Proteus (2013)
Proteus (2013)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 05 Dec 2023

The Wiggly Worlds of Relax ‘em Ups – can videogames connect us with nature?

Art Exhibition Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature Videogames

Like nature, videogames can similarly evoke transcendental feelings of awe, and remind us of a universe larger than ourselves.

It’s a glorious day to be alive. The flowers are blooming, the grass is a verdant green, and the poly count is low. Where will this frog take me if I follow? Who are these stony figures on that low peak? What’s making that sound?

Proteus (2013) doesn’t have any clear objectives. There are no quests, no points to score, no mysteries to solve or princess to save. But with curiosity you find the fun.

What are Relax em’ Ups?

Proteus belongs to a genre of videogames dubbed “relax ‘em ups”. These games don’t have a time crunch or a points system like in Tetris, or quests and combat like in Skyrim. They are serene, stress-free experiences.

This term is often conflated with the more popular label, “cosy game”. On the surface, these genres are the same: both are supposed to elicit relaxation and calm.

But the term “relax em’ up” seems to have been seldom used (at least, on the internet) before David O’Reilly’s game Mountain (2014), and his follow-up, Everything (2017).

Mountain (2014) David O'Reilly

Mountain (2014)

In his first game, you are a mountain, and you are also God. You look as though you’ve been plucked out of the earth and plopped here – crumbling rocks float, frozen, at your foundations.

As the player, your actions are limited. You can tap the artefacts that collide with the mountain and get stuck there, lodged in the earth. They each make their own unique sounds: trumpets toot and coins clink. Otherwise, you can observe time passing, snow falling, trees growing sparse. And the mountain thinks: “I’m in awe of this moonless night”. Its thoughts swing from bubbly optimism to existential nihilism, asking: "Is there anything outside of me?"

The answer is no. You are the whole. But in O’Reilly’s second game, you are everything.

In Everything, you can assume the form of everything in the universe. You ‘Ascend’ or ‘Descend’, taking over the body of something bigger than you, or a thing smaller than you. I am a mycobacterium and an oil spill. I am a majesty palm, a ragweed pollen and a rock planet, floating in space. This simulation allows us to “see” the unity of everything in the universe, across its varying scales.

Accompanying the game are audio snippets of lectures from writer Alan Watts, who speaks to this one-ness:

“There are no separate things in the physical world… The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly… You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.”[1]

Relax ‘em ups set themselves apart from cosy games. In Mountain and Everything, you’re not an individual, and you’re not simply part of a social community like in cosy games Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley: you’re a part of a whole, and simultaneously, you are the whole.

Everything (2017)

Everything (2017)

Nature and the digital

Relax ‘em ups mirror a promise once offered to us in the 19th century by the Romantic vision of nature as an interconnected unity. This comparison feels wrong because we’re used to opposing technology to nature. We are implored to “touch grass”: get off the computer, go outside and reconnect with the real world!

But nature and the digital are more enmeshed than we realise. They’re made up of the same basic building blocks: where programs run on binary, cells are coded by genes. In nature, there’s an underlying equivalence of things. In digital space, there’s no hierarchy, and every object inheres in the same substance of code, wire and microchip. There is unity, a one-ness.

Romanticism and relax ‘em ups

In Proteus, each element of this landscape plays its own tune, buzzes with its own rhythm. I hear electronic whistles, chirps and chimes. Bells peal like rustling leaves. Near-reverent synths toll throughout, like the murmur of a flourishing ecosystem. Everything is attuned to everything else, the way that the outdoors feels on a beautiful summer day.

On one night, in a day-cycle that takes 15 minutes to pass, jagged combs raze the sky into layers of colour, splitting the night open with teeth of white, purple and blue. The music is a reverent hymn.

Like an erupting volcano, it’s a world-ending image. Fear is mixed with awe; awe is mixed with admiration. It’s what the Romantics called the sublime, the simultaneous experience of terror and pleasure in reaction to a powerful scene of nature, such as a threatening ocean storm or an immense mountain range. Romanticism lives on in videogames, and particularly in relax ‘em ups.

In Marie Foulston’s The Grannies, a video installation recently exhibited at ACMI, a group of four Melbourne-based artists (Goldie Bartlett, Kalonica Quigley, Andrew Brophy, and Ian MacLarty) find themselves on the edges of the online version of Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s a thoroughly Romantic videogame – complete with Romantic hero Arthur Morgan resisting the encroachments of modernity. The art direction for Red Dead Redemption 2 explicitly takes inspiration from the Hudson River School, an art movement that developed out of Romanticism.

