Developer Orihaus made a short game called Obsolete for last year's 7DFPS challenge. There are two ways to approach Obsolete.
Option A is the obvious one, play. You can bask in the cold, abstract visuals and finish all of the levels. You can then file it away and pat yourself on the back for killing off another bite-sized game that you'll quickly forget.
Option B is to tell the rules to go fuck themselves. You can look away from the bright neon glow of the place where mechanics roam. You can go out there: into the black.
Obsolete is shy, which is just how I like my games, and it is up to the player to figure the game out. This has proved problematic for some players, but the game and I were good together. Obsolete is essentially one of those silly visual metaphors for hacking that TV and film are addicted to because, let's face it, hacking looks boring. It looks like typing. And typing looks boring. Don't get me wrong; Obsolete is gorgeous.
The player starts in the middle of a brightly-lit helical structure and, despite the lack of instruction, everything you need to interact with is right in front of you. Valve would be proud with this attempt to guide the player without paragraphs of textual wisdom or the voice-over from an in-game friend. All the important shiny things stand out. Here you are. Do this.
Below is a picture of the first level of Obsolete; the player begins more or less in the middle of it facing the minimalist instruction panel on the left. I have had to pull back a bit to show you the full structure. But look carefully and you will there are some faint shapes in the bottom of the image.
It is easy to become ensnared in the game directly in front of you and not even stop to take a moment to look around. If the player were to look up at the start of the game, this is what they would see:
The dark space surrounding the helix is far from empty. It's just scenery. Something to look pretty, provide contrast. It is the negative space to complement the mechanic-endowed positive space where the player is supposed to do stuff.
Yet if you decide to approach these shapes, there is a surprise waiting for you. Let me edge back a little more and show you.
Not all of the objects are visible at first glance and when you step tentatively into the darkness, a crowd of objects is revealed. It's like a pane of glass has been shattered across the level although it is less chaotic than it seems. Some of the shapes look organised as if there is purpose here, but the pattern to things eludes your grasp.
The next surprise is that most of the objects are solid and because they are invisible when approached head on, you often find yourself bumping into these blocks. Each time I move out a little further, I see more shapes and formations, beckoning towards infinity.
Let me keep going back. Now I can barely see the helix, a tiny star in the sky... and there is still more to see. How far do these objects stretch?
Deeper still and eventually the helix vanishes into the distance. Although it gets harder to see anything and there are fewer objects out here, there is still a sense of order in what I see.
Surely there must be an end somewhere? Where is the edge of this space? Eventually I hit what seems to be the final object in this direction: a towering monolith. It does not care that I have found it.
I see nothing beyond the monolith but I am not going to give up this easily. I work my way around to the other side just in case there is something else out there, just out of sight, but it does seem there is nothing else to see. The universe ends here, there is only the void now. Although merely a game, I am concerned that if I leave the monolith behind in pursuit of some other object out there in the black, I will become lost. Why do I care about that? This is just a game. But that infinite darkness, now very real, is terrifying.
I turn around and realise... I am already lost. Which way is the helix now? There are no markers here and I left no trail behind me. So the irony is I still have to travel into darkness, hoping I am going in the right direction, towards objects that will point me back to the helix. The monolith starts to feel like a tombstone.
It is not often that games let players become irretrievably lost. In an early version of Proteus, you could get lost in the ocean. I once travelled off the island, wondering if there were any surprises to find out there. I swam until the sun set and then turned around to swim back towards the shore.
I never made it back.
end of the wandering stars
This is all very cool, but do I have a point?
I have spent a great deal of time exploring the dark wilderness of Obsolete's levels and what it reminded me of most were the hours I spent in Flight Simulator II (subLOGIC, 1984) on the Atari 8-bit computer.
In FSII, it took a long time getting around. I embarked on hour-long journeys across the map, using VORs to triangulate my position as I travelled, always hoping to spot something new. Structures in FSII were few and far between because there were severe limits to 3d graphics on a 1.79Mhz processor. I would watch in awe as dots appeared on the horizon, the game flashing off a bit of thigh, making me wonder if I had found a new freeway or building. It was a slow striptease which made the moments more powerful than if I had just been speeding around in a jet car.
