I’m Sorry, Dear Esther; Dear Proteus: When Is a Game Really Not a Game?

Okay, my initial conclusion that the Humble Bundle 8 was a collection of pretty non-games has been dispelled by the simple yet elegant platformer Thomas Was Alone (though I’d argue that the side-scrolling MOBA Awesomenauts, which only unlocks content through endless repetition of the same boring levels is yet another non-game). And yet, I need to amend something I said yesterday about Dear Esther. For all the sluggish pacing and overwrought narrative, at least Dear Esther has a plot, a purpose, and some terrific imagery. The same cannot be said for Proteus, unless you find the mindless exploration of massively pixellated environments compelling (to be fair, Minecraft‘s quite popular, ain’t it?). Yes, it’s true that you can find circles of power on your randomly generated island (unique to you each time, but really populated by the same stuff everybody else will find) that allow you to “progress” in the game, by rapidly shifting time so that the seasons fly by, but all I really did for twenty-three minutes was learn that I could stare at the sun until I went (temporarily) blind, move faster if I “accidentally” knocked over a wasp’s nest and had to run, follow a sparkling and leaping yeti aimlessly about, listen to the awkward “music” procedurally generated by the flora (sort of like that Roald Dahl story), and make the night sky swell and expand as if the stars were about to rupture.

All this is cool in theory, I suppose, but it’s more of an interactive art exhibit–you know, where you push various buttons in order to activate objects in the display case–than a playable “game.” I criticized Dear Esther for lacking the basic elements of a game, while forgetting that it, at least, had a story and a glowing beacon off in the distance to give you some sense of direction. Proteus doesn’t care what you find or how long you take; there isn’t even an option menu. Once you’ve swum out to your island, the only thing you can do is quit the game, which is accomplished by holding down the Escape button long enough for your character’s eyes to close. (Get it? It’s a dream. At least you didn’t have to sit through 137 episodes of St. Elsewhere to figure that out!) I wonder if, on some level, that’s not the ultimate anti-game: you boot it up and can walk around endlessly; the only way to win is to quit (or not to play: thanks War Games).

In any case, Proteus is meant to be some sort of metaphor for life, what with the changing times (day to night), weather (fog and rain clouds slowly blow in, obscuring an already obscure view), and seasons. Playing it will certainly make you acutely aware of the passage of time, and I’m honestly surprised that the crabs you may encounter on the beach aren’t constructing meticulous hourglasses that might better demonstrate how things slip by, seemingly slowly, then all at once. If Dear Esther was a short story masquerading as a game, Proteus is a poem doing the same thing, to a significantly lesser effect. If I want to wander aimlessly that I might discover something intrinsically true about the world, I’d go outside. (I hear the sun is good for you!) In any case, I wouldn’t even recommend installing this one; it’s art for art’s sake, and while I don’t doubt that a faithful audience might extract something from the code, their time would be better spent on just about anything else.

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