Post-holiday greetings! I hope you’re in a pleasant haze filled with too much food (and family). I wanted to take a post to highlight a handful of the awesome, independent games that came out earlier this year. They’re all very interesting in their own rights, but they all feature interesting mechanics or stories—things I considered outstanding, specifically in relation to some of their larger peers: the Call of Duties of the world. Most of them are also perfect for new gamers, or introductions into gaming, as most eschew the traditional difficulties or reflexes associated with the medium.
You’ll find Gone Home on nearly every “best of” list this year, and for good reason. Though I wrote about it earlier from a perspective of player/protagonist relationships, the game also shines for storytelling, sexual-identity exploration, and a 90’s Riot grrrl soundtrack. Trips around an empty house will find homemade cassette tapes, childhood drawings, and evidence of hidden and open family dramas. It’s an eye-opening exploration of what’s possible in a young medium, and well worth the praise it’s receiving.
Papers, Please combines the retro visual-style of the original Nintendo with the social and political themes of a crumbling Eastern-European society. Self-described as a “dystopian document thriller,” Papers Please welcomes the player as a worker who has drawn the job of immigration inspector. By day, you process the documents of hopeful immigrants, poring over their passports, visas, and vitals to determine if they are allowed through. Stamping no can be heartbreaking; sometimes stamping yes can be, too. Part of the game is managing a desk full of reference materials, shuffling pictures, maps, text, and speed all at the same time. When you dive in, what surfaces are political plots, corruption, and a nightly mini-game where you must decide how to use your small funds to comfort your family: with medicine, food, or heat. Bleak house.
The Stanley Parable
While Gone Home was a first-person exploration of home life, The Stanley Parable is, at first, a first-person exploration of an empty office building. Today is different than yesterday, but it’s not clear why; it is—and isn’t—your job to figure out why. As you explore, the game unfolds easily into rumination on jobs, life, destiny, and games, all narrated by a velvety British voice that describes your every move. Follow his instructions, or set out on your own; the branching paths are many, and the outcomes satisfyingly different—or similar.
Antichamber is similar to so many war-like shooters in that one of its focal points is a gun. Antichamber’s gun, however, is one of creation, not destruction. Players must navigate a mostly-white world that features devious, mind-bending puzzles filled with impossible spaces, rooms, turns, and other spatial discrepancies that seem to occur when backs are turned. Learning to explore and navigate the illogical space is both nightmarish and Zen-like. At times, you feel trapped or hopeless; at others, filled with countless Eureka moments or realizations. Either way, it feels like a world to which Bill and Ted might have accidentally taken an unprepared Euclid in the middle of a proof. He won’t need that geometry here, anyway.
When my mom visited town at the beginning of the month, I got her to sit down and play her first (ever) video game. It was Proteus, and even she enjoyed it. I previously wrote about the game’s exceptional relationship with the player, but truth be told, it excels for so many other reasons. She liked encountering the stone circles, a favorite formation of hers, but others would find it comforting for its soft sounds and soft edges that roll through different seasons on what feels like commentary on life, death, and existence. Proteus is filled with hidden machinations and the feeling that there’s something deeper below the surface. But at the end, the game itself is beautiful, even at its surface, and offers up something that is well worth the visit.
Starseed Pilgrim would be a terrible dinner guest, mostly because it doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. A brief mention of seeds and you’re on your way to discovering the intricate methods (and madness) of its intrinsic system. While Starseed Pilgrim would be easy to dismiss as shallow, the truth is anything but. Players who persevere will discover a challenging yet fair world that they will literally build, planting different seeds that create different sections. Most game reviews refuse to discuss games in-depth because of plot spoilers; Starseed Pilgrim reviewers were afraid of spoiling mechanics. They’re definitely worth the wait.
November 25, 2013 · Print This Article
When 140 begins, you’re dropped into near silence. A single tone plays: low and bassy, it seems to emanate from the flat, monochromatic setting of the world. Your avatar is a lone recognizable shape: an unmoving square. Move to the left or right and transform into a circle; or jump into the air, turning briefly into a triangle before landing.
