Proteus finally came out a few weeks ago and as well as falling in love all over again (the finished version is an order of magnitude richer than the work in progress that I played last year) I have also greatly enjoyed the discussion surrounding its status as a videogame.
To my mind, the controversy mirrors the uncertainties that you might find in other media if (or when) the approaches of creators from different eras came into conflict. Raphael might not have considered Mark Rothko’s works as even being paintings. It’s hard to even imagine what Mozart might have made of Ligeti’s music. From our vantage point, looking back over the tradition, however, we can see how such divergent works fit together within the same medium and how the development of any creative medium is partly marked by cutting away assumptions and preconceptions. Furthermore, that cutting away often comes in convulsive jumps – T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land was described as falling across the poetic tradition like an axe. You could say something similar about the arrival of impressionism in painting or punk in rock music.
The discussions over Proteus, 30 Flights of Loving and similar games*, seem strongly indicative that the videogame medium is going through a convulsion of this sort and that assumptions about the defining ingredients of a videogame are suddenly up for grabs. In a sense it is a convulsion at the ‘auteur’ end of the spectrum (for want of a better phrase) which answers the convulsion at the purely commercial end of the spectrum with the arrival of social gaming and ‘cow clickers’ over the last half-dozen years or so. However, while that convulsion left me uneasy I find the current convulsion hugely exciting.
Looking at the history of the other mediums mentioned above, with hindsight we can see that the convulsions invariably turn out to be the regeneration pangs of the medium and usher in new work which is not only as great – on its own terms – as anything that came before but also reveals that the state of the art as it stood under the previously assumed constraints was, if not moribund, at least approaching senescence. The arrival of impressionism shows up the exhaustion and limitations of the French artistic establishment as embodied in the Academy des Beaux-Arts. By contrast, the pinnacles of different aesthetic approaches continue to happily co-exist: Rothko’s Seagram paintings are as deserving of their place in Tate Modern as Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna is of its place in the National Gallery.
In the videogame field, I think we are going see a range of assumed constraints being ditched and the result will – hopefully – be a new and exciting regeneration of the medium, although some creators, who are ploughing well-established furrows, may find it uncomfortable. In terms of identifying some of those specific assumptions, everyone will have their guess and so I’m going to set out mine, again by analogy with another creative tradition.
In funk and related musical genres there is a concept which is known as ‘hot space’**. ‘Hot space’ is essentially syncopation taken to an extreme – the idea that by leaving silence at points where you strongly expect emphasis a rhythm can defeat expectations and become more effective as a result. The ebb and flow of the music is suggested convincingly by minimal accents around the central beats rather than on them – a kind of rhythmic impressionism, if you like.
I think that part of what we have seen with games like Proteus is creators pushing into the videogame equivalent of hot space. Videogames are defined, in part, by interaction – without interaction a videogame turns into film or audio book or whatever. What we see in the two games mentioned above is a decision by the creators in each case to remove interactivity from parts of the work where you would most expect to find it, creating ‘hot space’ within the overall interactive texture.
I’ll look at two examples, from 30 Flights of Loving and Proteus, in more detail. Early on in 30 Flights of Loving, you find your way into the team’s hideout. Anita and Borges are there and the detritus of the team’s planning is scattered around the room. There is ostensibly loads of interactivity – ammo to collect, guns and booze to pick up, NPCs to click on. In each case you ‘press [E] to interact’. However, it very quickly becomes apparent that by collecting the ammo, guns and booze you are not stocking up an inventory or amassing buffs or adding to your range of virtual firepower. The items disappear from the gameworld but what appear superficially to be ultra-traditional, core interactions – gameplay ‘down’ beats, as it were – turn out to be interactively meaningless.
What is the effect? For me, at least, this realisation transformed the space. Instead of being a traditional videogame space where my attention is focused on resource gathering – shimmer, beeline, click – and which functions as an intermezzo between action bubbles, it became a puzzle, a space where I am challenged to see these items not as resources but as meaningful objects within the game world. Where did they get all these guns from? What’s with the crates of booze? The contrast between the way in which such a space would have exhibited its interactivity in a traditional videogame and how it is actually experienced in this work forces a whole new way of thinking about the experience.
