Wot I Think: Proteus

By John Walker on January 30th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus has been floating around for a while, almost finished, almost finished. But now it finally is, and up on Steam, and I’ve been playing it on a loop. A game I really didn’t get the first time I enjoyed its pretty colours on a GDC show floor, now makes complete sense to me. Going in, I had no idea what to expect. Coming out, here’s wot I think.

You know that feeling, when you’ve been to see an amazing movie, and you come out of the cinema and feel like if you just ran fast enough down the street you could fly? It’s not quite that. It’s slightly more ethereal, less energetic and more emotional. Not, “boo hoo” emotional. I mean, “just found out he/she fancies me” emotional.

It’s somewhere near that, the way I’m left at the end of Proteus’s forty-five minutes or so of ambient exploration. A soaring high, uplifted, and slightly drained.

Proteus is simply wandering around a small island. From your side, there really isn’t any more to it than that. You wander through the four seasons, the transitions somewhat initiated by you, exploring the same patch of land (uniquely generated each time you play) as the year goes on.

Here, all the effort comes from the game itself. While you may only wander around, Proteus is conjuring wonder around you. The world is built from chunky pixels, what at first appears to be crude shapes, but quickly become a distinct impressionistic creation. Creatures made of barely 30 or 40 pixels are perfectly animated, tiny details giving them vivid life, as they flock by or hop away from your pursuit. Trees sway in the breeze, clouds roll in overhead and obscure the rising sun, bugs float idly by.

The space you have to explore is just big enough to engross you until the sun sets and the moon rises, transforming the world around you, seeing different animals emerge (or not – each time you play the world is strikingly varied). At this point, somewhere on your island, a whirl of sparkling lights catches your eye, and you head toward them.

Each time you see the world change, the desire to explore it is revived. That’s what’s so masterful here – even though you may have climbed that big mountain, wandered around that stone circle, and spotted that wooden shack in a valley, the desire to see it all again in new colours, with new flora and fauna, and a new sense of life, is overwhelming. And so worthwhile.

I’m dancing around telling specifics, because Proteus is about experiencing it for yourself. There are moments, tiny vignettes, I feel I could describe that would just sell it to you instantly, but it would be to destroy them. Or indeed, you may play it five times and never experience them. Instead I want to talk about the reactions I had to it, that I dearly hope others shall experience too. And I realise as I type that, I equally hope others will have wildly different experiences, positive or negative.

My main feeling was jubilance. I can’t use a smaller word. As I played, I felt a persistent sense of absolute elation. Even when Autumn and Winter come around, along with every metaphorical reading associated with such times, it always felt so optimistic to me. Autumn, in our world, is a season of slow fading, and Winter a time of scarcity and death. But even in – within my interpretation at least – hinting at such things, it felt so freshly joyful, so bursting with hope. Autumn and Winter are of course also times of preparation for what’s to come, and contain their own cold beauty. Proteus, for me, sang celebratory songs about them all.

It’s wonderful knowing that the description above isn’t spoiling anything. They’re my reflections, my feelings, that I’ve let the game reflect to me. I am certain another player will see a different world, hear a different song.

But one thing’s for sure – you will hear a song. Proteus, along with its procedurally generated world, procedurally generates its score. And it’s astonishing. It takes a while before you can believe it, but here you’re making the music as you play. Whether it’s the bassy ‘thung’ of walking past a standing stone, or the way the layers of music will strip themselves down the further you climb up a mountain, at first it seems like it has to have just coincided that way. But then it keeps happening, the game keeps reacting to where you are, what you see, along with its own rolling weather, changing time, and breathtaking changes in ambient light.

There’s something especially emotive about that. It creates a strong sense of connection between you and this very simple, very brief world.

Stood at the top of a high peak I hear nothing but the wind, until I walk past a standing stone, firing off its bass bomb, followed by a sprinkling of a few gentle notes. Then I walk toward a circle of strange figures and faint strings begin to play, fading again as I walk past. I stare directly into the Summer sun and my vision slowly whitens, high-pitched drones weave in and out of ploddingly shaken bells, with pings and trings speckled throughout. Looking back down my vision fades back in, the hypnotic sounds begin to disappear. But if I stand still for long enough, as night rolls in, just beneath the wind I can hear the faintest electronica vibrato, with slow, low, almost imperceptible accordion tones.

