I wake up treading water in the ocean, with the sticky-sharp smell of seawater in my nose. How long have I been here? Since my legs aren’t hurting, it’s safe to assume that I’m not going to drown any time soon, so I take a moment to survey the horizon. Most of it is occupied by the endless flat blue plain that I’m currently floating in, but directly in front of me, a moment’s swim away, is a world where I could get lost forever…
Proteus, the 2013-released procedurally-generated exploration game developed by Ed Key and David Kanaga, tends to get gamers riled up. This isn’t because it’s a bad game, persay – it’s because it’s one of those games which doesn’t have any clearly-defined win condition or even a set of objectives to complete. Proteus’ entire experience consists of wandering and looking at things. That’s it.
“That’s it” is a very strong phrase. It implies finality. Proteus actively shies away from finality, or any sort of finish. Instead, it concentrates on the fierce joy of exploring a brand new world, drawing from the same pool of ideas that Satoshi Tajiri did when he created Pokémon and distilling them into an experience that’s sublime in the purest way. In Proteus, you can wander aimlessly forever, but you’ll find something new every time, whether it’s a grove of cherry blossom trees or a troupe of singing worms which dive underground when you approach. In a way, I’d even compare it to my first time playing Minecraft – that dazed, contemplative feeling of not knowing anything about the world I’m stumbling through, but enjoying it anyway.
At the beginning of each Proteus playsession, your player character opens their eyes to a newly-generated world, and at the end, they shut them achingly slowly, as if reluctant to leave Proteus’ technicolour dreamland. This is a terrifyingly good aspect of the design that I must point out: when leaving the world of Proteus, you can re-open your eyes at any point before they close completely. If you see a mountain in the distance through your eyelashes, you can snap your eyes open and climb it (or more likely get distracted on the way over and end up chasing some of the local fauna). However, if you decide to close your eyes, the world disappears forever. It’s an interesting incentive to explore as much of the gameworld as you can.
Much has been made of the widely-held opinion that Proteus is not a game, or that it’s an “anti-game”. I disagree. Proteus has a win condition ingrained into the player from the very moment the world is generated: feeling good. Once you relax and immerse yourself, you can’t help but smile as you hurdle a mountain and survey the world around you, and that is the true win condition.
I yawn. It’s time to wake up, and I want to stay a little longer. But even though this world has so much more to see, I have things to do, places to be. I’m the only one who’ll ever see this world, and tomorrow, a new one awaits. I survey the view in front of me for the last time, and close my eyes.