A magnificent painting depicting the Sierra Nevada Mountains and a small lake bathed in sunlight

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868). Bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for "The Locusts," the family estate in Dutchess County, New York (via Wikimedia Commons)

Screen captures byMan on horseback - The Grannies, visuals captured from Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (2018)

Screen captures by The Grannies, visuals captured from Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (2018)

After wandering around together in the main game for some time, the Grannies – named for their avatars’ greying hair and ageing faces – decided to break into a forgotten frontier revealing vestiges of the videogame making process: the world beyond the map. In an interview, Quigley said:

“Part of the benefit of understanding how games are made is that we didn’t instantly reject it… because of our experience, we were able to see that, no this isn’t broken, this is perhaps the foundation of how the full game was made.”

Hegel saw the sublime as the divine expressed in nature [2], and the Grannies saw the divine hand of the developer, with MacLarty calling it “a spiritual experience”.

Screen captures by Person on mountain - The Grannies, visuals captured from Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (2018)

Screen captures by The Grannies, visuals captured from Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games (2018)

While playing Red Desert Render – Ian MacLarty’s 2019 response to his time in Red Dead Redemption 2 with the other Grannies – I felt myself having similarly transcendent experiences of the natural world as expressed through an intentionally “broken” game.


I’m born brightly adorned with glitchy pixels. After wandering for some time, listening to the thrumming of insects and admiring the gradients of the sand and slopes, I see a white cube floating in the distance. I beeline for it – and when I approach the cube I begin to float. I find I can soar into the sky – or I can phase into the ground and descend to the depths below.

Spiky figure in desert - Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

I choose the latter and am awed to find that I can see the roots, silhouetted against a sunset sky. I can see, too, the latticework of the ground. I’m no game developer so I can only guess at the purpose this grid serves, but it’s clear it’s revealing the touch of its maker, like seeing the indentations of fingers in rough clay. Seeing the roots of the trees and the underbelly of the game itself reminds me that all these elements are woven into the same wiggly lattice. It’s a wiggly world.

Red forest - Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

I find myself flying, and this time I decide to travel until there’s no more map.

Flying over landscape - Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

The desert gradually becomes sparser from up here. I speculate that the game will only load assets if I’m up close. From afar, this world begins to look like a Fred Williams, textural and edging on abstraction.

Blue abstract - Red Desert Render

Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

Pink abstract - Red Desert Render

Still from Red Desert Render, Ian MacLarty (2019)

Finally, the edge, suspended in nothingness. I take a moment to appreciate the sky, which is streaked with flossy clumps of cloud. It feels serene up here, just watching the sky darken.


For the Romantics, nature reveals its underlying forces at its extremities, in vast mountain ranges and volcanic eruptions – in videogames, players can emulate this experience by testing the borders and limits of digital environments. In The Grannies and Red Desert Render, this glitch-hunting and boundary-breaking allows us to recognise the immense scale of the underlying processes that make up a game.

In relax ‘em ups, this scale reminds us of a universe larger than us. Floating at the outskirts of Red Desert Render, or hurtling through space as a planet in Everything, I gain new perspective, and then, introspection, like astronauts seeing the full curve of the Earth. I feel calm.

London-based collective Marshmallow Laser Feast unites nature with the digital for ACMI’s newest Gallery 4 exhibition, Works of Nature. The immersion of these large-scale moving installations, like relax ‘em ups, is used to “deepen our understanding of, and connection to, the world around us” [3].

For one such video installation – Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest ecological surveys, field recordings and volumetric data were made of the kapok tree, one of the tallest species of tree in the world. In the resulting piece, the enormous scale of the tree itself and the complexity of the jungle around it swing into full focus: a mess of lush ferns, decomposing leaf litter, scaly moss and buzzing gnats. There is a bit of Proteus in this work, where everything is in a symphony of movement: the elements themselves appear to be cascading around the tree like a flight of starlings.

A young woman looking at a large screen of a digital tree artwork in an dark exhibition space

Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest in Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI, 2023 (photo by Eugene Hyland)

This kapok tree is not just digital in its scale and detail. As the camera turns around the tree, I begin to see the outer layers of bark and greenery fade away. They reveal the structure beneath: sprawling thoroughfares of light and colour. This time I’m reminded of Red Desert Render: I am among the roots again, witnessing them weaving in with the rest of the wiggly world.

Some of these thoroughfares absorb inwards of the tree, like an inhale; others spill outwards, like an exhale. They recall timelapses of water and air travelling through roots and ants tunnelling through their colonies, but they also evoke light travelling through ethernet cables and internet superhighways. In the works of Marshmallow Laser Feast, nature and the digital are one.

See Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature at ACMI


  1. Alan Watts (narration), Everything (2017)
  2. Simon Morley, 'A Short History of the Sublime', The MIT Press Reader, 22 March 2021
  3. Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, ACMI

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