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Trigon Times: A Prodigious Weight pt.2

Continuing from part 1.

If you are a game designer and you are focusing on a particular formal definition or have a guiding principle to your work, like Sid Meier’s famous motto “A game is a series of interesting decisions” then go ahead. Insisting that your definition is the definition is a foolish obsession.

I've done quite a lot to establish a Critical-Language to talk about game and non-game experiences. I know that most people I talk to don't share my definitions. Most don't even have their own alternative terms for the same concepts. This language barrier can make communicating incredibly difficult because language is strongly linked to our ability to think and understand concepts, a topic I cover in Critical-Casts Ep.2 Expression. I don't claim that my definitions are "the" definitions. But I do state that they're better defined, more precise, and help us communicate better than any other group of terms you're likely to use or find. 


Proteus doesn’t have or even aspire to the same systemic complexity as SimCity, but it does have systems. It’s just 95% optional whether you engage with them and it generally doesn’t give you any confirmation when you do. There’s a design reason for this. But, as the other headline went: Who cares? Would adding more game-like elements improve it? Or would it just be a box-ticking exercise that would harm** what it’s designed to express?

Ed begins to drift in his line of thinking here. From what I can tell, no one is arguing that Proteus has no systems. No one is debating whether the game should have had more mandatory content. Or clearer feedback. And of course there's a design reason for everything about Proteus. The reason is, that's the way Ed wanted Proteus to be, whether good, bad, or otherwise.

Ed's response to the headline Opinion: It's totally OK to not like 'anti-games' is telling: "Who cares?" Well, technically Ed does, and I do too. But Ed doesn't address the core issue here. In the Gamasutra article Ed responds to, Mike Rose doesn't suggest adding traditional game-like elements to Proteus, or changing it in any way. In fact he says the following:


I personally enjoyed my time with the game. It was a relaxing half an hour succeeding a bustling day of work, and it allowed my curiosity to wander off with a mind of its own.

What if it was me that was trying so hard to get something out of this walking simulator, that I had lost sight of the fact that it literally is a game about prancing around a lo-fi island for half an hour?

That's not to say that Proteus is a tech demo, but rather, that when someone complains that Proteus is boring because it has "no gameplay," should we really be so harsh as to snap at them for not being "clever" enough to understand it?

I've personally been on the other end of this argument before -- I didn't enjoy last year's Dear Esther at all (and that feels like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders to say out loud).

While I appreciated [Proteus] game for what it was attempting to do, and I'm definitely glad that it exists, I just didn't "get it."

And this is what I'm driving at: I am all about pushing the video game medium forward, and for that reason I see games like Proteus and Dear Esther as a huge step in the right direction. I'm hugely glad they exist, I'm happy to have experienced them, and I hope Proteus sells by the bucketload so the developer can continue to make his mark on the industry.

That's some clearly articulated support from a gamer who didn't really "get" Proteus. And when you look deeper, it's clear that Mike Rose addresses the sort of caustic, defensive reaction some gamers have against those who express their dislike for non-games, art games, or experimental games like Proteus. Instead of articulating what's truly special and interesting about such interactive experiences, many gamers often throw around arguments that narrow-mindedly attack other's intelligence or their ability to "get" the deeper meanings. And in my experience, this kind of backlash and pushback is the result of a discourse where both sides struggle to express what's really going on. 

The problem is, a clear language is absolutely necessary to give gamers the tools to articulate their thoughts and feelings about the complex products that are video games. Yes, there's a clash of ideals that sits at the core of all these gamer outcries. The heart of the matter is that the three main types of gamers, according to the trigon theory, are not doing a good job coexisting as a culture. And this is especially true when talking about such a wide range of interactive, digital products like games versus non-games. 



Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of “game” does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both. Witness the raging threads on the Proteus Steam forum, most of which are posted (and re-posted and re-posted) by people who don’t own the game. There’s a huge difference between this kind of “activism” or claiming something is the Emperor’s New Clothes and individual people trying something and deciding it’s not for them.

This "conservatism" and "defensiveness" within the gaming culture is not the direct result of gamers trying to better communicate by creating a more exacting definition of game. This fear, and defensiveness stems from the real stress that we all feel coupled with a failure to communicate, express, and articulate. The pressure is real to Ed ("burdensome," "pains"), and to Mike ("huge weight lifted off my shoulders"), to Thompson ("Are we afraid of not connecting... that is why we voice them"), and to me. This is simply a reality of being a part of a growing culture. However, we have to be careful not to let our fears lead us astray.

