Every once in a while Cuchlann mentions that he wants to write more about video games. And he has — over here. (Did you know he set up a new solo blog? Rather than talking about nerd stuff how he’d talk about classic literature, he talks about classic literature how he’d talk about nerd stuff. If even there’s a difference. Which is kind of the point.) But resurrected dinosaur Super Fanicom needs more video game content, I say!
Developer Ed Key isn’t so sure you’ll agree. He mentions his early trepidation in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
I wasn’t sure how it’d be recieved without any traditional goals or rewards but many people loved it enough to make me remove any remaining hints of goals. I’m happy and a little suprised that it seems to be so refreshing to so many people. There are a bunch of philosophical things I was trying to do, but I’ll spare you the exposition.
Alec Meer (interviewer), “IGF Factor 2012: Proteus”
True, you have no predefined goals in Proteus (granting that only a basic demo is currently available, but Key doesn’t seem eager to change this). It’s like pre-Beta Minecraft in that way. Minus even a character progression system to motivate you, you wander around a random landscape doing whatever you feel like doing.
In other words, you see/hear things. You have almost no real means of interacting with your environment. You can control Proteus with only the mouse, if you want to. Sometimes the environment reacts to you, but there are no puzzles to solve, no resources to gather, certainly no monsters to kill. There are only weird teleporter obelisk things and creatures/objects whose proximity makes the (really, really fantastic) music change.
Proteus is by no means the first entertainment product that sets you down in a strange place and lets you wonder at it for a while. This is a key component of adventure games, and pretty much has been since Zork. It’s a relatively common tactic in fantasy and SF of all kinds. Mundane literature puts it to use with some regularity; Proteus might remind you of the third chapter of Ulysses, which shares its name. And we anime/manga types with our Aria and Mushishi and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou should be quite used to it by now — we’ve even imported a vocabulary for describing this kind of experience: iyashikei, mono no aware.
But to what degree is it a game? How much interaction does a thing need before it’s a game? How much in the way of goals? I don’t know. I never know how to answer that question. I could quote a definition from game theory or something, but I doubt it’d be applicable, as indie games seem to be shredding every solid definition at our disposal (for which I love them, of course). Is a visual novel a game? Is Dwarf Fortress a game when you generate a world just to read its history? I do have a cop-out answer — it depends on how you use it — but, frankly, I don’t care; I enjoy these things, and that’s all I need to know.
I can tell you what the maybe-game does, or what it might do to you.
Let’s assume for the sake of convenience that you’re exactly like me. You’re dropped into Proteus’s colorful, musical, pixelly world, and immediately you set out to find something to do. Because that’s what you do in video games. If there is no goal, you at least need to determine what you’re capable of here, so you can then proceed to do it.
This doesn’t take long. You can’t punch trees until they drop wood. Sometimes you’ll run into packs of little sound-creatures, but you can’t do anything about them. You can make the day/night cycle speed up, you can change the season, but this requires no more effort than walking into the appropriate area.
Here you’ll think about quitting. You won’t. You’ll keep walking around, necessarily covering the same ground. It isn’t a massive world.
You’ll start to notice things. Why’s the ground a different color here? Why’s that tree different from all surrounding?
What does this or that difference signify?
It must have some significance. Things in video games have significance. Your surroundings aren’t accidental; they constitute a playing field. Even when the field results from random numbers fed into an algorithm, someone had to write that algorithm.
The more you tromp about, the less your preconceptions nag.
Here’s a nice-looking area. It’s nice because, who cares? It’s nice. And, look, a house! Who decided to build a house there?
Maybe you’ll want to share this place with someone. Like showing off a strange Minecraft seed on a multiplayer server, or simply sharing the seed among friends. Only you can’t; Proteus lacks the means by which to do those things. It’s just you and trees and mountains and water and a house. You’re hiking through the woods alone and you stop to rest in a calm and peaceful clearing. You contemplate a nearby obelisk. How do you communicate this feeling? And why, after all, do you feel such a need to? It wouldn’t even be a significant sort of feeling (how many virtual landscapes have you experienced, after all?) if not for its transience — you know that when you quit the game, as inevitably you’ll have to do, you’ll never stroll through this particular landscape again. Proteus doesn’t save its worlds. It’s, well, protean.
It’s not that this sense of benign melancholy is unique to Proteus. But it’s one of the few games I can think of that elevates the act of being there to the status of primary objective.
As someone who, in my World of Warcraft days, would hold up dungeon runs so I could read the books of lore scattered throughout, I can appreciate that.