Perhaps it is better that I can’t describe what I’m feeling.
The world of Proteus is a small, procedurally generated island in the middle of an endless sea, rendered with a combination of rudimentary shapes and pixelated facsimiles of wildlife. There is no action button. You do not collect anything, fight any enemy or solve any puzzle. The entire goal of the game is to interact with the island by moving about, and the elements therein react to you. Each creates its own musical offshoot, rising and falling as you seek and discover new subjects to observe. It’s a quasi-rhythm-artsy-FPS-thing. But that’s missing the point.
“My own memories had melded with the bright colors and shimmering ocean, swirling and dancing with music…”
The structure of the world is rooted heavily in shape and pattern recognition, with creatures that range from a pixel-perfect hawk to a simple yellow blob that could be anything from a fungus to a prairie dog. It is a game whose simplicity allows anyone looking at it to imprint on it almost immediately, pulling meaning from their surroundings as it applies to them and them alone. In this the music serves as both accoutrement and psychoacoustic spirit guide, escorting the player through their own psychology as pixelated seasons alter color and arrangement. Memories bubble up in the harmonic burbs of chickens and crabs. The mind decodes poorly defined structures into church spires, log cabins and headstones. Was there someone here before me? Who knows?
With the close of every night cycle comes the opportunity to step into a swirling circle of pollen and be transported, figuratively and literally, into the future, highlighted by subtle shifts in the shade of the island and the overall feel of the music. Where Spring and Summer were bright and full of life, Fall begins to usher in a strange sense of loss – sadness, even. Winter’s lifeless fog and skeletal trees conjure an almost preternatural fear, despite the complete lack of life bar or enemies. But why? What creates this kind of attachment to a virtual space? Why was the chance I wouldn’t be able to see Spring again so sad when I could easily start the game over? Why did I spend so much of the Fall cycle desperately searching for something – anything – that would chirp with life?
Take It All In
Surrounded by showers of stars and witness to simple, procedurally generated graphics that defy explanation, the truth is that I had fallen under the spell of a silly little musical island. In every 8-bit burp I caught glimpses of a living, natural world, and in every stirring of the solstice a tinge of bittersweet acceptance. My own memories had melded with the bright colors and shimmering ocean, swirling and dancing with music that pulsed like the old halogen lamps of Chris’ living room, the feel of pine needles on the skin, and imagining all there is in a grain of sand. At one point I almost cried.
How fitting that Proteus can only ever end by closing your eyes.
I don’t know Ed Key or David Kanaga. I don’t know why they made this game or what they meant to portray with a strange, simple island far out to sea, where the frogs sing in synthetic beeps and plants shed their blossoms in waves of pitched keys. I don’t know what it means when the sky sings you to sleep or why the flowers dance in tune. I don’t have any real answers. I’m just a guy at a keyboard at the end of the day, and I’m having far too much difficulty explaining what had come over me by the time I finished their game.
All I can say with any real certainty is that playing Proteus has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
And for that, I thank them.