Radical Plaything / Reviews

Radical Plaything: Proteus


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     Proteus is a short audio-visual exploration game by Ed Key and David Kanaga. You begin the game by waking up in the ocean in front of a randomly generated island.  You quickly approach the island, and, being given no direct imperatives, explore it. The main premise of the game is that, as you discover different structures, plants, and creatures, the game’s music changes in response, so that the game has a “living soundtrack” of sorts. Now, Proteus has been receiving a lot of hype throughout its development, and I’ve been following it for a while, so when I saw that it was finally released, I went ahead and bought it without hesitation. In retrospect, I wish that I had waited until it had gone on sale. My feelings on the avant-garde game are mixed at best.

First, I must admit: Proteus’ atmosphere is incredible. Despite its clunky pixel aesthetic (or more likely because of it), the game’s world is a joy to look at. Additionally, the game’s world feels incredibly alive. It’s full of living things that respond to the player in unexpected ways, and the entire world’s aesthetic changes with the seasons. The game’s audio then further engages the player by directly tying the world to its music. Every object and living thing in Proteus makes a sound that either directly alters the music track or, at the very least, makes a musical sound separate from it. The game is sensually enthralling.

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     However, the game lacks underlying substance to the atmosphere. There’s no engaging game play, compelling story, or deeper message that accompanies the experience, and at least one of those things, for me anyway, is really required to make the experience meaningful. Throughout the game, you explore the island, you discover new things, time passes, and eventually you fly away into the sky and close your eyes. That’s it. Unless there’s something I’m missing, the game simply isn’t about anything. So, as pleasurable as it was as I played it, it has failed to leave any lasting impression on me. Upon completion I closed the window, shrugged, said “hey, that was nice,” and proceeded to look up funny captioned pictures of cats on the internet*.

Besides that, the game’s island eventually began to feel constraining as time went on due to a short rendering distance, low cloud cover, and small island size. As I found that I was encountering the same old landmarks over and over again, my initial wanderlust that motivated me to play the game was lost. In a game that’s entirely concerned with exploration and discovery, this is not good.

Maybe I was just given a bad island and, if I gave Proteus another play, I’d be given a better randomly generated environment and be more satisfied, but I doubt that my experience would be dramatically different. In short, if you’re a sucker for atmosphere in games and have ten bucks to spare, consider giving Proteus a spin. As ambivalent as I feel about it, it is truly a unique and beautiful game.

*I didn’t actually do this, for the record.

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