Walking back down the mountain the complexity returns, layering in over that previous tune, along with the chirrup of crickets and a new trombone-y grumble. As I walk toward a hut that tune from the mountain is now completely gone, replaced by a series of warbling notes, and perfect ambient swirls. Then an owl-shape flies from a nearby tree, and a sound that evokes tuneful hooting adds to the mix.

The sun comes up again, and I walk back through the woods, past a cloud of hovering bugs, the music brightening, the notes more cheerful, gentle percussion popping up around me, and a bouncing beast hops past with a bright ‘pling’ on each spring.

And all the while, the art is matching the music, the colours playing as much of a part in this orchestra as anything else, whether through subtle changes in light, slowly changing weather, or sudden ambient shifts as a peculiar event begins around me.

I’m very aware that some will come to Proteus, wander around for a few minutes, and argue there’s nothing to do. Technically, sort of a bit, they’re not wrong. There’s no challenge, no overt goal, no secret to uncover, nor story to hear. Those people will think the above ludicrous twaddle. And that’s fair enough. But there will be the others who find their own connection to its world, and embrace the three quarters of an hour it takes to go from the beginning to the end. And I’d be astonished by anyone among them who doesn’t then play it again, and then again, and then demand someone else sit down and play it while they watch over their shoulder, and then play it again.

I come away from it feeling elated. And that makes Proteus feel very special to me. It’s such a pleasure knowing it will be the same for so many others.

Proteus should now be on Steam, here.

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93 Comments »

  1. JackShandy says:

    It sent me to sleep. Literally, I mean, and not in a bad way. My eyes started closing right at the end, just as the screen was doing the same effect. It was lovely.

  2. frightlever says:

    Did sweet FA for me when I played the Beta months back. Frustrated me actually. I’m sure that’s more to do with me than the “game”.

  3. deadly.by.design says:

    Nice write-up. I may check it out.

    I see no price on the Steam page. At first I thought it was due to not having Steam installed on my work iMac, but that wouldn’t make sense. Is it free, or wha?

  4. Dimonte says:

    Bought it when it first made rounds on the internet, experienced through it two or three times only, and still think it was worth every penny. I generally dislike “art” games or so-called non-games, but this beautiful thing is so completely devoid of pretence and filled with such joy, that every time I left it I was smiling.

    Oh, what would I give for a version of this with more similarily precious worlds. But it’s a one-off such thing, I believe, it wouldn’t be so special if mass-produced.

  5. pakoito says:

    One of my memories from this christmas is my mom just hanging with the mountain statues at night, watching the horizon.

  6. Hanban says:

    I love it. I had had a particularly bad day when I tried it out and found my eyes watering up about midway through. When I stopped wandering and decided to go to bed I felt relieved.

  7. SuperNashwanPower says:

    I must admit it sounds like total poncey art wank, but I am willing to give it a shot. Is the free version still about?

    • jorygriffis says:

      There was never a free version, slightly unfortunately.

      • pakoito says:

        Wrong. There was a first prototype that came up in tigsource or somewhere indie. I have a copy from October 2011 or something like that somewhere lost in my PC. EDIT: The zip was downloaded in September 2011 but the content is from February 2011.

        Alpha 0.1 is also not difficult to find.

  8. jorygriffis says:

    I’m afraid to play again because there was something so precious about my first visit.

    I encountered a group of crab-creatures and memories of Morrowind’s crudely-rendered mudcrabs briefly made me reel at the sight, before they began to pop and hum with a joyous rhythm, inviting me forward.

    I climbed a hill at night toward a standing stone, and when I reached the top an owl flew to the side of a tree no more than five virtual feet from my virtual face. We looked at eachother for a while, both apparently afraid to move, as the bird let out a few beautifully synthesized “hoots” before flying away.

    Great great great game game game.

  9. GameCat says:

    Yeah, official full version of Proteus is here. Perfect for calming down after stressful sessions of Dark Souls.

    EDIT: Uhm, is this really out? I don’t see any price tag at Steam. What’s wrong?

    Here’s a link from latest Sunday Papers. No one really commented it so I’m gonna post it here.
    http://prmrytchr.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/proteus-as-a-writing-stimulus/
    It’s awesome.

  10. FCA says:

    There doesn’t seem to be a way to actually buy it on steam for me. No add to cart, no price listed. Is this some sort of reverse oceans thingy?

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      Same here, though TBH John’s caveat at the end of the piece speaks loudly to me so I will probably avoid unless its like £3 or something.

