Review

Proteus

Your Own Private Island

Proteus may be quiet, but that just means you have to listen closely.

By Matt Kodner • February 20, 2013

Professional musician Andrew W.K. has a straightforward philosophy on how to lead a happy life: Party often, and party hard. We’re not talking about a gauche drink-till-you-puke rager here. W.K. espouses a different kind of partying: He wants you to enjoy yourself no matter how bleak or boring the situation. To paraphrase Shakespeare a bit, all the world’s a party. How much fun you have is entirely up to you.

It may not be immediately apparent, but carousing through the provincial landscapes of Proteus can be one hell of a party. Ed Key and David Kananga’s experimental game doesn’t give its players much in the way of traditional goals. The joy of exploring the game is found largely in the player’s willingness to listen, observe, and experience what the randomly configured islands have to offer.

Proteus

Each game starts with an eyelid lazily opening, and you find yourself hovering above a quiet sea. In the distance, there is a shrouded landform, with a tree or two visible from where you stand. Move closer and the island slowly fills itself in, with bright green grass and often a brilliant pink cherry blossom in full bloom. It’s spring. Approaching the trees will trigger a warbling synth that hisses up and down. Slowly, a soundtrack fills in the world around you as you chase hopping bunny-like critters or brush against softly humming rocks. The haphazard clicks and clacks of the island subtly give way to sustained melodies that often reflect the season and passage of time. The soundscape is as important to your ramble as the retro pastel visuals.

Pleasant as the setting may be, boredom can set in once the initial wonderment wears off. It doesn’t take long to realize the bouncing creatures always bop to the same beat, and invariably produce the same tones. This frustration stems from the game’s minimalist approach to controls—the only action command is to sit down. In the opening minutes I became impatient as nothing happened. I felt like I was giving and giving, but Proteus wasn’t giving back. And then clouds swept in from the horizon.

Proteus

I climbed a mountain—another pleasant feat about as difficult as walking forward—and emerged above the clouds. After surveying the landscape, now a rolling sea of gray, I attempted to walk back down. But instead of walking, it felt like I was in a freefall, and I found myself in a dark and muted forest. Rain poured down. The change of scenery was invigorating; it invited new exploration. This is how Proteus pushes back: through its environment. Change doesn’t happen to you so much as they happen around you. In this respect, the “sit down” button makes sense. Often, you have to take a seat and listen to breathe it all in.

Proteus has a knack for imperceptibly guiding you through context-shifting moments like this—after all, there was nowhere else to go from the mountain’s peak but down. These interludes will come and go depending on how actively you choose to explore, and for how long. Each playthrough takes about an hour separated into four acts—one for each season. The tones and motifs of each season are varied and interesting enough to happily fill out the hour for an intrepid player. You’ll have seen most of the major events after a handful of repeat journeys, but there are enough rare time-specific events I’ve come across to suggest a bevy of hidden treats. The feeling of discovery never fully goes away.

Proteus

Every island keeps the same landmarks and artifacts, but configures itself a little differently each time. After visiting one part of a forest more than a few times, I heard a wind chime that hadn’t played before. A minute later, I was wrapping up a makeshift game of hide-and-go-seek with a ghostly cicada, and the season suddenly changed around me. I could have easily ignored the specter, and gone my own way, but I trusted Proteus enough to know when to answer its call.

The beauty of the game is found in the various ways to make the most of what it gives you and by choosing to party at its every invitation. Partying with Proteus may be a gentler experience than an Andrew W.K. soirée, but the freedom of enjoying yourself is pretty much the same. To enjoy a party, you have to do more than just show up. You have to engage with your surroundings. In Proteus’ case, the only way to do that is to listen closely and party accordingly.

Share this with your friends and enemies

Write a scintillating comment

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

    I really want to play this game, but $10 just seems rather steep for it.

    Also, credit for somehow working in an Andrew WK reference to a Proteus review. I’m still not sure how you arrived at that association.

    • Fluka

      It’ll almost certainly be on sale for 50% in the next (non-linux) steam sale at some point.  $5 seems like a good price to pay.

    • Cloks

      Indie pricing schemes are weird to me. I have no problem spending up to 60 dollars on a new AAA release but I’m never quite sure whether to spend even ten bucks on an acclaimed independent game. I guess what helps me is the idea that I’m not just paying for an experience but a quality one and one that’s worth more for the scant time I put into it than an artificially lengthened AAA game. I bought Kentucky Route Zero at the full season price after fretting over it for a few days an absolutely loved it; I may only be paying for a few hours of entertainment but I’ve found more worth in those than the 50-some I spent in Borderlands 2 which cost more than twice as much.

