Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews

February 15, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Three: Habitat Modulation

Imagine a radio made out of a world. What would you tune in? The rain, maybe. The stochastic dance of its droplets. Rrr rr rr rr r r r. I like it best when it strengthens enough to chime against the windowpanes. Fluid fingernails on the glass.

Sound fills spaces. It's called diffusion, the spreading of sonic energy in a physical environment. Perfectly diffusive spaces share the same acoustic properties all throughout. Such settings have to be engineered, whether architecturally -- like a carefully designed concert hall -- or prosthetically through the addition of sound diffusors like one finds in a recording studio.

Most spaces aren't so purposefully designed; they are "non-diffusive," which is just to say, ordinary. You configure your home theater to offer an ideal listening space around your couch. You lean in, struggling to hear your dinner companion because the restaurant was designed to maximize liveliness around your table rather than to optimize conversation upon it.

In our daily lives, we shift constantly among different sonic domains. Our bias toward visual culture means that usually we see that transition more than we hear it, but careful attention can help attenuate visual in favor of auditory sensation. Instead of seeing a morning comprised of house, yard, car, if you squint a bit you can hear one made of kettle, birds, engine, NPR Morning Edition.

Sometimes you have to close your eyes to hear. So overwhelming is the visual sensorium, and so central to our social lives. We close our eyes to calm ourselves because it's so hard to focus on our inner thoughts with so many outer influences pouring in. The guru does not advise the meditation practitioner to cover the ears, but to close the eyes, at least temporarily, to reset the dynamic energy of vision, but not so much as to fall into slumber.

You probably do this more often than you realize, but still not often enough. Morning again. The door latches behind you, leaving behind the thud of children's feet, the clank of the dishwasher, the chatter of Matt Lauer. Instead: a deep breath, the swoosh of nearby leaves, the whirr of a distant lawnmower. A small moment lost among larger moments, but precious for its modesty. Like seeing the big eyes of a small child, hearing the wind beetle through leaves draws out vice from the chest and spreads it across the skin, where it burns and then evaporates.

Such moments are rarer than they could be. You might visit the woods behind the park or drive out to the nature preserve or the beach, or the shopping mall even, but such propositions are too inconvenient to become habits.

We've tried to domesticate them: fireplaces, aquaria, the white noise generators that take the place of alarm clocks in mid-range hotel rooms: gentle rain, crashing surf, babbling brook. But these aren't meant to be heard, just to mask out other sounds until boredom or slumber overtakes them.

Proteus offers an alternative: a sonic device one uses by moving through its spatial landscape and its temporal fluxes. If a toy like a Spirograph is used to produce complex mathematical curves by manipulating its far simpler physical apparatus, then a world like Proteus is used to produce complex sonic configurations in the same manner.

Exploring Proteus is also an optical experience, of course. The game presents a rendered 3D environment that facilitates navigation. But its imprecise, indeterminate visual style invites the player to deemphasize the usual desire for scintillation through visual verisimilitude in favor of listening for desirable auditory configurations. One moves through Proteus not to see, but to arrange a particular kind of hearing.

At first this is rough going. All you hear are random sounds, a cacophony of electronic tones and noise. A jumble. A weird mismatch, too: a pastoral nightclub run by pixel cupcakes. But it's just the surprise of auditory novelty, like the first sonic deluge of New York City to the novice ear. Eventually patterns emerge; or rather, you become able to produce sonic patterns by orchestrating your movements. Proteus is an island you tune like a radio. Or maybe, a radio that looks like an island.

What's playing? Spring-night-rain-meadow-fireflies. An oscillating whistle of the insects along with the sprinkle of rain, which slowly subsides as the clouds pass, giving way to the pure tone of digital owls.

The nuisance of the sunrise, whistling flute-like. It's worse than the alarm clock's klaxon, but like the latter you cannot escape it. Just wait it out, let the rosy dawn give way to cyan and the flutes to frequency-oscillating sine tones.

Seeking respite from the din. A tall mountain on this run of Proteus, blanched by snow and beset with the silence of dead goblin trees on one side. The wind. Finally the throbbing ebbs. Too soon really, it becomes stifling in turn. A tall castle's keep without surrounding battlements presents itself at the opposite end of the peak, radiating abstract, oscillating squawks. The wind sounds cold when married to it.

Finding a frog or a brace of ducks. In Proteus safari is not just a matter of seeing a new creature, but of mixing it down with the background tracks, of dancing with the bounce of square amphibians and semicircular fowl. Then lingering with the frog until night falls, when it sings a rhythmic, fizzy ballad if undisturbed.

Every channel is synesthesia and mixed metaphor. Summer is syncopated flowers. Autumn draws itself out, but still jingles with the bells of leafiness. Those chimes don't represent the leaves like the droplets represent the rain, no more than the French horns represent clear skies. Rather, to hear the horns, escape the rain. Just before daybreak autumn creaks like a boat. Winter's midnight jingles like the paralyzing ghost of an alien carnival where, years ago, an almond-eyed daredevil was decapitated.

A music visualizer does just what its name suggests: it makes music visible by transforming an audio input's frequency spectrum into parameters for a moving image. You've seen them in Winamp and in iTunes, and in Jeff Minter's Neon light synthesizer in the Xbox 360. But Proteus is not a music visualizer. It does not present a visual, traversable representation of a musical composition. Rather, it is a habitat receiver that can be tuned in for sound, like a radio receiver can home in on a waveform's amplitude or frequency.

And like Winamp or iTunes, it's best to run Proteus windowed. As your work progresses, different moods will suggest themselves. Just drop back in and tune in the right habitat. Save a few postcards like you'd fashion a playlist or save a car radio preset. You'll know you're using it right when you know where you are at a distance, from Word or from PowerPoint.

Eventually, I began to grow irritated that my MacBook keyboard's play/pause button wouldn't temporarily silence Proteus when a call came in or a meeting had to be conducted. I'd finally learned to stop looking at it, at all. It had become an audio tool, albeit an unusual one. Instead of scanning a playlist or submitting to a Spotify recommendation, I learned to relocate my auditory alter-ego.

A radio station transmits on a carrier frequency, and a radio tunes it in by converting that signal for demodulation. Proteus is transmitter and receiver in one, the simulated world doing the transmission and the player's position within it acting the indicator on the broadcast band. But unlike a radio frequency receiver, which hides all the alternatives via filtering, Proteus has no fixed stations, no clearer or weaker signals. Any position on the habitat modulation band might be equally desirable, depending on the circumstances. A world radio without static, generating bandwidth forever.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Related Jobs

Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer
Grover Gaming
Grover Gaming — Greenville, North Carolina, United States

3D Generalist / Artist
Demiurge Studios, Inc.
Demiurge Studios, Inc. — Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Lead System Designer


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

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

Bart Stewart
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
Sometimes things don't have to be messianic or spectacular to be worthwhile, or even to be strong works of art.

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

Randall Stevens
profile image
" 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
profile image
Randall, there 's a woman covered in soup in Proteus? How awesome!

Boon Cotter
profile image
"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
profile image
All definitions are, at the end of the day, "arbitrary". Creating arbitrary distinctions is how we're able to communicate at all.

Jason Lee
profile image
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
profile image
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.