140’s protagonist-shape is instantly familiar, because it’s derived from a universal visual language. Those gentle geometric shapes are the stuff of childhood learning, the foundational building blocks of concepts such as color recognition, addition, and geometry. The square, rectangle, and triangle are a mark of simplicity, their functions instantly recognizable in motion.
What’s wonderful about 140 is that every component of the game is at its most basic, most recognizable. The colors are just as sparse as the landscape, a single-color expanse that’s all right angles save for the occasional circle. Whatever origin the game’s character came from, the world came with it.
In the Nintendo classic, Super Mario Bros., numerous pits and enemies roll across the screen at a somewhat uneven pace. The game is a pillar of the platforming genre it helped popularize. Platformers are the side-scrolling titles that defined early consoles, where a 2-dimensional protagonist such as Mario, Sonic, or 140’s shape runs and jumps between obstacles and platforms. But though the game is legendary, it can be unforgiving, confusing, and ultimately, frustrating, especially in a modern context.
While modern games are usually prefaced with in-depth tutorials requiring memorization of a vast button- or combo-system (and sometimes to the detriment of ease), Super Mario Bros. suffers from a lack of explanation. The only way to become good at the game is learning its game-design language, usually by trying, failing, and trying again until you succeed. Such as it is, it’s somewhat difficult to get into without the determination of a child, applied in full force.
This is, in part, due to expectations about difficulty. Early video games were the stuff of quarter-gobbling nightmares, an intersection between entertainment and commerce. Looking back, most games from the era seem to be defined by external forces, external expectations: we should expect games to be hard; we should expect ourselves to adapt on our own time, determine the game’s world as an adversary, and conquer games such as Mario from within ourselves.
Mario and 140 certainly share a skeleton. Their challenges are similar ones, of jumping over pits and obstacles. And while both are without explanatory text, in Mario, this feels like a technological oversight. In 140, however, it feels purposeful; the game relies on no textual explanation. Like its shapes, the game’s instructions are spoken in a language that’s universal, that we’ve all known our entire lives: music. Where there might have been lengthy tutorials, planted signposts explaining mechanics, there’s instead narrative silence. There’s no princess to rescue in 140—there’s just a song that wants to be complete. And the game is tuned entirely around creating the feeling that the player should feel invited.
140’s title is derived, presumably, from the BPM of game’s ever-present soundtrack. As the player progresses through 140, they’re treated to an ever-growing blend of electronic music. While the entry of the game is a low rumble, the introduction of the game’s first challenge—a moving platform—adds a rhythmic thrum, and each subsequent challenge increases not only in difficulty, but in musical complexity. By the end of each section, the soundtrack is varied, and as it pulses, the background of 140’s world pulses with it, as though it were an overly-reductive music visualizer.
Though the player and her shape are dropped into a world of visual and audio silence, the player progresses naturally into a world filled with vibrant color and sound. The player’s goal is to seek out a dual-colored circle that floats, and when touched, follows you. But the disc also emanates a sound pattern, as though it were calling out sonar, asking you to come get it. And when you do, you take it to another circular pattern embedded in the world, at which point the disc jumps directly into it, drawn by certain magnetism.
At this, the world explodes. Color erupts, painting you, the land, and the background in new, effervescent colors, and the music, previously a lilting silence or dull drone, turns into a celebratory ecstasy.
The landscape changes, too. Where platforms were once stationary, they now move on fixed lines, ski-lifts taking you to previously unobtainable heights. And every round they make, a familiar noise occurs, a component of the now thriving soundtrack that signals timing to player. And in the background, a beat acts as a metronome for your action, counts the moments before you need to jump.
Death in video games is usually met with a loss of lengthy process, or a dwindling of your “lives,” a holdover from the arcade days of tokens, or quarters. Lose them all, and the penalty is usually grave, can sometimes result in a loss of all forward progress.
140 has no lives, and true to its nature, checkpoints are common. These are tiny beacons of light that shoot skyward when you touch them, celebrating your progress. The music momentarily hits a filter as you falter, plunging into static after mistiming a jump. But when you return to that point, the beat of the soundtrack is there, timing the obstacles for you, for as long as you might need to internalize it.
