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A Beautiful Cacophony

The human brain is nearly three pounds of strange, amazing, and sticky stuff. As a people, we’ve had brains since, well, forever, and we’ve attempted to study it for almost as long, and after thousands and thousands of years, we still don’t know what it does exactly. We know certain parts have dominion over certain aspects of our personalities, our physical capabilities, and our mental capacities, but so much of it remains a mystery.

One part of that unknown sector is something called fast thinking, a concept usually attached to slow thinking. It’s explained fairly well in this YouTube video, but allow me to break it down quickly: fast thinking is instinctual and sometimes irrational. It operates on the assumption that receiving input and dumping output as quickly as possible is the most important thing. It’s how you can tell Garfield is orange without focusing on his fur and thinking, “under all that lasagna, I can see that his fur is orange, therefore he is orange.”

Slow thinking is the complete opposite of that (duh). Slow thinking operates entirely to get everything right 100% of the time. If you see a complex math problem, your fast thinking tells you that intense cerebral activity will be required to solve this mathematical conundrum, but your slow thinking is what actually helps you figure out the value of X and Y. Consider your favorite video games news outlet. Dozens upon dozens of posts are put out each day with minimal friction between receiving news and it hitting the front page. Features and reviews, however, take time and consideration. That is the difference.

The contrasting qualities of slow and fast thinking (originating from a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) flared up while I was playing Proteus. Going through that pixelated, Willy Wonka-colored world forces you through a process, one similar to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

No matter how open-minded you approach Proteus, there is a moment in the beginning where you think “well, this is isn’t a game.” I’d heard many good things about Proteus and approached it knowing that weird little exploration titles like this one are my bread and butter, and I still had that thought. The controls seem perfunctory to the experience; why not just turn this into screensaver and call it what it really is?

As you approach the island from the water, blips and bloops and dinks and thonks slowly rumble up into your aural periphery. It is a discordant affair, each noise generated seemingly at random to only serve the silence in its wake. It feels like someone shoving dry spaghetti into your ears—too fast and too much at once. An annoyance comes over you, a slight indignance.

But that is your fast thinking taking hold. It is the irrational part of your rational being that is speaking out against everything you are experiencing. The quick, reactionary part of your brain says that games have explosions and cars and guns and characters that lack depth and show no personal growth. It is telling you that music have an immediate semblance to resonant harmonies and an overarching melody.

That, however, is not what Proteus is about. Proteus does not fit into the small window of what your fast thinking can parse and comprehend. Proteus was made for your slower, deliberate side. If you manage to stick with the game, a resignation washes over you, not so much in defeat but in acceptance. Bits and pieces from your fast thinking’s Hulk-like smashing come back together in a T-1000 fashion. The muddle together at first, but once whole, a new, unforeseen image takes its place.

The abstract blocks that your brain initially dismissed as colored squares of nonsense take shape: trees, frogs, and bees, yes, but also a lively world full of twittering movement and personality. Things you’d previously associated merely as concepts of forms familiar to you take on a life you didn’t know existed on that little slab of land. A narrative slowly builds in your mind of a complete and yet impossible-to-know history of the creatures and seasons and landmarks you encounter.

A filter gradually sifts out all the noises you here, too, into aural slots, a sort of innate quantizing that happens regardless of will. Greater than any other ability or attribute, the human brain is best at making sense of nonsense. It will attempt metaphors and analogies, rearranging thoughts and experiences to fit a mold that may intrinsically not make any sense at all, and that’s what happens with the beautiful cacophony of Proteus.

It eventually becomes your personal soundtrack. Randomly generated, your movements and choices create new tracks and remixes based on the predetermined interactions of what the island can gin up. Rain drops become hi-hats, pitter-pattering to a spritely tune you’d just discovered. A dark world creeps up as you approach an unknown monolith, darkening the minor key horizon. Cadences and rhythmic harmonies are created out of a jungle of nonsense because you slow thinking can rationalize it, metabolize the nonsense that your fast thinking swallowed and spit out.

The final stage, of course, isn’t acceptance. After all that subliminal subterfuge of rational battling the irrational, the slow versus the fast, we arrive somewhere entirely different from where you’d expect. Your instincts tell you one thing: this isn’t it. Proteus isn’t a game you’d want to—let alone be able to—experience. It is a stack of irregular blocks that look like nothing more than a teetering tower of crumbling physical reactions.

Consideration, however, tells you otherwise. An open mind and a trusted exposure to the mishmash of noise and pixels tunes you to a new frequency of appreciation and understanding. Step back and you see not a falling travesty but the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bask in the rays and you don’t see a dim, nigh grave portrait of a woman but the Mona Lisa. Open yourself to Proteus and you don’t get a shaken jar of broken stimuli but a symphony, a story, and a game that teaches you slow thinking is sometimes good thinking.

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