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Staring At The Sun: What can we learn from the design of Proteus?
by Andrew Stewart on 06/14/13 11:51:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This blog first appeared on the Triplevision Games website.

I can't jump. I can't sprint. I can't pick anything up. I can't drown or die in any way. I can sit, but I can't duck. I can circle strafe, but I can't shoot. So what?
 
Proteus has been dismissed by some for the numerous things you are not able to do in its world. This, as a measure of the quality of any game, is faintly ridiculous. I can't recall this same criticism being levelled at Call of Duty, for example, and I'm pretty sure you can't sit in Call of Duty.
 
When did we decide to start judging games on what you can't do instead of what you can do? Every game is its own world, with its own rules and laws – a world small enough that you can know everything about it without the need for a PHD in every discipline of science and academic thought. And the world of Proteus offers so much more than that of Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. I feel this is because, in Proteus, it is the world itself that engages you rather than your actions in it.
 
So when I play through Proteus, I do not experience that world as being constrained by what buttons do what -- by what operative actions are available to me. I do not interact with this world through the medium of a virtual gun. I interact through my own interpretation of the experience and my observing the results of the decisions that I make. I unconsciously ascribe meaning to dancing pink trumpets and odd fluttering white things. These things have a relevance to me that only makes sense in the world of Proteus, but that is a relevance that I have made in my own head – it is not a meaning that has been put in the game by a 'narrative designer'. I have, unconsciously, chosen my own experience.
 
This avoids the incongruence of other games that stop them from really meaning anything.
 
Proteus: the first real choose your own adventure. Or more accurately, choose your own experience.
 
It is a challenging game. The challenge is not in how many enemies you can kill, but rather in how you can interpret the experience with which you are participating in. It is a challenging game, but not a difficult or frustrating one. You, the player, set the goals for the experience and this is where I feel the game really succeeds. You're not playing the game in the game, you're playing it in your head. This works so well in Proteus because there is nothing in there to ever pull you out of the experience, that strange world sits quite comfortably in your mind.
 
There are many things in there that don't really make sense, but they don't make sense in a way that makes sense in the world of the experience. Those pink dancing things that hide when I approach, the sound and music that casts you as the conductor of nature's bizarre orchestra, the blinding Sun that I stared at for so long the world when white and everything began to buzz. Everything works together to tell you the same thing: that this world, and your experience in it is your own and yours alone – because you are as much a part of the world as any other.
 
So, I'm playing through these games from the perspective of someone who wants to be a designer. A designer who presents interesting and engaging experiences for people to explore – whether that be interesting mechanics or challenging or unconventional themes or by whatever method I discover to explore something new in my designs.
 
How does Proteus help? What can I learn from the experience of playing Proteus and considering its design?
 
The first thing would be elegance. This is reflected in the design of Proteus in two ways: the harmony of each element of the game and the reduced number of operative actions. The harmony of everything from the game's presentation to its mechanics to the systems beneath that drive those mechanics to the aesthetic experience in the players head, this all serves to deepen the immersion in that strange world and allows the mind space to assign meaning to the experience without being distracted by things being out of place or not working as they should. This is supported by the reduced number of controls in the game, as these are so minimal that you no longer feel as though you are using a keyboard and/or a mouse. You just move. Well, except you don't just move. Moving ceases to be just that and instead becomes climbing a hill, chasing some chickens, following a frog, running from bees or any number of things you want to do in the game.
 
This leads me neatly to the second thing I would take from the game: curiosity.

Knowing quite clearly what you can't do within the game (or more accurately, what you don't need to do in the game), leads you quite naturally as a player to spend a great deal of time exploring precisely what you can do within the game. This is something I've never really considered in my own designs, but it works so well in Proteus, really pulling you further into the rules of that world, that I think engaging the players curiosity could really be one of the most powerful tools a game designer can have.
 
The third and final thing I'll be adding to my new toolbox, is the player. This is the first game I have played that really drove home how much a part of the game the player is. They are a part of the world, so make them feel like an important, integral part of it. The game is not being played on the machine in front of them, nor is it being played with their hands. It is being played in their heads. The mind is more powerful than any computer on the planet. As game designers, if we are able to harness just a little bit of that, that mind can generate meaning – whatever that may be to that person – and an experience that far surpasses anything we could have intentionally designed for, if only we give it enough room.
 
So there we go. I've got a new toolbox, I've explored one game, I've already got three powerful tools with which to build my future designs: elegance, curiosity and the player.
 
Proteus is a great achievement of game design. It says: "Don't tell me what I can't do".
 
I don't need to jump. I don't need to sprint. I don't need to pick anything up. I don't need to drown or die in any way. I can sit, but I don't need to duck. I can circle strafe, but I don't need to shoot. So what?
 
Let me show you what I can do.


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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A very nice analysis.

If you haven't looked at the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics (MDA) model for game design, you might find that helpful. I think it's a pretty good lens for understanding both Proteus and much of the reaction to that game.

For most people who want to make a game, "design" is synonymous with "player mechanics." It's not even a conscious internal debate -- gameplay simply equals "what the player can do." Everything is just support code and art for that.

And there's nothing wrong with it. But what happens if, rather than emphasizing Mechanics as a default assumption, you emphasize Dynamics?

Mechanics starts with a set of player actions and then builds a world whose every feature exists only to enable the use of those actions. Dynamics starts with the world, building a place as a set of active systems that interact with each other in multiple ways, and then considers ways in which players can also interact with that world. In short, a Mechanics-first philosophy generates action games, while a Dynamics-first mindset leads to the creation of games that favor exploration play. (And to finish the thought, an Aesthetics-driven design perspective leads to games that emphasize player-generated storytelling.)

I don't know, but I suspect Proteus was designed around the Dynamics-centric philosophy. The world of Proteus feels like a place that exists with its own rules, doing its own thing, and the enjoyment comes from observing and poking the world to see what happens and perceive patterns.

That's a radically different form of play than the kind you get in a game where the universe exists only to respond to your actions. But it is a valid form of play, which makes it worthy of supporting with games like Proteus that create a breathing world and say, "go explore."

Andrew Stewart
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Thanks - I've just had a look at what I can find on MDA and it very much appears at first glance to be a useful way to look at games. I like the idea of the different start points being useful for creating different types of play spaces. I wonder what sort of game would come out of making an action game starting from the dynamics perspective?

I might just have a play around with that idea for a while.


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