Later, as the challenges and music build further, greater obstacles are encountered. Pits of static which ostensibly “kill” you send you back to a previous point, although the length of loss is generally minor. Blocks shift back and forth, disappear and appear in time, or expand and contract. Floors glow and bounce you into the air. It’s all incredibly joyful, even more so because it all serves to underline a distinct, obvious fact about 140: above all, it wants you to succeed.
In one of PC gaming’s most famous series, Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman. Across numerous games, the Half-Life series sees its hero traipse through dangerous environments, mostly as a result of an initial scientific accident that calls forth alien hordes. Throughout all this, Gordon is an obvious example of the “silent protagonist.” The silent protagonist is one who, quite literally, remains silent. Even in conversation with another character or the face of apparent death, Freeman makes no sounds.
The opening sequence of Half-Life is famous for an engaging establishment of its environment. The player, as Freeman, is transported via a futuristic railcar to a desert facility named Black Mesa, an amalgamation of shadowy government experimentation. As Freeman, the player takes in vague sights and listens to the monotonous drone of a pre-recorded speech extolling safety procedures. The first character Gordon Freeman interacts—and I use the term loosely—with is a security guard. The guard, upon opening the railcar door, greets him: “Morning Mr. Freeman. Looks like you’re running late.”
This bit of dialogue is one of a small collection of identifying information about Gordon, but ultimately, it doesn’t reveal much. All the player knows is that he has a prior line of history and existence with this facility. In essence, the player knows he is returning to his day job. The comment is an allusion to this character’s constant existence, his place in the game’s narrative.
In games, characters, narratives, and environments are essentially defined through two aspects. The first is that which already exists, coloring the history and environments that define the in-game world and people within it. The second is that which colors the player-character’s present, which is intrinsically tied to the game’s action—essentially what we as players see and experience. A more important distinction between the two is that the history and narrative are defined by the developer or creator, while the present of the game and the character’s present, is defined by the player and his or her actions.
As he is silent, Gordon’s interactions with other characters are defined solely by the dialogue and intent of those that interact with him. Freeman meets a variety of characters on his journey through the games, and some even develop close relationships with him. Just as the security guard’s comment solidified his history as a scientist, those interactions which occur during the actual game fill out his nature as perceived by both the characters around him, and the environment in which they exist—all as predicated by the developer. Developer-dictated detail and narrative is that which the player cannot affect, but only know and learn passively.
This is the opposite of that narrative detail which is defined by action, and as a result, the player. A large part of what begins to define the character relies upon and is determined by player action—and this action sometimes occurs in direct opposition to character history.
When a player plays as an established hero—say, Batman—the action that occurs during the player-defined portion is usually entirely in agreement with that character’s history. That is, when a player controls Batman and beats up a gang of thugs, this action is fully in line with what players expect from Batman’s colorful and storied history. His historical, developer-defined narrative transitions seamlessly into the player-defined action.
What’s perhaps most odd about Gordon Freeman is though his established history is scarce, what shines through results in direct opposition with his player-controlled present. Gordon’s day job is that of a theoretical physicist. His physicality—prominently displayed only on some editions of the box art, in the game’s menu, and briefly during spin-off games—paints him as an obvious ectomorph. Yet his player-defined narrative has him leaping over pools of caustic acid, wielding numerous firearms with incredible accuracy, and dispatching hordes of aliens and marines alike.
This isn’t an argument that the game should have been a scientist simulator—one that, given the events of the game, would have probably ended in premature death or hiding in a reinforced closet. But the developer-defined aspects of Freeman as a character—his history and his relationships—don’t come together with the player-driven narrative to create a complete, acceptable portrait. And when this happens, the relationship between the protagonist and player is not as fulfilling. Rather than portraying Freeman, the player is portraying a fantasy, and Freeman is merely a replaceable vessel.
This year saw the release of The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Much has been written about Gone Home, and for good reason—the game deals eagerly with a non-violent plot and consists of relatable family life complete with uncomfortable discovery, a 1995 setting with a Riot Grrl soundtrack, and celebration of sexual identity.
But in addition to that—which alone makes the game worth exploring, ten times over—it offers a refreshing version of the player-defined narrative, one that creates a unique relationship between player, protagonist, and environment. One of the geniuses of Gone Home is that its environment is not only entirely unknown to its player, but that its environment is also entirely unknown to its protagonist. The protagonist, Kaitlin (or Katie) is an elder daughter returning from an extended overseas trip. In the meantime, her family (a father, mother, and younger sister) have moved into a house willed to them from the father’s estranged uncle. Her return finds the house empty, leaving her and the player without a guide or character with which to interact.
