"But the beauty is in the walking -- we are betrayed by destinations."
-- Gwyn Thomas
I played a couple of unique games in the last couple of weeks that have made me do a lot of thinking about what we expect from this medium, and what it's well-suited to deliver outside the experiences we've become accustomed to. I'm sure that according to some people, neither of these even qualify as games, as neither has a fail state, neither provides the player with challenge, and neither has victory conditions. If you can't win, is it a game?
Perhaps not. It may be that we need better terminology, and that labeling these "games" is a disservice to gaming, or to them, or both. But they each gave me something that I don't think any other medium is currently capable of providing in the way that they did, and that's notable to me.
The first, Dear Esther, has received a fair amount of attention from the enthusiast gaming press, largely for being a unique experience in which narrative is more important than gameplay. The battle between gameplay and narrative gets a lot of focus in games journalism, usually because game designers often succeed in serving one only at the expense of the other. In that respect, I don't think Dear Esther actually breaks the mold - it simply eschews "gameplay" in the standard sense almost entirely in favor of its story - but the relationship between narrator and audience has rarely been as interesting to me in a game as it is here.
In some respects, it's easy to pass Dear Esther off as nothing but a storybook with moving pictures, or rather pictures that you move through. The player has no influence whatsoever over the happenings on the ruined, abandoned island they're set upon. You'll walk around, you'll see what there is to see, and you'll be told a sad confusing story set to music. That's it.
That's oversimplifying, of course, but not by much. The trappings are remarkable, I'll admit. Dear Esther is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, and if it were nothing more than a 3D environment looking as good as it does, it would be worth a few dollars to walk through. The musical score is similarly appealing, haunting and mournful. And the narration, while occasionally heavy-handed, is skilled. But in the end, you're just walking through an empty island while a man tells you a story.
But the beauty is in the walking.
Dear Esther isn't just a story - it's a place. A place with nooks and crannies and buildings and caves and cliffs, all of it lovingly crafted and there for you to experience - or not - as you choose. The story is there waiting to reward you the more you look for it. You take it at your own pace. Hear a bit of narration, then stop and listen to the music and think about it for awhile before you move on. Or rush forward because you want to know what happens next. Or skip an area for awhile, but then go back to it even though it obviously isn't the way to progress because you just need to know if you missed anything. I did all three of those at various points in my multiple playthroughs, and found them all rewarding.
"Multiple playthroughs? Why would you play through a game with no gameplay twice?" "Well, why would you read the same book twice?", he asked cheekily. But it is a valid question, and if it didn't have an interesting answer Dear Esther would be little different from an audiobook you listen to while you walk around. But it does: you don't get the whole story when you first play through the game. You don't even get the same bits of story in the same places, when you play through the game again. It's randomized, and honestly I'm still not sure whether I've seen and heard everything there is. I'll have to play through it yet again to see. If you want the story, you have to explore. Persistently and repeatedly. Your engagement has to go deeper than passive consumption, or the game won't give up what it has to offer. There are no enemies to defeat, no test of skill to overcome, but you need to be curious, and interested. If you're done after one time through, that's fine - if you want more, Dear Esther is happy to give it to you, but you need to buy in first. And that's great, and it's something no other medium of storytelling can do quite this way. It isn't the greatest tale ever told, or even the greatest one I've seen in a game, but it captured my attention and my imagination and I want to see more developers experiment with narrative this bravely. Bravo.
Dear Esther is $10 (well spent) on Steam.
The second game, Proteus, has no explicit story at all, but certainly shares the same basic ethos of rewarding exploration. It's still in development (which means you can nab it for a discount, if you're interested), so I can't write about its features as a finished product, but it's basically a random landscape generator with a strong focus on visual and audio synthesis. It makes a world, different every time you play, and you wander through it enjoying the sights and sounds. The end.
It's hard to get much more different in terms of aesthetics than Proteus is from Dear Esther. There is no attempt made at realism here, and the graphics and sounds are intentionally lo-fi, to the point where I imagine they'll be unattractive to some. (Though to the game's perhaps-accidental credit, they remind me strongly of the aesthetic of King's Quest, which is always good for a few free points with me.)
While I stand in slack-jawed awe of the visual beauty of Dear Esther, Proteus' lack of sharp detail also appeals to me. Its landscapes feel dream-like. Unfinished. Imaginative, like something a child would draw when asked to remember a place they walked through. The colors and shapes aren't quite right, but they're wrong in deliberate and creative ways, and the soundscape of the game is consistently pleasant and interesting. I generated 4 different worlds in Proteus, and as I walked around them I watched blocky leaves fall from trees; walked through the rain as clouds passed over me; chased frogs and lightning bugs who continually danced out of my reach; stumbled across abandoned cottages and graveyards and strange stone cairns. At one point, at night (the audible crickets at night are a nice touch), I found a creepy set of statues atop a snowy peak, and as I stood among them the music swelled and the stars distorted above my head to perform an improptu light show for me. Afterwards I descended to the beach below, and watched their reflections twinkle on the sea.
So that's what Proteus is like, and I hope it'll continue to be just that as it rounds out development and nears release - a large collection of pleasant, surprising experiences for you to explore and relate, a little different every time. If it manages to get a multiplayer mode so you can share them with others, that'd be lovely, but I enjoyed it as a solitary experience as well. Was it a game? I have no idea, but I enjoyed the journey. A destination wasn't needed.
Proteus is $7.50 until release, $10 after, on their website.
There you have it. Neither of these - games? well, whatever they are - will ask you to shoot bad guys or save princesses or score touchdowns or win races. They won't ask you to do anything but participate. Turn out the lights, put on headphones, hop into their worlds for awhile and poke around. Think. Feel. Listen.
I'm really happy that stuff like this is getting made, and I'm excited to see more of it. If you feel the same way, you can try them out for the price of a lunch. Interested? Walk with me.