Let’s take a walk.
Alec:Proteus is a game of light and sound that I’ve always recommended but never really written about. Part of that is because I think it’s a game that words can’t represent well, or at least my stock of them cannot, and part of it is because it feels so private to me, so personal. I use Proteus as a balm for emotional wounds and difficult days, which I’m afraid to say I have too many of lately, and not as something I feel I should be judging or even sharing with others.
It’s a tonic for my senses, gently brushing light and sound across my eyes and ears to create the suggestion of nature at its most idyllic, most serene and most welcoming. Oh, I just sound like a dizzy hippy, and that’s precisely why I’ve been so loathe to write much about this game. It makes me feel better. It feels wrong to even describe that, let alone scrutinise it.
Proteus achieves the same effect, for me, as walking along a night-time seafront does: the quiet, the solitude, the moonlight on the water, the whisper of waves, the welcome stillness in my mind. Which is faintly ludicrous, as I live a seven-minute walk from a real seafront, but hey, getting out the house requires an energy I don’t always have.
Whether or not I should be living differently, I strongly resist the idea of ever dissecting what’s in Proteus, or what went into it, or why it does what it does to me. To know this unpretentious but supremely deft magician’s secrets would be to take away all its wonder.
Light and sound, both equally vital forces in Proteus; both forever the foundations of human delight and therapy.
We didn’t run this trailer on RPS as it was for Proteus’ (wonderful) Vita edition, but I think the time’s right now. It’s fanciful, of course, but even so, rare’s the time that advertising is so representative of what I felt, saying all it needs to say without words or melodrama, saying what I want to say without quite having the words to.
I wanted to just run that as my entry in this piece, but much as I admire it, a writer so completely allowing advertising to speak for him would surely be the poorest of form.
I am, truly, thankful for Proteus. I don’t think that’s quite the word I’d use for anything else I’ve written about in this calendar.
John: Like Alec, I find that words only seem to chip away at Proteus, like a sculptor who can’t leave his finished statue alone. The more I write about it, the more I feel likely to knock off an ear, or even crack the whole thing in two.
It is, without question, an emotional experience. As a game (and yes, it is a game) it’s going for a bit of a walk. As an experience, it’s an ethereal, uplifting, affecting and even draining. It’s a game that lifts me out of any doldrums I might have, raising me up until my toes can’t quite touch the ground, and fills me with a glow of hope. God, I feel the same angst as Alec describes above – I sound ridiculous, unrealistic, purple and pompous. And yet, that’s my experience of this game.
It feels like a celebration, an orchestral symphony about the joy of nature, life, existence. And it’s a literal symphony too, the game’s procedurally generated music, played by you and the journey you take, sings along. It connects you to the world in a way that is utterly unique. Which of course only makes the transience of this hour-long game all the more overwhelming.
Ack, words. I think I may have done a better job of this when I reviewed it. Traditionally, when it comes to end of year lists, things that appeared in January tend to have a tougher job of getting recognised. Proteus had no such challenge – nearly a year on, its resonance is still with me.
Adam: Many games are about moving from one place to another, sometimes overcoming obstacles along the way, but increasingly fictional spaces exist for no other reason than to be explored. Proteus is perhaps the purest ‘walking’ game, with no narrative voice to direct the player’s attention, and no intrusions to complicate the experience of existing in its strange and beautiful landscape. When I talked to Warren Spector earlier this year, he mentioned that he wanted to make a game in the style of a cartoon musical. I think his vision contains a lot of singing and dancing rather than the candescent strums and plucks that Proteus produces, but the music in Ed Key’s game of wanderlust is the heart of the experience.
Few things in any game have ever made me spontaneously smile quite as much as my first encounter with one of the island’s plinky-plunky frogs. ‘Plinky-plunky’ may not be in your dictionary, but it is the most accurate description of the frogs that I have found to date. The chickens are wonderful too, painted and vague like the rest of the world, but with ruffled feathers and erratic scrambling that communicates the idea of a complete creature. Every visual element in the game works in the same way – conveying a sense of a thing. Fidelity abandoned in favour of credibility, Too many games end up tumbling down the slippery sides of the uncanny valley, but Proteus takes place on the canniest of archipelagos.
It’s a small game – a stroll rather than a hike – but nothing is wasted. More creatures, events and weather patterns would only be of benefit if they matched the quality of what is already there. I find myself wanting to be surprised whenever I revisit, which is frequently, but the pleasure of Proteus is comforting rather than awe-inspiring. It’s the digital equivalent of a hug.
And occasionally it squeezes just a little tighter than expected. The sky at night wheels and wobbles, and rain plays a symphony on a lonely mountain top. Fields burn, dyed brilliant orange by the setting of the sun. The shadow of the sublime stretches over these imaginary islands, and while the plinky-plunky frogs may be memorably daft and happy, there are also moments of emptiness, stranded at the feet of nature’s vast mystery.
Which is all well and good, but why have I not mentioned the trampoline mod yet? Whee!
Jim: Proteus was the first game I let my infant son play. As such it will always have a sort of resonance to it that other games cannot have – it wasn’t just about my own experience, it was about the early, crucial experience of someone I care deeply about. Watching him see this fresh world respond to his movement, and helping him figure out how the seasons changes and how the simple. flat-shaded world takes on new life, was moving stuff, and I imagine that other people out there – other families – have had a similar experience with it. Proteus might have been a trivial oddity, a footnote, but it has become a treasured memory, precisely because of how it works, and how gentle it is.
Games that are “just a walk” have been a minor battleground for gamers who feel that their pastime is being boiled away by pretension or arty trickery. When your concern is the visual fidelity, technology, and personal mastery of challenging, violent process, I can see why this would matter. Hell, I can see why game designers who sink their lives into building complicated simulations would feel like the attention Proteus gets in unwarranted. But in truth this is the equivalent of brilliant and meticulous portrait artists getting upset by the meaningful daubs impressionism. There’s room for both, and just because we are enamoured with the artfulness of what Proteus has done, doesn’t do anything to undermine the technical accomplishment of the normal-mapped.