This single aspect defines the environment an exciting way: one that is entirely unknown to both the player and the protagonist. This allows for the player to more closely identify with Katie as a protagonist, sharpening the relationship. And when the relationship is a closer one, the player-driven action becomes more relevant in moving towards meaningfully defining a character and world.
Gone Home is essentially a story about relationships, told via intelligent discovery and modern archaeology. As the player-as-Katie moves through the home, mysteries unfold via papers left out. Notes from Katie’s younger sister Sam provide the central narrative, while crumpled notes, pamphlets, and other documents fill out the mother and father in addition.
What’s interesting about Gone Home isn’t just the unified developer-defined narrative, but the narrative that develops as defined through the player’s action. Rather than shooting aliens or (gleefully) breaking crates as in Half-Life, Gone Home’s interactivity is defined by searching and discovering. While the player’s actions on a most basic level defines Kaitlin as a snoop without any sort of respect for boundaries, they, perhaps more importantly, serve to define the environment around them. Much of the game’s content is bound up in secrecy, waiting to be unleashed, and only with careful searching does the world come into focus.
Historically—and in games such as Half-Life—the environment and the characters within it are developer-defined, and as a result, the protagonist’s history is as well. But in Gone Home, the lack of external characters ultimately means a lack of active developer-driven meaning, and instead the player finds something that feels more personal.
And while of course, all of the content in Gone Home has been placed there by the developer—they are still the writer and creator of the game, after all—the player’s action is what actually serves as the access point. Though the player in most games propels the action simply by playing—in the same way a reader reveals the action by reading—the player in Gone Home serves as a more active propellant of the slow reveal of the environment and its characters.
What begins to develop, then, is a picture of Gone Home as a game where the player-as-protagonist is the driving force for the narrative. This is because Gone Home’s player-action is one that paints a picture of the protagonist and the relationships around her in the exact way the protagonist would on her own. This allows the protagonist, and the resulting player/protagonist relationship, to feel incredibly powerful. Because when the player-as-protagonist defines the narrative or the environment, the player/protagonist’s action defines the way in which that entity interacts with them. In a sense, they become the driving force behind the game’s emotional impact. When a player-as-protagonist feels as though they have the power to drive forth the narrative, defining the environment and protagonist through their discoveries and actions, gaming as a medium truly shines.
But perhaps more importantly, as the player gains control and the ability to define the narrative through the interactivity of the medium, the developer appears to exert less control. And when the developer wields less control, they fade from the experience of the game, allowing it to stand on its own. While the relationship between the player and the developer is an interesting one (and well worth exploring at another time), they happen to be at direct odds with either’s direct relationship to the game and the protagonist. In a sense, the developer must be able to release full control of their creation, their child, to the player, and allow them to determine the protagonist’s existence and relation to the game as a whole.
September 30, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Paul King
The most recent time I loaded up the game Dark Souls, my character unsheathed a sword from her back and drew her shield. And then I noticed a message, written maybe two steps away: “Grief.”
The world of Dark Souls is, as the title would suggest, dark. It’s a classic, worn down fantasy world where everything is crumbling. Your character begins in a prison for the lost and undead; your default state is one of decay. Even as you continue to a city meant for gods, all is in dangerous, ruinous disrepair.
And most of the game is spent alone. Save a few neutral, stationary characters, any sort of dialogue is non-existent. Your hero never speaks, only grunts in the heat of battle, and these stationary merchants quickly run out of new phrases, things to sell you, or purposes to exist.
But at a certain point, your character may buy (or steal) a chunk of soapstone from one of these merchants. Once you obtain the soapstone, you may use it to write, coating the floor in incandescent orange scribbles that, upon interaction, reveal their text.
During the course of Dark Souls, no fix for the broken world emerges. At times, other characters hint that the universe has descended into darkness from a former glory, and your lone hero’s quest might be the thing to restore it. But nothing you do on your journey really changes anything; felled enemies reappear upon your death and subsequent rebirth, and also upon the saving of your progress. But while your standard fantasy actions yield no change and are easily erased, the soapstone allows you to impact the game’s world in a singular, everlasting way: through writing.
