Vision: TRIP (PC/Mac)

If you could walk through the mind of an artist would you need distractions to validate that exploration?

Quests, stories and collectibles prompt our journeying and ultimately sustain our desire to ‘win’, but what if there were no pursuits or anecdotes and what if the feat of collecting didn’t return any tangible assets? The foundations of traditional games rely on the inputs of interactivity; jump, push, pull, hit etc. and there is a tendency to disdain visions that do not tick these boxes. But if the obstacle courses and challenges are removed, why would you need them? If we reduce interactivity to a minimum would we still label the work as a game?

TRIP is the projected mind of an artist named Axel Shokk, and it explodes through the screen in aesthetic delirium. The creativity Shokk has explicated on-screen is startling and officiously stands atypical next to other games. Riotous hues punctuate the senses with geometric spikes and impossible stellations, even blades of grass are composed of bar charts that sway gently in the wind. These visuals demand your attention by force feeding you colour and Shokk emphasises this through a pared down interface. Your sole interaction is movement in first person, there are no quests or challenges. You have to look at TRIP because that is all there is to accomplish, but more importantly, that is all you want to do.

LSD Dream emulator, Myst and Journey inspired to deconstruct the controls, leaving only the chromatics and audio to play with. “If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have been bold enough to strip all gameplay mechanics, games like those pave the way for creative individuals to try new things. I’m just one of those guys trying out something new just for the sake of experimentation.”

There is a creative resonance here with the experimentation of early ZX Spectrum games; like the obtuse forms found in Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner. TRIP features familiar yet Ineffable characters with unique personalities. I question if a lot of this creativity has been lost in the pursuit of realism? “There was a creativity drought in the industry not too long ago, thanks to the recent explosion of indie gaming I see a lot more creative and fresh ideas being tested. These are very exciting times in the world of video games.”

Shokk has stated that Trip is more of an art piece to be observed rather than a game with traditional gameplay. But as developers such as Tale of Tales and The Chinese Room have proven; observation can be a powerful form of interaction, and isn’t the act of discovery a gameplay element in itself? “I strongly believe so, however the audience is still hung up on what constitutes a game. One of the reasons I created TRIP was to shake that ground and bring up the question, at what point can something be considered a game? I’m trying to open boundaries for other developers to get crazy without worrying about backlash, I feel games created in a ‘fuck it’ mentality speak most to me. I don’t think that these games will ever have a broad appeal, but I would rather make one person extremely satisfied than to mildly amuse a hundred.”

In a medium that does not have any real limitations it is hard to comprehend that imagination would not have a broad appeal. The landscape in TRIP inspires curiosity and exploration and there is a fervent desire to see what is around the next abstraction. From caverns and mountains to the brilliant sea of words, TRIP is a cohesive view of the familiar wrapped up in arbitrary geometries. There are sparse collectibles but Shokk states they serve no purpose, even though reaching them inadvertently offers a reward; a new view of the landscape.

If there is one thing missing it is the ability to see the whole of the terrain in its entirety, no matter how high you climb there is a desire to see more, the central mechanic of souvenir would serve the game well if only to accomplish this. Shokk had various ideas he wanted to incorporate to accomplish this; “I actually wanted several mechanics in TRIP like NPCs taking you places and showing you things, I was very limited by my complete lack of programming so I had to improvise. A lot. I’m slowly teaching myself programming so hopefully at some point I will be able to provide a much more interactive experience.”

This also expands into making TRIP open to user-generated content. “Oh how I’d love to, but I’m not sure how moddable Unity engine games are. If my dream of having a development team comes true I’ll definitely make the majority of my games open for user-generated content. I got into game development by making unreal maps and half-life mods.” As an incentive for a succesful kickstarter bid, Shock offered to create an area in-game under the backers specifications. It would be interesting to see various parts of other people’s minds amalgamated together.

The glue that binds this world together is the soundtrack, it is quite buoyant and upbeat but manages to deliver an ominous feeling over the abstract imagery. “My good friend Benjamin created the soundtrack, he suggested to create a melody that would be cohesive throughout the whole game. I told him to go for it, when he started the game world was kinda bare so I sketched up sound waves and gave him a list of key words that would inspire what each song would sound like. For example the city area I sent Ben images of sewers, metal, industrial areas, and gave him keywords like clanging, banging, clicking and to imagine an oppressive sound of steel and machinery.
When he showed me each track I was blown away at how well it fit the game world. He’s a real talented individual, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his friend!”

