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Bringing Cinderella City Back to Life as a Virtual Video Game

An image of Cinderella City at its peak as shared with us by photographer Ron Pollard for the 2014 post "Back in Time: Modern in Denver Recalls the Last Days of Cinderella City."
An image of Cinderella City at its peak as shared with us by photographer Ron Pollard for the 2014 post "Back in Time: Modern in Denver Recalls the Last Days of Cinderella City."
Image courtesy of Modern in Denver

Since March 2018, we've kept you up to date on a fascinating project: an attempt to bring Englewood's Cinderella City, once one of the most famous malls in the country, back to virtual life fifty years after it opened by turning it into a de facto video game.

Denver designer Josh Goldstein's labor of love has included unearthing vintage photos from the retail mecca's glory years to ensure authenticity, and collaborating with musical acts, including one with the appropriate name Dead Mall, to enhance the experience.

In recent months, Goldstein, who works for the tech company Autodesk and is using its cutting-edge FormIt software for his Cinderella City resurrection, has achieved what he describes as "a few significant milestones," which are captured in a new video that will amaze the generations of Denver-area residents who remember visiting the shopping center and provide an engrossing experience for those too young to have strolled the sprawling complex, Orange Julius in hand.

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"When I first started the project," Goldstein notes via email, "I imported all of the simulation assets (think 3D models of the mall's geometry, including textures and materials) from the 3D modeling application into the game engine by hand, for the initial proof-of-concept." However, "The process was not sustainable, as I was manually adjusting the assets as they came in (things like adding reflective qualities to some materials or ensuring that the player 'collides' with objects in the mall), and then updating them again when the model changed, which proved to be time-consuming and stressful."

A shot from a multi-image post showing the Gold Mall over the years. Click to see more photos from this post on the Cinderella City Project's Instagram page.
A shot from a multi-image post showing the Gold Mall over the years. Click to see more photos from this post on the Cinderella City Project's Instagram page.
Englewood Public Library via The Cinderella City Project

Since then, Goldstein has "written a ton of code to automate this process and carefully tested it on-the-fly in a slimmed-down version of Cinderella City (basically only floors and ceilings, no walls, storefronts, or columns — trippy!). I successfully automated and tested all of the steps I was doing previously by hand and am now using this code in the actual simulation. For example: When importing any geometry, the code automatically sets the correct scale, forces re-import of materials and textures, and depending on the object's name, will automatically make it visible in the scene and enable it as a collider. (Most objects are colliders, i.e., you don't want to fall through solid floors or walk through solid walls. However, I have strategically made all windows and some doors non-colliding, so the player can walk between indoor/outdoor spaces or into back rooms and hallways by walking through the doors, until I figure out a way to make them open automatically.)"

In addition, "When importing floor, ceiling, wall, and storefront models, the code looks for certain material names and automatically applies properties like smoothness and metallic for reflection effects. When importing light fixtures and signage, the code looks for certain names and automatically applies light emission properties (color and intensity of light), so the objects glow and illuminate the space around them."

Once this critical foundation was written into code, Goldstein continues, "I was able to use my new skills to automate more processes and start making progress on new features and functionality in the game: I've added 2D placeholder trees in the 3D model, and when I import them into the game engine, they're automatically replaced by the code (again using object names as the guide) with detailed 3D trees built for the game engine. For example, Shamrock Mall gets its iconic series of trees marching down the corridor, the Food Court gets its large tree poking up through the floor of the Blue Mall, and there are other areas of the mall that receive little ornamental trees of a different type still."

Goldstein had previously configured speakers in the mall ceilings to transmit a single track, but they're now "controlled by code to automatically play a series of songs, which can be customized per store or per area. I also added Betamaxx to the list of musical collaborators, joining Dead Mall and B Dalton, to provide music (and ambient chatter) for common areas and some stores."

The latest modeling progress, music additions and improved visual effects are showcased in the following clip:

What's next?

"I'll be starting work in earnest to get realistic 3D people walking around the mall," Goldstein reveals. "However, this poses a conundrum: How period-correct will these people be? Ideally, I'd have two sets of people: those recognizably from the 1960s/’70s era, and those recognizably from the 1980s/1990s era. I'm not sure how doable this is, but either way, I'm not in the business of 3D modeling people, so I need to source these from other creators. There are 'population packs' I can buy online, which feature animated people of various realism levels, but these are fairly expensive. I'm also thinking ahead to other assets, like furniture and cars, which I may need to purchase as well to add realism and fill up the empty spaces."

Folks who'd like to contribute to the effort can do so at this page. According to Goldstein, "The funds I receive will go towards purchasing digital assets I mentioned above, as well as other software and hardware that may be required to make the simulation as realistic and high-performing as possible." Moreover, "I'll be adding support for displaying real photographs of the mall in the 3D simulated spaces, aligned such that the player can visually match the view in the game with the view in the photograph (the photos will be slightly translucent and floating in space, and can be toggled on/off with a shortcut). This could be a really nice way to tie the historical aspect back into the simulation, as well as add interest to spaces that are otherwise empty."

Upcoming elements include "a main menu, so the player can select where in the mall (and in what era) they want to start. I'll also be adding a credits screen to compile the growing list of contributors and crowd-sourced help I've received so far. I'll also be building out the infrastructure to allow the player to switch between eras while staying in the same location in the space."

On top of that, Goldstein has set up what he describes as the "Cinderella City Project 'Leave a Memory' phone line," at 7-CIN-CITY-68, or 724-624-8968. In his words, "I'm hoping to encourage fans of the mall to call in and share a heartfelt memory, or a few, that they'd like to have preserved inside the digital mall simulation. My plan is to take the recorded audio clips from the voicemail box and attach them to the 3D animated mall patrons inside the exhibit. As a visitor in the digital mall, you'll be able to 'tune in' to the spoken memories from the characters around you, who will also stop moving if you get close, so you can listen to their complete memory without them walking away. This could be a great way to introduce more human elements into the simulation, and if I receive voicemails pertaining clearly to distinct time periods, will also add to the effect of 'time traveling' between the two eras I'm focusing on in the exhibit."

The project is entirely open-source and accessible online by clicking here. Goldstein points out that "I've had a couple of determined fans download and run the game and offer their feedback on the experience, which has been helpful. It's nerdy, but tech-minded fans can watch this page for the latest releases of the Cinderella City Simulation, which also outlines what's new and what's changed between versions."

One more thing: A slew of recently posted, and amazing, historical images from the mall can be found at the Cinderella City Project Instagram page.

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