Steve Gaynor recently posted a very good article on his blog about play, and the purpose of games. I am tempted to quote the whole thing, but I will just pull out this piece:
As we dig into a new gameworld and begin to fill its boundaries with our understanding, we relive the experiences of youthful play. We explore unknown spaces as we did the woods behind our houses, or the vacant lots at the far ends of our neighborhoods. We hunt in hidden corners for treasures, and collect them in our pockets.
In a lot of ways, this paragraph could have been written specifically about Seiklus. In fact, Gaynor’s whole article could have been written specifically about Seiklus, because what Gaynor wants video games to do is exactly what Seiklus wants to do: “offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new.”
There are no monsters in Seiklus (a name that means “adventure” in Estonian, by the way). There are no enemies of any kind. There are not really any puzzles. There is no victory, no losing. There are not even any guns or chainsaws; no sudden death. No death of any kind. In fact, by most traditional standards of what computer games are about, Seiklus would not qualify as a “game” at all. Because Seiklus is simply about being in a place.
Seiklus is about environment, and the ability of environment to evoke emotion. And so you wander, and you see; you wonder, and experience. The environments themselves make no attempt at photorealism, or full emersion. Rather, they are iconic, symbols that point to things we’ve seen and things we haven’t seen. They are keys to each player’s own memory: to what you’ve read, where you’ve been, and the things you have imagined. Seiklus is a prime example of the power of low fidelity in computer games, which JP LeBreton describes well:
If you’re a creator it takes some discipline to choose to not fill something in with marvelous detail, and some craft to know exactly when and when not to apply this principle for effect – as an intentional feat of simplification, rather than an omission.
Now that technology can do so many things for us, the default approach today has become “spell everything out as explicitly as possible”. This is changing, however.
So the original question stands: what games would we make if we embraced this fully?
In the last five to ten years, the idea of games with highly stylized visuals has gone from fringe to wide acceptance. Beyond simply looking beautiful or distinctive, stylized / abstracted art plays on the visual side of our cognition and imagination.
Chapter 2 of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” describes this as “Amplification Through Simplification” – that by removal of well-chosen details from a representation of something, an artist can clarify it, focus its intent, broaden or twist its meaning (Vector Poem).
I’ve always loved the original illustrations of The Little Prince for their ability to “clarify, focus, and broaden” in this way, and Seiklus’ visuals brought back those illustrations strongly. In fact, the game is quite a lot like The Little Prince in many ways, barring… well, all the dialogue in the latter (though it’s not hard to imagine the inhabitants of the Prince’s planet occupying the world of Seiklus). The original Little Prince cover illustration (which shows the prince standing on a miniscule planet), could serve very well as a cover to Seiklus, in terms of both content and style.
Regardless of how directly The Little Prince served to inspire Seiklus, it is clear that both Saint-Exupéry and Clysm have a knack for knowing what to “fill in,” and what not to when it comes to world making. Your character in Seiklus is a paper cutout with nothing but two tiny dots for eyes, yet jumping on a giant snail’s head will make the snail wince; the first environment’s grassy foreground takes up a quarter of your screen with a single color, yet walk into a cave and you see individual water drops falling from the ceiling. Art or craft, magic or luck, the detail present and the detail lacking come together to form something atmospheric and compelling, with enough there to make you go “ah,” and enough missing to bring your imagination fully into play.
To complement his visual style, Clysm chose a hodgepodge of chiptune compositions, which generally do a good job of balancing funky with wistful and strange. The fact that chiptune music is synthesized “on the fly” by your sound card seems especially appropriate to the game’s theme of discovery.
What makes Seiklus special is not just the emphasis on atmosphere and location and minimalism, but the fact that it was one of the first games to stake itself so completely on these things. Paul Eres of Radical Poesis Games goes so far as to say that Seiklus is “probably the game that started the still new and fragile genre of the ‘atmospheric game.’” Personally, I don’t think Seiklus is quite that original. Myst, I think, was a game about being in a place more than anything else—despite its puzzles, which got it categorized as an “adventure” or “puzzle” game—and Myst came out ten years before Seiklus. It is true, however, that Seiklus is a more extreme—perhaps more pure—example of the “atmospheric genre,” as there is essentially nothing that you have to do to advance in the game, besides simply exploring. It’s true that you can collect “floaty things,” but there is no impetus to do so besides your own desire. A game like Anchorhead is very atmospheric, but always there is the plot to consider, and always you progress towards some end, some goal; and to advance in Myst you did have to solve those puzzles, after all. If there was a game so completely about “being in a place” as Seiklus, before 2003, then I am not aware of it. These days such games are not uncommon within the indie scene, precisely because Seiklus inspired them (cited prominently by developers such as Nifflas and Matthew Thorson, for example, respective creators of indie hits Within a Deep Forest, Knytt, and An Untitled Story).
Now when I say that you can collect floaty things, “but there is no impetus to do so besides your own desire,” I’m lying a little bit. Because Seiklus keeps track of how many “floaties” of each color you’ve collected, out of a hundred. This is not the same as forcing the player to collect things, by any means, but it does “encourage” one to try and get around Seiklus’ wonderful emphasis on simple existence. Some of the floaties are difficult enough to find, and if you do decide to track them all down you will probably explore every nook and cranny of Seiklus again and again, potentially turning exploration for the sake of exploration into pounding in nail heads for the sake of pounding in nail heads. It can be argued that keeping a floaty count encourages the player to keep exploring, and helps them know when they can stop because they’ve “seen it all,” but again, I think this goes against the grain of the game: don’t we want the player to keep exploring because they simply want to keep exploring? And doesn’t a message of “you can see it all—every last bit of the world—if you just keep plodding away” go against the very reason for the game’s existence?
Overall I think Seiklus is a brave and commendable effort to re-envision what games can do and be. It has served as inspiration for other developers to focus more directly on setting and atmosphere in their own games, and on the emotions these things can invoke. Progress count and simple "puzzles" notwithstanding, Seiklus undermines the notion that games have to be foremost about killing or winning or solving or collecting—a longstanding assumption that still needs to be undermined, and badly.
- The Gamer’s Quarter issue #2 (which features cover art from Seiklus) has a great interview with Clysm that touches on everything from making games, to the state of the industry, to Seiklus, to religion in games, and more.