Critics have been trying to shoehorn TRIP into the appropriate mould and the difficulties with the term ‘game’ rears its head again; “The response has been mixed; thankfully most critics seem to praise the visuals. They find that TRIP works better as a piece of digital art than as a game.” I can’t help feeling that Digital art is misplaced, if only because traditional ‘game players’ might brush TRIP aside incredulously . We are familiar with all of the elements present here; the viewpoint, the type of landscape, spectrums of colour… so the only non-game like component is structured activity. As I said at the beginning, do we need distractions to validate exploration, TRIP is an opportunity to traverse the mind of an artist, does it need to be anything else?

What can we expect in the future From Axel Shokk? “My next project is Kat Attack, an action-oriented visual novel. I want it to be like an interactive motion-comic. It’s not nearly as experimental as TRIP is but I’ll be putting my storytelling and cartooning skills to the test, you’ll see a lot of my illustrative work in this comic which is something I’ve been meaning to show. Hopefully proving that the visual novel is a medium with a lot of potential.
Kat Attack takes place in a dystopian future as a space rock opera, centered around Kat – a space pirate wielding a guitar cannon which she also uses to surf through space with.
I will try to get this project kickstarted sometime August so keep an eye out!”

Check out Kat Attack’s development blog.

Visionary: Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther)

20120619-210509.jpg

Epistolary first person adventure; Dear Esther has surpassed the 100’000 sales mark and has been a huge success. I asked creator Dan Pinchbeck about his future projects; the wildly ambitious Everybody’s gone to the rapture and Amnesia: a machine for pigs, a collaboration with Frictional games to produce their next asphyxiating horror.

Dear Esther has clearly proved that it is commercially viable to create something neoteric in an over saturated genre, especially one that typically has a gun on the screen. Was there anything in Esther you wanted to explore further or has your vision been fully realised?

I think you always have things you want to do, but they are not always suitable for a particular game, and you have to draw a line. So for me, Esther is finished- everything that needed to be there to make it work got in, and I wouldn’t add anything else (originally, Rob had added in some more traditional gameplay but they got removed again as he figured it diluted the experience too much). But you get a load of new ideas about the next game whilst you are finishing one off, so there’s quite a bit of new things going into Rapture, many of which were inspired by ideas from Esther – things that wouldn’t work in that context, but were clearly good avenues to explore.

20120619-211229.jpg

Something I found really intriguing was temperature fluctuations in Esther, both visually and phonically. The tones of Nigel Carrington’s voice provides a type of warmth in response to the cold landscape. The soundtrack also shifts between callous and friendly depending on your location and its temperateness. Was this deliberate in order to make the audio and landscape coalesce into one?

I guess, although it’s often much more of an instinctive thing than that, particularly if you are working as a team. You always try and create a journey that has arcs, and diversity to it, and so inevitably, you are looking at how you fuse all the aspects of the production to both enable that, and enable the elements to play off against each other. I think that both Jessica’s music and Nigel’s voice-over add a great deal of warmth to the experience, certainly a very human emotional depth, which contrasts to the often stark beauty of the environment. The island is captivating in it’s desolation, the voice personalises this loneliness and the music gives it this flow. So yeah, deliberate, but very instinctive. You tend to not say things like “this area needs more warmth” or “should be more callous” but you kind of talk in slightly more abstract terms about those things.

20120619-131506.jpg

Everybody’s gone to the Rapture is the spiritual successor to Dear Esther, which is based around six characters in the moment of an apocalypse. Will these characters be explored through dialogue or through the narrative of the landscape and will they meet each other?

All of the above, and can’t say right now about the last! We’re keeping that sense of holistic storytelling from Esther- it’s what games do really well, but one of the differences is that these are distinct, separate characters – you really believe and invest in them as people, and they have individualised relationships with the landscape and the player. And maybe each other. That’d be telling.

You are trying to engage the user in an open world setting with no control of what the user will do. Will you be employing an adaptive soundtrack, similar to what Ed Key has been experimenting with in Proteus, and how will you lead us to explore?

Yeah, not generative, but responsive, a multi-layered composition that has a great deal of control over the interpretation of the dramatic experience. It’s a huge challenge, as we’re looking at a soundtrack that is as deep and cinematic as Esther, avoiding being more abstract, keeping it quite narrative and focused in tone. That’s really, really hard to do – we’re lucky to have such a great composer with Jessica. As for exploration, it’s always a big challenge working signposting in an openworld. It’s involved a lot of testing, a lot of trials, making sure there’s always a visual point of interesting, an event, something leading you or rewarding you wherever you go and whatever you do. That’s often just a case of pushing through it, trying a lot of things out, tweaking and polishing. Unglamorous donkey work really.

