Times have changed since the last time I’ve bothered reviewing one of these exploration games/walking simulators. When first making a splash into this sea of gameplay-minimizing art games with Dear Esther, I honestly didn’t expect to ever bother jumping back into other titles similar to that art house ideal like Passage or Every Day The Same Dream. It’s strange to see just how influential one bad reaction from these kinds of titles early on can be in predetermining whether or not this entire caste of so-called “art games” would be worth my time; and as it turns out, I actually ended up enjoying many of them to varying degrees. So, with Proteus and the opportunity to discuss the controversy surrounding it, the stars seemed aligned to dredge up this difficult examination simply because of how healthy it seems to be able to review these types of titles with passive play mechanics that step outside of my comfort zone. I’ll admit to being affected by Proteus in a visually splendid sort of way—to a greater degree than I anticipated, but I still don’t like to see this embodied principle found here of merely flouting modern game conventions being considered enough.
You wake up standing atop the pixelated ocean with a procedurally-generated island in a distance summoning you to explore what it has to offer. There’s really nothing concrete about Proteus beyond that beginning, though. This island contains no hidden treasure for cheats, nothing in the way of earning more experience points, and only a few enigmatic narrative details during your exploration that are vague enough to mean practically anything or perhaps nothing. In Proteus, you just exist and are free to move about the island at your own heart’s content just to take in the scenery and attempt to decipher some kind of over-arching meaning, even though nothing is lost should you decide to not even bother placing it in a bigger context.
I suppose before getting into examining the “gameplay” and presentation interwoven within it, that nagging controversy over whether or not Proteus is a game is stuck in my head, especially after the glut of first-person walkers that arrived in 2013 which continually brought up this topic. It’s rather funny to think about: for all the subjective determiners and goalpost-moving seen from those outside gamer culture determining whether or not video games were a legitimate art form, it seems that this smaller issue at hand has displayed similar methods of determining what is/isn’t a game from those within it. The reason this topic annoys me, to the point of hoping I’m not dragged into make a full-blown blog about it, is because the very act of defining a “game/videogame” doesn’t really seem to have empirical analysis behind it, especially when considering different dictionaries containing such disparate answers on what’s being defined. If you were to ask me right now, I suppose my definition would fall somewhere in line with the Smithsonian “Art of Video Games” Curator’s response to defining them as art: all games having three voices. A creator or collective of creators imbue their own thoughts, beliefs, and experiences into a product; said product is designed with a given user interface that generates visual feedback for the player upon interaction; and that player’s interactions feel wholly unique to him/her alone both by how they’ve played the game and what experiences and beliefs they’ve injected into it as a result. And when looking at the ‘third voice’ to this trifecta, Proteus…seems to be more of a game than a healthy number of AAA-budgeted titles when you think about it.
Yet even when ruminating on this argument altogether, I still don’t see why some people care so much about it to begin with. The question of ‘if this is a game or not’ is the wrong one to ask because what’s being defined varies from person to person (see: the difference to what I’ve suggested above to your current interpretation of a “game”). If Proteus had just one sort of ‘game-y quality’ from the ones it so closely resembles already, like any kind of a failure state, I’m confident this argument wouldn’t even exist; but with that in mind, I’m also left wondering just how arbitrary that prerequisite and the nature of fail states actually is. Those making the anti-game comments oftentimes just strikes me as gamers committing the No True Scotsman logical fallacy due to their conservative norms of what a game’s come to be in their minds; or when looking at the other end of the spectrum, game creators now don’t even want to acknowledge their games as games because that word is somehow beneath them and what they’ve crafted. Looking at it from a bigger picture, it seems harder for progress to continue in this medium if we utterly disregard iconoclasts that push the boundaries of our previously-held principles of what makes a game...a game at all.
I guess the best way to close out that semi-apathetic segway would be to change the wording of a famous existentialist writer’s quote: a game is a game is a game. But just because Proteus wins the title of ‘game’ in my mind, though, doesn’t mean it’s dodged some of the problems it has as one.
