Just in case Minecraft hasn’t offered enough evidence that a contemporary game with basic, blocky visuals can make a compelling artistic statement, Proteus drives the point home with battering ram efficiency. Some of the most cutting-edge trends in modern game development are happening in titles that look as if they should be playable on a marginally upgraded Atari 2600.
Developed by designer Ed Key and musician David Kanaga, Proteus belongs to a burgeoning genre that hinges on ambient exploration. It opens with you floating in the water off the coast of a mysterious island, like a serene inversion of BioShock, but without any narrative context explaining how you got there. In keeping with their different schools of game design philosophy, BioShock nudges you aggressively toward its island by surrounding you with burning aeroplane wreckage, while Proteus simply waits patiently for your curiosity to get the better of you.
Key is quick to point out that the decision he and Kanaga made to leave out traditional gameplay objectives – score, challenges, fail states and so on – shouldn’t be perceived as any sort of crusade to purge games of them entirely. He simply feels that there’s room within the medium for people to pursue divergent approaches.
“I don’t want to put [Proteus] forward as a manifesto at all,” says Key. “I think it’s interesting how the game turned out, because originally, before David came on board, I was thinking of it as some kind of kind of sandbox RPG-survival kind of thing. Then when the music came in, pretty much straight away we thought, ‘What if everything has this kind musical presence?’ and that sense of feeling your way around the world. And after that we were kind of worried about ‘Do we have to add any gameplay things? Why will people want to play it for more than five minutes?’ But then it’s strange how people have gotten so much more engaged than I ever expected.”
Proteus can be seen as the videogame adaptation that JJ Abrams’ Lost deserved, and its island (each game procedurally generates a new incarnation) blends the natural and the mystical in intoxicating fashion. Everything seems deceptively mundane on the surface.
Seasons pass in Proteus, and each has a distinct feel. Summer is the most teeming with life, and as autumn and winter slowly encroach on your procedurally generated paradise, it’s hard not to feel a kind of loneliness creeping in alongside them
Just after being washed ashore, we find ourselves wandering through a grove of brightly coloured trees. Some of them are pink as cherry blossoms are in spring, shedding little rectangular leaves that drift lazily down to the grass below.
We clamber up a nearby hill to better survey the rest of the island, and notice what appear to be signs of human habitation. There are brown, medieval-looking forts. There are ancient stone markers. There are statues in the shape of mythical-looking bird creatures whose function remains as elusive as the thick-headed stone torsos standing sentry on Easter Island. Though you can’t enter any of the structures in the game, there’s even a lone cabin whose hypothetical occupant is nowhere to be seen. There are no humans to keep you company, just animals – frogs, owls, birds, bumblebees and more.
Things occasionally turndownright weird. After night falls over the island, you notice a swirling dance of white lights around one stone circle. Stepping inside it causes time to lurch into a kind of time-lapse fastforward. At one point the stars, which were once tiny pixels dotting the sky, began to bulge and pulse, turning circular and bulbous. There’s a distinct sense of narcotic-tinged psychedelia, which should fuel interesting speculation among players.
The game’s open world rewards and encourages exploration via both the pastel-hued impressionism of its visuals and Kanaga’s gorgeous, reactive musical score; its synthetic tones morph depending on where you venture on the island. You can take screenshots in Proteus, of course, but they’re called Postcards, and it’s testament to its sublime visuals how often you feel compelled to preserve one of its frames for posterity.
“You have to want to explore [the island],” Keys admits. “Because you’re not going to be given any kind of arbitrary reward for going ten metres forward or whatever.” None of this should prove too problematic, because you definitely will want to explore Proteus’s island – trust us on that.