Proteus is not your normal game. It’s not the first game that can’t be likened to one, though. Flower and Journey have come from thatgamecompany, To The Moon and Dear Esther both fall into this category as well, to varying degrees. Some of these titles are wonderful moments along the videogame continuum and each brings the medium ever further towards maturity, striving for that uniqueness, expressing the creator’s emotions and delivering an artful statement outside of books, film and art itself. The problem is that such a statement will always be read subjectively by each and every individual. The artist themselves will have meant something, but the viewer will have their own take on it. With The Last of Us or BioShock Infinite the player is taken on a magical or gritty ride, each narrative delivering a classic to match that which the cinema can offer, whilst providing a backbone to engage all gamers, whatever background. With these more esoteric works that safety net isn’t there. The gamer will only have their own take, by definition. In the case of Proteus I cannot fathom what the painter is aiming to achieve. Proteus is a frustrating and thoroughly unrewarding, complex and confusing mess in 8-bit form.
The game opens in the sea, and you move forwards, sideways or backwards looking ahead via your first-person perspective. Soon you notice a land mass which as you move closer reveals itself to be an island. It’s springtime and you slowly make your way ashore, ready to explore. No guidance is provided at all. You're encouraged to look around, sit down, walk some more ad infinitum by the help menu - that’s as much support as you’re given and in truth no more is needed to play the game. It’s how you respond from here that will define what you get out of Proteus.
The island itself, and the world it lives in, is a flashback to the new world of computer games, akin to something drawn on Paint by a seven-year old. Everything is seemingly pastel-shaded and built from blocks, Minecraft with few colour options and fewer pixels perhaps. It has a certain charm for some but becomes incredibly boring very quickly and entirely unhelpful when attempting to explore, or move towards the unheralded objective.
There is an objective though. As you take the time to explore the island spring becomes summer which begets autumn and so on. Day turns into night, rain comes and goes, clouds form and disperse. The world is living and breathing and if certain combinations of events occur, if the secrets are unlocked, then progress is made. It’d be a shame to spoil what does happen here as for many the voyage of discovery will be full of energy, vibrant and exciting. To those who experience this we envy you, for the time we had with Proteus was wasted time.
Each time you start a new game of Proteus everything is different whilst everything is the same. You’ll find yourself awakening in the sea once more, eventually moving towards an island. That island will have trees, hills, squirrels, crabs, flowers and more. There’ll be mountains and turrets, cabins and leaves which are all too familiar yet never the same. It’s all procedurally generated but wholly capable of delivering an overwhelming sense of Déjà vu each and every time you holiday in its world.
The time you spend in-game is dominated by the sounds you hear along the way. The soundtrack is dynamic and responds to what you do, whatever it is that you actually are. As you move through a forest, past some ancient relics towards the cabin; when you dance around the implanted stones or walk through the flowers, the sounds will change. They’ll speed up, become louder, quieter, change or create a tune. It’s all very well done but depending on what track you have made play at any given point in time, it could all be incredibly unenjoyable.
It’s important to know that I played through Proteus multiple times. I struggled to believe that any game could be so vacuous and disappointingly painful to play through. I had to get to the end in case it would all become clear and I had to replay it all knowing then what I knew in case it made more sense or all clicked together. I didn’t want to give up early on, irritated as I was with the lack of anything. I understood that the whole point was that there wasn’t anything, until you learnt the magic and played in concert with the puppeteer. Nothing ever clicked though; everything got worse and worse. More silly, more annoying and more depressing to keep ploughing through. It was always a chore and never once fun. It looked distasteful and the sounds were never to my liking. The moments of progression came and went and came again and never once was there a feeling of awakening; always was there a feeling of sadness. Proteus is at once one person’s Mona Lisa, another’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial after being dug up from the desert.
Ultimately mankind has followed a well-trodden path as a new medium is created, evolves and matures. To start with it’s all about the functionality and the pragmatism. The landscape drawing, the simple stories, basic moving images and singalong tunes. As time goes by and the creativity input enlarges, tangential paths emerge - you get hip-hop and indie rock; Inception and The Departed; The Sistine Chapel and The Scream. Gaming has entered that life stage in this past generation or so. Proteus is an example of a point somewhere on the outskirts of creativity, towards the backend of an ever larger golden spiral. Unfortunately, this bright spark of difference, the uniqueness and the distance from the middle doesn’t guarantee success. In this case what we have here is failure. That failure might be distinct for this beholder’s eye, but all should be forewarned, in case the contagion is spreading.