Thursday, February 7, 2013


It's been a big time for Indie games. Several long-awaited titles have recently made their way to release, and the one I've currently been exploring is Proteus. Put simply, Proteus is a game in which you explore a simply-depicted island landscape over the course of four seasons to discover both its environs and, crucially, the accompanying music associated with each element. It is a journey through two landscapes: one visual, the other auditory, and the two are inseparable. Both components are impressionistic, or perhaps more accurately post-impressionistic in nature; the extremely limited detail on the visuals and the suggestive but not prescriptive sounds invite the player to mediate between Proteus and one's experience of the real world. The game also has a certain Romantic bent to it, being involved in most respects with nature and the natural. A small Norse-looking hut, some blackened ruins which are apparently towers, a few rows of weathered headstones and a circle of inscrutable totemic statues are the only artificial presences in Proteus' procedurally-generated environment.
I hope there are theories on the pixel that sticks out.
This leads me to the core concept of the structure of Proteus. Every time you play, the island is different. The actual components are the same, of course, but their arrangement and the composition of the landscape is never identical to a previous experience. Each game of Proteus replicates the same events in a randomised land: you open your eyes on the shore and explore over the course of the day. As the sun sets you pass into night, where gradually fairy-lights gather into a ring which accelerates time the closer you get to it. Stepping into the ring passes you onto the next phase, which is a similar day-night sequence in the following season with different music and events available. The game opens on a bright and fresh Spring which grows into a bold and busy Summer which itself fades to a stately, golden-leafed Autumn before passing finally to a quiet and solemn winter, at the end of which you rise into the sky and close your eyes.
Imagine nice music playing.
Proteus' greatest virtue, arguably, is its soundtrack. Your proximity to objects, the time of day, the season and even your elevation have an effect on what music is played, and everything from standing stones to trees to hopping pixellated animals add something different to that season's theme. I personally found Autumn at dusk to be a particularly enjoyable piece, which is complemented by moving from tree to tree and passing by flowers and stones. The music can become somewhat jumbled if rushed through, and so it's necessary for the Proteus player to take their time and savour the music, because it really is the main "object" of the game; otherwise you're just waiting for time to pass until it ends.
Proteus in the
the Spring.
The simple visuals are evocative of the days of games past, but they have their own unique charm and identity which contributes to the overall sense of reconnection with natural beauty and the simple pleasures of existence. One of the game's primary features, beyond the discovery of music, is unearthing many secrets hidden around the island which are activated at different times. For instance, visiting a grove of large trees with a particularly mighty specimen in the middle will, at the right time, cause a spectral fox or wolf head to peer out at you from behind the trunks, vanishing before you can get too close. Bees in Summer will chase you, increasing your movement speed, and a pair of exotic flying creatures will wend their way through the skies overhead. My personal favourite of these events is upon visiting the totem circle on an Autumn evening. In the Spring and Summer this causes the stars overhead to bulge and throb in a curious fashion, but in Autumn the sky also shifts into a singular red colour with an fittingly unearthly soundtrack, while waiting long enough manifests the appearance of a silhouetted Owl Man who hurries off into the night leaving a trail of stars in his wake. I daresay there are other secrets which I have not yet unearthed, and that is one reason for why I continue to play through Proteus.
A Mediterranean climate?
Proteus is fundamentally a contemplative experience where the player must progress through time from a distinct beginning to an unmistakeable end to achieve its object, and its reflections on the inevitability and indeed the necessity of change and the progression of time are effectively evoked through its simple mechanics as each stage presents to the explorer its auditory and visual stimulus. It is definitely conducive to a meditative and potentially introspective atmosphere in which the player can relax while also being mentally active. The game is, more or less, what each player makes of it and will be rewarding to those who engage their curiosity and desire to explore, but also who wish to consider, speculate and imagine. The game does not make demands; there is no interaction beyond movement, and the seasons before Winter progress at the players' choice, and as such it functions successfully as a catalyst for thought as an alternative to being an end in itself. In this sense it is valuable as an experience beyond its aesthetics, and it is the emotional and intellectual environment in which it places the player as well as the uniquely aesthetic one which has motivated me to play through several times.
"We go by many names..."
There has been some surprisingly fierce debate online as to whether Proteus truly constitutes a game given its simple premise and limited objectives. Labels like "art game" and "interactive experience" have been thrown around to better justify, in the eyes of doubters, the presence of Proteus on the scene. These concerns, however, are I think predicated on grounds which are not necessarily sensible. The issue with Proteus compared to much of what are termed "games" is that a "gamer" might not necessarily play Proteus or find it interesting if they did in the same way that they might not go to see an exhibition of Turner masterpieces at an art gallery; it's operating largely in a different medium to those with which most people playing games have become accustomed, which is to say games focused on story or action which have more in common with the mediums of literature and film.
There must be some Toros in the atmosphere.
That is, however, one of the great values of games - that they can operate within multiple media to achieve different effects. There may be little challenge beyond discovering the various events of the island, but the same can be said of engaging narrative-focused games like To the Moon where finding significant items was mostly a mechanic for keeping the interesting story going along. They may not follow all conventional game structures but they are no less valuable for that fact, and in many ways are more focused as a result. I don't believe that Proteus and work of its ilk should be ostracised from the medium of games purely because of unconventionalities; they simply serve to challenge the usual modes of expression found in other titles. On the other hand, Proteus is not an experience which everyone will appreciate, because it engages with other media and culture which is alien and irrelevant to many people, and some would struggle to justify even its modest price tag. Bearing its simplicity in mind, however, it should be rewarding to those of a certain sensibility and open eyes and ears.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.