I've never really been one for the appreciation of the "great outdoors." Take me out of my skyscraper rainforest, ground me in something other than the tangled detritus of concrete streets and roads, and I become unmoored. I blame it on my upbringing: I was largely sheltered, and as a result my outdoorsmanship was developed within the pages of a book or at the end of a joystick.
Enveloping myself in nature to develop some form of 'character' or to help foster a deeper understanding about the world...has never really worked. I don't lack either of those things, I've just never walked out of, say, a fishing trip feeling like I suddenly knew something about myself. Somehow, the game Proteus and a conversation about game design with a friend helped elucidate why nature has never really "clicked" for me.
"This," my father says, as he makes a long, swooping gesticulation with his arms, "is called La Puerta del Diablo." The Devil's Portal in English. We had spent the evening hiking up to the peak of this infamous El Salvadorean landmark. For someone like me, who grew up with a moderate 50-70 degree weather spectrum, the clothes sticking disgustingly to my body were a testament to how sweltering it was that day.
Trips to El Salvador were always meant to make me understand my family's "roots," or meant to function as a crucible. Us American kids, we were soft! We didn't know what it meant to work in the fields all day, or to grow up in the middle of a tropical rainforest, to walk miles carrying a jug of water, or to herd animals. That life shaped everything about my family, particularly an adamantine work ethic, but also a deep appreciation over the natural world that was beyond my understanding.
Nature doesn't have a logic to it. Nature doesn't have a particular purpose beyond what its mercurial forces have created by sheer chance: a mountain, a valley, a river.
"What do you think?"
"I scraped my knee on my way up here..."
"Cmon, you're not even looking"
"Why is it called La Puerta del Diablo?"
"Well, it kind of looks like the devil could live here! And I heard stories about the Mayans and the sacrifices they'd make up here..."
"Oh..." My mind started racing, "Can we go to the library so I can get some books on the Mayans??"
I start running back down the path, and he sighs.
"You know, the mystery of life is out there."
"What? Out where?"
"There! All of this. La naturaleza!"
I stop and looked out, but all I could see were trees obscuring the city underneath.
When I have an attitude like that, it's a wonder that Proteus struck a chord with me—it is a game that is about about the exploration of an island. That's it. No plot, no story, no characters, no achievements, no mechanic beyond "walk."
The start of the game fades in as if opening my eyes for the first time, which instantly makes Proteus seem dream-like. I can see the island in the distance, and I'm compelled to swim toward it. Nature as I know it—and am typically indifferent to—has been translated to a language that I can understand, find resonance with. The blocky foliage of trees sways with the wind, water glistens in a serene pixellization.
The pictures of Proteus don't do it justice.
The electronic hum of this digital nature speaks to my sensibilities well. Nature holds an element of mystique in the game. Proteus is at once both a comfortable place that we can all situate within our lexicons, but there's also something piquant about it—and this drove my curiosity and wanderlust mad. I explore in Proteus to see what I already know—I won't spoil too much, because Proteus is meant to be experienced—only parsed in a new way. I can appreciate it on my preferred terms, too: intellectually. There are no scraped knees here. There is, however, alt-tabbing out to read up on Proteus himself.
Ancient Greek poet Homer called the ocean god Proteus 'the old man of the sea.' Proteus commands a sense of wonder, and wonder is provided by that which is at once beautiful but beyond our grasp.
It wasn't until I spoke to a friend about something unrelated that I understood why I appreciated Proteus as well as I did. We spoke at length regarding the reasons why people make games, which lead us to talk about what type of person makes games. As far as we can tell, that person tends to be a bit of a control freak. Everything must be just so; everything must be particularly orchestrated for the player to experience or interact with. A game and its tightly-packed, particularly-defined index of rules are like an affront to the chaos of the 'real' world. A game is order, everything in its right place. And if not? It doesn't exist, because it hasn't been defined in the code.
Nature can't be tamed like that. Nature doesn't have a logic to it, not in the same way. Nature doesn't have a particular purpose beyond what its mercurial forces have created by sheer chance: a mountain, a valley, a river. If there is awe to be had in that, it's that something, anything can arise at all from a complete accident.
Contrast this with Proteus. The island is audibly reactive: stones will bellow hollow tones that are reminiscent of Brian Eno's ambient music when a player walks by, for instance.
The world of Proteus is in servitude to the player. Things here exist, more, were created, specifically to be experienced, to evoke something from the player. Proteus delivers this curated package while at once providing a playground for contemplative, aimless sauntering. Travel is not utilitarian here, it is not a means to get to where you 'need' to be. There's an intrinsic idyllic quality about the world, a landscape that's to be appreciated for its own sake.
And yet there is intention behind every pixel in the horizon. Games aren't an accident, they aren't a miracle arising from chance. Games are designed.
My admiration is more easily channeled toward things I can intellectualize and understand, things I can learn from, and things that have purpose. The errant chance of nature? Not so much.