Monday, 28 January 2013

Proteus - we're not in Croydon any more.

There is a Buddhist centre in Croydon. It surprises you when you find it because it's right on the High Street in amongst all the hustle and bustle, the strident adverts, the temples to commercialism and capitalism.  It has a small, peaceful garden where you can sit and rest and gather yourself before venturing out again into the pell-mell, the crush, the frustration.  Proteus is like that garden. It's a small oasis of calm and peace in the middle of the busy, overwhelming world that we live in. It's a soothing balm for your soul.  It's lovely.

Bit like Croydon
Proteus is an "explore em up" created by Ed Key and David Kanaga (I bet they hate it being called that) and it does away with most traditional game components.  There's no shooting and there are no enemies or treasure, and instead the player is left to explore a world rendered in blocky graphics and minimal sounds. Let's be honest, that doesn't sound like a great game, does it? But the wonderful thing about Proteus is that it is so much more than just a sum of its parts. It reminds me of Yeti Hunter in that respect; each component is pretty basic but when they are put together they create something quite magical.

When you start the game an eye opens on your screen, as if you have just woken up (or fallen asleep and started dreaming) and this sets the tone for the rest of your experience. The world that Proteus provides for you is very similar to our own - with trees, clouds, rain, the sun and the moon - but also quite different. There are secrets hidden away and there are things to see, hear and enjoy all around.  You can go wherever you like, and night will fall and seasons will pass.  The sun will rise and clouds will form overhead and you are free to explore its similar yet different landscape to your heart's content.  It reminds me of going for a walk in the Summer in the English countryside. That may sound like a strange thing to say, but the quality of the light in it and the sounds that you hear evoke exactly the same feelings. It brings back clear memories for me of being a child and walking through a local nature reserve in the sunshine.  It's a brilliantly peaceful experience and there's something quite wonderful about that.

Toowhit.  Toowhoo.
Tonight, for example, I spent about 5 minutes following an owl. It hooted when I got near and then flew off to another tree. I thought it might guide me somewhere but it didn't seem to and eventually I lost it in the forest.  Another time I followed some things which looked like rain drops but they were singing and flowing along the ground and then they formed a spinning circle round me and the screen faded, and I woke up somewhere else.  There were insects there, on the next island, which looked like Japanese characters, but I somehow knew they were dragonflies.  I followed a frog as it hopped away from me.  Later on I stumbled into some bees, who chased me from the flowers they were pollinating and I went careering down the hill, back to the sea, and, always around, there were standing stones, giant tree trunks, odd statues on hills and other things which demanded to be investigated.

This sceptr'd isle
The screenshots may look quite primitive and blocky but they don't do Proteus justice for two reasons.  Firstly they are not moving, which is important, and you also cannot hear the sound effects which accompany them.  David Kanaga does a wonderful, minimalist, job in creating the soundscape for this world and it deserves a special mention.  Audio effects are often linked to events on the screen and you create your own soundtrack as you move through the environment.  Sometimes these connections are obvious things, such as rain falling or crickets chirruping at night, but they can also signify when you are near certain scenery or which season it is.  They accompany the game extremely well and make it a much more immersive experience than it would be otherwise.  They are an integral part of the world and it really wouldn't work without them - they are what brings it all alive.  As I said above, the game is much more than just the sum of its parts and the sound is a major reason why this is the case.

 I recently wrote something about how playing Super Mario Galaxy with my 3 yr old son saved my immortal soul from the scourge of eternal hellfire.  He played a starring role in that story but it did raise some interesting questions for me about the role of video games in parenthood.  I felt a bit bad about using him to keep me sane whilst taming my inner demons, and so I have been looking for other ways to teach him how to use a mouse and become accustomed to computers than those which involve violence, or which demoralise him by being too difficult.  Proteus is perfect for this.  There's no way to die, there's nothing he can do wrong.  I give him the mouse, and give him the keyboard (he just presses "W") and then we can talk about where to go and what to see. "Let's go there and see what that is", "What are those statues doing?" "Daddy, it's raining!" "Look at the size of this hill!"

This is a game where the commands are "walk", "look around" and "sit down and take in the view" (and no, I've not made that last one up), so it is an absolutely perfect thing for a bit of adult child interaction.  It makes a welcome change from collecting things, hitting things and falling off platforms into black holes and while it's obviously not quite the same as actually taking a walk in the open air, it's as good as you're going to get in Britain in January. 

Proteus is still in beta stage so it's not quite finished yet and I have encountered a few instances when it won't load properly from the desktop shortcut, but you trust that this will all be sorted out by the time it is released.  You can visit the world by going to its website and buying access to the beta for about £5.  It is also going to be released on Steam on Jan 30th.  Why not give it a go and try out something truly unique?  I'd recommend it.

PS - Since writing this Proteus has been released.  An updated version is available on Steam for £6.99 (currently 10% off too.)  I still think you should give it a go.  ( & that bug has disappeared.)

Friday, 11 January 2013

Making choices in The Walking Dead

I sat there in the dark, slack-mouthed, staring into space and trying to make sense of what I had just done.  At the time it had seemed to make perfect sense, in fact it had seemed to be the only option.  What's more it had, in a small way, been heroic.  I had voluntarily taken a burden from somebody else onto myself.  I had taken the load from a friend, possibly the only person I could really trust, and saved him from unimaginable heartache.  So why did I feel so empty?  And confused?  And shocked?

The Walking Dead is an adventure game which tells the story of Lee Everett, a recently convicted killer, and a disparate group of other survivors of a zombie outbreak.  It is presented in 5 linked episodes much like the TV series or the comic book on which it is based, but it is a computer game and this means that it differs from those in many important ways.  The very fact that it is a game imposes certain restrictions and requirements upon it, and sometimes these can make it appear a little awkward, but it also allows it to soar far above other media in many really, really important aspects.