    • RedViv says:

      You can expect almost any digital-only release on Steam to be stuck in limbo for about an hour. Patience. The techpriests over at Valve are likely working hard to press switches and pull levers.

  11. eldwl says:

    I had a breakdown/burnout in July last year, and was really stressed and panicky about everything around me for months after the few weeks I had off work. Experiencing Proteus gave me the only respite from my own head I could find. I found it an utterly calming and wonderful experience that I can’t put in to words anywhere near as well as John has. As a result, it holds a special place in my head that I’ll always be thankful for.

  12. Brun says:

    Noctis art style FTW!

    • stblr says:

      I had the same thought. It does my heart good to see these sort of minimalist, procedural, exploration-for-exploration’s-sake games still being made, even if one this evocative comes along only every decade or so. I still find myself booting up Noctis every 6 months or so.

  13. Valerius Maximus says:

    ctrl+f “bigot”
    Oh wow, 0 results! You must have liked this one, John!

  14. Juan Carlo says:

    This game seems to turn everyone who plays it into hyperbolic, overly emotional, douchenozzles who rhapsodize about shitty pixelated sunsets like they have never been outside and seen an actual sunset.

    Obviously I have to play it.

  15. DickSocrates says:

    Just imagine how much better it would be if it didn’t look like shit for artistic reasons.

    • Brun says:

      Given the amount of procedural generation going on I imagine the low quality visuals are as much a result of technical limitations as aesthetic choice.

    • pakoito says:

      It doesn’t, that’s why people likes it. You can compare it with Skyrim’s top of a mountain pieces and it doesn’t *feel* different despite not aiming to be photorealistic.

      I guess you have to buy into it, same way I don’t buy into horror games.

    • jorygriffis says:

      This game would be so fucking jive if they actually tried to make it look “real”. It would be a vapid, cartoonish, poorly-animated mess, no matter how good the artists were. Proteus’ sense of place goes hand-in-hand with its impressionist style.

    • jrodman says:

      If your shit looks like this, please see a doctor.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      That’s funny, I was just saying the same thing about your mom. OOH SICK BURN

  16. twig_reads says:

    As I see I’m not the only one who is instantly reminded of Noctis when I saw this. There’s something quite evocative from this lo-fi style.

  17. DarrenGrey says:

    Proteus, more than any other game, translates into your mind that exact feeling of stepping through a gate into Narnia. It’s the ultimate escapism, the perfect fantasy. Well, assuming you don’t fantasise about shooting people a lot.

  18. magikmw says:

    My girlfriend doesn’t like/get Proteus. Help.

    • pakoito says:

      Shovelface her. No, I’m joking. The game is not for everyone and every mood.

      • RedViv says:

        Yeah. Realise that not everyone will like everything, and trying to please everyone will only drive you mad. Then be chill and enjoy stuff that doesn’t make anyone have a hurtfully worse time.

        Goodness, that session put me in a mood…

  19. DrAmateurScience says:

    I spent 20 minutes happily following an owl around a forest.

    10/10.

  20. Naum says:

    I’d encourage RPS to add the DRM-free version to the ‘buy now’ links at the bottom of the article, not only for this game but in general (where applicable, of course). There is a link to the developers’ page in the first paragraph, but it doesn’t mention explicitely that Proteus can be bought there, while Steam is linked twice. Regardless of what your opinion on Steam is, I think it would only be fair to advertise the distribution path via the devs’ homepage at least as much as a 3rd-party retailer.

    • Fiatil says:

      Thanks a bunch for the link! Steam is being lame and the game is still sitting in limbo. Now I get to play the game before work, get a steam key whenever I need it, and support the developers more. Hooray!

  21. JonasKyratzes says:

    Proteus is lovely. Screenshots cannot do it justice.

  22. Dervish says:

    I looked at a video on youtube and it appears that you can scoot around pretty quickly. That makes me more likely to give it a shot than if it was Dear Esther speed.

  23. haze4peace says:

    Wow, I bet oculus rift support would bring this to the next level.

  24. daphne says:

    I’ll see you at the Advent Calendar festivities, Proteus! What about Monaco and SpyParty? Will they be showing up?

  25. DXN says:

    You need to be able to play this as EnviroBear.

    Seriously though, it looks gorgeous.

  26. Fiatil says:

    This game is absolutely fantastic. I know it sounds really stupid but it really is a game you just need to play to get a good opinion of. The screenshots looked fairly interesting to me I’ll admit, but playing the game itself is a beautiful experience.

