Virtual playground: Newly released ‘Proteus’ blurs divide between visual art and video game

Proteus.COURTESY
Ed Kay/Courtesy

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When asked if “Proteus” was a video game, creator Ed Key replied, “I call it a game with extra qualifiers.” While this response seems vague, this is perhaps the most accurate description categorizing “Proteus,” considering the obscure definition of video game.

“Proteus” exists in the space between visual art and video game. If you consider it a video game, it has little in common with “Call of Duty” or “Madden”; “losing” is impossible, there is no skill involved and the only agency the player has is through movement. Yet it’s hard to classify “Proteus” as visual art either. Logistically, it’s virtual software that is purchased and not an exhibit at the MoMA. Every session is amorphous, and it is dependent on interactivity, not just mere observation. But to its benefit, co-creators Key and David Kanaga utilize this space to make “Proteus” an interactive experience that, whether you decide to call it a game or not, is more interesting than most video games and visual art.

Key, the Cambridge-based programmer-designer of “Proteus,” revealed that the game started out as an open-world role-playing game but quickly evolved into a game where exploration was the focus. This emphasis was based on his upbringing in rural England, where the backyard into which he frequently ventured would later become the main inspiration for the expansive, sparsely inhabited landscapes in “Proteus.” He commissioned Oakland-based musician Kanaga, whom he had met through the online independent game developer community TIGSource, to develop the music. By that point, the vision was set.

The result is a game in which players simply traverse an island for a short amount of time (around 40 minutes). This island is randomly generated in every playthrough. As you wander through this landscape, the music adapts to what you see as you cross paths with various animals and plants, all of which produce distinct sounds and seamlessly blend into the soundtrack. Text does not suffice to describe this game; “Proteus” is an audiovisual experience that is to be explored in the most primitive sense. But many factors help to evolve this journey into more than just walking around a virtual space. The visual aesthetic, the factors of randomization and the audio composition all work together to make “Proteus” evoke something greater than surface-level enjoyment.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of  “Proteus” is the retro 8-bit visual style, which is distinctive in every screenshot. Not noticeable in stills, however, is the mix between 1-D, 2-D and 3-D objects. Some objects are fully rendered in 3-D, but tree leaves are animated such that they are always facing the player (similar to enemies in “Doom”), and tree trunks are two cross-section images that are independent of your orientation. All of this contributes to an effect called the “uncanny retro,” coined by Key, and the result is a strange effect of motion that makes every tree stand out as you move and every object more noticeable from the background. The simple act of movement transforms images of an abstract retro, 8-bit environment into a bizarrely realistic world that turns these colored pixels into a surreal reality.

The randomized creation of every island also provides a more organic gaming experience. When all the elements blend together and the music is perfectly timed to the sunset, everything feels more magical when you know that this is the result of circumstance. While a designer can produce a predefined experience, an experience that is original and specific to the player is far more interesting. There is a certain faith in the game randomly generating levels that are always interesting, and it mirrors a certain faith established between Key and the player. Instead of forcing the player to see certain events at certain times, the game gives the player freedom to completely handle his own exploration.

Complementary to the visuals is the music, which reinforces the freeform nature of “Proteus.” Kanaga’s philosophy behind the music was dynamic in nature, blending environmental sounds from the game’s natural scenery with the score. The music itself is a soothing match to this world you wander, but small events in the environment, such as running into stones or chasing frogs, mix another layer into the soundtrack. The inclusion of orchestral notes in addition to many retro chiptune-based tones adds another element to this “bizarrely realistic” world, penned by Kanaga.

What “Proteus” ultimately adds up to is the construction of a surreal virtual world, more realistic than the settings in “World of Warcraft” or “Second Life.” Derived from this tradition of bringing the abstract into reality, “Proteus” translates Key’s experience exploring the rural landscape of England into its purest essence. Ultimately the dynamic nature of “Proteus” is what makes it work, and that dynamic nature is inherent in video games.

However you define “Proteus,” it exploits one of the main strengths of the gaming medium, which is systemically rooted in discovery. This aspect of pure play without caveats, whether they be goals, rewards or skills, may call into question the definition of video games, but even then “Proteus” is much more than a statement about just video games. For a generation that grew up exploring worlds and universes represented by pixelated blocks, “Proteus” emulates this abstraction into something grounded in reality, and it’s done so well that categorizing “Proteus” is an insignificant matter.

Contact Art at [email protected].