I’ve been playing Proteus, a game about exploration and music by Ed Key and David Kanaga. I can tell you what it is—I already have, really—but I’m finding it difficult to shape words to fit. You see, time is not constant on one the game’s island, which is generated anew each time you play. Often the days are languorous, stretching and relaxing at their own pace. Just as often, days suddenly bleed into nights and weeks pass in mere seconds, as though you were the placid observer of a world riding on a hummingbird’s wings. It’s a game about change, and—to me—about perspective.
Take the above picture as an example. It’s pretty, but flat. As a still image, it looks like someone could draw it up in MS Paint in fairly short order. In motion, it’s something else entirely.
If I were to show you a ten-second clip of Proteus, you’d see the island transformed. Breath would fill its lungs and you’d see that everything on the island is full and dense. Those trees are thicker than a two-dimensional image would let on; that hill, steeper; those flowers, closer. And, being tangible, all of these objects are reachable. And all of them sing to you with music that is generated hand-in-hand with what you’re seeing. It is, quite literally, indescribable. On the game’s homepage there is a small gathering of quotes from games journalists, some of whom I’ve read before and know to be good at their jobs. That is to say, they have a talent for talking about game worlds—for describing a medium that expresses itself through interaction. Usually, I think those words are adequate to the task. Here, however, none of the previews I read, none of the screenshots I saw, really prepared me for Proteus.
I realize that I’m making the whole thing sound very mystical, which is misleading, and I’m sorry for that. I’m not even entirely sure I like the game. It really is about walking around an island and listening to emergent music. Walk near certain animals or plants or insects, and the music is altered. There are no real objectives, and absolutely no threats to your safety. Eventually, you’ll figure out how to make the seasons change, and you’ll watch gentle spring rainclouds disappear beneath the blinding hot summer sun. You’ll feel the cool dry autumn turn brittle and crack into winter. These events will further change the scenery and music. At some point, the game will end. That’s it. I found it alternately enthralling and vaguely dull—though dull mostly thanks to my own inability to relax, and because I wanted the next season to come sooner.
The game’s title itself is a pun, “Proteus” being the origin of the adjective “protean.” Unlike most puns, this one is entirely fitting. My favorite moments in the game were those spent wandering the island after a season change, and finding once-familiar territories made alien by shifts in color and weather and music. At times I became lost in places that I had previously committed to memory. I found myself thinking of the gully behind my parents’ house. Growing up, I spent three seasons out of the year playing back there. During winter though, it became dangerous with snow-laden branches and icy slopes. The few times I gathered sufficient courage to undertake the journey into that dark forest, I was always shocked by how different my gully could be. It was not the place I knew the remainder of the year.
Proteus is also reminiscent of Dear Esther, which I reviewed back in February. Dear Esther was similar in that it was a game about walking around, looking at scenery, and listening to monotone narration. Since then I’ve read a number of discussions about the game. Some were focused on decoding its cryptic plot, which strikes me as a fruitless endeavor. I don’t believe Dear Esther, whatever its meaning, intends to be found out. More discussion, however, seemed focused on whether the game counted as a game at all. After all, some reasoned, all you did was walk. Couldn’t you get the same experience from watching a Let’s Play of the game on YouTube?
What a sad perspective. When I played Dear Esther, I wasn’t merely walking. I was strolling, and pausing to look at things more closely. I was backing up to see a landscape better. I was studying the surf as it brushed against the beach, and thinking not only about the game’s story, but my own life’s story. It was strange and satisfying and, most importantly here, interactive. If that doesn’t qualify it as a game, then what would?
As it was with Dear Esther, so it is here. I don’t know if I can recommend Proteus, but I’m glad to have experienced it. It demands both such gamey things as decisions (even if those decisions are whether to climb a hill to look for an alternate path or to see how lost you can become in a patch of fog) and a bit of extra thought not found often enough in today’s gaming scene. You are a pioneer, an explorer, a poet, a rememberer, a whatever you decide to be. It is an experience that cannot be paralleled by description alone, or by a video of someone else’s route and interpretation of it. Even if I’m not sure what to make of it, I’m glad for its existence, and for its portrayal of surprising and ever-changing beauty.