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Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews

February 15, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

What is Proteus? How can it be appreciated? Setting aside the ongoing debate on whether or not it's a game, noted academic and developer Ian Bogost here presents three reviews as three lenses through which to approach and appreciate it.

One: Nil Person

Video games are narcissistic. They are about you, even when they put you in someone else's shoes. You are a space marine among hell spawn. You are a mafioso just released from prison. You are a bear with a bird in your backpack. You are a Tebowing Tim Tebow. We may think we play video games to be someone or something else, but inevitably we do so to be ourselves as well -- ourselves in the guise of someone else.

Film and television and literature may not put you in control like games do, but instead they put you outside, forcing you to take seriously the fact that the characters are not you, but rather someone else. Sometimes being in control is too facile, too misleading.

Does piloting Uncharted's Nathan Drake from ledge to ledge lead to any greater understanding of his opaque motivations than watching House of Cards' equally impenetrable Frank Underwood? If agency means click-guessing The Walking Dead's Lee Everett around his family drugstore, then maybe passivity is underrated.

Even games without embodied, playable first- or third-person human characters or their synecdoches are still about "you." In Tetris or Drop7 or Osmos, you are not anyone. Rather, "you" are the pretend god in control of a manipulable world upon which meaningful force can be exerted. These are not games you might be likely to reconstruct out of paper or mashed potatoes, but you could if you set your mind to the task. They are tiny universes in which you are the prime mover, even if not the designer. You are the player, and without you the game grinds to a halt.

It's tempting to see Proteus as just another first-person art game, one that starts with conventional keyboard-and-mouse shuffle-looking and then strips away other verbs like "jump" and "shoot." Only movement remains, along with the obstreperous spacebar command to "sit," as if giving the finger to all those games in which sitting would result in an immediate bloodbath.

Many will dismiss Proteus on these grounds, concluding that it is "not a game," before launching into some tired tirade about the proper properties of genuine games: goals, choices, victory, what have you. Those players have been successfully provoked. Proteus intends the provocation, but doesn't do enough to follow through on it. At question is not whether the game offers sufficient choice or challenge to deserve the name "game," but whose choice or challenge is presented in the first place.

It's not the gameplay that's missing from Proteus. Rather, it's the you, the agent who would partake of it. Or, at least, in Proteus you are not the you you are used to.

The game loads. At first you think you are on a boat, or some sort of vessel, anyway. You look around. A misty island appears in the distance, appears because you can see it. You can hear the lapping water. The horizon seems to bob along to match your movements and your shifting perception. You move and look, exploring the sea, the beach, the hill, the mountain.

But there was no boat. It should have been your first clue, like the obvious sign at the start of an M. Night Shyamalan film -- the blatant hint that gives away the twist before you knew there was one. What can rest unperturbed on water and on earth, but still move nimbly? A spectre. A miniature hovercraft. Jesus of Nazareth.

Things get weirder on land. Traversing Proteus feels familiar, banal even. Not the space, the island itself, but the traversal. Moving, looking -- you've done it all before, inside Castle Wolfenstein, on Bob-omb Battlefield, in Rapture. But something's off this time, something subtle. Different terrains can be traversed without distinction. Hills and summits can be ascended smoothly and without struggle no matter their incline. From a distance, you see a snow-capped mountain and devise a tactic for reaching its summit. But your plan is quickly proven superfluous, as contact with the peak's foothill results in an immediate, quick assent, as if by invisible funicular.

What to make of it? Dismay, at first, even anger. Perhaps the creators of Proteus were too lazy or too inept to craft a more sophisticated locomotion system, opting instead just to couple a default camera view to first-person controls, an abstract cursor in an environment.

But this obvious analysis is also the wrong one. Rather than conclude that the work is incomplete or ill-conceived, why not instead assume that it means to be exactly what it is, and that it issues a challenge to those who might interact with it: to form credible theories about why it is the way it is, rather than criticisms about why it is not something else.

There is no "you" in Proteus, at least not in the way you thought there was. There is only an island. The experience you have on that island isn't an experience on an island, at all. Instead, it's an experience of an island. An island's experience. Proteus is a game about being an island instead of a game about being on one.

What does an island do? Not much, on a human scale. Islands are accreted from submarine vulcanism over hundreds of thousands of years, as tectonic plate directions shift to yield protrusions in solid, dense rock. The Big Island of Hawaii is young at some half a million years old. The oldest seamount in the Hawaiian-Emperor chain, Mejii Seamount, is at least 80 million years old.

Proteus spares us the obvious portrayals of geological time, of hot spots on the Earth's mantle, of lava flows and shield building and erosion, of scientistic educationalism. Such features are not really of the island, after all, but of its creation. Just as Nate Drake isn't the same as his ontogeny from zygote to fetus to infant, so being Proteus isn't the same as its simulated, abstracted geological formation.

As for "exploration," such is the game's clever conceit, the ruse that tricks you into thinking the work is about you, into thinking that you are there at all. Proteus meets you partway, offering the appearance of changes in movement, of changes in view, of the ability to "sit." But these are just metaphors, the minimum necessary invitation to provide you, the human player, a satisfactory analogy through which to grasp the island's existence as island.

The arbitrary configurations of a computer interface, whose careless tousles along a 3D vector happen to correspond with the usual manner in which a player might navigate a virtual world. One explores Proteus less like one explores a wooded nature preserve and more like one explores a naked body -- by moving it through one's attention rather than by moving one's attention through it.

In Proteus, we find something in between the personal time of human agency and the historical time of tectonic effects. Day and night doesn't pass, so much as the island dresses in day and night's clothing. Night doesn't descend upon the island so much as the island nights, like the squirrel scurries or the leaves fall. If tousled in the right way, it relents, donning the garb of different seasons. Time doesn't pass upon it any more than you move around it. It is you who is too dense, too stuck in your own ape body that you require time to pass before your senses kick in.

Islands. They are a common staple of video games: Myst, Uncharted, The Secret of Monkey Island. Yet, we don't think much about these islands themselves. Even in a game like Far Cry, in which the environment has a much larger role to play, that environment is still rendered for you, you the playable character and for you the human player. Proteus's island isn't for you at all. It isn't concerned with your attention span or your expectations. It's just there. Just there, until it gets bored and turns you off.

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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.