  27. sonofsanta says:

    How much controller support is “partial controller support”? (as listed on the Steam page). As lovely as this would be sat at my PC, it would be even lovelier slumped in the leather armchair in front of the big telly.

    Also: this is how I imagined the future would look back when my Amiga 500 was the height of modern technology. I am quite sad that more of it does not, now that we’re here.

    • madog says:

      The controller doesn’t work on the menu screen, but did in the game. Just the analog controls and a sit button.

      • magikmw says:

        You don’t need anything more though. I’ve never actually played it with keyboard + mouse, the analog smoothness is great for the mood.

        • madog says:

          For sure, I wasn’t complaining.

          After a bit more research the other day, I think I found out the *main* explanation for limited support: I think only the XBox controller is support right now. There were no options or settings for it, no indication that it worked except when I was in the game. I think I read that it was just easier for them to program for.

  28. Ranger33 says:

    I’ve got all sorts of exams and quizzes looming, and this seems like just the ticket for a half-hour break from studying.

  29. AlwaysRight says:

    I had quick look on metacritic for a laugh and Edge have given Proteus numerical score.

    Seriously… As if you can just attribute a arbitrary number to an experience like this.

    “I give the emotion of joy 78.32%, trust 63.74% and anticipation 89.28%”

  30. Fitzmogwai says:

    Beautiful. I saw this at the Eurogamer Expo. Just bought it, just spent ten minutes standing under a moonlit tree in a graveyard next to an owl watching a meteor shower.

    I was watching the meteor shower, not the owl.

    The owl might have also been watching the meteor shower too, I suppose.

  31. Runs With Foxes says:

    So it’s digital art, then, not actually a game.

    • Skabooga says:

      Guess that depends on one’s views and definitions of things. I’m happy calling it a computer game, I feel that term has evolved enough where it would be both accurate and descriptive for Proteus, but I wouldn’t necessarily negate someone who calls it digital art or aesthetic software.

      • Fiatil says:

        I would say it’s definitely a game. It’s an extremely beautiful and relaxing one that often forces you to stop in awe, but there’s a progression to the game. You do things, make things happen, and reach the “end”. It’s a really silly debate in general I think, but no one should have any real trouble calling this a gamey game for gamers who game.

    • bill says:

      We don’t really want to get into the ‘is it a game?’ argument again, do we? Or the ‘is it art?’ one. Or the ‘can games be art?’ one for that matter.

      Video ‘games’ seem to have evolved well past the original word chosen to represent them. Even the ‘video’ part doesn’t make that much sense. But we’re stuck with it so let’s just ignore it and carry on ‘playing’ them.

  32. Morangie says:

    Brilliant article John. I bought the game right after reading this and you’re right. Jubilant is exactly the way to describe it.

  33. GenBanks says:

    I hate to be that guy that brings up drugs… But I can’t help thinking this would be really interesting to play on some form of hallucinogenic.

    • DarrenGrey says:

      I’m not sure it needs it. Have you been by the statues at night?

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I would suggest that “walking games” like this might satisfy that unbelievably strong and sudden urge to go for a long walk that comes a couple of hours (days? seconds? Who knows?) after eating magic mushrooms. They should market it that way, maybe.

  34. particlese says:

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

  35. f_zul says:

    If only I could at least plant some seeds in the ground.

  36. Turkey says:

    I had the complete opposite reaction where I didn’t really feel like I was part of the world. I think it mostly stems from the game’s lack of interaction. I found it extremely frustrating that I couldn’t do anything meaningful in the world.

    I enjoy most forms of passive media, but in a videogame format it just doesn’t work for me.

  37. Toupee says:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, John.

    It brought back many memories of being in the natural world, out of doors… times with friends, times alone, times of extreme joy and pleasure in simply exploring, with no objective other than that which sheer whimsy can conjure.

    This is how I felt many times. I didn’t realize there was a “sit” option at the time, but I stood, anyway, so many times. And found myself going, chasing the wildlife. Sometimes leading me places. Sometimes leading me haunting places. Sometimes it seems this world revolves solely around you. Then I thought of the tombstones, littered everywhere.

    I love the owl. And the bats made me shriek in happiness. (White nose syndrome, you know?)

    This is a game that makes me want to go outside. It makes me want nothing other than a one-on-one connection with the natural world. I’ve had the pleasure of that before, and it makes me appreciate my memories and the people I share them with.

