What do Antichamber, Bientôt l’été and Proteus have in common? ‘They’re all video games’ seems like an innocuous enough, if non-committal response, but is it safe to make even so simple an assertion?
Life has a funny way of leading us up the garden path. Before we know it three entirely separate games have become so intertwined with a single notion in our mind that writing a distinct review for each is the sheer definition of futility. A rather specific example of the general idiom, for sure, but I found myself in such a situation after playing Antichamber, Bientôt l’été and Proteus. Three more disparately similar games one could not hope to begin a wistfully vague and frustratingly oxymoronic article with. Hopefully a little more specificity and fewer indefinite pronouns will help illuminate my plight. Let us first take a look at what these games are.
Antichamber is Alexander Bruce’s long-anticipated, first-person, mind-bending, hyphen-inducing puzzle game. The easiest shorthand is to compare Antichamber to Portal. Certainly the sprawling, connected puzzle rooms, that require the use of a non-lethal gun to solve, are core conceits of both games. In Portal, the gun has a very specific and fixed function that invites players to find increasingly inventive ways to traverse myriad obstacles. The rules of the environment in Aperture Science are largely exactly the same as those in our own world, namely the laws of physics.
This is where the Antichamber-Portal comparison breaks down. In Antichamber the function of the gun changes, or is at least supplemented, throughout the game. Likewise, the rules of the world often vary from room to room. The puzzle, therefore, is to divine the rules, then learn and exploit them. As often as skills learned early in the game will help, they will also hinder player progress.
Antichamber presents the player with both a literal and metaphorical maze. Testing the rules is necessary to progress and learn, giving the player a sense of discovery beyond the usual physical interpretation of exploration. The goal of the game is clear from moment one when a door with a large “Exit” sign is presented to the player. The challenge, then, is not so much of the physical discovery of finding the Exit, but of uncovering the mental barriers that must be broken down in order to escape through it.
Tale Of Tales’ Bientôt l’été is not so easily described. The Cane And Rinse review discusses the emotions and themes of the game, but I’ll try for a more succinct ‘elevator pitch’ here. The player is a space traveller using a galaxy-spanning communication system to attempt to find intimacy with other users. The communication system takes the form of a holographic representation of a beach, upon which the player must walk and explore to find the tools for the second part of the game.
Said second part of Bientôt l’été is a café in which the player interacts with another user by moving chess pieces to converse, drinking wine, playing music and smoking cigarettes. These mechanics are not difficult to discern, but nor are they offered freely to the player. The in-game instructions detail all of the button presses at the player’s disposal, but it’s rarely clear what the result of a given command will be. This speaks directly to the game developer’s assertion that there is no goal in Bientôt l’été, instead it is a world and a set of systems that should be indulged in, and explored. To what end is entirely for each player themselves to decide.
Pictures are often better than words in understanding video games, and that is certainly true of Proteus. A randomly-generated, pixelated and colourful world of trees, lakes and animals for the player to explore and interact with sounds an awful lot like Minecraft. At first glance a screenshot of Proteus would probably look a little like Minecraft too, but to make that comparison would be a disservice to what Ed Key and David Kanaga have created. Upon closer inspection the pastel colours and flat textures aren’t a function of necessity, but are specifically designed to create a world that, for all its similarities to our own, is something (somewhere) else.
The only player inputs are standard navigation, which encourages the player to explore through a denial of the usual means by which to affect the environment. Moving towards the animals, however, will elicit a response in the form of them leaping away from you. That small cause-effect is accompanied by musical notes that add to the almost procedurally generated music, and makes for such a wonderfully simple type of interaction as to evoke feelings of being a child or, perhaps, a dog or cat chasing after something unknown to discover and learn from it.
Being limited to only movement and camera controls brought to mind Dear Esther. The minimisation of the sort of systems and mechanics often layered upon games that similarly have exploration at their core serves to focus the player upon that discovery. It also affords the player time to consider what they are seeing and hearing around them, to process the information and form some notion, born from their unique personality and experiences, of what the game means.
