Welcome to the third of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.
If, as Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, than all you need to make a videogame is an island.
The island-game gave us Myst (Cyan, 1993), and it gave us last year’s The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016). It has also already made an appearance in this very series, with Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). But my favorite island game of all time might be Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013). And to really talk about what it gets right, we have to dip into issues of genre. So, buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
First, a point of order: the generic designation “walking simulator” is an abomination. It has its roots in derogatory belittling, and despite the fact that many people now use it without malice, it’s not a term that has been through a thorough process of “reclaiming.”
It is hard to unstick what has already stuck, though. JP LeBreton has proposed “wander games,” which is certainly preferable. I guess we’re still waiting to see if it catches on (it’s been about two years now since his initial proposal). Certainly, it has a better chance than mise-en-scène-em-up, which is what I might propose if I was personally handed the keys to language.
For the purposes of this post, however, I am going to use Joel Goodwin‘s proposed term himitsu-bako, or “secret box games.” Now, I have no illusions that such an esoteric term could ever be anything but DOA. (Goodwin originally proposed the term in 2014, and it has shown no signs of catching on in the intervening years.) But I am inclined to be deferential to Goodwin, because his blog post is one of the most insightful and persuasive analyses of the genre that there is.
Goodwin lays out the genre in the following way: secret box games are games in which you explore. (In the case of Proteus and other “wander games,” this exploration is done by navigating three-dimensionally rendered space. But it doesn’t have to be. Goodwin’s conception of the genre has wider boundaries than that.) This exploratory play is an attempt to discover the content that the developer has created for you. Although some sort of challenge may be present, it is often trivial. Other times, it is absent entirely. As Goodwin puts it, these games’ “emphasis is on conveying moments or ideas to the player rather than testing the player’s abilities.”
What I like about Goodwin’s definition is that, much like the Japanese puzzle boxes from which he borrows his name, it allows us to understand that these games have different layers. Some of the game’s pleasures can be entirely on the surface. Others may be hidden, not through ability-testing challenge, but just through a sequence of actions that takes some time and effort to parse out.
Different games distribute these pleasures differently. Some games eschew challenge so radically that the really are all surface, offering the undiluted pleasure of wandering around a delightful virtual environment. There are many slack-jawed moments of joy to be had while exploring the spatio-musical vibrations of Slave of God (Increpare, 2012), or charting the hidden nooks and crannies of Bernband (Tom van der Boogaart, 2014). These are games are simply about tracing paths on the surface of a secret box, running one’s fingers across virtually rendered arabesques. There’s no eventual “clicking into place,” no opening up of deeper discoveries. They lack this sense of progression towards a hidden center—and, tellingly, they both lack endings. They “end” simply when you close the program, happy with the time you’ve spent within them.[i]
Secret box games with endings have a bit more going on than this. They have surface pleasures, but they also have deeper discoveries that await players who progress through some challenges, of varying degrees of difficulty. Heartwood (Kerry Turner and Dan Bibby, 2014) only requires its players to move toward environmental sounds, resulting in a quick, five-minute experience. Certain scenarios in The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009), meanwhile, require players to interact with several elements in a scene in the correct order. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015), can be immediately appreciated for its prettiness, but it takes time and a fair amount of wandering to uncover all of its audio logs, and a certain amount of interpretive flare to piece together its the fabula of its apocalyptic science-fiction story. Although these games vary in length and the degree to which they reject tests of player ability, they all offer a mixture of immediate surface pleasures, eventual discovery, and conclusion.
Proteus does, as well—and, again, it might be my favorite of the bunch. A lot of this probably comes down to taste, which of course remains as un-analyzable as ever. But there is still much to be said about the layers of secrets that Proteus offers, which are hidden enough to not be obvious at first, but peel off gently enough that just a few hours spent wandering, tracing paths along the your island’s geography, will lead you to its secret conclusion.
Proteus starts players off in the ocean, with an island in the distance they can swim (boat? float?) to. The islands of Proteus are procedurally generated, and can vary greatly in size, but always contain a cluster of recognizable landmarks. There will be a large tree, a cabin, a tower or two, lines of rocks serving as pylons, and, on top of one of the island’s hills, a circle of totem-like stone figures. In short, just enough remnants of inhabitation to sketch out a previous human civilization, which has endowed the surrounding geography with landmarks, points of interest, and a sense of spiritual respect for this land.
What exactly one should do with one’s time on this island, however, remains unclear. One can’t enter the cabin, or the towers. And this isn’t Minecraft (Mojang, 2011), where natural resources can be exploited and one can make one’s mark on the surrounding environment. Instead, one must be content with less directed pleasures. The game’s sound design looms large here. Almost every element in the landscape has its own musical cue attached—the animals that populate it, especially. Coveys of pheasants scamper about, their feet bathing the earth in trebley marimba sounds. Wandering around the island becomes a sonic experiment, layering together different melodic lines, percussion tracks, and warbley drones to find one’s desired mix. Proteus takes the logic of Mickey Mousing in animation and invites its player to reverse engineer it, transforming a moving image into the interface for a complex, sample-based musical instrument.
As one experiments with the pleasures of this unusual instrument, mysteries arise. Why are certain sound cues linked to certain environmental objects? Why does going near the tower prompt a melange of dissonant bagpipe-like drones? And what’s up with those stone pylons? When you pass by them, they let out a low “bummm” sound, and send a tinkling gust of wind through the leaves of nearby trees. But wait … not always. Why only sometimes? Hmm, it seems to only happen when I pass by them in a certain direction. Why? Are they leading me somewhere? Is this a path? What happens if I follow them?
