Friday, June 19, 2009

Prototyping: An Odyssey (Part I)

In Part I of this article, scholar Altug Isigan looks to etymology and the Odyssey for lessons on prototyping.

In Search of Full Sail

When I decided to write an article for this month’s GDAM (I didn’t know at that time that it would be this article), the first thing I did was to look up the word prototype. To my surprise, I found that it was rooted in a combination of the Old Greek words protos and typus: “first impression”. I thought that most game designers would find this to be a very appropriate definition.

Delving deeper into the etymology of the word, I found out that it was connected to the adjective ‘protean’ (someone or something taking on varied shapes), which in return was generated from the name of an oracular ancient deity with the name Proteus. At the very moment in which I decided to have a closer look at this deity, I had already triggered a trap: Before I even realized, I was thrown into an odyssey that would carry me through the vast seas of prototyping. Would I be able to find my way back home? Only the winds knew the answer.

Indeed, it is one of Odysseus’ close friends -Menelaus, husband of the beautiful Helen of Troy- who, in Homer’s Odyssea, mentions the name of Proteus. In an account of what happened to the many heroes of the Trojan War on the way back to their homes, Menelaus tells Telemakhos also the story of his own adventurous return to Lakedaimon (Odyssea, Chapter IV: In Lakedaimon, verses 350-570): He and his friends get stuck on the island of Pharos, where for weeks and weeks there is no wind to fill their sails. Eventually they find themselves plagued by scarcity and face starvation. The exhausted Menelaus finally realizes that the reason for this abnormal situation must be a curse of a god that he must have failed to please. But which one, and what wrong had he done? Obviously, only an oracle would be able to tell him these secrets. But where on this abandoned island could he find such a gifted person? It’s Eidothoe(Ido) who suggests him a solution: She says that he must seek the help of Proteus, a prophetic sea god that frequently visits the shores of Pharos with his flock of seals. There is a problem though: Proteus doesn’t like to share his wisdom with others, and should anyone attempt to force him to prophecize, then he pulls off some stunning tricks that help him to escape.

“Proteus possessed the gift of prophecy, a gift he could avoid using by utilizing his ability to metamorphose at will. In an instant he could become fire, flood, or wild beast. However, if a person held him fast, no matter what form he assumed, he would eventually return to his normal form and deliver the truth.” (Dixon-Kennedy; 1998: 263)

Menelaus, determined to escape the island, prepares a trap, and with the help of his friends he captures Proteus, who, after some wild shapeshifting, eventually normalizes and tells Menelaus the reason that got him stuck. With this vital information, Menelaus manages to bring back the winds and re-opens the sea routes that will lead him to his beloved lands of Lakedaimon.

I must admit that I was enchanted by this myth. It was a wonderful metaphor for prototyping and captured its essence perfectly. Let’s look at the elements of this myth:

Metamorphoses: the ability to assume many forms in rapid succession.
Prophecy: the revelation of the mistakes you were unaware of at the time you made them; and directives on what course to take in order to repair the damage that they have done.
Exactitude (As an extension of the Prophecy element): The Oracle of Delphi carried the inscription “Know thyself!”, an inscription that has been often interpreted as “Know your problem!” or “Have a clearly formulated question!”. Otherwise the answer of the Oracle will sound cryptic and useless.
Teamwork: You can’t fasten Proteus all by yourself; you need the help of a group of dedicated and determined people.

So, what’s prototyping then? Following the myth of Proteus, it is –together with your comrades– to hold tight onto the prototype –and your question!–, and not to allow yourselves to be fooled by the many shapes it will assume. If you’re determined enough and hold on tight, finally the prototype will be tamed: Your mistakes as well as the steps you need to take for the future will be revealed to you.

Now, as we seem to have some wind filling our sails, let’s move quickly to our next topic.

Working at the Pace of Mind

There are many fascinating things about prototypes and prototyping. We can summarize the most important points as follows:

Sustainability: Prototyping is a (relatively) cheap and repeatable process.
Flexibility: You can prototype almost anything, with anything (and anyone).
Safety: You don’t risk to waste expensive code or art during or after experimentation. More than that, you protect yourself from wasting such expensive assets in the future, because the prototype will help you to tell into which assets to invest and into which ones not.
Modularity (Scalability): Like a magnifying glass, you can zoom into particular game mechanics or zoom out to see the interactions between them.
Responsiveness: Instantly make changes and receive feedback on them. A prototype is functional, interactive, up-and-running.
Collaboration: Although it mostly starts alone, prototyping can be easily expanded to include friends, team members, producers and executives or members of the target audience.
Control (Manageability): You can always take a step back and reconsider things, until you feel that you’ve cleared it all up and are ready to proceed with the next step. You have control over the goal, scope, ‘question(s)’ and what not’s of the process.
Experimentation: (Almost) anything goes! It is the playground of the imaginative and innovative mind.

However, there is one thing that is the ultimate argument in favor of prototyping, and that is its pace and exactitude. These qualities can make them so persuasive that it made one game designer to speak of prototypes as “powerful ninjas” who can “move mountains” and “cut all debate with one swift movement” (Gingold, in Fullerton, 2008: 184). Is that to say that a prototype works at the pace of the mind? Not always, but probably it is the method closest to cope with the pace of the imaginative mind. And when it’s done well, a prototype becomes the sharpest of arguments, like the sword of a ninja.

…We’ve made quite some way already, but there is still a lot to discover in these waters… See those islands over there? Let’s go and check them out!

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


spicyragnatz said...

Don't forget the final element of the myth - Letting Proteus go in the end ^_^

Just like a prototype, once you get what you need to know, just gotta let it go.

altugi said...

Oh haha, nice catch Ryon! :D
Thanks a lot for this nice comment...

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