Ed Key and David Kanaga’s minimalist exploration game, Proteus, has enjoyed a long-running beta and performed finely on the awards circuit. But now cometh the hour where the finished article is let loose. It’s been a couple of years since Proteus was first shown to the world, was it worth the wait?
Proteus is an exploration game of unprecedented purity, but for the sake of easy-going introductions you could also say it’s a game about looking at things that are beautiful and listening to things that sound nice. I won’t sit here and tell you its sunsets are the colour of a telegenic, 20-something actress after a long hike up a hill and half a can of 7Up, but know there’s genuine beauty to be found in Proteus and it pleases me greatly to say so.
Proteus is a place too, I think – a curious and vaguely psychedelic island with faint shades of Minecraft and Zelda: Wind Waker about it. It’s also not totally unlike how I imagine the world would look to Minecraft Steve had he had both arms lopped off at birth and replaced with two well-concealed MDMA repositories pumping weapon’s grade naughtiness directly into his trembling Lego body. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time gazing, mostly at colours, galloping down mountainsides hooting at the sudden rush of speed and chasing chickens all the while marvelling at the sounds that accompany such antics.
And as far as interaction is concerned, you can walk forward. If you’re feeling spunky you can also walk backwards and stand still. That’s it.
Truth is then, Proteus is not an easy game to pin down. I’ve had my head locked in this harlequin no man’s land for a good dozen hours now and I’m still not entirely sure why it works, just that it absolutely does and if you removed a single feature it probably wouldn’t.
At its most rudimentary Proteus is an ambient and minimalist exploration game staged on an island of modest size. Each journey begins with you stood in the ocean facing a procedurally generated island stretching out from a wispy haze. You mosey up to the beach and then you wander. There are no goals or conflict here. Proteus is a place of intrigue and you just exist in it for a bit as a digital vagabond.
You’re chaperoned along on a bedrock of curious sounds and melodies that respond dynamically to your presence - the bizarre chirps and crooning of a tumbledown watchtower, graves that bleep and bloop as you saunter past, the sound of chickens bolting as you try and approach fox-like. The audio bends to the in-game happenings, building and regressing as you explore new areas – and much in the same way that images don’t communicate how appealing the art of Proteus is in motion, words do little justice to David Kanaga’s smart ambient soundscapes, without which Proteus would almost certainly flatline.
Where The Wild Things Are
If it’s not a world seen through the eyes of Alternate Reality Minecraft Steve then it’s one seen, perhaps, through the eyes of a child. One where giant snowy owls take wing at night, where rain falls briefly before the sun tears greedily through low-flying clouds and then, without warning, the sky is pink, the grass is blue and the sun’s dancing because, hell, why not? Elsewhere, rickety bridleways wend up and down snow-capped mountains via the crumbling skeletal remains of an abstract Mordor and strange creatures congregate on paradise beaches.
In my time here I’ve watched the world buckle and contort, I’ve seen the colour bleed out of the mountains and forests morph from lush to warped horrors. I shan’t say anymore, but there’s a mesmerising chaos that flows from never truly knowing what you’ll discover on your next outing. It wouldn’t be unfair to say Proteus stokes the imagination in a very real way, just as it wouldn’t be unfair to say few games truly do.
Ultimately, with so little to distort the connection between you and the world itself it becomes remarkably personal – often reflective – as you’re left alone to find your own meaning in everything. That air of personal adventure is teased out further by a fickle colour palette, the ever-changing weather and a mounting sense that you’re all alone – the world by turns either stark and cheerless or rich and sanguine.
There’s nothing too precise about this review because to delve headlong into the particulars would rob Proteus of its inherent joy. This is a game about discovery, so the best thing you can do is go discover it for yourself. Do know this though: Proteus’ wonderful abandonment of boilerplate rules and worn tropes paves the way for a remarkably introspective and cathartic experience the likes of which we enjoy so infrequently. And that’s something you should concern yourself with.
Proteus, from Ed Key and David Kanaga, is available now for PC and Mac.