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.
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.
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.
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.