Thursday, February 7, 2013


It's been a big time for Indie games. Several long-awaited titles have recently made their way to release, and the one I've currently been exploring is Proteus. Put simply, Proteus is a game in which you explore a simply-depicted island landscape over the course of four seasons to discover both its environs and, crucially, the accompanying music associated with each element. It is a journey through two landscapes: one visual, the other auditory, and the two are inseparable. Both components are impressionistic, or perhaps more accurately post-impressionistic in nature; the extremely limited detail on the visuals and the suggestive but not prescriptive sounds invite the player to mediate between Proteus and one's experience of the real world. The game also has a certain Romantic bent to it, being involved in most respects with nature and the natural. A small Norse-looking hut, some blackened ruins which are apparently towers, a few rows of weathered headstones and a circle of inscrutable totemic statues are the only artificial presences in Proteus' procedurally-generated environment.
I hope there are theories on the pixel that sticks out.
This leads me to the core concept of the structure of Proteus. Every time you play, the island is different. The actual components are the same, of course, but their arrangement and the composition of the landscape is never identical to a previous experience. Each game of Proteus replicates the same events in a randomised land: you open your eyes on the shore and explore over the course of the day. As the sun sets you pass into night, where gradually fairy-lights gather into a ring which accelerates time the closer you get to it. Stepping into the ring passes you onto the next phase, which is a similar day-night sequence in the following season with different music and events available. The game opens on a bright and fresh Spring which grows into a bold and busy Summer which itself fades to a stately, golden-leafed Autumn before passing finally to a quiet and solemn winter, at the end of which you rise into the sky and close your eyes.
Imagine nice music playing.
Proteus' greatest virtue, arguably, is its soundtrack. Your proximity to objects, the time of day, the season and even your elevation have an effect on what music is played, and everything from standing stones to trees to hopping pixellated animals add something different to that season's theme. I personally found Autumn at dusk to be a particularly enjoyable piece, which is complemented by moving from tree to tree and passing by flowers and stones. The music can become somewhat jumbled if rushed through, and so it's necessary for the Proteus player to take their time and savour the music, because it really is the main "object" of the game; otherwise you're just waiting for time to pass until it ends.
Proteus in the
the Spring.
The simple visuals are evocative of the days of games past, but they have their own unique charm and identity which contributes to the overall sense of reconnection with natural beauty and the simple pleasures of existence. One of the game's primary features, beyond the discovery of music, is unearthing many secrets hidden around the island which are activated at different times. For instance, visiting a grove of large trees with a particularly mighty specimen in the middle will, at the right time, cause a spectral fox or wolf head to peer out at you from behind the trunks, vanishing before you can get too close. Bees in Summer will chase you, increasing your movement speed, and a pair of exotic flying creatures will wend their way through the skies overhead. My personal favourite of these events is upon visiting the totem circle on an Autumn evening. In the Spring and Summer this causes the stars overhead to bulge and throb in a curious fashion, but in Autumn the sky also shifts into a singular red colour with an fittingly unearthly soundtrack, while waiting long enough manifests the appearance of a silhouetted Owl Man who hurries off into the night leaving a trail of stars in his wake. I daresay there are other secrets which I have not yet unearthed, and that is one reason for why I continue to play through Proteus.
A Mediterranean climate?
Proteus is fundamentally a contemplative experience where the player must progress through time from a distinct beginning to an unmistakeable end to achieve its object, and its reflections on the inevitability and indeed the necessity of change and the progression of time are effectively evoked through its simple mechanics as each stage presents to the explorer its auditory and visual stimulus. It is definitely conducive to a meditative and potentially introspective atmosphere in which the player can relax while also being mentally active. The game is, more or less, what each player makes of it and will be rewarding to those who engage their curiosity and desire to explore, but also who wish to consider, speculate and imagine. The game does not make demands; there is no interaction beyond movement, and the seasons before Winter progress at the players' choice, and as such it functions successfully as a catalyst for thought as an alternative to being an end in itself. In this sense it is valuable as an experience beyond its aesthetics, and it is the emotional and intellectual environment in which it places the player as well as the uniquely aesthetic one which has motivated me to play through several times.
"We go by many names..."
There has been some surprisingly fierce debate online as to whether Proteus truly constitutes a game given its simple premise and limited objectives. Labels like "art game" and "interactive experience" have been thrown around to better justify, in the eyes of doubters, the presence of Proteus on the scene. These concerns, however, are I think predicated on grounds which are not necessarily sensible. The issue with Proteus compared to much of what are termed "games" is that a "gamer" might not necessarily play Proteus or find it interesting if they did in the same way that they might not go to see an exhibition of Turner masterpieces at an art gallery; it's operating largely in a different medium to those with which most people playing games have become accustomed, which is to say games focused on story or action which have more in common with the mediums of literature and film.
