Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ever-Present: Proteus (Mac) Review

Your eyes open.

You're standing on water, but can't look at yourself to see how it's possible. Moving forward in a smooth, hovering fashion, an island appears in the distance. Music manifests out of the air and from the living plants and creatures on the island. You hear the sound of cascading flutes and sliding, almost theremin-like, synthesizer tones interjected with arrhythmic bells and chimes. You proceed further into the island. The trees are lush with pink flowers. Frogs, squirrels, rabbits, and crabs are just some of the active wildlife you encounter; each goes about its business, only scurrying away when you get close. It feels like springtime and the island is so teeming with life, it's singing.

Eventually, the sun disappears beneath the horizon and night falls. Shooting stars paint the deep blue sky with streaks of light. In the distance you notice a swarm of twinkling sprites hanging low like a fog. Egging flickers beckon you nearer, showing the way. You come upon the glimmering mass above a circle of gravestones. You cross their perimeter and the lights begin to swirl into a spinning hoop near the ground. The music flurries with excitement like a Four Tet track coming to a head. You look up to witness day and night cycles speed past in mere moments, like the view from the surface of a globe as someone bats it with their fingertips at full force. The sun and the moon take turns flinging from east to west. You enter the cyclone and everything turns white.

When you come to, you notice a new, drier color palette and bizarre flying creatures whose chirps sound like wood block strums. The whole island has transitioned to another phase. Spring has given way to summer.

This is likely how the beginning of your first run through Proteus will go down. The game does not pedantically tell you what you need to do, but it does imply direction through visual and audible cues. Most importantly, it invites you to play with locative music systems in a retro-fantastical environment. There is a minimalist narrative and a definitive end to Proteus, but due to its brief duration, you'll want to play it multiple times. Like a live stage performance, many elements of Proteus' island will reappear on successive playthroughs, but always in a slightly tweaked arrangement.

Proteus is a game that values the present above all else. The island is procedurally generated when you click to start play, and will render uniquely for every new beginning. With any real world location there is an implicit history and an undetermined future, but Proteus' island is your ephemeral playground –born into existence at your whim, and gone forever when you're finished. Even if the island had a life beyond your play time, your presence has no empirical effect on it. There's no evidence that you actually touch the island; you begin Proteus in the ocean and end it in the sky.

Your life in Proteus is ultimately transient, drifting through the seasons until reaching the game's inevitable finale in an hour or less. You can avoid the sparkling portals and remain in spring for as long as you want, but the transports will remain, persistently summoning you to march onward with their tantalizing chimes and magic potential. At some point you'll run out of things to do and succumb to progression.

There's no turning back from the decision to shift time forward. Once the season has changed, it's impossible to reverse it. However, since Proteus can have such a brisk run-time, there's no pressure to see everything in one go. Each successive playthough is likely to reveal something new about the island that you didn't come across before. You're part of the island's live act, and it's a venue that prides itself on improv.

The locative sound and music design in Proteus is a hybrid of live performance and musique concrète that pushes you to compose music instead of merely listening to it. To play Proteus is to be a kind of live found-sound DJ. Everything and everywhere on the island is musical. Muted horns bleat from hilltops at all times, awaiting your open ear, and dull bass rumbles emanate from gravestones as you pass each individually. The possibilities for music composition in Proteus are meant to mimic what it's like to listen to the world around you, like a virtual John Cage experiment.

Speaking again to Proteus' impermanent tendencies, there is no way to record music mixes in-game. If you want to listen to the sounds of Proteus, you have to get in there and actively trigger them again. This is not such a bad thing since, pleasant as Proteus is to listen to, the music works best as an accompaniment to the pixelated island. Removed from the computer screen, your score would still sound like a component of a larger work. When you play Proteus, you generate (or curate) sounds as part of the whole experience; it's not a stand-alone music production tool.

You may not be able to record your musical performances in Proteus, but you can actually save your progress using the game's Postcard system. To generate a Postcard you can press F9 to snap a screenshot containing code-embedded pixels that the game can use to rebuild the island depicted in the image. At first this may seem to disrupt Proteus' transient motif, but consider that these save states are called Postcards for a reason. Postcards, in Proteus or otherwise, are meant for sharing. Traditionally when you buy a postcard, you write about where you are and what you've been doing recently on the back and mail it off to a friend or loved one. You'll probably never see that postcard again, but will potentially always remember the events that you wrote about. Likewise, you'll recall the first time you see an aurora borealis in Proteus, but to return to that moment via Postcard removes the euphoria of discovery from the equation. Your save state is interactive nostalgia, and only a facade of what you remember.

In 2007 French house music duo Daft Punk embarked on a much-lauded live performance tour. They garnered a great deal of attention for their accompanying light show that included multiple layers of LED-laced gridwork, complete with a glowing pyramid for the band's cockpit. The visual show was a vital part of what made the tour special, even though the music itself had its own constant stream of highlights. A live album was released, but never a video supplement. Band member Thomas Bangalter addressed the curious omission, saying "the thousands of clips on the internet are better to us than any DVD that could have been released." Basically, you either had to be there or the closest you're going to get to the feeling of the show is the shaky, blurry phone camera footage of fans recording as the dance in a crowded pit full of raw energy.

Proteus is a far more subdued undertaking than a Daft Punk show, but the notion of presence, the physicality of sharing a space with a spectacular event, is equally resonant. Proteus' island is not a front for developer-mandated objectives, it's a place that you live, and life is short. The fleeting, untouchable nature of Proteus is a call for action, participation, and creation. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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