Proteus is a hard game to describe, a difficult experience to convey in words and a mystery even while you are playing it. Looking vaguely like a smoothed out Minecraft or an impressionistic painting made digital, it’s both ugly-beautiful and confusingly simple. Barely a game, its a song come to life in an interactive playground, and as such will inspire somewhat pompous reviews (including this one) to match its intrinsically arty nature.
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus is also inherently hard to review. With no goals, enemies, obstacles, missions or even gameplay, its a an experience (or even a toy) rather than a game. Is it challenging? Does it have replay value? Are there cheevos? These questions, and many others normally tackled in a review, are meaningless here.
But instead of focusing on what Proteus lacks, lets discuss what it has. It is beautiful. It has weather, a day-night cycle and water effects that are both amusingly basic yet brilliantly evocative. Its chunky pixels are so abstract that its difficult to determine exactly what they represent, but this is where the games audio fills in the blanks left by the basic graphics. In many ways the visual aspects of Proteus exist to supplement the music, and the music is the centrepiece of the whole experience.
Now I’ll never work for Q Magazine or NME. For many, many reasons. So my review of a musical piece will never extend far beyond, “I like it” or “its worse than the Black Eyed Peas”. That being said, there are perhaps a few things I can say about Proteus’ soundtrack.
And of course the first thing I have to say is that “soundtrack” is not even the right term. As an “audiovisual wilderness exploration game”, much of the music is derived from where you are in the procedurally generated world and what you are looking at. A series of “blips” and “bloops” accompany the drops of rain while crickets “chirp”, trees “whoosh” and little crabs “badum-badum” as you wonder around the natural environment. When up high in the game world, the wind bleakley whistles past, and when walking across verdant grass in the sunshine majestic strings soar ummmm…. majestically. You see why I don’t write about music? Look, just listen to this:
So it’s a game where you wonder around some virtual nature and listen to music? Yes. That’s it. The controls are your standard PC FPS, but you won’t be shooting anything. Other than wondering, you won’t be doing anything at all. This is a very reductive way of looking at the whole experience though. Its much more than that, and its hard to say why. When first discussing this game, site member Gnarles asked how we would even review it when each play session would be such an individual and subjective experience. The best we could come up with was to describe our own time in the game.
I played Proteus late at night in a sleepy fugue. I was already well beyond the point when I should have been in bed, the night was quiet and still and to make matters worse, I had just gone several nights with insufficient sleep rendering me floppy-limbed and cloudy-headed. At the time the demands of a games reviewer weighed heavy on my head as I was being buried under a soft avalanche of games to play. I was making little progress, so decided that if I at least started Proteus I could consider the night to be some kind of pyrrhic victory. I proceeded to play through the whole thing, drifting in and out of a wonderful, peaceful game-playing form of somnambulism. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole experience at the time, but I went to bed curiously peaceful, and it wasn’t just because I had scored one game off of my review list.
Reflecting on the game afterwards, I felt strangely content when I thought back to my time on my own personal, procedurally generated island. The sites and sounds stayed with me. The layout of the place is still in my head today. It was a big island, but not too big. Exploring it over a long period of time, I saw the same parts of it over and over at different times of day, through different seasons. In my time there, I found my own little world in Proteus had that quality that makes me really love certain games: it felt like a real place.
So should YOU play Proteus? If you have read this review, and not just skipped to the last paragraph, chances are you will already know if this is the kind of “game” you want to play. For me, it was a memorable experience. Its not essential, it always feels a bit like a student project, and it doesn’t really do anything revolutionary. Despite all that, Proteus made me feel something. I don’t even know what exactly, but in gaming today many huge mainstream titles can fail to engage the player emotionally at any point in their dull 20 hour singeplayer campaigns.
Proteus is the sleepiest game I have ever played, but it kept me up all night. That must mean something. Don’t ask me what though. Perhaps its best if you just stop reading now and go try it.
7 pretentious, wanky reviewers (like me) out of 10