Developer: Ed Key, David Kanaga
Publisher: Ed Key, David Kanaga
Have you ever wondered just why young would be poets are so drawn to the dark and emo-riffic themes of death, loneliness, alienation and unrequited love? It’s simple. Negative emotions are easier to write about without seeming to be insincere.
Make fun of that spotty kid with too much eyeliner writing ponderously about the second law of thermodynamics all you like, but at least she’s not breathlessly bouncing around the stage at an Up With People marathon concert. If I only had one round in my shotgun, I know who I’d pull for.
But you know what? That doesn’t mean that good love poems or just flat out happiness and whimsy is intrinsically sappy. It’s just that it’s hard to do well. Call dealing with positive emotions the soufflé making to the spaghetti cooking of the “edgy” games that seem so popular these days. Speaking of spaghetti, admit it. You loved Mario Kart. Right. Where was I? Oh yeah, positive emotions making for a good game that no one will snicker about.
A game “about” life. Literally so. You are birthed into the ocean, bodiless observer, you. And then you swoop your way over to a pixelated island where you mostly observe what is going on. You might scare a frog or two, and the bees are none too pleased with your poking your ethereal snout into their business, but mostly you just float about, exploring. Seasons come and go while the world changes as you watch.
A game “about” life. Literally so.
While its cheerfully low-res graphics are pretty enough to look at, I wasn’t really expecting much out of Proteus after the first few minutes of gameplay. I was prepared to file it away as a cute demonstration about how one doesn’t need super realism in games for them to be aesthetically pleasing. For all that I’ve gushed about Dear Esther, I think this is rather indisputably true. Despite what 2K’s Christopher Hartmann recently said about graphics limiting emotional range I don’t think this is really a controversial point. And besides, a game built around proving a point isn’t so much a game as a blog post. Fair enough, I think, you’ve convinced me of the inherent correctness of your position. Now would you please amuse me?
Then one notices the subtler things going on. The music is retro-ambient electronica (fine, I just made that category up), reminiscent of old school videogames just like the graphics are. But rather than just having a looping track with a few sound effects, the music alters based on where and what you’re exploring. A ruined tower has one sound, an animal another, the wind swept hills yet another. The sounds layer upon each other with increasing complexity, but slowly. Each encountered season has its own palette of sounds to choose from, and they feel programmatically appropriate (using program in the musical sense here). It’s all very minimalistic yet effective, as if Philip Glass had written the soundtrack for Minecraft while channeling Vivaldi.
Like a plus sized model, Proteus is pretty, in a chunky sort of way.
But like the namesake seagod Proteus was named for, our little island keeps changing. There’s a trigger event you’ll need to do to move from season to season, but I’ll just let you discover it on your own. It’s not really a puzzle so much as yet another little discovery Proteus has. And it seems timed pretty darned well, its availability appearing just as you’ve discovered most (but not all) of the secrets the last season held for you.
It would be a stretch to call Proteus interactive. It’s an exploratory game at its heart. Think of it as a game comprised almost entirely of Easter eggs. But in a sense, by exploring, you are interacting with the environment. The world you see is dictated by your choice of where to look.
The music you hear will be comprised of the themes of what you examine.
The music you hear will be comprised of the themes of what you examine. In a sense, you become a co-composer of the soundtrack through your wandering. I’m reminded of the game Sound Shapes, a platformer that has the player rolling about and collecting sounds. Creating and influencing the music becomes something of an auxiliary goal on top of the primary one of getting through the level. Unlike Sound Shapes and similar games, Proteus doesn’t have a goal per se. But that doesn’t mean that the players will be disinterested in controlling their experience.
And it’s always fun to chase frogs.
Proteus Review Score 9/10
Why so high? A unique exploration game. Terrific (and interactive) soundtrack. Cheerful and beautiful. Surprising replay value, much like a favorite song you’ll listen to repeatedly.
Why so low? Hard to just pop in and out– without a save function, you need to be ready to sit down for the entire piece. Some might not like the retro art style (I did, but hey, I’ve got to say something in the “con” section, right?)