Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus is the kind of game that sparks heated debates about whether or not it is actually a game. Personally, I think such debates are silly. Who cares what we call it? The important questions are whether Proteus is worth playing, and why (or why not). To decry it as not being a game is to name it unworthy without providing any reason. I know that humans are wont to label and categorize everything, but when this leads to argument over the labels of things rather than the things themselves, we’re missing the point. But I digress.
The reason Proteus sparks such debates is that it lacks the standard goal-oriented design that most players expect in games. There are no enemies to kill or challenges to complete. Proteus is, essentially, a surreal island to wander and explore, with a striking visual style and excellent sound design. It has also earned gushing praise from nearly everyone who’s played it, which caught my attention. It has inspired poetry. But the real reason I decided to play it now is a passing comment I saw, describing Proteus as a meditative experience, something to play at the end of a long day to de-stress and relax. Given how busy I’ve been lately, some zen relaxation sounded pretty good.
This comment was not an exaggeration. Proteus is overtly dreamlike in every aspect. There’s the colorful, lo-fi impressionist art style, of course, but much more besides. As I explored, I did not walk so much as glide across the landscape, and even the simple act of looking around was lent a slow and measured pace through careful tuning of the mouse controls. Moving and looking around are all there is to do in Proteus; I tried clicking my mouse only to discover that the mouse buttons are bound to forward and backward movement, allowing players to control Proteus with only one hand if they so choose. Exiting the game, done by holding the Esc key, triggers a visual effect mimicking the closing of one’s eyes, and if I released the key the eyes opened again, willfully staving off wakefulness and returning to the dream.
The most impressive aspect of Proteus, however, is its sound design. I’d heard a lot about its adaptive music, which changes dynamically based on one’s surroundings, but I couldn’t quite picture how it would work before I played myself. The implementation is actually very simple, making the result all the more impressive. Each object in the game, be it a tree, a stone, an animal, or something else entirely, has an associated melody. A stone might emit deep bass notes, while a tree instead sings a rolling synth melody in harmony with its neighbors. A flock of chickens will run from the player with a series of staccato notes in place of their signature call. As one wanders through the landscape, these musical elements drift in and out based on what is nearby, leaving some places quiet and contemplative but others a veritable symphony. Composer David Kanaga did an amazing job with the score, providing space for these musical motifs to combine in emergent ways while never becoming displeasing to the ear. And the beautiful music is all the more rewarding for the player’s complicity in creating it at any given moment.
And what moments! Birds and trees sing a cacophany in the multicolored forests. Crabs scuttle along the beach, their burbling mixing with the rhythm of the waves. Clouds roll in, and the gentle pings of raindrops join the chorus. Climb a mountain and these clouds will array themselves below, the rain still faintly heard over the softer, sparser tones of the summit. The sun sets, setting the sky on fire, and the island is lulled to sleep as the moon rises and the stars appear, drawing one’s gaze inevitably towards the heavens. I’m one of the least poetic people I know, but even I am finding my words inspired.
Proteus, then, is something to admire, something to look at and listen to, something to explore with awe and wonder. This is in keeping with everything I’d heard about it. But I was surprised to discover that it’s more than just a place to wander. Proteus creates a new procedurally generated island every time, but certain things will always appear, and I slowly learned that my explorations of these locations were not entirely aimless. I found new, mysterious things on repeated plays, things I hope to discover again and endeavor to understand. This air of mystery is perfectly presented; just when I thought I’d seen all that Proteus had to offer, I found my first hint that there was much more I had yet to see.
I don’t wish to spoil this aspect of Proteus for anyone, so I should stop here. But I must join my voice to those of everyone else who’s played Proteus, and tell you to play it at the earliest opportunity. It’s a wonderful thing, the like of which is all too rare in games. Those who might dismiss it as some sort of pretentious art piece are completely off the mark — Proteus does not force any message or mandate on the player, it just strives to be a beautiful experience to be admired. And you should.
Proteus is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and has recently been ported to Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita by Curve Studios (the creators of Explodemon! and Stealth Bastard, which I’ve written about on this blog). You won’t regret your purchase.