In “Proteus,” a well-received indie game released in January, you explore an island for a while and then stop. That’s all there is to it. And yet it’s quite an experience, one that evokes a wonderful sense of discovery.
As you wander around the island, which is generated randomly so it is new every time, pink and white leaves float lazily down from pixelated trees. Amorphous, mischievous-seeming flora and fauna pop up and and disappear just as quickly, like little froglike creatures that offer up a cheeful plink every time they hop away from you. Spacey ambient music plays in the background, changing depending on where you go (if you move away from the island into the ocean, it fades; if you climb an icy peak it is replaced with wintry winds). Low clouds roll in, bringing rain with them.
If you explore long enough, you can find some really cool, bizarre, beautiful stuff, but none of it gets you anywhere in the traditional gaming sense, and none of it is really explained.
So, just as was the case with “Boon Hill,” the graveyard exploration game I discussed last week, we’re faced with a nettlesome question: Is “Proteus” a game?
This is a broad, ongoing debate in the world of video games. In recent years, there has been a big increase in the number of games that can be considered “notgames” — that is, computer games that don’t follow the rules. Some, like “Proteus,” seem very much like regular games except for the fact that they lack threats, objectives, or any other sort of structure. Others adopt popular game mechanics (meaning you control the action as you would in a more traditional game), but guide the player to a predetermined outcome. There’s no real winning or losing.
I should add that the “notgames” moniker is controversial. Some developers and critics embrace it because they think it captures the artfulness of certain indie efforts, while others think it shunts worthwhile pieces of interactive art off into a ghettoized category.
The website www.notgames.org serves as an aggregation point for links to various notgames, and it provides a nice summary of their appeal, describing itself as “an exploration of what’s moving and enchanting and fascinating in software applications, video games and procedural arts, beyond the amusement offered by obeying rules and receiving rewards.”
The Flash games “Dys4ia” and “Freedom Bridge” are excellent examples. “Dys4ia,” by the transgender game designer Anna Anthropy, tells the story of the author’s hormone-replacement therapy, while “Freedom Bridge” by Jordan Magnuson offers a stark statement on the border between North and South Korea. Neither can be “won,” and in both cases the player does technically control the action, but has no choice about where things finally end up.
So these are closer to interactive stories than to traditional games, and questions about their status have been fodder for debate.
Jesper Juul, a leading gaming academic, pointed me toward a recent exchange between Raph Koster and Robert Yang, both well-known game developers who have written at length about their craft. In a short essay he posted to his website in April, Koster, referring to “notgames,” wondered whether they “effectively put [developers] in a broadcasting position, and therefore turn the games into monologue rather than dialogue?”
This did not sit well with Yang, who doesn’t like the idea of someone standing with a clipboard checking off each piece of interactive entertainment that comes over the transom: game, notgame, game, notgame . . .
The power of a game like “Dys4ia,” argues Yang, lies in the player’s very lack of real influence over the eventual outcome: “It’s taking its turn in the larger dialogue outside of the game, saying, ‘No, now YOU listen to ME for once.’ ”
Part of the taxonomical confusion here is understandable. For most of video games’ existence, after all, they’ve been first and foremost games in the most classical sense: contests with clearly delineated goals and uncertain outcomes. Notgames introduce confusion by using gaming mechanics to do something much closer to other forms of art. In “Freedom Bridge,” you control a little black square from a top-down view familiar to anyone who has played “The Legend of Zelda” games. The black square has to traverse barbed wire, which causes it to leave a trail of blood, on its way to a bridge that promises freedom. In “Dys4ia,” the game switches between the mechanics of various familiar classic games, from “Tetris” to “Arkanoid.” In one level, for example, you are trying to get a weirdly shaped “Tetris’’ piece through a gap in a wall while the words “I feel weird about my body” are displayed at the top of the screen.
It makes sense that people see these notgames, recognize familiar ways of playing, and try to compare them to traditional video games. This is a mistake, as they can’t be evaluated in the same way. “Freedom Bridge” “works” if its starkly grisly, inescapable ending evokes certain feelings about the horrors of totalitarianism. And “Dys4ia” “works” if it evokes empathy among people who have no idea what it’s like to be gender dysphoric — disconnected from and uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth.
I agree with “Proteus” co-creator Ed Key, who in response to online discussion about his game wrote, “Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of ‘game’ does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a [gaming] culture already notorious for both.”
Ultimately, the argument about whether or not works like “Proteus” are “games” misses the point: The more time we spend trying to figure out what to call them, the more energy is sapped from critically evaluating them as worthwhile works of art, which is what they are.
Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.