      • HobbesMkii

        I think it’s because they’re of such variable quality. $10 can pick you up some very damn fine indie games, but it’s also the same price as a fair amount of less than stellar ones (some of which sell for $15, as well). 

        • valondar

           But even a fantastic indie game could be… well, really short. With a AAA game I’m usually trusting that the game will provide me with enough content for… well let’s say fifteen hours of gameplay conservatively (and the much-shorter single player campaigns of most modern shooters really turn me off here), and there can be really fantastic indie games you finish in an evening.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          However, AAA games are of equally variable quality (especially when the caprice of indivisual taste is factored in), yet present a larger monetary (and possibly time-investment) gamble.

          I’m definitely more wary to drop $60 on some game that I’ll then feel obliged to trudge through a fair amount of is 100-hour playtime before I can admit to myself that I’m bored and I’ll never see that money again.

        • HobbesMkii

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus  I think that $60 really guarantees you a polished exterior. It’s rare these days that a AAA game doesn’t look like tens of millions of dollars went into making it–even if the game fails at that crucial litmus test of being fun. Conversely, an indie game might cost less than a million dollars to produce and look it, yet sell for 1/6th of the value of a AAA game. It might be worth more, over the long run, because the game is simply better, but it maybe doesn’t glitter in the same way.

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

          I’d say $60 guarantees a high development cost, but not necessarily a polished product. It might be buggy as hell like New Vegas at launch, for example.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          It may be high-budget, graphics-wise, but that doesn’t preclude it:
          -Still having graphical issues or being fundamentally visually broken (e.g. Aliens Colonial Marines)

          -Being a chore to play (e.g. myriad beautiful, but boring, overstuffed open world games).

          -Still being ugly as sin by virtue of being a highly polished, highly competent, big-budget execution of some piss-poor art direction (e.g., in my opinion, the new Batman games, despite exhibiting a very high degree of graphical polish, are among the ugliest games I’ve ever seen).

          A game being AAA is no guarantor of quality or beauty any more than a film’s budget is. I wouldn’t pay 10 dollars for Michael Bay to pour $200 million dollars’ worth of (highly polished) visual donkey diarrhea into my eyeballs, and $60 for a AAA game with a similar production philosophy, unless I know it’s going to be great, is just too much of a gamble.

        • valondar

           @paraclete_pizza:disqus@HobbesMkii:disqus  The moral of the story here is to not preorder anything. You can usually get a pretty good sense from reviews (professional or not) and gameplay videos if a game is something you’d enjoy. That is if a reviewer is praising a game for something you find asinine, that’s a strike against it.

          I’ve never blind bought an indie game like in one of those indie bundles for sort of that reason, and I tend to get high profile games a couple of years after their initial release unless they’re a franchise I’m particularly invested in.

      • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

        I think it actually might be because of Steam sales that my evaluation of game prices is so skewed. I don’t think I’ve paid more than $35 for a AAA game in years (Portal 2 for PS3 might be the exception, but even that I didn’t pay full price for. Plus it unlocked the Steam version, and then I sold the used PS3 disc back to amazon for $15 or something). Plus all the great games I’ve gotten for super cheaper always cause me to go “well, I could get this maybe interesting couple hour indie game for $10, but I got Left4Dead 2 for $6!”

        • Citric

          I find that the Humble Indie Bundle has skewed my sense of value. I’m always thinking these things will show up in there, and I’ll plop down my $8.01 (it’s usually above the average so whatever) and then I get these things.

      • The_Misanthrope

         I would presume that indie prices are far more prone to market forces, in addition to the publisher’s sense of a “fair price”.  On the other hand, the AAA games industry  gets to say that 60 bucks is the price point–who’s gonna argue with them?– and only time/Steam sales/Gamestop resells will bring that down.

        The real important difference is that the indie game, whether it’s good or bad, is closer to an idiosyncratic experience.  There are a few auteurs that creep into AAA games, but, for the most part, they have polished down any jagged edges for a more crowd-pleasing experience.

        Indie games are also plagued by lack of coverage.  That has been slowly improving over the years, but it still is nowhere near the slavering attention that the big-name releases get. 

        The real question you have to ask yourself when purchasing an indie game is  if you’ll get X amount of dollars worth of entertainment from it.  I got the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead on the cheap, but I know for sure that I’ll be more than will to pay full price once the next season comes along. 

      • Chum Joely

        I hate to tell you this, but Cardboard Computer got tired of managing two different sales models for Kentucky Route Zero as they prepared for Steam and other platforms, and so they just converted the “Act I only” sales to full season passes at no additional charge. So apparently I will be getting all five acts for a total of 7 bucks. Don’t know where that leaves the early adopters, like you, who paid in full up front.