There’s a multiplayer component of Dark Souls that allows players to enter the world of another. One can invade or be summoned, and these are adversarial or cooperative interactions, respectively. Both are temporary.
Messages penned with the soapstone, on the other hand, are permanent. Quit the game and return days later, they will still be there. And perhaps more importantly, while invasions and summons are constrained to a single instance of the game world—that of the invaded or summoning player—messages, instead, are universal. Write a message on the floor of a chapel within your game, and the same message appears in the same chapel of another person’s game.
And there they sit, for any other player who happens by it. But much like the world of Dark Souls, the system in which messages are created is opaque and difficult.
The soapstone may be used to write a variety of messages, but only from a template. You choose a format—for instance, “Try _____” or “Be wary of ______.” Once you’ve chosen a format, you can then choose from a list of categories to fill that blank. Options here include orientation (“Try left,” “Be wary of right”), objects (“Try sword,” “Be wary of chest”), and attributes (“Try fire”).
Because the messages are selected from a template, speech is limited, and as such, messages become muddied. As with the world, story, and mission of the game, the onus is on the player as a reader to determine the intent of a message. And as with the rest of the game, the system can be frustrating—authorial intent easily becomes unclear, especially in the wake of present danger due to the game’s refusal to be paused. Pick the wrong moment to write a message, or linger too long on selecting the correct Mad-Libbian phrase and it might instead spell death.
And Dark Souls’ closed language system isn’t immune to classic video game juvenility. At a certain point, my character encountered the message “Amazing chest ahead,” but instead of referring to what would make the most sense—a treasure chest—it was instead placed in front of a female character as an unfortunate reference to her anatomy.
While this example is depressing, it’s fortunately rare. It also serves to underscore what is an even more important facet of the closed language: context. Not only may players choose what combinations of message to write, they may also choose where to place it within the world—for it to be a static element in the world of others. The same message becomes manifold depending on its placement.
A canned, writable phrase in the game is “Praise the Sun!” This is one of the only phrases that does not contain a mutable component (alongside “Good Job!” and “I did it!”). Its placement is intended in relation to one of the game’s religions—meant to be written in a peaceful, brightly lit area upon which the sun shines. A prayer.
I found it once at the bottom of a sewer. Surrounded by the carcasses of massive, dead rats—think The Princess Bride—here it was: “Praise the Sun!” In this context it served as an entirely different message, rife with a sense of irony not possible if placed in a different area. Though the text said differently, the message was obviously one of despair.
Just before an encounter with a massive, angry beast, somebody had written “try jumping.” And after dying to the creature several times—an event that happens with most encounters of the difficult game—the message clicked. And indeed, it was jumping from a ledge and plunging a sword into the monster’s waiting back that proved to be the best strategy.
Elsewhere, I found the same message written on a set of uneven stone stairs, a crumbling railing beside it. “Try jumping.” I angled my view downward, past the railing, and saw only an endless descent, one that would surely kill me.
It did. After I learned a lesson about trust, I discovered another message, not far away: “Beware liar.”
And what begins to emerge from identical phrases is a changing language, one dependent entirely on a static world. While some messages are incredibly straightforward (my favorite is “Illusory wall ahead”), others are incredibly vague.
One of the more interesting categories to choose a “blank” from is “Concepts.” The category sits at the bottom of the list, beneath “Characters,” “Objects,” and more, almost as if it were an afterthought. It is from this list some nameless stranger chose to pen “grief.”
What strikes me especially about the use of “grief” is that it is wholly unnecessary—the entire world embodies “grief.” Though “happiness” is present on the list of concepts, the use of the word makes little to no sense in the context of Dark Souls—there is, ultimately, nothing happy within the game.
But within the constraints of the language system, these awkward, single words can be used in new ways that don’t necessarily pertain to the game. Before a particularly trying monster, instead of writing “Try lightning”—the monster’s supposed weakness—one could instead place “Try hope,” stepping outside of intended use.