There must be some Toros in the atmosphere.
That is, however, one of the great values of games - that they can operate within multiple media to achieve different effects. There may be little challenge beyond discovering the various events of the island, but the same can be said of engaging narrative-focused games like To the Moon where finding significant items was mostly a mechanic for keeping the interesting story going along. They may not follow all conventional game structures but they are no less valuable for that fact, and in many ways are more focused as a result. I don't believe that Proteus and work of its ilk should be ostracised from the medium of games purely because of unconventionalities; they simply serve to challenge the usual modes of expression found in other titles. On the other hand, Proteus is not an experience which everyone will appreciate, because it engages with other media and culture which is alien and irrelevant to many people, and some would struggle to justify even its modest price tag. Bearing its simplicity in mind, however, it should be rewarding to those of a certain sensibility and open eyes and ears.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


3D stairs are just one example of this game's insane
bending of reality

Now I'm not the kind of person who is in the habit of describing anything as a "masterpiece" or, worse still, a tour de force. That's lucky, because Antichamber is neither of those things. What it is, however, is an interesting Indie Game to which I can give something of a recommendation. I came across Antichamber on its release day simply by perusing the Steam Specials, as I am wont to do, and there it was at a mild discount. I was intrigued, I must admit, by its core premise - the use of a virtual environment to simulate as if it were real certain ideas which only occur through visual trickery in real life. This was similar to what initially attracted me to Portal as well, and the two games are reminiscent of each other, being visually austere first person puzzle experiences with simple mechanics and limited story elements. I did a quick spot of research and it appeared from other players that this was indeed the case. It was for this reason, therefore, that I jumped on the bandwagon. I'm fairly sure the fact that it's an Indie game cancels that out. Anyway, allow me explain, if you will, the premise of the game. Antichamber is a first person puzzler which takes place in a surreal environment requiring the employment of unconventional logic. That doesn't explain very well, so let me elucidate by example.
What I said upon examining many puzzles.
You are in a corridor. Before you are two staircases, one leading up and the other down. The environment is identifiable because one staircase is illuminated in blue, the other in red. You take the down staircase to a new corridor, turn a corner, and find before you the same two staircases exactly as they were before you went down. You go up instead, turn a corner, and once again you are in the same place. With no other alternative you turn around and retreat down the corridor which granted you access to said stairs. You are now in an entirely different area. That is the kind of premise around which Antichamber is based. It is reminiscent of the artwork of MC Escher, for instance.
Paranoia and mortality: two of this game's
cheery themes.
Some reviewers have described the game as "non-Euclidean", but given that the game doesn't really involve geometry on non-planar surfaces that's rather misleading. A better term might be extra-dimensional; within the world of Antichamber it is possible for two different objects to exist in the same space, only accessible through different means. There is a certain element suggestive of quantum indeterminacy to many of the puzzles as well, which is to say that things change based not on what you do but how you observe your environment. You enter a red room. There is a window in the middle of the room through which a blue room is visible, although walking all the way around the window reveals nothing but red room. You approach the window until you can see nothing but the blue room. You step back, and you are now in the blue room. This is another example of the interesting way in which Antichamber simulates the realisation of what would otherwise be visual trickery, based on the premise that simply observing something does not mean that it is actually there and vice-versa. Walls and floors give way to emptiness. Bridges appear under your feet only when you actually walk on them. Flights of stairs remain in existence only as long as you are looking at them, and so on.
What I said upon "solving" many puzzles.
Many of those most impressive and satisfying experiences in Antichamber occur purely through this visual aspect, in which the player solves puzzles and progresses through this maze entirely through the selective and considered act of observation. It plays upon what we imagine could be if what we saw and what actually existed didn't correspond based on reliable physical laws. It's best experienced, or at least observed, and there are enough demonstrative videos online. Regardless, in this way it's an intriguing game based on these aspects alone.
One of the game's many brain-teasers based on
additive colour models.