Clear communication is the goal, and I don't know how this is possible using a collection of broad terms. The heart of the issue is our views on games, what we value, and how we communicate these things. Nitpicking any part of the gaming discourse for trying to communicate with inadequate tools is an exercise in futility. Yes, many gamers struggle to communicate for many reasons. Yes, many pick ways to express themselves that are not productive, or nice for that matter. But unless we work to address the core communication issues, there's no point is dwelling over the symptoms of the disease. 


Proteus was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things. None of that is really important, because the proof is in the playing.

I believe Ed has shifted his point halfway through his article. The word "proof" tells me that Ed thinks there was something to prove in the first place, and that Proteus somehow proves it. What is there to prove? That video games are complicated? That talking about video games is even more complicated? That gamers suffer from communication issues? That some people will "get" Proteus? That some people feel mislead by how Proteus was labeled or marketed? That Proteus is a first person interactive product? Certainly Proteus doesn't prove anything about language or the way gamers communicate. Maybe what Proteus proves is much simpler.  

I'm glad that Ed decided to express himself over this entire prodigious Proteus predicament. I think Ed was fully aware that he was in a tough situation whether he wrote his article or not. To address an issue as large as communication within a discourse is too much for anyone to engage lightly. Yet, to not use the only weapon we have, our voice, to communicate our thoughts and hopefully make a change for the better would be something like giving up. Ultimately, Ed is trying to say that what Proteus is and what games are takes more work than can be packed inside of categories and strict definitions. Every work of art is different and we would all do better to express what each does best from personal experience than fight fruitless battles over issues that don't speak to the heart. 


I briefly played Proteus at GDC2012, and was instantly inspired. I grabbed a Proteus postcard, talked to the Ed, and wandered around inside his world for a brief time. I look forward to putting some time into the Proteus someday. I'm a big fan of Electroplankton, and Jam Sessions, and Proteus looks like one more cool digital musical experience. 

« Let Trigons Be Trigons: On Killing Gameplay pt.1 | Main | Trigon Times: A Prodigious Weight pt.1 »

Reader Comments (4)

Clear communication isn't something that is possible even for older dyscyplines like History of Art (which provides best tools for describing games). There are always some undiefinable aspects of experience that people will try to express in most understandable way. But that is why serious criticism is so necessary for gaming, it divides facts from impressions and will favor the first to establish a firm intellectual base to actually transfer and enhance the experience for potential recipient.

Experience to word problem is one of the most basic issues people will learn about when studying History of Art. That's why I think it has most of the answers you might look for.

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacques


Interesting comment about art history. Can you go into more specific details?

I think clear communication is possible, though it may not be perfect and it may not describe all of the facets of human experience/existence that we want to express.

I think video games are an incredibly complex medium to talk about. Because it's the combination of other mediums/art I have found that branching off from art history, literary criticism, film technique, etc. does help us talk about games.

Though I'm curious to know more about the fact that video games are coded into a very clear and quantifiable language of code, does that improve our chances of clear communication in the long run.


History of art isn't something very different from other specializations it just has enough inherent dyscypline to not get into too much (pardon) useless crap when approached well. You describe the object in the most accurate way (whole to detail), it's material and while you do that you try to catch relations between all the elements you described and make them appear in words so to say. The process of learing is just struggling to get the right order and forcing it to the most basic form. It's just boiling down.

IE the good sheperd isn't just representation of christ, it's a male youg man with a lamab on his shoulders in the first place. Or Henri Matisse's The Fall of Icarus is white human shaped (dont know the words here, english isn't my mother toungue) spot on black streak going from the lower left to the upper right of the image (and so on, i forgot to start with the proportions of the image which is crucial, anyway, you get the idea).

After that comes ideas about psychology of seeing (mainly from Rudolf Arnheim) and internal coding based on comparison (Heinrich Wollflin). I'm getting kind of sleepy right now (it's 2 AM here :P) and still have all those 4 years of your blog to catch up so I'll continue tommorow.

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacques


Very well put. Thanks for your comment.

Get some sleep, and I'll talk to you later.

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