Proteus’ minimalist control scheme is whittled down to the W, A, S, and D keys (or left-click mouse button) for movement and the mouse for looking around. The true purpose of wanting to explore the island is just to see the abstract designs and sounds of foliage and wildlife that can be found. Inspired by the retro heritage of early video games, the world is filled with varicolored, pixel-block trees and animals that all have enough fidelity to be instantly recognized while strange enough to feel like an impressionist 8-bit drawing. The euphonious sound design is structured for players to receive different synthetic aural queues that are blended into the randomly-generated synth soundtrack when trekking different parts of the island.
In an analytical explanation I brought up in my Dear Esther review, I pried in a similarity of the overly-simplistic gameplay to what the Iceberg Theory could be in literature. For DE, that bare visible peak could be attributed as the minimalistic gameplay while the unseen, much larger portion beneath the surface was the emotional exploration through the presentation of a structured narrative; for Proteus, being an observer of Mother Nature as you interact with animals that try to avoid you or witnessing simple things like a meteor shower or everything else here that emanates different synth cadences which synchronize with the soundtrack in the background act as the hidden part of that iceberg intended to generate similar emotional experiences. When it’s put into practice here, I honestly thought those brain-tickling parts kept me rapt in attention and felt much more organic than the artificial text dump after walking past an invisible trigger that occurs in Dear Esther…even though the same feeling of torpor still hits here almost as often.
I suppose it’s in relying on a sequence of randomized events and the one subtle objective trigger to move the seasons of the game forward that makes it so easy to for ennui to develop. When you’re free to meander for so long without the exciting moments compelling you to move forward, the inhibitive aspect of exploring really being limited to the ‘look, but don’t touch’ rule at an art museum that a number of other games have been doing already can just drag the experience on and on and on, in hopes you’ll find that next thing to keep moving ahead soon enough. It makes it all the more disappointing to admit that so often pervaded the experience because the interesting—sometimes unsettling—stuff you’ll see is truly captivating. Because of the unpredictability, it can be fun to just catalog how you stumble upon something, which in turn leads to something like the trees sparkling with life, then stumbling upon a cabin, and finally contemplating just how you think everything came to be on this island. There are definitely moments I could get lost in this type of world with no hand-holding direction other than the orchestra of noises pleading for you to go this way, where the bleeps and bloops would harmonize with other noises depending on whether you were chasing a frog through a meadow or you’d reach a certain peak of a mountaintop and only listen to the breeze. It’s able to capture that niche quality of giving you something different when you’re able to take a break from the outside world to witness the moments of visual splendor and the electronic aural design that mimics the retro pastiche.
Even though I brought up the whole ‘being a curmudgeon regarding value in the past’ angle in my previous review, the ephemeral length of thirty-eight minutes to complete it in my first run and the non-sale retail market price of ten dollars does break my cost-for-playtime threshold in this situation. And though I do understand the random generation of islands per playthrough, additional tweaks made available after the first completion, and saving maps you liked visiting via postcard does technically bolster replay value—to a better degree then the randomized circumlocution (and the showy attitude I attribute with that aspect) after each run-through that came with Dear Esther, those extras are all dependent upon how much enjoyment one reaps from the player experience here, which was something I just couldn’t enjoy as much as I would’ve liked.
The catchall for the “intrepid experiments” found with this recent gaggle of first-person walkers coming down the pipeline, each one resurrecting that damn game/non-game argument along with it, comes down to determining how little gameplay is too little. Even though some may find these reproachable “non-games” undeserving of anyone’s time, I’m a little more confident now of these types of titles belonging in the industry and generating a new mold. The problem comes in just how content they are with just following this new level of constraining gameplay for an emotional experience and not building upon that template. Proteus still does exceptionally well at the emotional part, particularly the very poignant ending, to the point of me believing those moments alone might be worth your time at a much, much cheaper price point. Overall, it’s another modest effort at experimenting with emergent gameplay design that simply doesn’t work as well as I would’ve hoped.
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