By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
I first got my hands on Proteus way back when a working alpha was released by the dev as a tech demo some years ago. The game then became available for pre-purchase followed by a beta release schedule for those pre-purchase customers, a fairly typical indie development-sales process nowadays. I have thus had this game available to play for a while, although I feel that like many I rationed my play sessions of these early versions due to the nature of the game.
First and currently foremost is how to describe Proteus; it is a game of immersed exploration, a objectiveless wander through a virtual world. The gameplay revolves around exploring a randomly generated island. I am very intentionally using the word ‘game’ as a label in relation to much of the recent debate surrounding Proteus throughout the net. The claim is that the game lacks any real objective, and as such cannot be classified as a game with some individuals going so far as to demand its removal from Steam. This is, in short, ridiculous. The entire debate is an absurd display of how narrow-minded certain groups can be. The game is often compared to Dear Esther, which is a comparison that fails after the initial ‘art-game’ claim.
Proteus is based around freedom and interpretation, the player is set loose in a beautiful virtual world visualised through a style that is in itself aesthetically pleasing but also lacks detail to an extent where the player builds upon it as a framework. No mini map, no objectives, no corridors; instead the game is controlled with simple movement with interaction being achieved similarly. This is taken beyond the self-driven objective creation that is inherent to sandbox games to the point where the player will simply freely explore for the sake of pure undiluted exploration and curiosity. In this sense one of the limitation of Proteus is displayed; there will be a point at which everything that is to be explored has been explored. However this is offset somewhat by the aesthetic which means that Proteus still creates a very pleasant virtual environment just to inhabit/visit.
The graphical style is based around a three dimensional world rendered with pixelated textures. The result is a very distinct aesthetic that closely resembles a normally two dimensional approach to game appearance. The colouring of this aesthetic is bright and distinct, making clear the very different seasons and times of day. This approach to game aesthetics is among the seemingly contentious issues surrounding the game, with claims that such a style is far inferior to, say, the beautiful and highly detailed environments of FC3 (Far Cry 3). In a technical sense this is true, the fact remains that FC3 remains a very very pretty game (despite its cross-platform shackling to pathetic current console hardware). That’s not the issue, the issue is how this is handled by the game and how it is received by the player: In FC3 the prettiness is quickly forgotten as the game mechanics start to take over and the player plays the objectives, kills some animals or just generally sprays lead at things. This ties into the detail of the graphical fidelity to result in the prettiness becoming a mere background feature and pretty backdrop. This is not necessarily a bad thing and is absolutely not one of FC3’s downfalls, however it does contrast nicely with Proteus.
The aesthetic of Proteus is not a Shader Model 3, pixel-packed, post-processed beauty, instead it draws the player in through its simplicity. This simplicity in aesthetic functions in a manner similar to much older game graphics in that is leaves space for the imagination to fill. This is where I justify my freedom and interpretation claims to the aesthetic as an owl shaped grouping of pixels in a tree becomes an owl and the series of flying white shapes become insects. An unwillingness to participate in this process is likely severely limit a person’s ability to enjoy Proteus. In this sense there is absolutely no use in approaching the game with an initial dismissive attitude based on snobbery or some form of warped anti-intellectualism.
The sound in Proteus is worth mention alongside everything already covered, as it is this which has the final word in player immersion. The sound is based around a music system which responds dynamically to events and the world. This means that the sound of rain integrates into the ambient music and the light chimes of summer are contrasted with the relative quiet of the white winter landscape. There is little that can be improved in the sound, the music is for lack of a better word ‘chill’ and integrates flawlessly into the environmental cues to create a soundtrack that is as unique to each visit as the dynamically formed island.
The game is available through Steam, currently for £6.99 (approx $10.95 USD). A DRM free version, integrated into the HumbleBundle library system is available from the website for £6.38 (approx $10.00) and still provides a Steam key. There is a price difference between these two sources for the moment so it’s down to you, however the Humble price is cheaper and provides both Steam and DRM free options. (Along with multiple payment methods). The game is available for Windows and Mac with a Linux port coming in Spring 2013. The hardware requirements are stated as a 2.0GHz CPU, 3GB of memory and ‘any games-capable graphics card’. These are fairly reasonable, although the memory requirement seems a little off as the beta worked perfectly reasonably on a Core 2 Duo with only 2GB of DDR2 memory.
In conclusion, Proteus is an amazing experience and a game by most definitions. The debates online are irrelevant to the individual experience, as long as the player does not let them tarnish their initial impressions. If you approach Proteus with the aim of completing it, of ploughing through the ‘levelling’ to reach the ‘end-game’ or of working through the ‘campaign’ for some arbitrary achievement then you will probably not have a good time with it. If you approach Proteus with an open mind, then it will be a unique experience of immersion that few games can rival.