The Trees of Proteus

What happens after Minecraft? What can anyone do to expand upon, one-up, or evolve the indie mega-ultra-super hit? I mean, the game is just so big. It has endless, procedurally generated environments full of adventures that, like their setting, are never quite the same twice. It has tense survival (and in fact, I would argue that it can be one of the scariest games ever made). And it offers the ability to build just about anything and modify the game experience in just about any way, unto Rule #89.

A Minecraft player’s favorite experiences with the game all tend to revolve around one of these key elements, and so many a developer has tried to pick up where Minecraft left off. For cooperative adventure and exploration, there is Terraria, and soon there will be Starbound and Cube World. For survival, there is Miasmata and Don’t Starve. And as for expandability, well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve seen the launch of Steam Workshop, and a greater mainstream awareness of modding in general, since the ascent of Mojang.

But the design of Minecraft has another indispensable alchemical ingredient, often ignored despite being widely beloved: there is sheer joy in simply walking around the space, a space composed of elements that quickly become comfortingly familiar, but that have an undeniable, inexplicable ability to surprise and delight us nonetheless. It is, as Quintin Smith once said, “a world so tactile, so absorbing and so believable that an exciting discovery can be as simple as a big-ass tree.” So on that topic:


I’ve spent all this time talking about Minecraft because, remarkably, another game may have finally surpassed it in the wandering around and looking at trees department. That game (as you’ve most likely guessed from the image above, not to mention the name of this post) is Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus.

And look, I suppose there’s another reason why most of this post about Proteus has been about Minecraft, which is that Proteus is one of those games that is undeniably better if you go into it without knowing quite what to expect. So I won’t give away the mechanic by which the in-game seasons change, nor will I tell you where or when the squirrels tend to congregate. (There are squirrels! And frogs! And they’re delightful!)

What I will tell you is that Proteus takes the visual minimalism, unexpected beauty, and procedural rejiggering of Minecraft wandering, and introduces two all-important differences.

First, most of the sound in the game emerges piecemeal, organically, as the player ambles and experiments. Chase a frog and it exudes piquant steel drum fanfare as it hops off. Walk in the rain and, in addition to seeing droplets of water, you’ll hear little staccato droplets of music. These sounds shift and change with the time of day, and with the seasons, as well as with the player’s movements. The result is a soundtrack just as elegantly sparse as the visuals (which look about a thousand times more interesting in motion than they do in stills, by the way).


The second difference—and this is where my previous discussion of minimalism comes into play—is that Proteus aspires to be equally elegant, sparse, and minimal in the modes of interaction that it offers the player. You walk, you look, you see how the world reacts to you. That’s it.

Now, if you want to find someone arguing that Proteus therefore contains no gameplay, or that it isn’t even a game, or whatever, then you won’t have to look very hard. This argument is very much like saying that something isn’t art, which is to say that it’s little more than knee-jerk terminological orthodoxy and/or tedious territorial sword-measuring. If Proteus isn’t a game, then it is something so much like a game, and so important to the cultural discussions of which games are a part, that I would say it’s the needlessly restrictive definition of game (not the interesting and unusual gameoid object in question) that needs to be excised from the conversation.

What Proteus is, regardless, is a minimalist masterpiece, small in just about every way and all the more compelling for it.

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