The digital god, Proteus
Proteus is an ancient Greek god, called “The Old Man of the Sea”. His name carries the weight of newness, of lives left unlived and a world untouched by man. This is the impression Proteus, a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga, gives us: it is a new world for us to explore.
Inspired by taking walks in real life, along with aimless travels in video games, Proteus bottles and sells the feeling of discovery, the thrill of cresting a hill to see what’s on the other side. It gives us a world full of wonders and lets the player walk around in it, taking discovery at its own pace.
But Proteus does even more than that. It doesn’t just put us in a world and lets us explore, it creates a reality where the only thing we want is to cross over the next hill.
A Reactive Environment
What sets Proteus apart in terms of exploration is how it so effortlessly puts us in a foreign world, yet that world is so reactive to us. Its reactivity is portrayed via music.
The developers have called the game the Proteus EP, a call back to the extended play record, which contained a single song and a couple B-sides, the forerunner to the single song download. Proteus is all about the music. It’s not just songs, though; the world reacts to your presence with musical cues. Climb over hills into different biomes and the soundtrack will gradually shift its emphasis, changing the mood. Find a strange object and an audio cue will add to the song. Find a frog and marvel at how its chirping slides into the song at hand.
More than visual, Proteus wants to tell you the story of your journey through the sounds you hear. Its procedural music reminds me of Flower from thatgamecompany, the titular plants chirping as you pass them. Proteus channels a very similar idea: exploration as an aural act. Instead of listening to nature, you’re listening to an artist’s rendition of nature, much like how the pixellated trees approximate foliage.
Everything reacts to you, too. Every major change to the environment will be wrought by you, the player. The seasons don’t change on their own—you are master of their whims. You are like Proteus, not the game but instead the god: frolicking through a world untouched by human hands, shaping it with the force of your will.
There are no puzzles in Proteus, nothing that would so easily approximate to a “video game”. You can find mysteries, and they approximate puzzles, “gameplay”, but these are old concepts unwelcome in the new world. Ignore them and the game will let you wander indefinitely through its valleys, singing songs of your movements.
It’s much how I’d imagine a Greek god would feel.
But what’s the point?
My favorite discussion from this interview with Ed Key on DIYGamer involves someone having posted about the game on the Garry’s Mod forum, and the readers being afraid to play it because of a ghost in one of the screenshots. That one picture gave meaning to the game, and suddenly it became a horror title. This begs the question: without goals, is Proteus a blank slate devoid of anything interesting besides what is prescribed onto it?
The blank slate world is precisely what makes Proteus fascinating. It’s the video game equivalent of a long walk on the beach, everything changed and adapted to fit the medium. Rather than provide hyper-realism to “walking around” like modern blockbusters like Skyrim offer, Proteus translates the entire experience to fit the medium. Video games often try to create a sense of serene wanderlust, but they fail because we can tell the difference between really walking around in the woods and walking down a snowy path in Skyrim.
In a sense, Skyrim falls into the uncanny valley of valleys. Proteus gives us a hyper-unreal world where absolutely nothing could be confused for real life, and yet it succeeds at placing us out in nature, because Proteus places us in nature as a video game ought perceive it. Instead of trees we have pixels; instead of the sounds of birds, of running water we have a twinkling soundtrack. And yet it feels more real, because it lets us imagine so much more. Skyrim places us in a pale facsimile of actual nature. Proteus gives us nature in the abstract, letting the player’s imagination run wild with their own knowledge, to create their own natural world from the digital building blocks of an indie game.
Instead of trying to put us outside, Proteus lets us imagine the feeling of being outside, the smell of flowers carried by the wind brushing against our face, a toad croaking in the distance. Instead of telling or even showing, Proteus wants us to show ourselves the beauty of the natural world.
(Proteus has just recently been released in beta form here at a discounted price of seven and a half clams, if by clams I meant American Dollars.)