It is probably apparent that these three video games (if I can be allowed to refer to them as such for a while longer) share a core tenet of exploration. In Antichamber the exploration is focused upon the rules and the systems that the player must understand to complete the game’s goal. Proteus, however, strips away such rules and systems and relies instead entirely on the joy of physical exploration to provide the player with nourishment. I think it’s fair to say that Bientôt l’été sits somewhere in the middle – combining physical exploration with the discovery of systems and mechanics that will allow the player to interact with both the world and the other player inhabiting it.
I’ve talked a lot about exploration, but perhaps ‘discovery’ is a more apt word to use for the shared theme of these games. Each presents a mystery of sorts to the player and invites them to discover not only what lies behind the proverbial curtain, but what the game means to the player. Often a video game has a clear message or moral for the player to take away from the experience; I’d argue that Antichamber, Bientôt l’été and Proteus all ask the player to bring something to their time spent with each in the hope that the message is somewhat different from player to player.
When I hear the phrase ‘… is not really a game’ I often wonder about the authority of such a statement. Tussling over the meaning of words has me reaching for the dictionary before wading in, and the outcome was interesting. Certainly, the words we associate with a game often relate to its being competitive in some way: skill, luck, endurance, rules, goals, win and lose are all such words. It therefore becomes easy to assert that an activity, video game or otherwise, without these facets cannot be called a game. Interestingly though, a common thread in various definitions of ‘game’ was that it is ‘a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck’. Other words, such as amusement or pastime, come up, which do not necessitate a competitive edge to the activity.
When considering the differences between Antichamber, Bientôt l’été and Proteus, one word rings out loud and clear: goals. Antichamber is very clear in the goal that the player is to reach, whilst Bientôt l’été is equally clear in the absence of a goal. In Proteus there are triggers that move the player forward to an endpoint of sorts, but there is no goal, certainly not one that requires skill (in the traditional sense of the word) to reach. I could debate the semantics of whether or not the emotional intelligence required to discern meaning from the visual and audio experience of playing Proteus constitutes skill, but it doesn’t change the fact that anyone can ‘complete’ the game and take something from having done so.
Does the lack of a fail state informing the player that they must do better rob them of their sense of achievement? I can attest to an overwhelming sense of gratification felt upon finally breaking through a barrier in Super Meat Boy, The Binding Of Isaac or Demon’s Souls. Undoubtedly this was the result of knowing that I had improved sufficiently at managing the various mechanics and systems that dictate success in each of those games.
But are experiences of which anyone can partake inherently less virtuous? Surely no one would contend that? No, I think instead we have come to the crux. A film or a book may present content or evoke emotions that its audience would find so challenging as to prevent finishing, but we wouldn’t ever talk of having ‘beaten’ a book, nor ‘completing’ a film. It is a matter of nomenclature upon which the ‘not a game’ argument stands.
My question is this: does a video game like Proteus have a place on our sliding scale of ‘game’? If we assert that skill, goals and failure are necessary for entry into the hallowed halls of ‘video game’ then I’d argue that we run the risk of creating fragmentation where there need be none. Even if the term ‘interactive experience’ is suitable for Dear Esther and Proteus, what ill comes of affording them recognition as video games. They share many of the same identifiable qualities and heritage as any other video game and offer as much in return.
Finally, I wonder if words like ‘beaten’ and ‘completed’ are core to the nature of playing video games because our self esteem is somewhat tied to the notion that we, as players, have achieved something that other, less worthy individuals could not. If so, then I ask each and every one of us to look long and hard at our measures of self worth, because they are barriers to the video games we, I, love becoming more established forms of entertainment, nourishment and amusement. If you want to know why video games are so easy to hang out as society’s scapegoat then look no further than your own prejudices before uttering the phrase ‘not a game’ in that haughty, distasteful tone.