Good news, everyone! For this week’s Indie Wonderland-offering, I figured I’d try something a little different.
If you move in indie-related circles to a degree, you might have heard of Proteus, the brain-child of Ed Key and David Kanaga. Specifically, you may have heard some tangential hub-bub about whether or not Proteus should be considered a game in the first place. A cursory Google search for ‘is proteus a game’ returns a not insignificant number of hits, the seemingly most-quoted one of which being this Gamasutra article. To quote from which:
In fact, developer Ed Key, alongside musician David Kanaga, thinks of it more as an “anti-game” — although he isn’t a huge fan of the “not-game” term that has been splashed around the last few years.
Now, normally, I steer far clear from these ‘is X a game‘ debates. I don’t think it’s a question worth lingering on. I still don’t. And my original plan for this week was to just review Proteus in my traditional style — difficult though that may have been — and move on.
But Proteus wasn’t the only game that caught my eye: I’ve also played Act One of Kentucky Route Zero, by Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy (who make up Cardboard Computer). And while, again, my original plan was to ‘just’ review it (which, again, would have been tricky in my normal style), going back and forth between that and Proteus and mulling on the is-a-game-debate made me realize there might be an interesting comparison to be made here.
So buckle up, dear readers: almost three hundred words in and we haven’t even started yet. What I aim to do today is first talk about Proteus a bit, then talk about Kentucky Route Zero, and finally use the two as a springboard to discuss a side of the Games Definition Issue that I think has been under-appreciated for too long.
(Spoiler levels: hella high. Seriously, it’s practically unavoidable. Be ye warned, I guess.)
No, I’m already backing it. This isn’t the proper way. Instead of telling you what Proteus is, let me start by sharing my Proteus experience with you.
This is how Proteus nominally starts:
There’s options, and there’s explanations, and there’s credits, and normally I’d be all over that. But let’s ignore that, for now: the only thing I did of note anyway was invert the mouse’s Y-axis. Then, five minutes of wild clicking, which lead to me discover that clicking on the island itself it the way forward.
This is how Proteus actually starts:
I opened my eyes to blue skies and turquoise water. Nothing around me in any direction, save for the one I started out looking at: the vague outline of an island.
I moved towards it. I don’t know if I walked, or swam, or flew. It didn’t particularly matter.
The island was filled with vibrant colours and sparkling sounds. A carpet of green grass, intersected with the occasional road. Trees in various shades of pastel colour, green and white and purple. Standing stones, that hummed notes when I passed them. A flock of mono-colour chickens that fled as I approached.
I explored the island, unsure of what was expected of me. If anything. I saw more trees and flowers, in an ever-widening colour palette. I climbed a mountain, almost vertically, and stared off in the distance. I chased a frog as night fell.
I stared at fireflies dancing between the trees. I found an old hovel, creaking in the wind, and tried to locate a mewling kitty that always seemed just out-of-reach. I watched the stars dance and twirl on top of the highest mountain, and meteors streak down, until the sun rose again.
I saw the rains come in, and the odd behaviour of the droplets drew me to a particular spot: a place where the rain and dew swirled around in a single circle, and where time seemed to rush ever-fasted as I approached that one fateful patch of ground.
I summoned all my courage, stepped forward, and left spring to emerge into summer.
In the summer, I watched purple plants bloom up everywhere. I listened to the buzzing dance of newly-hatched insects.
I chased high-jumping rabbits, and I played with a gaggle of crabs, diverting them from their path to the sea.
In the autumn, when the world turned red and dark purple, I climbed a mountain and watched the torrents cover the valley in a thick cloud of mist.
And in the winter, when dark blue and cold white took over, the once-inviting trees turned dead and menacing under an eternal cover of clouds.
Until finally, one winter night, I found the perfect spot to watch the dancing aurora through a gap in the clouds. I’d watched it before, from the mountains, but somehow… the sounds made me know this was the place. I set myself under a large tree, stared upwards at the spectacle, and let go of the controls. And then I flew.
Were I forced to give some sort of classification to Proteus, some hammered-on genre, I’d call it a abstracted simulation of being lost on a desert island, wandering around with no knowledge of who or what or where or how as time flies by you and seasons continue their inexorable cycle. I hope I’ve been able to convey, through my little tale, what playing Proteus is like without spoiling the experience too much; it’s entirely likely I failed at either.
It’s easy to see why people go so a-gog over Proteus, both positively and negatively. It’s certainly a unique experience in today’s virtual entertainment landscape, if you let it. Independently of anything else, if what I’ve shown and told you has piqued your curiosity in any way, I recommend you try it out yourself. I don’t really see it as something you play more than once — maybe I will explore another island, sometime, before this review is up — but I personally consider the ten dollars it requires a more-than-fair deal. Look to the official site or Steam.
Now, this would be the place where I’d try to make my case for Proteus deserving either ‘game’ or ‘not-game’ status. But as I’ve mentioned, I have no particular interest in doing that. Instead, let’s turn the page here, and look at a game that may not be as completely different as you’d think it is.