        • Cloks

          Don’t worry, I already knew. I’m going to say this leaves me satisfied, because I’m getting what I paid for through a content-provider that I enjoy using.
          It’s awesome for people who bought just Act 1, but I’m getting exactly what I paid for, so I can’t complain.

  • Fluka

    This damn game made me feel things.  It also perfectly evoked the feeling of summer, when I was alone in my house on a dark, snowy winter’s night.  And then I felt legitimate melancholy when I found all the dead butterflies shaking on the ground during autumn.  

    The ending is a perfect example of the game “imperceptibly guiding” you. No spoilers, but it just sort of…happens…when you try to do a specific thing.  And then it keeps happening.  And it’s wonderful.  And you want to go to sleep with good dreams.

    I don’t care if this is a “game” or not.  These brightly colored pixel trees and sun gave me a better sense of place than something graphicy and shooty like Crysis ever could.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gareth.hughes.1253 Gareth Hughes

      Agreed, I had a bad day at work and just spent 45 minutes forgetting about it with Proteus. A lot of people (youtube fools) have been arguing it’s not really a game. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it.

      • Cloks

        What the fuck is a game anyway? I think that “gamers” trying to categorize things as “games” and “not games” is one of the stupidest things in a community rife with faults.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          Yeah, that sort of Talmudic obsession with creating defined parameters and categories for every little thing is one of my least favorite traits of nerd culture in general.
             Especially the canon of what did and did not happen to a character that’s already fictional in the first place.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Maybe it’s my game-theoretic background speaking, but I’d define a game as a system that has players, actions, and payoffs. Under that (admittedly narrow) definition, I don’t think Proteus would qualify as a game.

          And that’s fine. “Game” is just a classification. There is no inherent value judgment in calling something a “game” or “not a game.” If someone doesn’t want to experience Proteus because it’s “not a game” and they don’t enjoy things that aren’t “games,” then I have no quarrel with them.

          When classification becomes problematic is when people begin attaching value judgments to it. In Proteus’ case, those judgments come in the form of calling it “not a game,” as if that’s some sort of insult, as if using interactivity to explore non-game experiences isn’t a worthwhile endeavour. That kind of narrow-mindedness irks me. Interactivity is a valid artistic tool. It’s an integral part of everything from games to interactive fiction to immersive media installations. Heck, there’s a piece at MoMA that’s literally just candy piled against a wall. (The docents advise you to take some and eat it.) If interactivity is good enough for MoMA, then why can’t it be part of a downloadable non-game experience?

          I might be overstepping my bounds here, but I think part of the blame for “non-game” becoming an insult lies with game reviewers. It’s not too hard to find reviews criticizing games for being “not a real first-person shooter” or “not a true RPG.” That’s classification, not criticism; it doesn’t tell me why not being a real first-person shooter or true RPG is a bad thing. This isn’t limited to games either; you can see it in movie and TV reviews too. For example, the term “manic pixie dream girl” has wormed its way into a lot of reviews. But an MPDG is nothing but a trope; calling something an MPDG is not a critique. When reviewers themselves use classification as lazy shorthand for criticism – or worse – as ex post facto justification for dismissive, kneejerk reactions, why should we expect anything better from their readers?

          I think it’s time to stop conflating classification and criticism. Sure, debating about what makes a game a “game” verges on navel-gazing, but hey, this is Gameological. Navel-gazing is what we do best! It’s fine to lament the dismissive attitude that some corners of the gaming community have towards non-game experiences, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Discussions about what is a “game” versus what is simply “interactive media” can be fascinating and illuminating, and I’d hate to see that line of discussion get buried because some jerks want to turn it into a bout of name-calling.

        • Cloks

          @Merve2:disqus Thanks for that response. I really hadn’t considered the argument from that angle and you make a lot of good points. I was very reductive in my post and you clarified some of what I thought – the idea of “not-game” being an insult – while helping to explain the problems of refusing to classify an interactive media experience as a game or “not-game”.

      • JordeeVee

        I went into more detail above, but I found the game incredibly calming and meditative. I agree that it’s a game but I almost feel that the title does it a disservice – no sporting event, parcheesi match or round of Super Mario has ever come close to eliciting such an emotional response in me. 

    • valondar

      As far as I’m concerned Proteus is definitely a game and I consider
      arguments as to whether something like it or Dear Esther is a game
      rather silly, as they usually carry a charge of ‘I did not like this,’
      and that it’s often rather difficult to quantify what a videogame should
      mean if we take these out of the equation.