Like Portal, however, much of the gameplay in Antichamber is predicated on the employment of a special gun, in this case a block gun. Blocks are needed to fill certain gaps in the environment with various effects, usually for opening doors to let you progress. There are four levels of gun with any relevance. The first, the blue gun, lets you pick up blocks, store them, and place them. The green gun allows the placing of green blocks which, when placed as a perimeter, will fill the space between with more green blocks, allowing you to produce more when you don't have enough. It also allows you to dissolve blocks rhythmically if  the right block in the chain is removed at the right time. The third gun, Mister Yellow, allows blocks to be dragged snake-like from place to place through selecting one block and choosing its destination. Any blocks touching it will follow along. The final main gun, Big Red, allows blocks to be slurped up and then extruded anywhere in multiplying quantities, allowing large amounts to be produced en masse and permitting the filling of various holes, if you'll pardon the expression. Using each gun to access the next gun is the core of main progression through the game.
Maybe the game's entirely set on a Holodeck!
I'd better post a long theory rant on a forum!
If this whole block malarkey sounds somewhat unappealing compared to all the extra-dimensional Escher fun then I don't blame you. The block manipulation can be extremely frustrating, and given that the game provides absolutely no kind of tutorial it's a matter of trial, error, practice and observation to determine the specifics of how the various guns function. For instance, which block in a green set must you store to make the rest dissolve? How do you accurately make the yellow blocks follow a path? These are things it can be painstaking to discern, and I must admit that not in absolutely every circumstance did I have the forbearance to do so. Often solutions can be frustratingly simple once discovered, but they can also be satisfying when all the pieces fall into place. I found myself having more patience for exploration than I do in most games of its ilk. There were, however, times when I solved a puzzle and felt unsure if I'd solved it in the way the game developer had really intended, and other times when I had to look up solutions because certain actions were required for which there were absolutely no apparent clues: for instance, a puzzle where apparently moving through a block-dissolving field at a certain moment cleared another block-dissolving field so that blocks could be snaked through. It's times like these when even the game's own highly context-specific logic is put to the test that the game occasionally feels like it's lacking something. This is compounded by the fact that the game has virtually no learning curve by virtue of the fact that it's relatively open; you can forge ahead in multiple paths from the outset, and find tasks which are very easy and ones which are difficult or impossible with the starting equipment immediately. While some early puzzles require block guns that are only available late in the game, some late puzzles are surprisingly unambitious basic physics puzzles requiring repeated jumping on a moving platform to gain enough momentum. At times the game can be bizarrely inconsistent, which is either part of its bizarre nature or a symptom of its core idea permitting themselves to be stretched only so far.
This is compensated for by the map system. At any time in the game pressing the Escape key will return you to a hub room with a map which allows you to select which puzzle you want to go to. The map's not very easy to follow, especially given that the connections which link one puzzle to another are themselves often unconventional, but each room on the map comes with a strong visual cue to remind you what puzzle may be found. Clicking on said room will instantly transport you there. It's worth remembering, however, that this resets the puzzle you were just in and removes any blocks you might have been storing. The game autosaves every time you unearth a new puzzle, however, so there's not too great a need for repetition. You just need to remember not to press Escape thinking you're going to bring up a pause menu or something if you don't want to lose all your blocks or progress through a puzzle. The hub room also collects the pithy clues and charming accompanying drawings which occur generally at the end of each puzzle with some reflective statement upon what just occurred. It's one of the game's main teases that these do not occur earlier, because some of them make what needs to be done rather obvious after you've been scratching your head for ten minutes trying to figure out what the hell you're even meant to do, let alone how to do it.
Moveable boxes: a radical innovation in game design.
I know that I've been mollycoddled by modern games with their hand-holding tutorials, so I really can't complain too much. Antichamber is a fairly unique experience and one which is worth having. The game's simple aesthetics can be a little bland at times, but they generally limit the amount of confusion in an already confusing environment. This was possibly not the decision most complementary to the game's surreal elements but it gets the job done and makes the game visually unique which does contribute to what makes it compelling, and it is also compensated for somewhat by the game's surreal soundtrack, which is mostly composed of nature noises for an intriguing contrast between clinical, artifical environments and very organic audio. I reached the end (although I certainly haven't completed every puzzle) in six hours according to Steam, so it's a fun way to kill a bit of time. In these days of cutscene-heavy, repetitious-of-gameplay and fundamentally samey big name FPS, RPG and RTS titles I always enjoy something that I actually want to resume playing after I've tried it once. The "gimmicks" of Indie Games, which is to say their innovations, are what keep me coming back where more mainstream titles haven't, and for that I do approve of Antichamber. If you want an interesting and different experience, but one which appeals very fundamentally to certain human spatial and visual fantasies, then by all means give it a go. Otherwise, check out some videos of it, and then buy it, because they'll probably make you want to play it so you can experience it for yourself.