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Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews

February 15, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Two: Traveler

It was springtime in Proteus when I visited. Spring is strange there: the trees dump pink and yellow petals onto the ground. I think they were petals, anyway; it's hard to tell in Proteus, where everything looks foreign.

Imagine the most improbably regular autumn, in which leaves tumble from branches along a regular rhythm rather than in tandem with the environment, in which physics is reduced to mere downness. Now imagine that the leaves are pink, and that the tree canopies bear no foliage, but only petals. Floral kudzu, taking over.

Are there even trees underneath, I began to wonder, or only the form of trees? Scaffolds, maybe, the twisted mess of iron detritus to which, for whatever reason, petals have attached. The remains of the island of Myst, or of the planet Sera millennia hence.

As a place to visit, Proteus is beyond alien. Unworldly rather than otherworldly. Its apparent familiarity defies that otherness at first, like roads and touring buses might do in Kyoto or Khartoum. You've seen it all before, you'll think when you arrive, and you won't be wrong.

But you visit Proteus to see what clouds and flowers look like in Proteus, not to replace sights you could find just as easily at home. In Kuala Lumpur, you eat Nasi Lemak rather than steak and eggs; in Proteus, billboard trees spill flora and tousle pixel-beetles. It's just how things are.

When you stop think about it, it's strange that we consider travel a kind of leisure, that we talk about taking time off for it, that we call it vacation. Travel is a lot of work, after all. Not just the process of voyaging, the cars and carparks and the airports and such. Also the process of being in your destination. Finding your way around the streets and the countryside. Learning some of the language, finding a comfortable café. Taking in the pedestrian mall and the art museum. It's exhausting.

Proteus is no different. Transiting the island is both effortless and arduous, like taking the Métro across the small diameter of Paris. Effective and ready to hand, yet meandering and inefficient. Try not to look like a tourist, WASDing around to get your bearings, or following the dirt path etched through the grass toward the abandoned hut. It will disappoint, like all places of interest. You'll have to get acclimated on your own. There is no "tutorial" for Oslo or Ottawa, why should Proteus have one?

Eventually, all travel ceases to surprise us. It doesn't take long. Even on a short trip to somewhere unfamiliar, the diner you chose for breakfast the first day can become stifling by the third. But returning to a once foreign place as it becomes familiar offers new depths. Transiting confidently from Charles de Gaulle to St. Michel Notre Dame by RER, then walking to the hotel you meant to choose rather than the one you guessed about. Knowing which way to turn when you alight from an exit chosen deliberately at Odéon rather than Cluny - La Sorbonne. These small gestures become an experienced traveler's triumphs.

Most places change slowly, so expert travel entails one of two options: returning frequently, or lingering for an extended stay. And just as its petals and paths betray convention, so Proteus makes unusual demands.

In one sense, returning isn't possible: Proteus procedurally generates itself anew with each visit, so no two trips fall upon familiar soil. But yet every version of Proteus presents an identifiable rendition, borrowing a page from Italo Calvino's Kublai Khan: "I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced." Each rendition is not so unfamiliar as to be wholly foreign, just as each district of an unfamiliar city still subscribes to an overall plan. In this sense, Proteus is not very protean; what changes is incidental.

Yet, since getting your bearings and finding your way are so central to your visit, the utility of familiarity melts away. Would Manhattan still be Manhattan if each face of its rectilinear blocks were torn asunder and reattached to one another at random? Yes, in a way, but it would take some getting used to. In the process, you might discover new watering holes or green grocers or parks or bodegas or buskers thanks to having your routine disrupted. Such is what it feels like to return to a new generation of Proteus, where one keeps an eye out for previously unseen wildlife instead of previously unseen gastropubs.

Still, one can evade doomsday in Proteus by saving a "postcard" for later. Pressing a key in-world takes an abstract screen capture which embeds your visit's state in its pixel data. You can return later or share the image (and its embedded world) with others. We once went on safari to hunt animals, then to capture them on film. Now in Proteus you can capture the world around animals on disk.

Lingering comes more naturally than return. When visiting an unfamiliar place, there comes a point at which everything snaps into place. In most cases, that moment is conceptual; it's in your head. Time and traffic and tacos pass around and through you, and eventually after enough of it, clarity overtakes confusion.

But Proteus makes this familiarity real, or material at least. A part of the landscape. Time advances in Proteus too, in the sense that day turns to night and back to day again. Personal time, anyway; historical time just lingers.

Eventually, some visitors to Proteus will find a way to move beyond the eternal spring. Growing familiar with Prague or Peoria is a matter of persistence, to be sure, but not much more than that. Simply being there with intention is enough, and it pays dividends. By contrast, lingering in Proteus takes more than persistence. It takes a certain kind of looking, and listening for time to progress beyond days and into seasons. A particular kind; there is only one, and it has to be decoded. In this sense, Proteus is more like Myst than it first seems: eventually, only one path opens. Cities don't have solutions, but Proteus does, in a way.