What’s interesting about these concepts is that they were placed in an otherwise interesting and well-thought out system; one that plays to the same difficulties and themes of the game. It is only when we as players make a conscious decision to write a specific message does the system break down, distancing itself from in-game tips and evolving into something poetic. When the system breaks, it allows players to leave an effective mark on not only their game world, but the game worlds of others.
Because while all messages might be eternal, the ones that conform to a useful fantasy system—tips, locations, or secrets—ultimately interact with the world by blending into it, not changing it. The jumping tip about the monster led me to a strategic shortcut, while the deceitful note on the staircase created a new, interactive game experience. Those that reference nothing in the world but language concepts create new experiences entirely outside of the game.
Much of Dark Souls deals with the idea of immortality. Your character, like most video game characters, is seemingly tireless. Die, and be brought back again, and again, unceasingly until the game is done. The environments and enemies around you never change, and the latter is in seemingly endless supply. Even when your quest is over, the only option is to start over, either as a new character or the same one, this time in a harder difficulty.
Though the entirety of the game is caught up in this idea of perpetual fantasy, it promotes an unchanging stasis rather than an everlasting immortality. The player created messages—which ultimately exist outside of developer boundary or intent—are the only things that truly seem to point towards immortality. While standard, intentional messages quickly blend into the context of the game’s world; those that break the mold escape the world and its shortfall. When a message references nothing external in the static game world—through the intentional or unintentional garbling of the closed system—it turns into a testament of itself. As a result, it transforms the writer from a player, into an author, leaving an indelible mark.
Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.
August 26, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Paul King
The sole page of Proteus’ help screen begins “Move with WASD. Look around with the mouse.”
No other controls exist, besides the space bar. Instead of offering a traditional jump, it commands the player’s avatar to sit, peacefully, for as long as they might. The help screen’s final instructions begin with what seems like half of a warning: “Each island is unique, but familiar.”
To move past the title screen and into the game, you begin by clicking the silhouette of a distant island. After fading, the screen opens from a murky black into a gently disappearing elliptical shape, as though you were slowly opening your eyelids. You’ve awoken in what appears to be an endless ocean, a muted sea-green punctuated by the gentle lapping of white reflections. In the distance, you begin to make out the outline of a shrouded landmass. As you trudge towards it, the only anchor in the game’s ceaseless sea, you can practically feel the sunlight of the raincoat-yellow orb shining in the sky.
Everything in Proteus is rendered in a blocky, colorful style that should be familiar to everyone who’s ever seen an early pixelated video game. (Think the “ball” of pong, or the sharp edges of Mario.) But the style isn’t due to a lack of processing power or graphical method; instead, the world’s lack of texture translates into a picturesque canvas of flat colors, almost as though you were gazing directly into a visual interpretation of one of Brian Eno’s ambient tracks.
As you climb onto the shores of your island and walk past the flat browns of tree trunks and across the rolling green hills dotted with single-color flowers and blocks representing dandelions, an ambient soundtrack erupts. These are the changing environs and characters, and your interactions with them feel as though they were entirely up to you.
When somebody completes any video game, they tend to have finished a universal experience. Though the person playing it might have preferred a different gun, or tactic, or motorcycle, their journey is usually one shared by all other players. Certain blockbuster titles, usually role-playing games, offer choice and varied game paths as a selling point. There, you might choose to be a thieving elf that sneaks through danger, or a devil-may-care warrior slaying all in your path. Ultimately, however, the same challenges are present.
Proteus doesn’t exactly offer a challenge. There are no tests of dexterity or hand-eye coordination; there is only your movement through and consideration of the world, your journey. Pass by a stone obelisk and hear a great deep bass noise burst and fade slowly into a background of crickets. Chase a frog and hear its hops become the staccato twang of a distant guitar, or reach a mountainous peak above a plateau of raining clouds and listen to an uplifting crescendo.
Some sound origins are obvious. The crickets cricket, and leaves fall like soft glass. Still, there are other tones I’m uncertain about. Perhaps it was my position on a specific hill, or maybe it was the shadow of a pink-tufted tree. Proteus’ soundtrack—a constant soothing orchestration of hidden instruments—is only one of the complex machinations behind deceitfully simple visuals.
Each island in Proteus is procedurally generated. Algorithmically, one comes together in a way that is unique, but familiar, placed together by a machine, or equation.
