Games

Postcards from 'Proteus'

Proteus shows that chasing a single definition of "video game" distracts us from more important things.

I suppose this post has spoilers for Proteus. It's hard to know, as it's not a traditional game when it comes to its story or systems. In fact, popular opinion is split on whether this Proteus is a game at all. If something has no clear faiure or win states and no in-game actions besides simple locomotion, is it a game?

The question has re-spawned a labyrinthian debate around the nature of medium: the philosophies, semantics, and hurt feelings are quite hard to untangle. Because of this, I admire Matthew Burns's Alexandrian response: the idea of video games as a unified medium has become intractable. In his words, trying to reconcile experimental design with the mainstream publishing scene is akin to "a faculty member from Juilliard express[ing] a desire for 'a dialogue' with Sid Vicious about chord progressions. It's not that these two don't see eye to eye on matters of music theory ... it's that the punks have arrived on the scene with such a completely different set of values that they might as well be from different planets" ("Our Immiscible Future", Magical Wasteland, 27 April 2013) It's sad that we cannot return to "the prelapsarian niceness of thinking that everyone should hang out with everyone else ... but there is an element to defining the self that is made out of forsaking something else." Things change, but that's okay.

However, just because games like Proteus and Halo are, at best, distant cousins doesn't mean we need to abandon the idea of engaging with them with the same rigor. Proteus isn't the same kind of challenge as a traditional reflex-based game, but getting something out of it requires effort. I've seen more than one account of players who wandered around Proteus's spring season for a while and then wrote it off as little more than an interactive screensaver. There may not be any jumping or shooting, but there are plenty of mysterious secrets to uncover and a running theme of growth, death, and rebirth that requires critical analysis.

Proteus could just be an interactive screensaver in the same way that the Mona Lisa could just be a painting or the Grand Canyon is just a big hole. The key to making such things meaningful is to give them more than a passing glance. Finding hidden intricacies takes different skills than dodging bullets, but having the skill to employ patience, curiosity, and the willingness to evaluate games in a broader cultural and artistic context are required to really get anything from Proteus. I learned this first hand, as I rushed through my first year without doing much exploration. It was only during my second play through that I began to slow down and meet the world's various hidden deities along with beginning to understand their ties to other human myths about nature.

I'll end with what I feel is the traditional way of describing Proteus: a travel narrative. It's as if the game is virtual vacation. You go to a place, experience new things in a unique environment, and try to document the experience since you can't take it with you when you leave. Usually this boils down to the virtual equivalent of vacation slides, which may in fact be as tedious as looking at people's real life vacation pictures. You're just a visitor, and Proteus's limited interactivity enforces this from a mechanical perspective. Without points, achievements, or the ability to permanently alter the game's world, all you have left are stories: the one that is hidden in the game and the one that you take with you when you're done. What's left other than to take a few snapshots and try to spread your story?

A massive tree I used as a landmark. By chance or by design, it seemed like a good base of operations. I'd return there many times.

Aside from the strange musical plants scattered around the landscape, the first living things I found was this gaggle of flightless birds. In the distance are humanoid statues, which had the effect of making the environment extremely mysterious. I started to expect to see someone else and on more than one occasion I wheeled around to see if someone was following me.

I don't know what it says about my psyche, but I immediately took these to be graves. The idea that a civilization had lived and died on the island fascinated me, and I began to seek out more clues to who these beings were.

A summer sunset on top of a mountain. Whether this was a marker, a grave, or simply a rock on which to project my beliefs is unclear.

I spent quite some time trying to find a way into this house but never made it in. Boarded up and abandoned, it seemed quite out of place compared to the rest of the open environment.

Fall came and my fascination with tombstones was replaced by a focus on verifiably dead things. Swarms of dragon flies littered the ground. The muted world took a toll on my mood, which I realized only after noticing that I had been taking far fewer pictures than in previous seasons.

Winter turned out to be even bleaker than fall. Between the cloud cover and the snow, navigation was quite difficult. Gradually, I began to notice that I seemed to be floating. Either I had gained super powers or it was time to join the dragonflies.

I made my way back to my home base, but by this time, I had risen above it. The only thing left to do was take in the sight of the aurora and wait for the end and the subsequent beginning.

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