Skyrim put us in Skyrim and Fallout put us in the wasteland, but simply "being" there gets muddled by all of the other elements that those games require of their players. Proteus is tapping into that ability of games to create a sense of immersion and little else.
What I have been calling, the First Person Walker, is a subgenre that rose to prominence last year. It has defined itself through its minimalism. Instead of dealing with all the baggage that established genres come with , the FPW reduces interaction to its barest elements. In doing so, it reduces the complexity of our relationship to the other elements and tropes in games.
Dear Esther is the immersive sim reduced to its barest essentials. Thirty Flights of Loving is the simplest form of the cinematic action game. The last of this triumvirate of games released in the previous year in which you do nothing but walk, though, is Proteus: the minimalist open world explorer.
Exploration is a hallmark of open world video games. The likes of The Legend of Zelda, Assassin’s Creed, and The Elder Scrolls series place a premium on exploring and base a significant portion of their play time to creating interesting and deep worlds for their players to find stuff in. When Skyrim came out, Twitter was ablaze with commentary, not about the narrative, but in order to compare notes on what might be found just over that next mountain, even if it wasn’t the same mountain. Weeks would go by and people were still finding new nooks and crannies to explore in the game world, some cave hidden by brush left untouched by man, that is, until a player set foot there. But all of those games have other things that you can do in them as well. Combat, of course, being the most common.
However, Proteus is just about exploration. What you see is what you get in the most literal sense of the phrase. You bandy about a colorful island, chasing frogs and listening to flowers chirp as you pass them by. The hum of trees and the varying notes of nature combine to create a lullaby symphony. The world has a day-night cycle, and the colors darken at night as the stars come out. If you are feeling especially pensive, you can sit down. While the main interaction of an FPW is often that of simply walking, I feel that only considering this is often a limited way of understanding this new genre -- and never more so than in Proteus. In reality, the first person perspective allows two sets of interaction to create the movement that these games are solely reduced to: walking and looking. Though considering the relationship between these two types of interaction, one must admit that the best description of what these games are about overall is observing.
While your feet may take you from one end of the randomly generated island (for how else could the game warrant multiple journeys once the island has been suitably mentally mapped?), the act of simply walking is not what anyone who has played Proteus will think about. They will think of the colors, of the sounds, of the geography of the map. It is observing the idiosyncrasies of this fanciful place that engage the mind. And once the player has sufficiently traversed the terrain to their satisfaction, what is left to them but to change the nature of the place? By entering a fairy circle, time speeds up, and at the very center of the circle's swirling petals, time jumps forward a season.
Now you have a different environment to explore. Proteus only offers the ability to explore so rather than provide a large expansive world with much to see, it presents a compact world with multiple variations of it. We continue to explore the island in order to see what has changed on it and how. As we traverse the same geographical locales, we are experiencing a "new" place. The sounds have changed, the flora and fauna have changed, and the atmosphere has changed with the season.
Yet, with all this traveling, with all this exploring and experiencing, we are never going anywhere. We are never on the way to doing something else. By removing any other activity that an open world game might offer, Proteus doesn’t remove play from the game, but severely focuses play. There is no lore, there are no items to collect, and there are no dragons to slay. We have to come to terms with the nature of the only thing we have left: unfettered exploration. In removing the goals of a narrative or the need to succeed at a particular challenge, we are left to make our own, whether it is to climb that mountain and see the whole of the island or to follow the dirt path until it ends or to chase that frog until we get bored. In removing all other verbs not necessary for the direct aspiration of exploration, Proteus allows us to channel a new verb often over looked or less understood in more complex open world games: to be.
Proteus makes it much less easy to say what its reduction to basic elements mean than a game like Dear Esther or Thirty Flights of Loving might. Those were games based on aspects of definitive genres familiar in storytelling. Proteus isn’t telling a story so much as it is delivering an experience by letting us be somewhere else. Games do something better than any other medium. They allow their player to exist within a space and to feel the digital environment surround them in a manner that requires more than just looking at a screen. Proteus is tapping into that ability of games to create a sense of immersion and little else. Skyrim put us in Skyrim and Fallout put us in the wasteland, but simply "being" there gets muddled by all of the other elements that those games require of their players.
And what of the island? What is this place? It is left unexplained. There is, after all, nothing there to do to provide an explanation. The island is also different every time the game is played, but the same elements pop up from playthrough to playthrough. My own theory is that the player character has set foot in some fey land where sprites and spirits converge. This is what the world looked like before we tried to define it with rules and stories, with the trappings of science or the explanations of myth. This is the experience of the raw majesty of nature. It is a playful world that invites us simply to be. However, we are only visitors, not residents, and must take our leave. Winter is coming, and once it has arrived, the world seems dead. It is still and much less alive than during the other seasons. We can again explore the winter wonderland and see the changes brought about by the cold and snow, but soon we must take our leave. We walk into the sky, and then we close our eyes and our exploration is done. The game ends with the screen fading to the black of a pixelated iris just as it began with the opening of one. A dream or meditation on a connection to a musical, magical world? Perhaps.