I was born and raised in Southern California, where we don’t have weather so much as a slight graying during the winter months. I was always fonder of the library than the beach, but even so, I grew up accustomed to being able to run around outside whenever I pleased. To this day, there are few things I enjoy more than the simple pleasures of fresh air, big trees, and interesting bugs.
But I don’t live there now. I live in Iceland, where the sun disappears and the sidewalks freeze over (on cue, as I write this, it has started snowing). Going outside in winter means layers of both fabric and fortitude, and hiking is out of the question. February here is a tough time for me. With seven hours of daylight and not a green leaf in sight, I am feeling woefully cooped up.
Or I was, until Proteus came along.
On the surface, this game looks almost too minimalistic. A procedurally generated island is created for you, filled with plants and critters that react to your presence, either through movement or sound. There is no context, no story, no narration. Your only task (if you can even call it that) is to explore the island and experience the seasons. I picked it up as a curiosity, and spent the next two hours utterly transfixed.
Why did this game grab me like it did? I’m generally not big on neo-retro aesthetics, and there’s nothing for the player to do except walk around. And yet, with only blocky artwork and ambient music, Proteus succeeded where all the images of nature I keep around my desk and all my repeated viewings of Planet Earth have fallen short. While I played, I felt like I was outside.
It was like vegan mac and cheese — you know it’s not the real thing, but it scratches the itch anyway. As I moseyed around the island, the reminder of the contentment I feel out in nature was tangible enough that my shoulders relaxed and my brain quieted down. I followed a frog, then got distracted by a patch of bobbing flowers. I decided to walk up the highest peak, then abandoned my course on a whim as I noticed an interesting tree off in the distance. My thoughts were a constant flow of “What is that?” and “What’s over there?” I had no trail or map. I drifted toward whatever struck my fancy. I chased bugs and birds. I waded in the shoreline. I climbed up high and sat still as the stars came out.
I realized, as I debated between watching a meteor shower and chasing after the white owl I’d seen among the trees, that as beautiful as nature is, the key to enjoying it isn’t in observing it, but in actively being a part of it. As Proteus conjured up abstract forests, I wasn’t thinking of what real trees look like; I was viscerally remembering what it’s like to encounter them firsthand. I thought of all the impromptu hikes I went on up at San Bruno Mountain, or the parks I used to play in as a kid. I thought of that one time in Nebraska, when I fell asleep in the grass and woke up with glowing fireflies in my hair. I thought of crunching leaves, puffy clouds, warm sunshine. Photographs and videos may remind me of the things I see outside, but I don’t want to simply look. I want to wander.
What’s interesting to me is that I sometimes exercise that urge in games designed for very different purposes. Some of my fondest memories of playing World of Warcraft are of when the map had yet to be filled in. One of my favorite things to do in Skyrim is to ignore my quest markers and see what lies off the beaten path. I’ve had countless moments in games where I’ve stopped chasing after monsters in order to gaze at brilliant sunsets or skies seen from alien worlds. And often, those moments make me all the more driven to get outside whenever I can. I once went on a moonlight hike in the redwoods with a friend, and we spent most of our time talking about Dragon Age. Not because we would’ve preferred to be back inside gaming, but because that game had been my most recent impetus for wanting go out and have real adventures.
Proteus isn’t the first game built solely around exploration, nor is it the first to attempt to harness the feeling of being out in nature. Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany (the folks behind Journey), had similar thoughts when creating Flower.
Flower is mainly inspired by my trip from China to the US. I grew up in Shanghai, a concrete metropolitan. In the entire 24 years, I rarely left the city. And when I came to California and saw the endless grass field and the windmill farms on the rolling hill next to the freeway, I was completely shocked by the view. The sense of being engulfed by nature is something sublime that I can’t capture with photos or videos. As a game designer, I wanted to try to capture that feeling with an interactive experience, and that is how I started the concept of Flower.
Chen touches on something important there. As good as it is to get out into nature, and as much as we may want to at times, we don’t always have the ability to do so. Maybe you live in an urban environment. Maybe the sidewalk’s frozen and the sun is missing. Maybe you’re not physically able to climb a mountain or venture off the trail. Or maybe it’s just the middle of the week, and you’ve spent your day stuck in meetings and running errands, and you have to get up at six, and it’s after dark already, and you only have a couple hours to yourself before bedtime. The real world does not always make it easy to spend time outside, especially for us city folk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you pass up a real meteor shower for one rendered in pixels, if the option presents itself. But I do think it’s wonderful that late at night, within the confines of my apartment building, I still have a way to escape to the woods.