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My recent experience with the game Proteus brought a pair of questions to mind. What qualifies a video game as a game, and what makes a video game art? Proteus was definitely not a video game, but it was art. It turns out the answer to both questions is the same. Let me use said title to explain.
First of all, Proteus is a “game” where the player roams a procedurally generated island and observes nature and the seasons. The art is simple but creative, using colorful 2D planes placed about a 3D environment. Seemingly everything you pass generates its own sound, adding to and creating music as you explore. There are also strange creatures that frolic about as you traverse the island. The sights, sounds, and creatures all change with the passing seasons as well. All of this comes together in a way that makes the world of Proteus feel like a living, breathing, and distinctly alien world. It’s quite the experience when approached as something just meant to be observed.
Proteus fails to be a video game though because it lacks game play. You can move around and observe things, and sometimes special places allow you to observe different events, but that’s it. There’s no real interaction beyond that. To have game play, a game needs to have rules and things for the player to interact with. Since Proteus was lacking of both qualities, it is nothing more than an active participant art piece. A very creative and stylish piece of art at that, which can only be experienced through electronic media, but it’s still not a game.
The true art of video games is game play design. While visuals are necessary in a video game, and a game without sound would be atrocious, game play is what make it a game. Game play is what ties the familiar arts of animation and music together into an entirely new creation. It sounds obvious, but it’s astounding how often this is missed by developers that keep trying to push a “cinematic Hollywood experience.” These so-called cinematic games that get lost in the cinematic and forget the game are the absolute failure of the video game medium, little more than glorified DVD menus. Compare Beyond: Two Souls to The Last of Us and you can see this failure. Both games are cinematic, but only one has good game play that brought it universal critical acclaim.
Charcoal sketches are not paintings. While they are art in their own medium, they are not art in the medium of paint. Something like Proteus is not art in the world of gaming. The same thing that made it fail to be a game, makes it fail to qualify as art in the video game medium.