I opened my eyes slowly.
I found myself floating in an expanse of water. There was an island in the hazy distance, and I began to move toward it. I reached the edge of the sea and climbed ashore. There was a calming sound surrounding me, like music, but it seemed more alive. As I moved through the island, it moved with me.
Was this a dream? Everything looked like a dream. It felt real, but in retrospect, it wasn’t quite right. I walked among the cherry trees, and as I climbed, the music swelled, lifting my spirits.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t alone. There was a small flock of chickens clucking away musically — the pleasing sound of mallets masking what should have been a more irksome clutter. I tried to get close, but they ran away frantically — the mallets falling on bars faster and faster like an intensifying rain. Leaving the birds in peace, I traveled a bit farther, noticing a change in the sky. It was darkening, and the music was becoming subdued, tranquil, and almost sorrowful.
I was near another shore, and something about the sea was calling to me. It seemed like the place where I began was the place to be as the world was calming. I swam out into nowhere and turned back to look at the island I had left. The music was still. The night was stiller.
I closed my eyes.
Game developers and their patrons are obsessed with value. With a stock price of $60 per game, it’s understandable — players want their money’s worth, and the creators know how to deliver. So much content is being crammed into games that they are ripping at the seams — bloated from dozens of hours of sidequests, achievements, and collectables. Beat the game on Normal. Beat the game on Hard. Beat the game on You’re Mentally Insane To Try This, You Idiot. Each of these warrants an achievement, and of course you can’t really feel fulfilled unless you get them all. There’s an emptiness inside you, and a small voice that says that you haven’t really beaten the game.
Then there are games with infinite possibilities like Skyrim, where you can easily log 100 or 200 hours with just one character. That’s not even experiencing a fraction of the game, with a number of classes to choose from at the outset and a daunting number of possibilities when leveling up the character. For a long time, I was just as obsessed as the Every Gamer with the amount of content crammed in a game. My excitement couldn’t be contained when I learned that Action Role-playing Game 3 or Adventure 7 was going to be the biggest game yet in the series, with a map so large that it would take an hour just to reach the edge.
That’s not to say that I still don’t love huge games that are packed with extra missions or unnecessary, time-sucking achievements, but recently, something else has stolen my heart: short games. With the growth of digital publishing on platforms such as the App Store, Steam, or the PlayStation 3, there has been a surge of indie studios, many of which consist only of one or two people. The ability for short-staffed developers to self publish digitally has allowed for more accessible, smaller scale games, and despite their scope, they carry the same weight and validity as triple-A titles. It has been proven by releases like Journey that satisfying, artful experiences can be packed into smaller games, but some developers have taken the minimal approach to gaming even further.
My time with Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus confirmed that the value and length of a game are not proportionate.
Proteus consists of the most bare-bones video-game concept I can recall. You would be forgiven for wondering whether this is actually a “game” or just an “interactive audio-visual experience.” But perhaps not by the developer, who describes it as both — you can read Key’s defense of Proteus as a game here.
Upon starting the game, you’re presented with a colorful, randomly generated island that you simply explore, observing the landscape and creatures and structures, the changes in tone and music, and the transitions between day and night. You can walk, run, and change direction. That’s it. When I awoke in the ocean, I knew it was going to be a brief, meditative exploration. What I didn’t realize was that this would be a game that I would play for 11 minutes and leave feeling completely satisfied.
I didn’t accomplish anything while playing Proteus. I didn’t get to the next level or beat that boss or get a new high score. These are the cornerstones of traditional game design, but they’re tired and in need of respite. I could play Proteus over and over to get more value out of it, seeking out new experiences and soaking in the world — but I don’t need to just for the sake of getting my money’s worth.
After 11 minutes of play, I felt truly satisfied with my experience. I was greeted with an assortment of emotions including joy, excitement, serenity, and a certain bittersweetness that made my short time with the game just as fulfilling as a 50-hour adventure culminating in an epic coda.
I know that in 11 minutes I didn’t experience all that the game has to offer. I only saw a portion of the landscapes and heard just a smattering of music, but I don’t feel the need to squeeze everything there is to squeeze out of the game. With a short game like Proteus, it might be possible to do so. With a series like The Elder Scrolls, it seems more unlikely. There can be beauty in a brief, one-time experience that doesn’t need to last forever, and in my 11 minutes, I created a work of art that I will always value; though, I can’t promise that I’ll never play it again.