We make it a habit to talk about games here. We get into the nitty-gritty; slicing them into categories, slapping genre tags all over ‘em, segmenting them into equal parts expression and input. So forgive me from straying from the game-centric path here as I begin to pontificate on Proteus.
Proteus — even though it is almost exclusively journalized upon by gaming sites — is no game. Sure, it’s made by the fine people at Twisted Tree Games and will soon be released on Steam, but I gotta call it like I see it. Proteus ain’t no game. This, however, isn’t a problem.
Still officially in beta form, there is no gameplay to speak of. None. The only actions your avatar can perform in the world are walking, looking around, sitting and closing its eyes (you, the player, may take screenshots, though). In the most dismissive way of looking at it, you just walk around as time passes. Imagine if Skyrim and Minecraft had a baby, took a picture of it, and gave it to you with the instructions, “Enjoy.”
It’s an odd thing — the furthest I’ve been from a true gamer’s game in a while — and I don’t know where I stand on it. To decide that, let’s put some specifics in their places. The world of Proteus is as 8-bit-ish as safely possible while still being a three-dimensional space. It pulls off a host of things your old NES could never have imagined doing, but the sense of alien and (dare I say it?) retro abstraction is undeniable. In this world, you simply walk around. The catch is that as you get closer to and pass things, certain noises and musical chimes are triggered.
In essence this is an interactive, audio-visual diorama which is procedurally generated. See? It actually is kinda-sorta cool, right?
Now that you got that idea grasped, we can get into some really artsy-fartsy stuff. Because while there have been several of these before — some being more gamey than others, mind you — this is the first one that integrates that fabulous fourth dimension: Time. Where museums and displays cannot accurately convey or control its passage because you, the viewer, are still an outside observer, Proteus does.
This is because of the unique strengths that this interactive medium — or, as we call them, video games — has. You are removed from reality a biiit more while controlling your character within Proteus than while viewing a painting. Likewise, Proteus conveys the passage of time though day-night cycles with each new morning bringing a new season. With each new season comes different weather and environmental objects, but nothing else. It’s the only shred of an objective in the game; the rest of the time you are free to be.
With all this loosey-goosey, support-group style “gameplay,” it is a real asset that the execution of the island is flawless. I mean, it truly is the entire game. The world is colorful and alive with animals in the bushes and sprites swimming through the breeze. The first time I met the gaze of a white owl, I was frozen with captivation as it landed in a fluttering tree. There is a single moment in the first season’s cycle where the sun is setting and the sky and the pink trees (yep, some are pink) blend into the same hue and shade and you can’t really discern where the sky begins and the trees end.
The tiniest of details are tantamount to the experience. Stare at the sun and the faintest, almost-indiscernible sound of its glare echoes through your headphones. Atop a lonely mountain lies a grouping of animal-like graves (remember, it’s all randomly generated, though). Walking by a molting dogwood and the rhythmic chatter of its falling leaves create melodies. It’s magical stuff that not many other games can offer.
But then again, other games offer … well, something.
So, really, can I recommend you drop your hard-earned cash on it? No, but not because of any inherent value or lack thereof. Because, like any piece of art, what you get from it will be so stoutly shackled to you that there is no proper benchmark to gauge it by. Look, this game is a breathing piece of art, take it or leave it. But maybe in between rounds of multiplayer madness and frivolous campaigns, it would be nice to take a stroll through the land of Proteus.