Some players might enjoy these pleasures, get bored, and eventually close the game by swimming away from the island. (I myself was one of these players, the first time I played the game. It took repeated visits to the island, passing off control to my friend Chris Carloy, until the two of us stumbled upon the game’s overall guiding arc.) Players with more patience and curiosity, however, will eventually discover that the swirling dust devil of light particles located somewhere on the island has a crucial gameplay function. Step into its boundaries, and time will pass quicker, from day to night. Step into its center, and the season will change, from spring to summer.
There is a progression here: Surface pleasure gives way to deeper mystery. The assumption that Proteus is just a virtual environment with no real goals segues into the understanding that, while not possessing a “story,” Proteus nevertheless has a distinct arc, mapped onto the seasons of spring, summer, autumn, winter, that the player passes through as a way of reaching its conclusion.
Each season comes with its own flora and fauna, with a distinct life cycle and distinct musical cues. The summer brings with it swarms of pizzicato dragonflies, clouds of synth glissando flies, and frogs (or rabbits?) whose hops pluck at harp strings. Rambunctious squirrels mash mbira keys. Casts of percussive crabs cluster on the beaches. Lazy moths with dragon tails belt out smooth square waves. Night arrives with it maraca bats and the calming hoots of elusive owls.
Between all of these various fauna, Proteus-as-musical-toy peaks with summer. When the player transitions to autumn (which they can do, at their leisure, by stepping in to the same swirling storm of light), this musical aspect diminishes. Piles of dying dragonflies sputter on mats of fallen leaves. The crabs have gone to sleep. The pheasants are nowhere to be found. In place of musical experimentation, autumn offers a host of small secrets. The autumn days may be drab and depressing, but at night the spirits come out to play.
Hanging out by the large tree, one can find a spectral wolf.
Among the stones that appear to be grave markers, strange clusters of light come together into balls, before dissipating again.
Standing in the totem circle at night during any season will launch you into a psychedelic vision, but autumn’s vision is especially powerful, with the sky turning red, and clusters of stardust or cloud accumulating around your avatar.
Stay there long enough, and a mysterious figure will appear in a puff of smoke, then take off down the hill and wink out of existence, leaving only a trail of white behind.
These things aren’t goals. They aren’t rewards. They are simply secrets, meant to offer small moments of discovery and mystery for players patient enough to exhaustively navigate this island, charting paths between its environmental features and walking those paths repeatedly, going on sightseeing tours in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. These secrets aren’t gated behind challenges of dexterity or cognition. They are open to anyone who has chosen to dwell in this landscape for more than a moment, who has taken the time to chart some paths through it.
Winter brings one final surprise that I won’t spoil, and also the game’s definitive ending. By the time my character’s eyes closed for the final time and this procedurally-generated island was deleted from my hard drive, I was in awe of Proteus. Its deft mix of surface pleasures and secret pleasures, its suffusing of seemingly aimless play with a set emotional arc, was as unexpected as it was impressive. I hadn’t even expected the game to have an “ending,” let alone one that was this fitting—mysterious, sonically satisfying, and spiritual, much like the game that came before it.
The “secret box game”/”wander game” genre is a young one. Although critical acclaim has been heaped on some of its most prominent examples—Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013), especially—my suspicion is that we’ll look back at this era and realize that some of that praise was overstated. It’s easy to get over-excited when encountering something new falls into your lap. It takes time to realize that getting things right in a new genre is hard, and that it takes time to refine things.
There is one particular balancing act that defines the successful secret box game: how to allow the player’s movements feel un-directed enough so as to preserve a sense of mystery and exploration, without falling into the dangers of over-obscurity. Since, as Goodwin puts it, the pleasures of a secret box game are the pleasures “poking around inside some developer-made structure to see how it works, what secrets it contains,” giving the player too much explicit instruction can kill the whole experience. At the same time, though, make the thing just a tad too complicated, or too laborious, and you risk straining the player’s patience too much.
There’s a art to this that I think is still being worked out—although, again, as always, there is no accounting for taste. Others might prefer the more extended mysteries of something like Mirrormoon EP (Santa Ragione, 2013) over the comparatively bite-sized Proteus. I did not.
To be clear, I loved Mirrormoon EP‘s opening hour or so. The obtuse design philosophy was well-implemented. My overwhelming sense of confusion was punctuated with enough excited gasps and moments of befuddled wonderment to make me enjoy the overall mix.
But as the quick bite of “Side A” melted into the much longer slog of “Side B,” my goodwill began to wane. I had discovered how my ship’s controls worked. I had discovered the basic vocabulary of the not-quite-puzzles that dotted each and every planet in the galaxy. All that was left to do was to fly around until I randomly hit upon a planet that could point me in the direction, or else hope that another player in this vast networked galaxy had given an important place a helpful name. I’m sure there were plenty more secrets in Mirrormoon EP. (I’ve heard tell of hidden structures on planets paying homage to an impressive roster of other games.) But the sense of mystery had leaked away somewhat, and a sense of tedium had set in. It turns out I’m willing to explore a lot more if I know I’ll only be spending four seasons on an island, instead of flying blind around a galaxy that is only 28% charted by players.
All of this is to say: pacing matters, and in secret box games, pacing is very much tied to how much of a faint path you have set up for players, to point them in the direction of mysteries, without spoiling them. Remove something as simple as those stone pylons, and Proteus would be a lesser game.
Creating mystery is easy. Nudging your players just enough in the right direction, so that they feel a sense of genuine discovery as they open up the secret wonders of your game: that is tough. And Proteus does it exceptionally well.
[i]. Actually, just as I was visiting the Slave of God download page to link to it, I noticed that someone in the comments mentions “finishing the story.” Perhaps I’m completely wrong about it! It now seems likely that Slave of God has deep discoveries that I’ve never plumbed! Rather than booting the game up right now and correcting what I’ve written, I’m going to leave it for posterity, as a real-time record of the joys of secret box games.