TheIndieJar: Exploration For Exploration’s Sake
I’ve done this thing for as long as I can remember. Wherever I go there will always be a mountain, a valley, a forest or river that I look at and imagine what it would be like to reach the top of it or travel along it. Most of the time I’ve got something more ‘important’ to do, and I wish for some time without an objective. On the few occasions when it’s possible, the walking up a hill or across a field can be a day well wasted. In reality there has rarely been a point to hiking to the top of a mountain, but when you are up there, scale becomes apparent and reveals beautiful detail that you can’t see from anywhere else.
This is something that games can express better than any other medium. Watching Spiderman swing from the Empire State Building looks impressive but doing it yourself in a game is better. The journey makes it all the sweeter. You aren’t there because Spiderman wants or needs to be there but because you do. It’s a very personal experience because everyone will do it their own way and enjoy different parts of the adventure. They might even choose to go to a completely different place to you.
Four British indie developers have taken this desire and made it the biggest part of their game. The Chinese Room has already had great success with Dear Esther but I’m going to focus on what I played at the Eurogamer Expo. Proteus, Dirac, Dream and Kairo were all at the expo this year and I must admit it wasn’t the ideal place to play them. They require a chunk of free time that you don’t mind losing and being slightly unsure where it all went. Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga already has a written preview on TheGameJar, but it bears repeating that the sights and sounds on the island of Proteus are mesmerising. Random generation means you wont see the same place twice, which is a shame if you see something you’d like to return to but there are so many things to examine you won’t mind.
Dirac by Orihaus is similar to Proteus but has an entirely different atmosphere. The islands that you discover by walking through huge metal portals are oppressive and bleak. Obsidian peaks on a still black sea are dotted with floating polyhedrons and large metal structures, and most disorienting of all – there is no sky. Things are there to discover, hidden behind the contours of the hills with minimal interaction. It is all very mysterious and despite not reaching the end (if there is an end) I really want to see more of these islands and understand what on earth is going on.
Kairo by Richard Perrin takes a narrative and entwines it into the puzzles and places you encounter. A ‘show, don’t tell’ story is there for the people that notice it, while some might just be happy to take on the puzzles. If you’re up to it there are some secrets to find in the expansive structures and magical architecture. It is more colourful than Dirac and there is a greater sense of fun. One of the rooms I found was purely a floor piano and I entertained myself for five minutes jumping around on that.
Dream by HyperSloth also has a narrative. I’ll give you one guess where it’s set! The demo had oddities to investigate, like huge stacks of TVs and amps. Collectable bits of paper have short snippets of strange story or those explanations of what things in your dreams mean. The areas are quite big and after you’re satisfied seeing it there are four mazes with lights in that you must turn off as you get chased by black smoke monsters! The horror sections are done well and gave me a few jumps running round the corner, only to have my screen engulfed in black.
I can’t fully explain why Britain seems to have a monopoly on this style of game. As I talked to the developers they offered up explanations, such as the story telling traditions of writers like Tolkien and the wonderfully varied landscapes of the UK itself. It could be culturally ingrained or just a coincidence. I do know, however, that they all share a sense of permanence in my mind – that the buildings and terrain have been there a long time and will remain long after I have passed through them.