Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities in academic writing where you are free to wear your love on your sleeve. I understand the usefulness of the genre, but it’s refreshing to have a forum where we can get more emotionally expressive. This renewed interest in personal within academia (one way to think of the so-called “affective turn”) is part of the impetus behind the virtual space that is this blog, after all: it gives us a chance to feel as well as think, and reach our communities as well as our peers.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the fact that I haven’t been okay recently. There have been days where I have found myself in negative mental spaces without a clear path out, and there are nights where my dreams have taken me back to places haunted by bad memories. I could point out a number of reasons why this might be – the grad student workload, lack of good sleep, anxieties about the future, homesickness – but a diagnosis only goes so far when most of those things are unavoidable at this point in my life. Other contributors to this blog have taken on mental health before, so I think I’ll leave the specifics aside for now. Instead, I would like to spend this post doing one of the things I like best – taking a walk with someone I care about. I want to show you a place that I go when I’m feeling down: a little virtual island called Proteus.

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Proteus is a short game created by independent designers Ed Key and David Kanaga in 2011. To call it a “game” is a bit of a misnomer. There are no rules, there are no enemies, there are no apparent goals. The only controls are the arrow keys to move, the mouse to look around, and the space bar (which makes your avatar appear to sit down). The game is pure spatiality: all the player is encouraged to do is explore and experience.

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You emerge from the main menu and find yourself floating above a tranquil sea, with only the soft sound of the waves below you. As you look across the shimmering water, you might be able to see the faint outline of land beckoning you closer. Recognizable shapes begin to emerge from the fog as you approach: a blocky beach, a few twisted pixelated trees crowned in pink or green, maybe even the swell of a mountain to vary the landscape. As soon as you make landfall, the island erupts into the simulated sounds of spring: the warbles, tweets, and crooning of synthetic birdsong; the rustling static and base-toned murmuring of unseen electronic creatures; and through it all soft strings and the tinkling of a chiptune keyboard invoking the sound of a pleasant breeze and gently falling cherry blossoms. Despite being technologically generated, the sounds that engulf you are the sounds of life, and they ebb and flow as you wander around the island.

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What you’ll actually see as you meander among the trees is unclear. Like Minecraft, Proteus is procedurally generated; the island’s topography, flora, and fauna are completely dependent upon algorithms over which you have no control. But though you will never see the same island twice, certain landmarks remain constant through multiple playthroughs. There is always a cabin nestled in the trees, there is always a circle of mysterious totems, there is always a lonely headstone at the top of the highest peak. What this creates for the player is a familiarity which retains the mystic wonder of discovery. I can feel intimately close to this virtual space, but I can never own it; I can know what to expect, but it will always surprise me. Few places, virtual or otherwise, are truly like that in the way Proteus is.

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When night falls, something magical starts to happen. The stars – the only rounded figures in the pixelated world – start to float down to earth, swirling around a particular spot on the island. The curious explorer who approaches the circle of stardust is wrapped up in a flurry of motion and sound as time accelerates. The sun rises and sets, rainclouds race across the sky, wind whips through the leaves on the trees. Standing in the center of the circle brings all this chaos to a crescendo, and after your vision fades to white you find yourself no longer in spring, but in summer.

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Every season brings a change in the island’s landscape and soundscape – summer brings its blooming flowers and buzzing flies, autumn its orange leaves and somber tones, winter its stark silent white – changing the tone of your exploration from joyful wonder to thoughtful reflection as you come to know the lay of the land. As the days get quieter and more familiar, the nights become increasingly fantastic with fireflies, shooting stars, and even the aurora borealis – a sight that even in its polygonal form fills me with the joy of home.

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Though you can spend all your time exploring these little wonders (I never went past summer the first time I played), the game does have an ending. I won’t say what happens on that final winter’s night, but it never ceases to move me. For all its joy and wonder, Proteus teaches you that all things that change, even a sense of place, must come to an end. When you close your eyes on that first island, you will never see it again. All that will remain are the echoes of your emotional experience. That impermanence, for me, is beautiful.

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The description I’ve given here hardly does it justice – Proteus really needs to be experienced to be understood. But I also find it’s best when experienced together. If you’re around where I happen to be, go ahead and ask. I’d love to play it with you, if only to see the look on your face when you first set foot on land. If you happen to get it and I’m not around, well…go up to the totem circle on the first night of autumn and just wait for the moon to rise. Maybe it’ll make you think of me. In any case, I think it’s a place worth sharing.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

 

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