Summer was pleasant, but I have to admit I began racing through autumn, which was bleak and soggy rather than vivid and crisp. By winter, I wished I hadn't stayed so long. Something was not quite right. The petals were gone, the dragonflies and the frogs too. Just blue blueness, the simulated night reflecting off the simulated snow. The galaxy buzzing instead of the dragonflies.

The theory of alien archaeology resurfaced. In retrospect, if the trees aren't trees, then why would the petals be petals? The best I can say in full confidence is that they are pink, and square. Pure pinkness and pure squareness, pure rectinlinear-roseness, as if borrowed from a James Turrell installation, tumbling to the ground (I'll call it the ground) and infecting the soil with pink as well, spreading like love or like sickness.

Then something happened, and my trepidation seemed warranted. I was reflecting on the fact that the flowers were even more unearthly than I had previously realized when my trip came to an unexpected end. You'll have to see it for yourself. Cities don't have spoilers, but Proteus does, in a way.

I suppose every trip is a trip to nowhere. Don't you secretly fantasize that your vacation to Fiji or San Francisco will be the last visit -- not just your last, but anyone's? Doomsday is the only day worth dreaming. Normally it's impossible; someone always stays behind. But not in Proteus. Nothing lingers, except those postcards you captured to show off later. Don't worry, Proteus helpfully offers a button to reveal their containing folder, so you can delete them.

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Pat Flannery
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I love how muse-ical Proteus is for those who appreciate it. I've spent years wandering around on the island and I'm still giddy each time I create a new world. I can only liken it to actually walking around in a natural allows the phenomenological field and imagination to intermingle, as opposed to the usual divide between what we see and what we are pondering.

John Mawhorter
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Proteus is an interactive program about being in a space and moving through it, looking at it. It's an interactive visual experience, centered around the free-mouse-look in first person. Not a game by any means, certainly an interesting experiment, but frankly the visuals are boring, repetitive and use an uninspired 8-bit nostalgia that's pathetic. The island is small and the trees are clones of each other. The animals, the only interesting thing for more than a second, are also clones of each other. The music is tedious ambient stuff that repeats itself as well. If someone with artistic talent for the visual and spatial composition of spaces, like say Radiator Yang, had made this it would be much more interesting. If the soundtrack was made by a generative music specialist obsessed with unique tones it would be much more interesting. As it is I played it for less than 5 minutes and uninstalled.

Pat Flannery
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I was waiting to hear your take John. Now that you said that, I'm going to uninstall as well. ;)

Ian Bogost
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Maybe the problem was playing for less than 5 minutes...

Bart Stewart
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Ian, I think I know what you mean, but I don't know that I'd say not liking something like Proteus is necessarily a "problem."

Absolute declarations like "this thing has no merit" do miss the point. But "I didn't get it" is just being honest. "This isn't for me" is a valid reaction from someone who knows what they like.

John's comment is actually helpful because it spells out something you were saying more lyrically: this isn't a traditional game, with challenge and winning, that you "get" in five minutes. Maybe it's not even a game at all -- so? Why is there so much fuss over that nomenclature when the Protean experience demonstrably is a valid kind of entertainment regardless of what it's called?

I once suggested in a blog here on Gamasutra the idea of a Living World game, where a crucial part of the fun was exploring the unscripted (system-simulation) changes over time of the world itself. That part doesn't appeal to the gamers who just want to "play in" a well-defined game. But the kind of gamer who wants to "live in" a detailed gameworld, who prefers gameworlds that are Places in which they can invest themselves, understands the pleasure of gradually perceiving the depth of a complex system over a long time. That style of fun isn't a game, exactly. But it absolutely is play.

I think that's the distinction Proteus forces its players -- and interested game designers -- to make. And it's one that can be made in less than five minutes... and made correctly as long as one is willing to acknowledge that "game" is a subset of "play," and that other forms of play besides strictly-defined games are worth making as electronic entertainment.

I don't know that provoking a conversation about "live in" versus "play in" was one of Ed Key's goals in making Proteus. But I'm glad it's having that effect.

Ian Bogost
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Not liking Proteus is a totally reasonable response. But not liking it after 3 minutes of play doesn't really inspire much of a conversation.

John Mawhorter
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I probably played it for more like 7-12 minutes, actually. Did I miss some interaction that anyone else had? Was there some amazing part of the game that I didn't experience? Does looking at the environment for 20 minutes somehow make the mediocre artwork transcendental? Like I said, this piece in concept is good. In execution it's boring... I maintain that if the artwork was something new and the soundtrack something new this would be a great experience. As it is it is mind-numbingly boring, and I say that as someone who likes postrock.

Derek Ledoux
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Great article Ian! I loved my time spent in Proteus.

By the by if you or anyone else wants a _ tutorial_ of Ottawa, hit up one of us at Dirty Rectangles.

