The argument of whether something is a “game” or not is one that will rage for as long as our medium exists. What makes a “game”? The game I’m looking at today, Proteus, has fed more fuel to the fire than any new release for some time. Proteus starts the player off in a vast ocean with only the faintest view of an island on the horizon. Upon planting feet upon the island’s sandy shore, music starts. That’s all there is to it, really–Proteus is a procedural music generator that provides no goal to the player except to explore.
Proteus has not a word of text, nor a line of dialogue–it’s sort of a sandbox. It’s what a stress ball would be, if a stress ball was a game. A stress ball that plays music as you squeeze it, of course. It’s an opportunity for the player to simply relax and explore one of the most charming environments I’ve ever seen in a video game. Rocks sing, trees hum, and music creates itself as you move across the island.
One of the first things you’ll likely do in Proteus is climb to the top of the highest peak you can see. It’s what I did first, anyway. As you ascend the mountain, the music will deepen and slow to match up with your walking pace decreasing. At the peak, nearly all sounds remove themselves, leaving you with just subtle synthesised wind noises and the odd musical track. Finally, as you descend the mountain, first passing the snow cap and then through the grass, passing the greens, pinks, and oranges of the foliage, the music picks up to keep up with you. All sorts of instruments introduce themselves to provide you with a soaring, hectic soundtrack as you tumble down the mountain. And then, fittingly, as you come to a stop at the mountain’s foot, the music returns to its original soothing nature.
For a game in which exploration is such a central element, it is crucial that exploring the island is actually fun. Thankfully it is. Not in the way that you’re used to experiencing in video games, however–this is a form of fun that feels totally unique in our medium. It’s not quite created by the user à la Minecraft, but it’s also not planned as happens in most other games. No, Proteus‘ limited interactivity ensures that the only option available to the player is to explore every nook and cranny on the island.
The idea of relaxation is one supported by every aspect of Proteus. The music’s tendency to provide a dynamic soundtrack for your actions is oddly soothing; even the colour palette, which would be much more at home in an Atari 2600 game, adds to give the player a feeling of familiarity and comfort.
While it doesn’t necessarily feature a “goal”, Proteus still has a distinct beginning and end–it’s up to the player to decide what happens in the middle. Even if you’re not really enjoying it in the earlier sections of the game, however, I’d still recommend you keep at it all the way to the conclusion. At risk of giving too much away, in Proteus you’ll get to see the island at it is in all four seasons, after which you’ll think that one of the buttons on your keyboard is stuck. In any case, it’s absolutely something worth experiencing. That said, there doesn’t seem to be a way of turning off the ending totally and just playing an endless mode (unless I’m just not looking in the right place? Always a possibility.)
Despite all this seeming praise, however, I came out of Proteus unsure of one key factor. Did I actually enjoy it? I truly couldn’t decide. On one hand, Proteus is full of little things to discover and has a cute, whimsical feel throughout. Conversely, upon completing one playthrough, I had no motivation or desire whatsoever to return to the island, feeling as though I’d seen what there was to be seen in just one run through. That might not be the case. There might be all sorts of hidden secrets that I am yet to uncover, but that’s not the point–the significant fact here is that I didn’t want to play it again, and for a game that takes about half an hour (at most) to get through, that’s not a good thing.
Admittedly, the islands are procedurally generated to ensure that each playthrough will be unique, but let’s take a minute to discuss whether a different arrangement of the same geographic features is deserving of that description. I accept that each island will be different from the one before it, but the differences aren’t noticeable enough to warrant playing Proteus repeatedly.
The player’s primary goal (so to speak) in Proteus is to enjoy themselves. It’s about as relaxing as a game can get. And if that’s what you’re in the mood for, then Proteus is a game that shouldn’t be overlooked. It just offers very, very little to anyone who is after more than a way to kill half an hour. Unlike other short games (see: Thirty Flights of Loving), Proteus instilled no motivation in me to replay it multiple times immediately after finishing, nor did it compel me to discuss it with other people. Is it a “game”? I don’t think so–that word brings with it certain expectations that simply aren’t fulfilled here. That’s not to say it hasn’t got its own kind of charm, but if we don’t distinguish these sorts of titles from traditional games, then all we’re doing is narrowing their potential audience.
Proteus is interesting, by all means, but not necessarily “good”. Innovation and uniqueness, while worthwhile qualities for any title to have, aren’t definite precursors to enjoyment. Next time I get the urge to explore a beautiful landscape, I’ll definitely be loading up Skyrim or Minecraft. This is a game that I enjoyed for about ten minutes–after that, it was, quite simply, boring.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Proteus by Ed Key & David Kanaga.