The gamer’s mind goes through several stages when Proteus begins. The first is curiosity; the player appears waist-deep in seawater, facing a mist-shrouded shore. The gamer quickly recognizes the first-person WASD-based controls and approaches the island via the same controls he or she would in Call of Duty. The player sub-consciously assumes a task: Successfully approach the shore. The player steps onto the beach. Objective complete. Next: Identify surroundings and test the controls, the modes by which the gamer can interact with the world.
This is where the gamer experiences a mild form of panic. The right and left mouse keys do nothing. The “E” button does nothing. The shift, spacebar, “c” key, they all do nothing. All the gamer can do is ambulate. Okay, begin to move about the landscape. There are trees, rocks, grass, hills. Approaching each different one cues a different music pattern. Warbly, high-pitched electronic noise is associated with the trees. Reaching the top of a hill cues a forlorn, echoey musical form, and everything sounds different. Okay, descend from the mountain. The music is back to normal. Here we have a small group of birds. Approach them, and a cacophony of bird-like cries emits, and they run away. All of these patterns are quickly identified and processed by the gamer as he or she desperately tries to form a reason for all of this. Another task to follow the initial shore approach. But they all lead to nothing, and as the sun slowly crawls into the meridional apex of the sky, the panic, the feeling that the gamer failed to identify some essential task, some goal, slowly transforms to frustration.
Proteus is an example of basic world building, the elementary building blocks that form every single open-world game ever made. The concept that a world exists as something more than a series of stationary blocks is nothing new; perhaps the most memorable early instance of a dynamic game world can be found in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The world goes through a regular, dynamic day-night cycle. During the day, the sun shines and the monsters are relatively innoculous. Once the sun goes down, the environment undergoes a visual and interactual shift, and the monsters all of a sudden get dangerous. The music shifts dynamically during the day and when you approach creatures. It was profound, ground-breaking and awe-inspiring for the first time, but it’s assumed in modern gaming today. Assumed that birds will fly away if we approach them, that the music shifts when we engage in a certain behavior (mostly combat) and that little imaginative bits fill all of our surroundings. This is the basics for any open-world game. This is the kind of stuff, though, that Proteus attempts to make “profound.”
Here’s the idea: This is a nature walk, and you can find endless amounts of wonder, contemplation-inspiring visuals, and hours of magical, serendipitous moments in Proteus. It’s supposed to be subtle, engaging and inspiring. The art style really is, to an extent. It’s the mix of basic, 8-bit design, with pixelated trees, frogs and mountains that truly do look unique and well-constructed. Paired with a simple, two-dimensional style that compresses the landscape to a flat image, Proteus really is a striking visual package. It capitalizes on the modern idea, manifested in games such as Swords & Sworcery, Super Meat Boy, Fez and Minecraft, that ground-breaking styles can be based on the simple concept of 8-bit high pixelation. It works on two levels: Firstly, it triggers gamer nostalgia, and secondly subverts technological innovation and critiques the idea that we must have more pixels to construct ever more graphically complex gaming experiences.
So yes, Proteus does look good. It actually looks quite nice. Nice enough to sustain an hour-long play through with very, very minimal interaction and absolutely zero plot? Absolutely not, unless you really just need to stare at a computer screen and just zone out. Maybe I’m not giving Proteus a fair shake, because there is a modicum of gameplay mechanics. To avoid spoiling the single mechanic with any impact, I’ll just say an hour-long Proteus experience goes something like this: Wander around the island during the day, then wander around during the night. Then find the one environmental trigger, and everything goes in fast forward for a brief-but-breathtaking sequence where we go from Spring to Summer. Then wait for another daytime sequence with minimal change, then another night time sequence, then trigger the same fast-forward season shift. I won’t tell you what the trigger is, because this robs the game of any value whatsoever. So basically, pay $9.99 and you get one gameplay mechanic, some solid-but-forgettable ambient music by Brian Eno, and an empty, basic overworld.
Proteus exists as an artistic statement. It tries to be a singular audio-visual experiment that ditches the complexities of open-world gaming, strips it down to its bare bones and facilitates contemplation for about an hour. Here’s the thing though: The audio and the visual aren’t incredible. For this game to work, the audio and the visual must be totally mindblowing to make up for the total lack of gameplay mechanics and story. They may be to you, because audio and visual quality really is, at the end of the day, subjective, but I would strongly argue that Proteus doesn’t cut it. As it is, I feel (subjectively) that Proteus is an example of a game stripped of the parts that are hard and expensive to make, leaving the gamer with nothing but the most skeletal structure of an overworld and a solid art style.