR yet?
Edwards: I have. I’m actually not a huge fan of Skyrim. I spent a lot of time playing it when it came out, but it’s not something I’ve been particularly keen to get back to. I did paint a couple of landscapes in Skyrim, but I don’t like the atmosphere as much as Fallout 4. I think maybe it’s a graphics thing; Fallout 4 has all the amazing fog and skyboxes, and it’s a character in itself. And I don’t get that feeling as much from Skyrim.
Kane: Fallout has more color, even, which is odd to say.
Kane: And in your day job, don’t you do NPC models and stuff like that?
Kane: So this is actually a very different thing that you’re doing as a hobby, in a way, right? Because you’re focusing on the environments?
Edwards: Yeah, it’s completely different to what I do in my job. It’s a different muscle I’m stretching, and a different part of my brain. I just find it a really nice way to appreciate a game.
Kane: You’re forcing yourself to see the little details that the average player is not gonna—
Edwards: Yeah. I’m not rushing anywhere. I’m just enjoying what they’ve made for me. It’s wonderful.
Kane: Is there something that you feel software developers, or somebody like Bethesda, could do to better encourage people to do this kind of thing? Do you feel like you’re having to jump through hoops? Is there a way that this kind of thing could be made more common?
Edwards: That’s interesting. I think for VR games, especially, it would be nice to give players more options to just take a breath—just to take a breather and be safe and be able to appreciate the world without having to worry about deathclaws, and demons in Doom. I really want to do some painting in Doom VR. There’s a model viewer in there—that special room with all the models in it—I’ve done a little bit of sketching in there. But that loses the window of actually inhabiting the world.
Kane: In something like Forza or Horizon Zero Dawn, when you open photo mode, you pause the whole thing. Everything freezes. And you can’t do that when you’re painting in Fallout. But it’d be nice if they could add that, maybe, where you just pause the whole game.
Edwards: Yeah, that’d be amazing to slap a button and just capture a moment. But, to me, a lot of the appeal is making something work within the limitations I’m given. So I don’t know if I would enjoy the process as much if I wasn’t having to watch out for ghouls and things like that. I like the danger.
Kane: What do you hope to see from the future of games like Fallout, in light of this hobby?
Edwards: Well, obviously, I want to see more happening in VR. I’m a big believe in VR; I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think there’s still a lot to figure out with it—it’s not perfect. I’d love to see them spending time and resources on making a true VR game, rather than a port. Something a little less clunky, just to keep the Fallout universe going.
Kane: They did the Wolfenstein spinoff for VR, so it would be nice to see more stuff like that, maybe.
Edwards: Yeah. I played that, and I thought it was wonderful. It was really fun, and it was gorgeous—I think it was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen in VR. But the gameplay was limited; they didn’t really push any envelopes. And that’s what I’d hope to see in the future.