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Proteus: A Trio of Artisanal Game Reviews
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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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