At a certain point, the boxy sun sets and is replaced by the moon. Night arrives, marked by a deep blue and a subdued soundtrack. Slowly, the bright dots of the island’s airspace—be they fireflies, wisps, spots of cotton—swirl and gather, until finally, they culminate in a furious whirlwind at the center of a circle of stones. As you approach it, time speeds up. Clouds and stars race above you, the trees around you begin to shudder and dance. The music, now faster, eggs them on. Enter the circle and soon, the screen fades to white, almost as if signaling an end to your time on the island, a quiet release from the frenzied energy. But then island returns, rewarding a patient moment of darkness in the same way a morning welcomes those just stirring from sleep.
The colors have changed slightly, and the music with it. In the air before you dances a swarm of bees. Above you the calm sphere of the sun now has flaring tendrils, shining down harder than before. Vibrant collections of flowers have sprouted up since you walked into the mystical circle of stones and its swirling puffs.
Usually when a game environment transforms, dangers arrive. Night might reveal prowling tigers, shambling zombies, or some spooky other. Proteus remains peaceful, instead signaling the end of its day and condensed season with frenetic motion. Though you act as a catalyst in the seasonal change by entering that swirling circle, you can’t help but feel a small component of a greater cycle; a piece in an action that comes from a living, breathing land mass. The whole island, player included, enters a chrysalis and emerges anew.
Often, a game’s digital world exists solely as a static landscape with one-sided interaction. Usually, it is up to us as individual players to act as the experimental component or the dynamic instrument. But though we, as individuals in a programmed world, might be dynamic, we all fulfill the same role. We are the same cog that fits into a developer’s machine, makes it turn linearly through its universal paces. This tends to result in an identical experience for all who play the same game.
There are pieces of Proteus that hint at an identical experience. You awake in an ocean; you climb ashore a distant island; you swirl through the seasons. But since each island is procedurally generated, no two islands or games will ever truly be the same.
At a certain point during my night in Proteus, a white owl appeared in a tree, staring at me before taking off and flying to the next tree; later, I walked towards the crude ruins of a tower to find myself teleported to another crumbling monument.
I learned later that others retelling their experiences on the game’s forums had not encountered the owl. Instead, one account was dominated by a dark figure that appeared after the night sky had turned red, only to run off, while making sure the player was following. Some played with constellations; some sat in solemn graveyards. While we had all played Proteus, it became clear that we did not share the same experiences; we all wandered through different worlds, encountering familiar aspects in a unique way.
The main difference between unique play in Proteus and role-playing games is agency. In a massive fantasy or space world, the player is given what appears to be wide path to play how they wish. They move through a static world and sculpt it in a pre-designed fashion. Ultimately, the developers of these games give players the gift of agency, the ability to move through that world and shape it.
This also forces the game to be reliant upon the player. Even if a game’s narrative is linear, it depends on the player to advance it. For example, a programmed character within a game may walk a programmed path, forever, until a player enters and engages its route. By interacting with that non-player character (NPC), the player has helped it fulfill its destiny, and furthered the action of the world. The expectation is that the world exists at the behest of the player, and the player is often imbued with the power of a god who may alter the world.
While Proteus as a game—and product— exists for the player, its world isn’t reliant upon a specific player experience. Because it isn’t static, differences occur, many and obviously, around the player. Because the world is produced dynamically, the player must act as a static element with practically no control. And though each player may in turn approach the game in an identical capacity, once the island is generated, it is a fresh, dynamic world each time, reducing the potential for a homogenized experience.
The largest contributor to this success is the way in which Proteus plays with music. The endless cacophony (both aural and visual) that permeates the atmosphere is so incredibly active. As a player explores, animals or flowers don’t change course like an NPC. Instead, they react naturally, not as though they were born for your experience, but almost as if the opposite were true. When you approach an area that produces a sine wave—be it a tree, a slope, or some other mystery—the feeling isn’t that Proteus or the object in Proteus has begun to play for you, but that the sound, or owl, or structure was always there, and you just happened, through a chance generation, to wander into it. Starting a game of Proteus is not like listening to a pre-recorded album, but like listening to the chaotic throng of generative music. And though you might begin and stop Proteus at will, there’s no guarantee that the island’s music will follow.
Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.