I used a couple of FSII mission books to provide some direction. The missions were mainly a mixture of scenery spotting and tricky challenges but there were also... missions based around glitches. Missions that would take you to see things that were not supposed to be there. The unnatural.
That's what navigating the black in Obsolete is like, charting a place where some power has deposited all the glitches in the world. And yet... the glitches often look purposeful. The monolith at the end of the universe. The stairway to nowhere. The haunted echo of a city that cannot exist.
Videogames are lauded for their imaginative landscapes yet, despite this, critics and players often denigrate these environments with demands for purpose. It is not enough to merely exist; the developer god must corrupt places with mechanics, poison them with meaning. Proof of intelligent design must be demonstrated through challenges or collectibles. The journey itself is never enough.
In Dishonored, Robert Yang says the Heart is a trick to make us explore the environment, duping players into chasing runes to the far reaches of each map. The beautiful junglescape of Far Cry 2 is studded with diamonds, and we are granted a bog standard gamey magick that helps us track them down. What we think is a stupid fetch quest is a ruse to send us on safari.
But I wonder if we are beginning to reject such subterfuge. In FUEL (Codemasters, 2009) I quit the races and vista points but still drove around its post-apocalyptic landscape just for the joy of it. Phill Cameron wrote a travelogue describing a three-hour trek across the map of Just Cause 2. These are days when titles like Proteus and Dear Esther can find an audience.
Maybe we are ready again for such negative spaces in games, stripped of shiny trinkets and mechanical potential. Places that just are.
Places that wait for players to find them.
Addendum (31 Jan)
Originally I wanted to write about spending time in the dark corners of games where there's no reason to go. The idea of mechanics intruding only occurred to me in the final draft and it was too late to really dig into that topic especially as a Firefox crash obliterated an hour's worth of writing.
What I should have written about is the overjustification effect where an activity we enjoy for its own sake is spoilt by incentives. Taken from Wikipedia:
In one of the earliest demonstrations of this effect, Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett selected a population of 3–5-year-old children who displayed intrinsic interest in the activity of drawing. In the experiment, they divided the children into three groups. The experimenters offered and would give the first group of children a "good player" ribbon for drawing. They offered nothing to the second group, but would give them the same reward. They did not offer and would not give anything to the third group. Later, when observed in a free-play setting, the first group engaged significantly less in the activity of drawing, while the other groups' behavior did not change. The researchers concluded that expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation in previously enjoyable activities.
I love exploring but I've noticed that when shiny trinkets are lying around I direct my exploration towards gathering the trinkets - until they are exhausted. At that point, I stop exploring.
This is why I think something like Proteus works so well, it's free of achievements. You don't even have anything telling you when you're "done" or "not done". I think this is possibly one of the most important takeaways for games with exploration in them. Make exploration its own reward and stop injecting mechanic-collagen into the process. Stop this plastic exploration. There you are. That's my new term.
Those who wouldn't normally explore - why are you making them do this? Making them spend their time walking around looking for a bunch of practically meaningless power pills? Those who love to explore - why give them power pills for something they will enjoy anyway?
I'm not suggesting we need to eliminate collectibles in games, but I am suggesting developers should think carefully about the intention of them.
(A version of this addendum was originally written in the comments below.)
- I originally played Obsolete after it was featured on freeindiegam.es. After realising Eurogamer Expo title Dirac was made by the same developer, I was encouraged to play Obsolete a second time and that is when I started exploring the space around each level.
- Orihaus is also working on a title called AEON.
- Click any of the Obsolete images above for the original 1920x1200 resolution version.
- Since posting this article, Orihaus has also released another short game called Césure where there is nothing to do but explore. Highly recommended if you are into exploration games. Surreal and oddly uncomfortable.