20120619-183139.jpg

You are also creating a follow-up to Amnesia (Amnesia: a machine for pigs). What are the lessons you have learnt from Korsakovia and the Conscientious objector that you are applying to this new entry?

Well, I think the key thing we got from Korsakovia is that the unknown is far, far scarier than anything else. So not falling into the trap of telling the player too much, trusting their ability to cope with abstraction, ambiguity, confusion. And in a similar way to Esther, that often the most frightening levels are those where you are waiting for something to happen, and stringing that sense along for as long as possible. That’s an old trick really, but it works super-well, and where Korsakovia failed was not following that rule enough. But the visceral, strange, confused sense of story in Korsakovia is something we’ll certainly mine for ideas. Conscientious Objector is a different one really, for me, it’s a really funny, not scary as such. But the sense of powerlessness of the player made it pretty frightening for lots of people, and that’s a direct fit with the type of gameplay ideas that are classic Amnesia.

20120619-184441.jpg

Amnesia had such a brooding, suppressive feel to it. How are you delivering that atmosphere yet creating a unique experience for people who have played the original?

That’s a really hard question to answer. Again, it’s a lot of donkey work, just refining and testing. We’re definitely bringing our own stamp to it, but I can’t really talk too much about that without giving too much away.

20120619-213757.jpg

You ask a lot of questions, of your-self and of your audience. Do you think it is important that consumers keep their minds open to new ideas? At times it feels like we are in a perpetual groundhog day of people buying and playing the same things.

I actually think it’s a pretty exciting time. Quite niche, different games are doing really well at the moment – like Journey, Esther, Proteus, and you also have things like Antichamber coming, a new Tale of Tales game… there’s a lot of experimentation and a real hunger for it, so there’s definitely a fair bit more going on than is often talked about. And I’m a complete AAA junkie. I love the groundhog day in many ways, I like the experiences I get from AAA titles. It’s not a problem for me. I’m playing Mass Effect 3 and Prototype 2 at the moment and loving them both. Games so often get accused of being derivative, but seriously, turn on your TV, go to a cinema, open a book, listen to an album. The overwhelming majority of any media form is a variation on an established theme. It’s OK. We don’t need to panic about that. But an open-mind in any situation is a good thing, or you are going to miss out on cool stuff and have a boring life.

20120620-213358.jpg

Because of the history within first person perspectives, it is easy to forget that it is simply a viewpoint of a space. Do you think consumers sometimes have expectancies of what should be put into these spaces and what they should do in them?

Sure, although I think it’s important to respect the fact that FPS games have been honing a design template for over twenty years (well, the first FPS was in the 1970s, but let’s stick with Wolfenstein and Doom). There’s a very particular experience about first-person, the way it pitches you into the action, into the world. It’s very very good for certain types of experiences- visceral, emotional, tense, filled with sudden moments and spectacle, and although that derives from the viewpoint, it’s also a way of maximising what it gives you. So FPS games are not so good at platforming (Korsakovia is a case in point) which leads to a certain type of play, of approach to play, which helps define the kinds of experiences, worlds, etc, you have, and that’s something to remember. And it’s also fundamentally about simplifying an environment in the classic design template, and shooting is the simplest, most rewarding way of doing this. The act of exploring, shooting from a first-person perspectives has such resonance because it’s phenomenally powerful and effective. So it’s not wonder there are expectations around that. Most of the deviations from that pattern have been less effective.

Who else is examining the fabric of videogames and what was the last game that generated something you had never experienced before?

Wow. Ummm. Lots of people, I don’t know if I could begin to answer that. There are obvious more radical studios – Tale of tales, Stout games, Ed Key, Die Gute fabrik, Ice pick lodge, Bennett foddy. Too many to mention. I’m not sure about the last part of that question. I don’t go looking for new for new’s sake. I’m much more drawn to games which deliver a great experience, even if it’s a variation on an experience I’ve had many times before. Mass Effect 3 is a brilliantly crafted game where I care about the characters, I’m drawn to the world, I’m hooked on the leveling up and I love the action. That’s plenty for me. I’m happy with that. It doesn’t have to be radical or innovative or even inventive to be worthwhile and enjoyable for me. I loved Rage.

Prevision: Proteus

20120422-194900.jpg

Platform: PC
Developer: twisted tree games

There was a promise made when we exhorted primitive pixels on a blank screen. A suggestion induced by the watercolour illustrations of videogame packaging. It was that the metaphors would transfer from the box art, through the television and into our hands. The pixels were indifferent however. They could instigate panic and excitement but not subtler shades of emotions. The atmospherics were not as convincing as we were led to believe, not as they were depicted in the watercolours.

