Think Doom meets Brian Eno. Though entirely playful, this press release line goes a long way to explaining the simplicity and beauty of Proteus. It’s a mystical island that transforms with every visit. An open exploration led through audio and visual clues, where all the common gameplay tropes are amiss. There are no guns, health bars or skill trees. All interaction takes place instinctively and via your very presence in an area. This is all carefully coated in sublime audio design.
Explored from a first-person perspective, movement controlled in the usual manner, with sitting down being the only action available, there is a need to gush about my first experience. Clicking on the island in the background of the subtle welcome screen starts things off. The adventure begins with awakening in the sea. The faint sound of the waves gliding over one another fills your ears. In the distance is an island. There is no way point, HUD or narration providing exposition.
Upon reaching the shore, the 2D pastel colours of the land swept over me like silk, a distorted bagpipe symphony playing as if the island itself was welcoming me, the twinkling of exploration and bird songs overhead flowing by. Static screenshots fail to capture how wonderful it looks. Charmed, I trekked up the shore and at the top of a hill came across some chickens that were herded together under a tree, taking salvation from the gazing heat of the sun. They scuttled away as I approached, a playful aural chime ringing out to match their movements.
“My inner-child at heart”This instantly connected with my inner-child at heart. I gave chase a little more. The chickens continued to flee, their song playing with them as they waddled gleefully from one tree to the next. Often the simplest moments are those we cherish the most. With these harmless animals bullied enough, my attention was caught by some worm-like creatures popping through the grass, seemingly waving in my general direction.
Then a frog was heard. It sat there in the grass minding its own business. The temptation was irresistible. Running towards the amphibian, and disturbing its peace (the poor sod), it bounded, every spring and leap casting a tune as if it was landing on a hidden xylophone beneath the grass, each jump producing a unique sound.
As the sun began to set on this mysterious island a pack of will-o’-the-wisps danced in the nearby woods. Like a crow, my eye was caught by their glimmering appearance. Crossing the lake, the woods they resided in were dense. Then the wind suddenly dashed through the trees. Day rapidly turned to night as the branches and leaves swayed violently. Glittering dust circled around me like a halo and then…
Well, that’d be spoiling it. Proteus is reminiscent of a world created from the ambient sounds of artists such as Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid. The grand, dynamic sound design by David Kanaga gives the visual style the company it deserves. From a small woodland creature, to the wind and mystical elements, each has its own distinct sound that provides depth, ensuring this is always a charm and never a chore. Approaching specific objects causes them to sonically react. The audible mood evolving as you walk under trees, over hills and into ethereal areas of woodland.
“Something magical”The island randomly generates itself with every visit, welcoming repeated trips to witness all that it has to offer. Taking a postcard – effectively saving – when exploring the island allows you to jump back in to that exact version any time you wish. The absence of conventional gameplay mechanics could easily open it up a wider audience, both the young and old would find something important here. With regards to longevity, there was something new when revisiting the island, and when you do head back it’ll be to spend time there, not for completion percentages or achievements.
Conversation over whether this is a video game or not is expected. If a ‘game’ features a difficulty level, punishes the player for not following the exact corresponding inputs, or restarts sections when you don’t do exactly as you’re told, and has checkpoints, killcams that rub salt in the wound, or ill placed time trials, then no, Proteus isn’t a ‘game’. To ignore it for avoiding standard conventions would be a mistake. Put any preconceptions aside and let Ed Key and David Kanaga’s work take you in.
Whatever you wish to brand it as, it’s most certainly an important step into something magical, a land where you’ll chase a pixelated frog like a child full of wonder at the world, and journey through a tale of life, death, chaos and absolution.