Games

'Proteus' and the Simple Act of Being

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.