Aesthetically Proteus could be mistaken for belonging to that era, nestled somewhere between the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64; struggling to convince its user of its assets and virtues…but Proteus doesn’t struggle, Proteus has realised what was promise in those primitive pixels.

Your starting point is a sleepy eyelid; it unseals revealing a first person perspective, a pixellated ocean and a distant (randomly generated) island. It is intensely familiar yet uniquely poised; as you drift ashore you think of Minecraft and the elder scrolls, but with your first step onto the sand, that all falls away. You are greeted with a paroxysm of sound and the subsequent minutes have you wandering through trees to a deluge of phonic tonal fluctuations; ethereal blips and beeps derived from the environment.

The Island generates a cosy feeling of refuge, facilitated by the harmonics of nature’s chanting. Melodic frogs hop around donating playful tunes, mischievous creatures chat and retreat into the earth as you approach them. The only ominous find is blackened castle ruins with their crazed organ accompaniment; the walls cannot be breached; you only regulate the crossfade of its noise.

As you explore more of the island, it is natural to wonder about an objective. You realise there has not been any tangible interactions, in terms of collectibles or goals. But then it dawns on you; perhaps the objective is discovering your auditory perception of the world. “Each element in the world could have a “voice” that would combine to make a shifting soundscape as the player explores.” explains creator Ed Key. “The music forms a kind of subjective reaction to the world. We (David Kanaga generates the soundtrack) also modify the world according to the shifts in subjective experience of the player’s “character”.”

The goal I had been looking for was with me from the start. Under further analysis Proteus has mechanisms of sounds and they craft a type of phonology; relationships of audio forming the components of a language. A language that the ignorant or impatient might admonish because Proteus eschews many traditional game elements.

Ed felt that a lot of these elements were detrimental to the experience; “Players and developers often feel like there should be “enemies” or scores. The point about enemies and challenge has been evident in some players’ reactions to Fez. Basically I think that if you’re making a truly experimental or heartfelt game you should just follow it wherever it takes you and don’t add elements just because of expectations. Add things when they make sense to what the games means to you.”

20120422-202713.jpg

My epiphany with the function of Proteus suddenly opens up all sorts of questions; what happens phonically when I stand in the ocean while it is raining? How is the ambience of a mountaintop affected when I am engulfed in a cloud? They are questions that you set yourself, not obligatory but compulsively so.

The most significant question I asked was; what are those large stone edifices for?

Walking by them releases a boom of reverberation that harmonises with the syntax of the landscape. It is like an outpouring of musical notes; resonating upwards as a hard wind blows through the island. As the sun sets, the sounds you have released congregate around a formation of rocks, they pirouette before you. It is one of those moments that only this medium can induce; a spectacle of pure amazement. The skyline fast-forwards in a rapid advancement of a day and night cycle; precipitous clouds shoot pass, the rise and fall of the sun applauding you as you step into the swirling mass of sound, and as you do; the season changes.

Summer bristles with a buoyant hand clap, as intonations bounce around the terrain. There is a confident swagger in the parade of birds and the screaming of bees, flowers sway in unison. This season literally bursts through the screen; both visually and phonically it feels like a solstice which you want to be infinite. But you know nature’s portal collects somewhere on the island. There is that desire to see what the next state of the terrain is like and when you enter; autumn’s sombre mood is a stark contrast. The oranges and browns of the fall bring a tone of sadness. Proteus switches to being contemplative, there are few animals here and those that you find are absorbed in foraging. Winter is even more despondent, with no signs of life it feels initially suppressive. Low laying clouds try to reach out to the floor, the urgency to scramble to higher ground is irascible but then the snow comes, a calm washes over you.

20120424-142924.jpg

There are certain moments when Proteus doesn’t feel like any other game, it shows you the rare minutiae of life; the feeling of watching snow gliding to meet an ocean turned to ice or salmon pink clouds illuminated by the winter sun above. These instants are neither searched nor scripted; they just happen whether you are there or not.

Ed has observed that when people explore; “various trails (literal paths and those created by animals) overlap through the terrain and interact with the positions and views of landmarks to create a kind of “flow” through the world.”

You get a sense of this flow even though you are not bound to it. Screenshots or even watching the game in motion is unrevealing. You must navigate them yourself to understand, with your eyes and ears.

