Mar 12, 2012
‘Proteus’ starts with your character literally at sea, looking across a glittering ocean at a distant shoreline; the soundtrack a rolling, chattering musical instrument that’s familiar but difficult to place.
It’s a description that fits Proteus itself; the game’s bold subpoena-ing of designer Ed Key’s own favorite places (a few of which we looked at in part one) bringing a level of verisimilitude to bear on the island’s seasoned environment, while Kanaga’s music provides the closest the game has to a map – guiding and teasing mysteries and wonders from the player’s exploration of this undiscovered country.
The game itself is similarly concatenated. Key and Kanaga’s game doesn’t so much provide an experience as a canvas for experiences. The island doesn’t flood your senses, instead its abstract design aesthetic in particular encourages the player to bring their own memories and feelings to bear on the island. An example of this reader response was my story about the spinney behind my house as a child from part one but Proteus uses a number of techniques – both blocky and beautiful – to populate its island.
EXPLORING THE FUTURE
A pixel is not a particularly pretty thing and early, low resolution videogames asked a lot of our imaginations. This is a dragon from the Atari 2600’s strange and arresting ‘Adventure’ -
And this is a bat from the same system’s tense and frantic ‘Haunted House’–
Baldly laid on a screen, neither appears to be the stuff of nightmares. Players of Adventure and Haunted House had to collude with as much as play the game in order to get the most out of them. Today it’s possible to produce creatures with a thousand tentacles and boggling eyes. But I’d argue that this design -
Is less effective than this design -
Because Space Invaders‘ abstract approach – to its game mechanics and music as well as its graphics – understands the value of the player’s imagination.
Taito’s arcade game was a familiar feature in as many chip shops as dimly lit amusement arcades but this strange box in the corner was the portal to some existential terrors. Taken alone, the sprites – despite one squid-like enemy recalling Lovecraft’s ‘lurker beyond time’ Cthulhu - aren’t exactly scary. But lay them out in their 5 x 11 formation; advance them towards the player in a gradually accelerating march accompanied by an insistent, drone-like soundtrack rising in hysteria and ask the player to defend humanity with the space munitions equivalent of a dripping tap and you have the stuff of nightmares.
I think that’s because the game provides space for the player to bring their own fears and emotion into the game. Dead Space might be a stunningly orchestrated horror but it can’t compete with our imaginations. That’s why the piece of ragged cloth in Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You is so terrifying.
Proteus’ aesthetic races away with this conceit. The pixellated art style is retro and stylish but those stretches of colour are also canvas-like. They’re designed for us to project our own perceptions and interpretations onto them.
This projected potential is evocatively demonstrated in Proteus’s horizon. Stripped of map and compass, we’re free to soak in our surroundings – and the horizon becomes a central part of the navigational landscape. Ebbing and flowing with the topograpy of the island, I was reminded of Rescue on Fractalus! A game based around the then-revolutionary fractal technology in which the player’s mission – that of picking up downed pilots from an alien world’s craggy landscape – was an excuse to explore this ground-breakingly robust environment. A proto-Proteus.
Undulating and organic, the lines that make up Fractalus have always reminded me of the sleeve for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures. Peter Saville’s iconic design suggests a series of unreachable horizons as much the wave pattern of a dying star it’s based upon.
And Proteus offers a light flip side to Unknown Pleasures. Joy Division’s secrets are frustrating, its fractals treacherous traps to catch at our heels. Proteus’s horizons promise enlightenment. They’re descendants of the blue-skied psychedelic lines in Yu Suzuki’s third person on-rails shooter Space Harrier and a videogame ripost to Joy Division’s ‘failure of the modern man’, where rescuing a civilisation and killing aliens is an experience akin to crowdsurfing at a disco.
Fictional Anthropologists in Back to the Future sunglasses point to other links. Proteus’s clouds, which sweep across the games’s island with a smooth majesty, feel like a visitor from Sega’s ‘Super Scalar’ tech. Both place the player in the role of the solitary human being in a strange world, and both leave the why’s and wherefore’s of the story for the player to conjecture through abstraction.
MESOAMERICAN GAME DESIGN
In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities‘, Jane Jacobs looks at how we interact with urban spaces and they interact with us. Her examination of parks is particularly interesting and while Key resists too much comparison – preferring the less tended influences of cryptoforests and the like – Jacob’s description of one of the key characteristics of parks – ‘Intricacy’, as the way the eye perceives the physical space in these areas, is a worthwhile reference. Jacobs highlights events such as the rise of the ground and groupings of trees to create drama and the way that a good park can be difficult to map – all considerations that fit Proteus’s model.
Jane Jacobs. Original photo by Sam Beebe
Key’s role sees the designer trying to strike a balance between a designed environment and one that’s more dynamic. “The general forms of the hills are quite tightly controlled. But the configurations are down to chance, so on one island you might get some picturesque bays and islets arising, on another you might get broad swathes of upland etc.” Key’s influences are more ritualistic than Jacob’s urban planning however. “Rather than looking at landscape design, I did quite a bit of research into the idea of the “ritual landscape” in archaeology,” Key outlines. “If you go to somewhere like Avebury, where there are many coexisting monuments, there’s a generally accepted theory that you should study how all these fit together into the context of the landscape…”
One shared feature of both Jacob’s civilisation and Key’s ritualistic landscape is the sun. In Proteus, the sun is a lead character in the games’s storytelling. You chase it through the branches of trees and over the horizon, it provides navigation, a guide and pretty much your only constant companion. Ed – “That’s a nice way of thinking about it and in a similar way I do enjoy following the sun and catching interesting things in silhouette as it rises and sets. I tried to add some built structures that frame the sun, but haven’t got anything I’m happy with yet…”
If Proteus has a frame, it’s the reactive soundtrack by David Kanaga that guides and teases the player as he or she wanders around the island and its encounters. Most of the creatures that inhabit Proteus express themselves through sound and the locations too seem each have their own voices. As Kanaga’s synthesised samples soundtracked my shepherding a pixel sharp shard of light towards a gravestone it became clear I was playing a piece of music as much as a game.
“David and I developed a sound system where we dynamically mixed loops together based on player action.” Explains Ed “And after talking to him for a while it became more and more just about music. Just about the sound linking to location and the aesthetic.”
When Ed talks about the ‘score diagrams’ I start to wonder if the game’s audio might be the closest to a script in this meandering, funnell-less game. Proteus scores itself based on player action; adjusting on the fly to your passing through a field of grass or standing on top of a snow-capped hill, amongst other things. “Season and time of day are the other factors, although there are some other subtleties: Once a loop has a non-zero volume it can suppress other loops in the system, according to mixing rules set by David. It’s all driven by a scripting system…”
This sound map is the closest to a guide you’ll have and it’s a beautiful accompaniment to Key and Kanaga’s island. While having a prima guide to the spinney I lived behind when I was five is an attractive prospect (if a little mind-bending), there’s adventure in a game you can’t map.
Key and Kanaga’s greatest success is that in describing Proteus’s principles you wind up reaching as much for real life explorations and discoveries as videogames. I often write about movies and other art forms when talking about games, but I can’t think of another example where my real life experiences have formed the most apt comparisons.