Many games of recent years and months have challenged the notion of what constitutes a game: Dear Esther, with it’s minimal user input and lack of direct player agency cushioned in a literary narrative; Journey, with a simple player move-set and a noticeable lack of objectives other than move across the screen; each have offered something different to the usual time challenges, story progression and levelling up so many other examples of the medium lean so heavily upon.
Proteus pushes this even further than these titles, being a procedurally generated interactive experience of pure exploration. The title of the game takes it’s name from an ancient Greek god of the seas, an ever changing and inconstant deity whose form shifts and changes like the bodies of water he rules over. This variation of shape and structure is at the heart of it’s philosophy a game pushing the very notion of the label itself, by having no goals, no objectives and no urgency. Can successfully promoted these values whilst also offering enough of that valued gaming ingredient – engagement?
You begin by being cast adrift in an ocean, facing an island with a large sun shining down upon you. There is no quest indicator, no golden breadcrumb trail, no NPC to follow. It is up to you when you move and even though you are free to turn around and swim, and not head to the island if you wish to do so, the island appears to be the only true option.
Once ashore, you are greeted by a tranquil, peaceful environment, full of various fauna and flora, and only remnants of human habitation or presences. You can go anywhere, and are encouraged to do so. As suggested earlier, there is no end goal to Proteus, no one hundred percent checklist, no chapters or acts. Exploration is at the heart of the game and is stimulated in the player by the way they interact with the environment. The random and procedural nature of the game supports this approach, as each visit to the island is different.
Everything visually in Proteus is represented by pixels, big chunky pixels of a variety of colours and hues, It is easy to get lost as you find your way around the island, as the trees, pillars and fence posts all look alike, and you find yourself looking for clusters of landmarks, patterns of natural , just to pinpoint your location. Some players may want to head for the highest point, others might want to walk round the shore of the island. Importantly, there is no reward for doing one, no punishment for doing the other. It is up to you.
As the chunky yellow sun sets, so the blocky white moon rises. the island of Proteus has a clear day night cycle, the evening ushered in by the song of cicadas and a slowly dying light. As well as the passing of time, the weather changes, as the sun hides behind clouds and dashed of rainfall descend from the sky. Head high enough altitude wise, and you can walk amongst and above the clouds. The overall effect is superbly calming, idyllic and often genuinely moving.
Littered around the islands are monuments, artifacts and monoliths that seem man made. It ‘s your interaction with these that form the main progression in the game. Without giving away too much, time passes, and seasons flow from one to the next, a condensed version of a temporal year that give some sense of progression through the world. The transition are drastic and meaningful, often breathtaking in their contrast, particularly the shift to winter. The sparsity of life, and drawing of colour is mirrored in a much quieter, even more lonely world, as you find yourself missing much of the your early animal companions.
The blocky visuals are highly effective, but would mean very little without the excellent audio design. Animals leap and bound towards or away from you, adding their notes to the minimalist soundtrack. Your movements and limited interaction with the the environment results in you actually creating the soundtrack as you go. Pause awhile and play with the curious insects that buzz around you and you can sustain a melody.
This is particularly well suited to the handheld version. Playing on the small screen with earphones in actually created a stronger sense of place and immersion. The Vita version has some extra features too, changing it’s environment to suit your real world time and place, offering the option to use the handheld’s gyroscope to look around the world and use the front touch screen to interact with certain objects in front of you, creating new musical notes. You can snapshot postcards on the way, a permanent record of your time on the island. There seems to be no way at this point to share them as with the PC and Mac version, which seems a shame
Proteus is a difficult one to pass judgement upon, as games usually offer a sense of challenge and progression, and this example eschews these conventions for the sake of offering something else, something different. That’s the key thing to take away from from Proteus. It certainly isn’t a game you should fly into blindly, and is refreshing palate cleanser, but suffers from some of it’s repetitive nature and pretensions. A huge caveat to this review is that much of the game can be experienced within an hour, and although it’s fair to say that you might have seen all you want to see after a single year has passed, and but you may not have seen all that the game wants to show you.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Format: PlayStation 3 / PlayStation Vita Release Date: 29/10/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Proteus for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 4 days on both a PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.