So, firstly let's talk about the stuff which is less than stellar.  The Walking Dead is an adventure and, as such, it contains plenty of puzzles.  It uses puzzle solving to move you through the (excellent) story and it signposts how to do this in extremely clear ways.  You will often be placed in a situation where you need to, for example, fix a piece of machinery or reach a certain place.  Your movement will be limited to a small area and objects of interest will be clearly marked on the screen (although this can be turned off), just waiting for your click to select them.  Puzzles are solved by inspecting every item, talking to every character and working out the correct sequence of actions.  Sometimes the game will impose a time limit in order to hurry you up a bit, but more often that not you can run about to your heart's content trying out different combinations and chatting to the other people present.  These puzzles are sometimes quite varied, and the solutions can be tricky to find, but it is usually just a case of searching the environment until you discover the correct item to use.  Once you've done this then they aren't difficult but it can be frustrating until you do, and sometimes the puzzles can appear to be there just to break things up a bit.

And combat is another area which is often the central focus of a game, but which appears a little out of place here.  This usually takes the form of a quick time event (e.g. press the button that appears at the bottom of the screen repeatedly), or it uses the mouse to aim a weapon, or a kick or whatever at the attacking zombie.  This is pretty basic stuff (although there are a couple of well done set pieces) and it can get frustrating when you die because you're not ready, but I'm not sure how else it could have been handled.  In much the same way as the puzzles, it appears to be there in order to provide a change of pace and, in the case of the combat, to give the player an adrenaline rush in between all the talking and problem solving.  It does its job I suppose, but I wouldn't play this game if you're expecting some kind of CoD clone, or a high-octane arcade experience.

Quick!  Click on that circle! Quick!
However, these things have to be present precisely because the Walking Dead is a game. It differs from the TV show or the comics because the person playing it (you) is directly involved in the action. TV and comics are not interactive, you are a spectator, but in a game you are a participant and you drive events to a greater or lesser extent. This means that it is necessary for the game to involve you in things like combat, or solving problems. Sometimes this can appear clunky and a bit forced, as it does here, but if the game resolved these situations automatically then the player could feel sidelined, or that they weren't playing a game at all but having an experience more akin to reading one of those "choose your own adventure" novels. The puzzle solving and combat, as said above, serve to pace the game but they also draw the player into the whole thing and involve them in every aspect of it. The player feels that they are in control of everything that happens and this is important because it is this sense of involvement which enables games to do things that other forms of media can't.

The Walking Dead is actually really about making choices.  You are asked to do this throughout the game, and they have a direct effect on how the story unfolds.  For example, if you choose to save one person instead of somebody else then that person may die, and be gone forever.  If you argue with somebody then they may refuse to help you in the future when you need them and so on.  Most of the game is spent within a group of survivors, made up of different characters with their own motivations and priorities, and you have to bear all of these in mind while you wend your way through the game attempting to keep you and yours safe.  The zombies themselves are pretty unimportant.  That may seem a strange thing to say in a game where most of your time is spent avoiding bitey, shambling, rending death, but ultimately they are merely a device in order to put characters in difficult interpersonal situations and the choices you make are almost always about how to deal with other human beings who are responding to an overwhelmingly hopeless situation.  Right at the beginning of the game a character tells you that "people go crazy when they lose everything" and that is a theme which runs throughout.  What's more, as the game progresses, and society breaks down further and further, the (time restricted) moral choices you are asked to make become more and more difficult.  You will find yourself starting to do things that on the face of it are utterly morally abhorrent but that, in the situation you find yourself in, make perfect sense.
I would die for these people.  Genuinely.
And this is all very well written.  The way that things gradually slide and the way that your decisions become more and more influenced by the desolation around you is extremely well done.  You find yourself assessing the other people in your group to see who will be most helpful if things go badly, or sacrificing less favourite companions in order to secure the safety of your friends.  It shows you things about yourself that you probably didn't know before, and possibly wouldn't want to know now.  It takes you in, you can't avoid it, and it confronts you with that in a way that I'm not sure I have ever experienced before.  This is a game with extremely adult themes, and subjects which may be taboo in the rest of the gaming world are not forbidden here.  What's more, it makes you confront the consequences of your actions in all their protracted and realistic glory.  It doesn't give you any easy rides, it doesn't spare your feelings and it is certainly not interested in making your life comfortable.

In fact it is one of the game's greatest achievements that it takes the player with it as it makes its descent into chaos and destruction.  It can be a shocking and horrific experience (and it can also throw up moments of real beauty and emotion), precisely because the player is a direct participant in the action.  You're not watching somebody on screen do something awful, YOU are doing it.  You're pulling the trigger, you're leaving somebody to die in order to save yourself, you've become a part of this awful, desperate existence - and that can take some getting used to.  No other medium is able to do that and it's why games can be so effective and affecting.  It's completely different to being a passive observer of something, you are much more emotionally involved than you would be if it was a TV show, and that only happens because this is a game and you are allowed (and expected) to influence its events.  The triumph of The Walking Dead is that it grabs this chance with both hands and exploits it fully.  It's probably the most emotionally engaging game I have ever played.  When it finished I wanted it to carry on so that I could find out what happened to all its characters in the future and there were times when I didn't want to believe what it was showing me.  I made connections within it that lasted well after the game ended and it made me spend time in a dark room coming to terms with the choices I had made.

The Walking Dead is not a perfect thing, by any means, but it is something quite unique.  It uses the attributes of its medium to conjure up emotions in the player like nothing else I have ever played and if you are interested in something different, something genuine and something quite, quite brilliant then I would urge you to give it a go.

The Walking Dead is available on PC, Xbox 360, PS3 and Apple products.  Consult your relevant marketplace.