      I have one simple
      question: Can I INTERACT with it? And if the answer is yes – even
      something as simple as walking in a straight line – then we have
      gameplay.

      Whether or not it’s a BAD game is a whole other
      argument, and truthfully I just can’t see Proteus entertaining me much,
      but that’s less it’s fault and more exploration games in general can
      bore me.

      Now, Antichamber, that’s something I’m salivating for the relevant sale…

    • JordeeVee

      Perhaps it’s because I had recently watched the documentary, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” but Proteus had a powerful effect on me. The Japanese term, mono no aware, perfectly describes the beauty of Proteus; it’s in the appreciation of the minutiae – critters scurrying through a forest, wind passing through the leaves and other such ephemeral beauty – and it’s in observing the transience of things – the dead butterflies, changing seasons and eventually, an ending. To me, it was incredibly evocative of the fleeting beauty of life. 

      Had the game been longer than an hour it might have taken more than one session to finish, and thankfully it wasn’t because I feel Proteus should be consumed in one sitting as though you are living through an entire lifetime in a brief moment.

  • Tyler Mills

    I saw this on Steam and it interested me but I haven’t picked it up yet. Maybe I will eventually. Atmosphere is one of the biggest things I like about games and this seems to have loads of it.

    • Citric

      This is unrelated to your post, but I know a guy actually named Tyler Mills and I keep thinking “wait, is that? Nah, probably not” every time I see your posts.

      So if you are the guy I know, that would be an odd coincidence.

      • Tyler Mills

        Does Tyler Mills have red hair? And is he a super awesome guy?

        • Citric

          To answer the first question, no.

          To answer the second, I actually haven’t seen him for a couple years, so maybe?

  • http://kotaku.com/ Reposted_Kotaku_Comments

    Kingofallbananas

    WAH WAH IS IT A GAME OR IS IT NOT A GAME LETS WAG OUR TWATS OUT AND DEBATE THIS SHIT.

    YOU CONTROL AN AVATAR (REPRESENTED OR NOT) IN A DIGITAL WORLD FOR FUN AND ENTERTAINMENT. HENCE IT IS A VIDEOGAME ASSHATS.

    GET THE FUCK OVER IT.
     

    • Marozeph

      Capslock aside, that is quite accurate. Proteus wouldn’t work without interactivity, so it’s a game. Really not much to discuss there.

    • Tyler Mills

      Dang RKC, if I wanted to read Kotaku Comments I would read Kotaku articles. However, I wish to read Gameological comments, therefore I read Gameolocial articles. But seeing as your whole account seems like some kind of giant clever joke thingy meant to belittle Kotaku commenters in general your actions might just be justified.

      Might.

      • http://kotaku.com/ Reposted_Kotaku_Comments

        Tim Ramich

        Anybody should be allowed to say whatever they want. I don’t see how words can harm. You should be allowed to tell someone that you are going to kill them without being charged with a crime. There are tons of bullshitters out there who never follow through on their threats and people are just too paranoid and act like victims anymore. People can lie if they want. It’s up to you to filter out bullshit. You can lie in court, and then you will be charged for it. There is literally nothing stopping free will, but the two-party system tries to sell the kool-aid that they can stop behavior through law (each with their own different behaviors they want to stop).

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      My favorites are the ones I find myself reluctantly agreeing with.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

      It’s nice to see more full review writing from you, Mr. Kodner.
       This looks to be a preferable end of the night game than the aggressive death-orgies I usually play.

    • http://gameological.com/author/mattkodner/ Matt Kodner

      Thank you Mr. Mafia! 

      While I can definitely vouch that it’s a great way to wind down, I’m still looking forward to DLC that introduces gunpowder and swords that allow you to properly conquer and claim each island as your own. 

  • Chum Joely

    I think I need to check this out. I am absolutely furious at Mass Effect right now because, after finally, finally managing to wipe out a huge and vicious Geth assault on some ice planet (“Antibaar”?) on my way to the final confrontation at Ilos, I idiotically climbed back into the Mako without saving… and apparently it had taken critical damage while my squad wasn’t even in it, so we instantly died upon climbing inside. Kiiiiinda wishing I’d saved before that glitch. It’s OK, I only spent 45 minutes or so trying and retrying this battle.

    So yeah, I think I could see just hanging out with owls or something for a while.

  • Eco1970

    On the subject of game prices, I view any ratio of time-to-bucks that’s better than the that of a cinema ticket as a bargain.

  • ChicaneryTheYounger

    Does it have Orcs?

    • http://gameological.com/author/mattkodner/ Matt Kodner

      No orcs, but lots of adorable bunnies and flowers!

      • ChicaneryTheYounger

        What’s the point :(