    I can think of other things I didn’t see. And who knows? Maybe they are on some island I just haven’t been to yet. But really, it doesn’t matter. All of the things I can think of are out there in the natural world already. Maybe I’ve just been waiting to see them.

    *I will note that I encountered one bug. I thought, as the moon came out one night and I stood upon a hill-top, that I saw another island out on the horizon. This being my first fall night, I thought maybe I was just at an opportune, lucky time to see that. Well, I tried going across the water, and I just kept going, and then I abruptly found myself back on the Windows 7 desktop.

    Yet, if my goal was to see another island, the game granted me that desire when it randomized a new world when I booted back up. Funny how that worked…

  38. jrodman says:

    I think Proteus is a pleasant experience, but I think this copy oversells it.

    It’s pleasant and interesting, and worth your 8 bucks and 40 minutes of attention, but it’s not really anything truly amazing, imo.

    Then again, you might be amazed.

    it’s well made, for sure.

    • pandiculator says:

      I kindly and politely disagree with you on the overselling of the copy – I read the article, knowing nothing of the game other than RPS was a little gaga over it, and said “I want a game that makes me feel like that!” And, well, it did! For me. John’s article is pretty much right on to my own reaction to the game. To that end, then, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a video game reviewer and saying “okay, this game feels like magic, and you should probably play it because it is good.”

      Of course, I can see this as a game that doesn’t click with every person. Proteus isn’t going to invoke in everybody what it does in some, but I don’t think that John should reign in his reaction to the game if he thinks it’s worth buying, too.

      Anyway, sorry to be a disagreeable sort, but there you have it.

      • jrodman says:

        I didn’t mean “John should not have written so enthusiastically”.
        I meant “I don’t think the game is quite as good as this suggests.”

  39. throwaway888 says:

    I love it, its not so much a game, more an experience to undertake. Very relaxing and peaceful.
    I play it to get down to earth and just enjoy the music.

  40. SuperNashwanPower says:

    I bought this. Now I want my 6 pounds back.

    I am usually a highly emotional wreck when it comes to movies, music and emotional games and so on. I actually like bursting into tears about stuff. Eli dying made me bawl. Dear Esther had me feeling that hurty pain-sad for an hour.

    But I can honestly say Proteus left my emotions gland utterly utterly untouched, aside from its “growing impatience” node. Apologies to those who genuinely liked it, but to me the praise being poured on this seems a little exaggerated.

    • Furius says:

      I agree. I went in with a totally open mind, wanting to like it, but got bored very quickly. By the time Autumn came round I just stood waiting for nightfall. Maybe my first Island was just particularly dull.

      I like the new gif screenshots though lads.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        I think we are those who may fall into “the above is ludicrous twaddle” camp that John mentions at the end

  41. Skamberin says:

    Oh look a quirky indie game with focus on everything but gameplay, THIS IS SO GOOD HNNNG ART ART ART.
    At least Dear Esther had the incredible environmental art going for it.

  42. Toberoth says:

    *stops reading, buys*

  43. corinoco says:

    Proteus reminds me of Koronis Rift on the C64. I used to play that for hours, driving through valleys in the mist.

    • haowan says:

      Wow, I’d never heard of that game. What an amazing thing for the hardware it was running on! Thanks very much for drawing attention to it.

      • Llewyn says:

        Indeed. All four of the original* Lucasfilm games (Rescue from Fractalus, The Eidolon, Ballblazer and Koronis Rift) were pretty stunning for their time in different ways. There’s nothing quite like harsh restrictions to bring the best out of very clever people.

        *I don’t know whether they were the first, but that group was the first time I was aware of them as a gaming brand.

  44. Napalm Sushi says:

    After I finished Proteus, the world felt different.

    You may be hesitating to spend that £6, wondering if you’ll be one of the folks above who had no such experience. I’d 100% recommend you spend it just for the chance that you aren’t.

  45. enobayram says:

    I was at first put-off by the lack of Linux support, but I think I’ll give it a try since youse smart guys have liked it so much. It’s just that; just like you expect smart people to be humanists (even though there’s no tight connection) you expect smart games to support linux :/

  46. TinaHiggs22 says:

    til I saw the paycheck which had said $8011, I accept that my friends brother had been realie receiving money in there spare time at there computar.. there uncle had bean doing this 4 less than nine months and a short time ago cleard the dept on their home and got a brand new Lotus Esprit. we looked here, Fox76.com

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