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400 Years In A Single Proteus

Proteus is a very short game. Or rather, it’s a very quick thing as some people would hesitate to call it a game. For all the wandering and pointless frog-chasing and bug-fleeing I did, the entire experience wrapped up in a mere 45 minutes. There were confusing moments when I thought parts of the game were broken (they weren’t) and when I didn’t understand how the island worked (I’m a dummy) but nothing truly impeded me so much as to call it a deliberate challenge traditionally associated with a video game.

For those that are unaware, Proteus is a strange little indie game from Ed Key and David Kanaga. In it, you explore a randomly generated island that seems to only produce strange, spritely sounds and impossible-to-capture, occasionally glowing creatures. You find strange clusters of odd statues and towering trees that vilify the landscape. You’ll also find transcendent spots of what can only be described as Disney-esque magic and wonder.

Of course, when I say “you,” I mean the literal You and not some You that is a digital representation of a person on this (500) Days of Summer-infused clump of rainbow dirt and singing plants. As pointed out in a trio of “artisanal” reviews from Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra, you don’t exist in Proteus. In fact, “there is only an island,” and “Proteus is a game about being an island instead of a game about being on one.”

Every action you incur or witness is something that came from the island, its genesis laying somewhere deep within its creaky trees and mysteriously snow-capped hills. When the seasons change or the sun sets and the moon rises or low clouds roll in and cover everything with dripping notes of a mostly random melody, it has less to do with that you did anything and more that you simply happen to be there to witness it. This island, with all its complexities and infinitely melancholy emotions, is something that just exists, immune to changes while still mutable to a cyclical existence.

It actually reminded me of a Flash game I recently played called 400 Years by a fellow named Scriptwelder. It’s an incredibly brief game (as are most narrative Flash titles) about a, uh, statue(?) that wants to stop an ominously named “calamity.” The only problem is that said calamity is 400 years away. The intrinsic solution, of course, is that you are a statue. Or whatever. Either way, you’re set for the four centuries and then some.

400 Years is also a very simple game to play—almost as simple as Proteus, which is capable of being controlled entirely through looking with the mouse and the left-click button. In 400 Years, you can move left, move right, pick things up, put things down, and wait. In the grand scheme of things, the picking up/putting down of objects is perfunctory since they are actions meant for very specific instances where they are less options and more compulsory inputs to progress the game, so now you have movement and waiting.

Movement itself isn’t really about the distance traveled, though. Quite literally you will move from point A to point B, but 400 Years isn’t about that. It isn’t even about the 400 years between the start of the game and the impending calamity; it’s about the waiting. When you hold down the space bar, time whizzes by. It’s like you are watching a movie in fast forward, the cycles of the seasons and nature moving by at lightning speed.

And it clicks. Or at least it did for me. The waiting isn’t standing idly by; it’s the statue’s life. There’s this notion that life seems to go faster as you live longer because each day is an increasingly smaller portion of your overall days lived, and by that statue’s count, each day is like a snap of the fingers. Blink and a year has gone by. A village you watched learn how to plant wheat is now a thriving community that itself is now helping you (unknowingly, but help is help). Your observations are nothing more than the CliffsNotes of this statue’s life, your interactions nothing more than the step controls of a VCR stuck in forward.

Proteus, in that regard, has found a kindred spirit of games. Its island is nothing more than the needle of a compass, pointing forward as the world around it swirls and spins. It is a bookmark that doesn’t move, where the pages sifts around it as the reader watches this tome mingle with itself, just as this statue and this world of 400 Years presses forward (and only forward) at the insistence of its patient, existentially detached observer.

Neither game is about you. There is no you. Much like Michelangelo set David free from his stony cage, Proteus and 400 Years existed long before its developers or you came about. They just let you look for a while.

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