Joel Nystrom
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Proteus didn't really stay with me after my session with it. I wouldn't call it a very strong piece of.. work.. media.. art.. whatever. I love it being made though.

Lewis Wakeford
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This is how I feel about it too. I thought it was pretty "neat": the visuals, the quasi-story, the way the soundtrack is generated. But I don't think it was the genre busting messiah some people made it out to be.

Ian Bogost
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Sometimes things don't have to be messianic or spectacular to be worthwhile, or even to be strong works of art.

Mark Lewis
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I, having gone into Proteus knowing what to expect, thoroughly enjoyed my experience for what it was. It was new to me and a welcome change of pace. I got to experience the evolution of your world, albeit on a limited scale, but that did not curb my enthusiasm for moving through the gameplay experience.

There were many things to explore including animal/plant behavior that changed by night/day cycle and by season, many of these things required more than five (5) minutes to pass in real world time for them to be revealed to the user. I spent a lot of time playing with the time jump mechanic, carefully adjusting the pace and watching time swirl around "me" taking it in.

The biggest problem people seem to be having is they didn't think it was worth the $10 they spent on the piece when they were expecting more than was shown in the trailers and then describe it as "not a game," but I contend that Proteus is, in fact, a game in that it's only objective is to wander about and enjoy yourself.

I can't imagine that I would enjoy myself as much traveling through the Proteus experience multiple times because, as others have stated, it is limited, but honestly for only $10, less than you would otherwise spend on a movie ticket, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am grateful the developer chose to create this piece and that they then decided to show it to us all.

Keith Burgun
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>"Day and night doesn't pass, so much as the island dresses in day and night's clothing."

You know that old joke about the insecure guy at the art museum who tries to make "deepity" statements about art, afraid that someone will think that he doesn't "get it"? That's what almost this entire article sounded like.

Let's be honest with ourselves, here. If you're willing to put this much effort towards trying to appreciate something, you'll find something to appreciate about it. That doesn't mean that it's something that any of us should pay any attention to, though.

I think a writer's job is to highlight something that could be of value to other people, *not* to use weasely rhetoric to try to *trick* people into thinking they've just learned something when they have not.

Maybe Proteus is the most valuable thing in the world, but if it is, that was NOT made clear at all by this article. Make statements, *say* something, or don't write anything at all. Don't waste your audience's time.

Devin Wilson
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You know that old, predictable tendency of stubborn, closed-minded game enthusiasts to assert what makes games or styles of game criticism valid or invalid? That's what your entire comment reads like.

The last thing Bogost needs to do for credibility is review an indie game (or notgame, whatever) generously on Gamasutra. He's not wanting for professional achievement.

I found his piece to be sincere and refreshing, and–call me a fanboy–but I think he brings a really unique and fascinating voice to game scholarship and criticism.

Conversely, complaining that someone is taking a game (or any work of art) too seriously and writing too eruditely about it is one of the most common and most disturbing qualities of gaming culture.

Kevin Oke
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I don't see any problem with Keith's comment. He thought the review was heavy in rhetoric, Devin thought it was refreshing. The writing style of a review is as open to critique as the game being reviewed.

Devin Wilson
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There's a big difference between extracting a lot from a text (a game, in this case), and telling someone that they didn't say review a game correctly and that they didn't say anything of value. One broadens the discourse, the other harshly limits it.

Ian Bogost
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Keith, can you clarify: is this comment an example of the "bold philosophies about games and game design" promised in your profile?

Randall Stevens
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" Keith, can you clarify: is this comment an example of the "bold philosophies about games and game design" promised in your profile? "

This is a pretty snarky response. Cuts right to his profile.

I think the point he was trying to make is that he felt this article is mostly window dressing, and that you continue to write about the game because you have no way of expressing its value without constant dialog. The same kind of rhetoric is present when someone has to justify why a drawing of a square, a blank canvas, or a woman pouring soup on herself has the same artistic value as a Monet.

You didn't even make an attempt to justify your article, which given how long winded it was I think would warrant a more complete defense than a veiled personal attack.

Note: I actually liked proteus, but you can feel free to call me a philistine because I just don't "get" that woman covered in soup.

Ian Bogost
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Randall, there 's a woman covered in soup in Proteus? How awesome!

Boon Cotter
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"My arbitrarily limiting definition of a game is better than your arbitrarily limiting definition of a game."

What a pointless, restrictive argument. We should be discussing what games can be, not what they can't.

Keith Burgun
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All definitions are, at the end of the day, "arbitrary". Creating arbitrary distinctions is how we're able to communicate at all.

Jason Lee
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Well good thing that this article isn't about that pointless, restrictive argument at all. What a waste of time that would've been.

Nick Harris
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Ugh. Yet more about this aimless pastel chillax "interactive experience" with nary interaction
nor cultivation of any quantifiable experience, a hollow shell of ambient cyberspace whose
well chosen colour palette is its only aesthetic strength.