The only constant in Proteus is its very beginning. You awake in water with only a chunkily drawn sun for company. Squint and you’ll see the outline of a landmass on the horizon. As you walk towards it, that vague outline begins to take shape; it’s an island you’re about to explore for the first time, even if you’ve played Proteus a hundred times before. And when you’ve seen enough – when you hold the Escape key to slowly close your eyes and return to the main menu – you’ll never see that same island again.
After your first playthrough, the islands will always be familiar, though. You’ll always arrive at springtime, when blocky cherry trees shed their rectangular blossoms onto lush green grass. Animals will bound or scurry away when you get too close. The island will forever have a slightly distorted sense of scale – trees are half as tall as mountains, whose summits you can reach in seconds. Rain clouds hang low to the ground, and you’ll frequently find yourself above them, looking down on a blanket of nimbus. The individual elements of David Kanaga’s sonic palette are fixed, too; every tree, animal, raindrop and flower has its own specific sound that plays as you draw near. But designer Ed Key’s algorithm spits Proteus’s component parts out in a different order every time it loads.
So, yes, this world is procedurally generated, but you’ll spend much of your time walking up hill and down dale wondering how much of it is truly random. The vague circle of standing stones on a distant mountaintop could conceivably be a happy procedural accident, but the lone gravestone on the edge of a clifftop that directly faces the rising sun? It’s just too perfect. Surely that’s a designer’s hand at work, not fate’s. Yet during our many visits to Key and Kanaga’s island, we’ve only seen it once. And that’s the point of Proteus, really. You can see everything the island has to offer in an hour – once you’ve grown to understand how it works, in fact, you can see it in a fraction of that time – yet it retains the capacity to surprise.
This is a solitary experience, but not a lonely one. You’re the only person around – assuming you’re human, that is, something you take for granted in firstperson games, but which you’ll later have reason to question – but you clearly aren’t the first. The ground didn’t stomp these paths into itself, the trees didn’t build those hilltop forts, and we doubt there are squirrels buried beneath those gravestones.
But you’re not here to learn about some ancient civilisation, and you’re subtly, but quite deliberately, discouraged from paying too much attention to where mankind has left its mark. The crude, spiky forts are intimidating even from a distance, a stark, unwelcoming contrast to the inviting pastel skies. Stray too close and they cut through the gently tinkling electronica with a repetitive, discordant fanfare, played on crudely emulated MIDI bagpipes. You’ll walk away in a hurry. Later, you’ll find a cabin. Approach and it makes no sound, which in this world makes it almost entirely pointless. It’s as if Proteus is asking why, in a once-in-a-lifetime visit to paradise, you’d want to walk into walls.