Developer: twisted tree games
There was a promise made when we exhorted primitive pixels on a blank screen. A suggestion induced by the watercolour illustrations of videogame packaging. It was that the metaphors would transfer from the box art, through the television and into our hands. The pixels were indifferent however. They could instigate panic and excitement but not subtler shades of emotions. The atmospherics were not as convincing as we were led to believe, not as they were depicted in the watercolours.
Aesthetically Proteus could be mistaken for belonging to that era, nestled somewhere between the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64; struggling to convince its user of its assets and virtues…but Proteus doesn’t struggle, Proteus has realised what was promise in those primitive pixels.
Your starting point is a sleepy eyelid; it unseals revealing a first person perspective, a pixellated ocean and a distant (randomly generated) island. It is intensely familiar yet uniquely poised; as you drift ashore you think of Minecraft and the elder scrolls, but with your first step onto the sand, that all falls away. You are greeted with a paroxysm of sound and the subsequent minutes have you wandering through trees to a deluge of phonic tonal fluctuations; ethereal blips and beeps derived from the environment.
The Island generates a cosy feeling of refuge, facilitated by the harmonics of nature’s chanting. Melodic frogs hop around donating playful tunes, mischievous creatures chat and retreat into the earth as you approach them. The only ominous find is blackened castle ruins with their crazed organ accompaniment; the walls cannot be breached; you only regulate the crossfade of its noise.
As you explore more of the island, it is natural to wonder about an objective. You realise there has not been any tangible interactions, in terms of collectibles or goals. But then it dawns on you; perhaps the objective is discovering your auditory perception of the world. “Each element in the world could have a “voice” that would combine to make a shifting soundscape as the player explores.” explains creator Ed Key. “The music forms a kind of subjective reaction to the world. We (David Kanaga generates the soundtrack) also modify the world according to the shifts in subjective experience of the player’s “character”.”
The goal I had been looking for was with me from the start. Under further analysis Proteus has mechanisms of sounds and they craft a type of phonology; relationships of audio forming the components of a language. A language that the ignorant or impatient might admonish because Proteus eschews many traditional game elements.
Ed felt that a lot of these elements were detrimental to the experience; “Players and developers often feel like there should be “enemies” or scores. The point about enemies and challenge has been evident in some players’ reactions to Fez. Basically I think that if you’re making a truly experimental or heartfelt game you should just follow it wherever it takes you and don’t add elements just because of expectations. Add things when they make sense to what the games means to you.”
My epiphany with the function of Proteus suddenly opens up all sorts of questions; what happens phonically when I stand in the ocean while it is raining? How is the ambience of a mountaintop affected when I am engulfed in a cloud? They are questions that you set yourself, not obligatory but compulsively so.
The most significant question I asked was; what are those large stone edifices for?
Walking by them releases a boom of reverberation that harmonises with the syntax of the landscape. It is like an outpouring of musical notes; resonating upwards as a hard wind blows through the island. As the sun sets, the sounds you have released congregate around a formation of rocks, they pirouette before you. It is one of those moments that only this medium can induce; a spectacle of pure amazement. The skyline fast-forwards in a rapid advancement of a day and night cycle; precipitous clouds shoot pass, the rise and fall of the sun applauding you as you step into the swirling mass of sound, and as you do; the season changes.
Summer bristles with a buoyant hand clap, as intonations bounce around the terrain. There is a confident swagger in the parade of birds and the screaming of bees, flowers sway in unison. This season literally bursts through the screen; both visually and phonically it feels like a solstice which you want to be infinite. But you know nature’s portal collects somewhere on the island. There is that desire to see what the next state of the terrain is like and when you enter; autumn’s sombre mood is a stark contrast. The oranges and browns of the fall bring a tone of sadness. Proteus switches to being contemplative, there are few animals here and those that you find are absorbed in foraging. Winter is even more despondent, with no signs of life it feels initially suppressive. Low laying clouds try to reach out to the floor, the urgency to scramble to higher ground is irascible but then the snow comes, a calm washes over you.
There are certain moments when Proteus doesn’t feel like any other game, it shows you the rare minutiae of life; the feeling of watching snow gliding to meet an ocean turned to ice or salmon pink clouds illuminated by the winter sun above. These instants are neither searched nor scripted; they just happen whether you are there or not.
Ed has observed that when people explore; “various trails (literal paths and those created by animals) overlap through the terrain and interact with the positions and views of landmarks to create a kind of “flow” through the world.”
You get a sense of this flow even though you are not bound to it. Screenshots or even watching the game in motion is unrevealing. You must navigate them yourself to understand, with your eyes and ears.
The influences that helped create Proteus are varied but not responsible for its uniqueness. Ed personally cites Brian Eno phonically, and an animation by Yuriy Norshteyn called hedgehog in the fog. “Purely by structure, I think Nifflas’ “Knytt” was very important to me. That simple exploration with no obligation to fight enemies or solve puzzles felt really bold. Graphically I think I was a little inspired by people like Cactus who make fantastic, garish, bold, low res graphics that have a ton of personality and style.”
At the time of writing Proteus is not yet complete but I asked Ed about his plans for the future. Is he looking to challenge conventions or build on existing foundations within the medium? He talks about Himalayan expeditions, the hardships of covering immense distances and scaling huge mountains. It makes me think of journey but its linearity does not fit in from what I have experienced on this pixellated island. It felt like an escape, perhaps from the monotony of life, but maybe it is an escape from the trappings of the videogame. The guns, the fetch quests and the boss fights are not evident here. There are not many places you can find that outside of Proteus.
Pre-order Proteus here
This is early experimental gameplay footage