Video games have always been a tool of controversy. From Joe Lieberman’s Mortal Kongress hearings to Hot Coffee, they’ve always been real pot stirrers for their content. Inside the gaming community, however, despite minor squabbles over console wars and other such frivolities, people generally don’t argue about games.
Which is why it impressed me that Proteus, a seemingly innocuous, unassuming indie game, has generated so much controversy…and unlike the above instances, not for its content, but rather for its lack of traditional gameplay. Indeed, Proteus has turned everyone in the gaming community into an amateur media scholar. While the conversation is inspiring, people have unfortunately been arguing so much about Proteus that they have forgotten to seriously examine its merits. And Proteus is certainly as weird and unique as you’ve heard, but it’s also quite good…which, arguably, is what matters.
The main question in the great debate is whether or not Proteus is a game, and upon first playing, it’s possible to see why this is a question. The game drops you in the ocean with some basic first-person shooter controls, no objective and an island in the distance. There is no health bar (and no way to die), no objective arrow, no map. Indeed, it first seems there is no point to the game. All you do is walk around and…look at stuff.
However, stepping on the island reveals a simple answer to that question: the island is the point. Your goal is simply to explore it. The NES children’s book art style is somewhere between Minecraft and Kirby’s Canvas Curse; it is consistent and lends itself well to the abstract nature of Proteus. Trees are paper cutouts, crabs made of eight-odd pixels scuttle stiffly across beaches and gravestones straight out of Star Fox populate the island. The scenery is procedurally generated, but subtly. It feels natural, but deliberate, made more obvious by the definite use of certain objects: figures on a hill, a log cabin, a particularly large tree. The proceedings feel more organized than the craziness of Minecraft, if not quite as dramatic.
The music of Proteus, arguably its most unique feature, unfortunately doesn’t quite feel the same way. It’s neat, for sure. It sounds awesome and fits the tone of the game, which arguably is all it real
ly should do. However, its gimmick – its “reactive” nature that changes based on the player’s actions – only works sometimes. It feels natural when the music crescendos as you crest a hill, or tinkles as millions of stars pass overhead. But it feels chaotic when you’re moving through a forest and hearing five thousand different songs, and incomplete when random objects make out of place noises as you walk past them. In essence, it’s cool, but unrealized.
The game seems rather tame at first, and honestly starts off rather boring. I found myself saying, “Oh, this is pleasant,” like how I might react to feeding fish. However, the magic begins when you start seeing stars come out, then converging on a certain point in the island. Stand in the middle of the circle they form, and you see time rush by above you, clouds billowing, rain falling, trees whooshing. The seasons change, and rendered in pixelated form it’s unexpectedly epic. And this is when Proteus instantly becomes engaging and even moving.
You explore the island again in a new season. Creatures behave differently, things change colors, the music shifts. You see new areas you missed during the first season, or return to familiar ones to see how they’re different. Suddenly exploration is far more rewarding. You’re no longer seeing new places. You see old ones made new.
As a work of motif, Proteus is masterful. The imagery of change – combined with the game’s lack of real narrative and careful choice of scenery – evokes a sense of loss, death and sadness, juxtaposed against a hope for renewal. By the time you get to winter, you feel a strange sense of attachment to the island and its objects, and the surprising ending makes it resonate even clearer.
And no, that’s not really something you’d expect to find in a game. But it’s great.
And really, that’s all it takes to enjoy Proteus. Beyond the usual game questions of goal, method and mechanics, Proteus just wants you to enjoy yourself. And in removing all the layers you have to get through to enjoy yourself, Proteus feels rather pure. It’s uneven, sure. The aforementioned reactive soundtrack doesn’t live up to its full potential, the final season isn’t as interesting as the others and certain areas of the island don’t have as much to see. Despite these minor issues, Proteus is a wholly unique gaming experience that deserves to be tried once. It may even deserve all the conversations it starts.
However, what it doesn’t deserve is being called an “antigame.” At the end of the day, Proteus is cool. Whether it can be sold on the same shelf as Uncharted or Call of Duty just doesn’t matter.
Be sure to check out Jon'
s interview with Proteus co-creator, Ed Key, only on Comics Bulletin!
Jon lives in North Carolina. Gifted with a Game Boy while in utero, his childhood was full of games. He started writing when he was 11 and now devotes the majority of his time to either activity, usually accompanied by beer and food. You can read his tweets, mostly about said beer and food, at @TYBasedJon.