Chung takes this to another level with the two NPCs. When I first encounter them I know exactly what is going on – these are expositors and quest-givers. They will explain a situation and set me a task to complete within it. I have encountered this species on thousands of occasions. The rule is simple – if an NPC doesn’t shoot at you (and in this case I know that they won’t because I haven’t had a shooting tutorial yet) or sell something to you (again, unlikely, given that I haven’t got any cash), then they will have a job for you. So I meet Anita and Borges and I know what to expect – they are going to fill in the background and give me an objective. But my expectation is defeated. They don’t give me a job – instead what I get is a condensed character sketch of each. Furthermore, in contrast to the traditional set up where the videogame will have shoved me along a notch (“You better get going. We really need those unobtanium pelts.”), I can rerun each sequence repeatedly, examining the series of stills in more detail and finding new ways to read them – is this how I see the characters or how they see themselves? By defeating my expectation of how these interactions will fit into the whole, the work forces me to reposition my perspective on these characters. They are not familiar quest-givers, they are friends and co-conspirators and integral parts of a wider social tapestry that is hinted at in their characterizations as confectioner and best man. By defeating my interactive expectation and revealing these apparent interactions as being in fact purposeless, when viewed within the constraints of traditional FPS conventions, the experience of meeting Anita and Borges is that much more powerful.
A second example, this time from Proteus. A few days ago, I played Proteus briefly with my daughter, who has just turned four. Her PC gaming experience to date is entirely within the limits of the Cbeebies website so I was curious to see what she might make of it and also how she reacted to using the mouse in a 3D environment. I’m sorry to say that in her overall assessment it was “a bit boring” (coincidentally, what she also said about the British Museum). However, she did enjoy engaging with it and there were some parts that she was quite enthusiastic about. During the 15 or 20 minutes that we played one of the encounters we had was with a group of animals that bob up and down, hooting gently. My daughter’s immediate reaction to the group was “let’s click on them! We’ve got to click on them!”. Even within her very limited experience of games on the computer she has already learnt that core precept: if there is something active on the screen then you need to click on it, you need to poke it, prod it, interact with it. Once you get to more grown-up games then the interaction is typically dressed up as killing, but at heart it is the same – you, the player, must do the poking.
Of course, in Proteus there is no clicking, poking and prodding (although my daughter remains convinced that it should be possible to get into the wooden shack by clicking on the door). When we encounter the hooters we can’t click on them, Key has taken away what in a more traditional game, like Far Cry 3, would be the central interaction. We have the interactive equivalent of ‘hot space’. So instead the rest of our interaction is immediately made that much more meaningful. Exactly how we look and turn and move impacts on our experience of the visual and musical textures. With the hooters we wanted to try and get closer, to see them in more detail, but as you approach they take fright, shake for a split second and then vanish into the ground to reappear elsewhere. Instead of experiencing clicky power, we experience the exclusion of being big lumbering creatures whose nature makes it impossible for us to experience the hooters in any detail. In a sense, our remaining interactive freedom to move closer becomes disempowering rather than empowering, a barrier rather than gateway to experience. That whole reframing of the interaction is made possible by taking away the expected core interaction of clicking on the creatures.
A few final words: I am a huge fan of Sid Meier’s famous adage that a game is a series of interesting decisions. I think it is one of the most useful ways of thinking about videogames that I have encountered and I think he says something very profound about the nature of interactivity. Superficially, you can see Proteus and similar games as a rejection of this principle and some of the commentators have taken a very negative line towards these games, suggesting that they are somehow ‘too passive’ and not sufficiently goal oriented. I find this approach to be unnecessarily pessimistic.
For me, Proteus is anything but a rejection of Meier’s principle. It is true that Proteus takes away some of the decision-making that we treat as foundational in videogames – like the decision to click on things. However, by taking out those givens, Proteus is able to achieve something far more spectacular: it makes the familiar background interactivity, the off-beats and accents, become a highly granular series of interesting decisions in its own right. Decisions that are not simply about an optimal path between objectives but are instead about precisely how – inch by inch and degree by degree – we are going to explore and experience this beautifully rich and responsive world. Decisions where not interacting, holding back, remaining still, watching and listening rather than doing, become the most rewarding and personal experience of all.
*Dear Esther is the poster-child here. Personally, I bounced right off it, finding the audio clips very immersion breaking, and didn’t even finish it. For this reason, I decided to leave Dear Esther out of the discussion here and focus on two games which did resonate very strongly with me.
**Google and Wikipedia have failed me and I can only find discussion of the Queen album which takes its name from the concept. But I’m sure I haven’t made it up.