One of the most vivid memories I have of gaming in recent years is my first experience with Proteus. During the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne, I was killing time before queuing to hear Warren Spector speak. Each year ACMI host a “Best of the IGF” in one of their small galleries and I always try to spend some time there. I watched some Dustforce being played, loitered by Botanicula and Spelunky.
Then a space opened up at a station where Proteus was running, projected on a 12 foot section of wall. I pulled up a stool and began walking through this world, unsure of what it was. I wandered by singing mushrooms, crabs that sounded like some bizarre drum circle as they moved across the sand. After a few minutes of exploring the landscape a dark cloud blew over the meadow I had found myself in and rain began falling. I became aware of the surround sound that ACMI had installed for this game as the soundscape enveloped me. The sounds became music and I leant back away from the controls. I stood, motionless in the rain in game and sat on the stool with a huge grin on my face, absolutely awestruck by the game and to some extent, my reaction to it.
Many games will have a “Wow!” moment, you’ll see it in their E3 presentation and their GamesCom presentation and in every trailer. Where something spectacular is revealed or explodes or is revealed and explodes. More often than not, these “Wow!” moments are instances of surprise or pure visual spectacle – but to achieve wonder, something more is needed.
Emerging onto the cliff side in Half Life was a magical experience – you had been buried for so long, deep underground in the Black Mesa facility that crawling through this pipe to your supposed escape was both a skillful tease of freedom as well as a shock to your senses. The bright daylight, view across to the skybox of mesas and buttes is interrupted by a F-16 slashing across your vision. You become aware of the network of paths cut into the side of the cliff and the Marines patrolling them. It was a huge space, utterly different from the corridors and facilities you had been trapped in. The relief of your escape evaporates as the plane passes and you realise you are still trapped. It’s a moment that has stuck with me – the way it toys with your expectations not just of the game itself, but of the capabilities of games at the time.
Both Proteus and Half Life succeeded in inspiring wonder through graphics and audio, however Black and White provoked a reaction of wonder for a whole other reason. Creatures were crazy. Maybe it was just me. And my friends. But no one I knew ever had a creature that was anything less than poop-eating crazy. I saw creatures turn on their trainer the moment the tutorial ended, their very first act of free will being the consumption of their tormentor. Creatures who would only go to the toilet on villagers. Creatures who couldn’t understand why people didn’t keep playing with them after they drowned them. It was fascinating, tragic, hilarious and terrifying. How had that magical Molyneux jammed so much personality into these beasts? I’m sure it was all smoke and mirrors, but it was magical to me at the time, I couldn’t believe the complexity. I was awestruck, it was wonderment – not at the visuals of these titanic creatures, but at their behaviours and interactions. It was beyond what I had believed games could be capable of.
I look forward to the next game that inspires that genuine wonder in me. I want to mention the Oculus Rift here, though I’ve had barely ten minutes of eyes on time with it, between the DevKit and HD Prototype, it created a sense of wonder that is more than a little nostalgia. Every piece of Virtual Reality hype from the nineties has been confirmed. The head tracking works, the display works, the 3D works. It is what we had been promised for the past twenty years and even the most basic tech demos on that product have created a sense of evangelical wonder unmatched by anything I can recall. The potential synergy of experiencing some new wonder in game being delivered by the technological wonder of the Oculus Rift is the gaming Nirvana I am now striving for.