Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews

By Ian Bogost

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.

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.

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.

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