The influences that helped create Proteus are varied but not responsible for its uniqueness. Ed personally cites Brian Eno phonically, and an animation by Yuriy Norshteyn called hedgehog in the fog. “Purely by structure, I think Nifflas’ “Knytt” was very important to me. That simple exploration with no obligation to fight enemies or solve puzzles felt really bold. Graphically I think I was a little inspired by people like Cactus who make fantastic, garish, bold, low res graphics that have a ton of personality and style.”

At the time of writing Proteus is not yet complete but I asked Ed about his plans for the future. Is he looking to challenge conventions or build on existing foundations within the medium? He talks about Himalayan expeditions, the hardships of covering immense distances and scaling huge mountains. It makes me think of journey but its linearity does not fit in from what I have experienced on this pixellated island. It felt like an escape, perhaps from the monotony of life, but maybe it is an escape from the trappings of the videogame. The guns, the fetch quests and the boss fights are not evident here. There are not many places you can find that outside of Proteus.

Pre-order Proteus here

This is early experimental gameplay footage

Vision: Journey

20120327-090934.jpg
Platform: PS3
Developer: Thatgamecompany

“They-and he-cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend. Step by step it evolved, so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible. But it was there. Higher, he thought as stones rattled downward under his feet. Today we are higher than yesterday, and tomorrow-he, the compound figure of Wilbur Mercer, glanced up to view the ascent ahead. Impossible to make out the end. Too far. But it would come.”

In Philip K. Dick’s book; Do androids dream of electric sheep? (Blade runner) a robed image of Wilbur Mercer was virtually assumed through an empathy box. Scrambling upwards amidst desolate burning sands, his ambition, always the same; ascend the top of a mountain, every step taunted under the supervision of the towering peak.

His struggle is cruel and suppressive, but despite his ordeal, he perseveres relentlessly.

When Thatgamecompany announced details of their fourth game; journey, Mercers image burned in my mind, but uncomfortably so. It deliberated something too incongruous with TGC’s mantra.
Cruel doesn’t exactly fit in with TGC’s previous visions;

Flow: an underwater ballet dance about evolution and Flower: a carnival of light and colour, the rejuvenation of earth. They were love letters to nature and creation, exuding calmness and relaxation.

Journey is a linear, undeviating adventure, mirroring Mercers aim of transcending a distant peak. It is inevitable that you will reach the summit, but not in the same way as I or anyone else will. I have been craving to shout about my experience since its conclusion; the locations, the friendships and the revelations, but it feels inappropriate. It is a betrayal not only to those who have not yet made the voyage but also to the vision itself, it should be discovered, not pre-empted. In a perfect world, TGC would have released the game without any promotion whatsoever, no screenshots or videos, because any information dilutes the experience, the less you know about Journey, the better.

Many reviewers will talk about its intricacies, but as much as I want to, I am not going to do that, it really is detrimental to what is an intensely personal experience.

How can I convey what Journey is like without revealing anything?

By its emotional content and the feelings it generated. This is my unique Journey in note form, as it happened from start to finish:

Resplendent, playful, strain, restricted, arduous, solitude, calm, intruder, competitor, claustrophobic, irritating, accomplishment, vivacious, mystery, guidance, friendship, love, fear, insignificance, unyielding, defiance, elated, captivated, pious, virtuous, astonishing, superlative, euphoric, celestial, perfect.

None of those emotions or events were produced from incoherent controls or level design, there are some very traditional gameplay elements in effect but the execution of these are flawless and innovative. After Journeys completion I was left in an indeterminate state, videogames are capable of crafting intimate experiences but I had not felt them as a cohesive whole before.
I have never pushed an analogue stick with such ferocity, at one point realizing there was no need but my body still urged towards the mountains summit, my mind was lost in the ether.

When a next generation console is launched, there are promises of the future. What you habitually receive however are the same games as the preceding generation, just with updated graphics. Journey fulfils this promise not graphically or phonically (which are remarkable); but through something that has never been made before. Something that left me staring at the screen long after the credits rolled. I have always thought this interactive medium was restricted by its vocabulary, primarily because of the words; game, fun and play. Journey is fun, but the question of whether a game is fun or not should not be the epitome of this medium. At times it resonates with Mercers passage, feeling cruel and claustrophobic, at times transcending into the heights of spirituality. Journeys gift is that it eradicates the label of fun and delivers myriad feelings not associated with a videogame.

Jenova Chen and his team are visionaries, calling Journey a game is erroneous; this is an interactive vision in its purest form, directly entrenched from their minds into your hands.

There was a time when consoles were shipped with pre built-in games; Journey must be etched onto the hard drive of every PS3 produced. This should be the first experience that everyone has of Sony’s own empathy box.