Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: Proteus

Developer: Ed Key and David Kanaga

Whenever a game like Proteus or Dear Esther comes out, the question on everyone's lips is, "Is this really a game?" It's such a fake question, but since it's going to be asked of anyone reading this review, let's get it out of the way. A game needs three things to be called a game: Controls, Goals and Anticipation. Here's what we mean:
  • Controls: Can you control your avatar's movement through the game world?
  • Goals: Is there a definitive goal that you are steering that character toward?
  • Anticipation: Are you expecting something when you get to that goal?
With Dear Esther, you can control your character's movement. You have a goal. You're anticipating what will happen when you reach that goal. Therefore, it's a game.

With Proteus, you control your character's movement. You set your own goals, much like Minecraft allows the player to do. You anticipate what will happen when you reach that goal. Therefore, it's a game.

Now that we have that philosophical wankery out the way, can we talk about Proteus itself? Thanks.

You really have to see this motion to get the full effect.
At the outset of Proteus, you awake floating in the water. Before you, you see the faint outline of an island. You move toward it, and music slowly comes alive around you. Your movements, what you see onscreen and what you're standing near affect the music, adding instruments or tones to it. There are no enemies to kill, no princesses to rescue, just you and a magically musical island. The seasons change from spring to summer, then to fall, then winter, and your time on the island is over.

Proteus brings you along with subtle nudges. "Hey, there's a snow-capped mountain. I wonder what the music sounds like there. Look, a flock of birds. I wonder what music they make? There's a gathering storm. I wonder what sound that will make?" The game itself doesn't have to set goals in front of the player, just let the player choose what they would like to see.

Every time you start the game anew, a new island is randomly generated. The islands have the same basic features on every one, but since the mix and match of colors and shapes is different on each, the music will be slightly different. If you specifically want to save the island you're on, you can take a "snapshot," which saves the state of the game and acts as a Save/Load system.

It's hard to tell you much about Proteus without spoiling it, but I will pinpoint two moments that blew me away: One, when a flock of birds ran away from me, chirping all the way, adding an extra bit of harmony to the background music, and two, when the season changed to winter. I believe I audibly gasped when that happened.

There are a few flaws. Once you've played through Proteus once, you can go back, start a new island and give it another go. There are a few subtle differences between islands, different creatures to find, new land formations and the like, but it doesn't appear that you're not going to find anything major, like new biomes or anything wildly out of the ordinary, which is a little disappointing.

There are also times where you find cool structures and would like to go back and visit them at a different time or season, but you can't remember where they are. There's no minimap, so you just have to remember where it was. This can be frustrating, especially in the winter season where visibility is reduced.

Also, while spring, summer, and the early part of autumn are neat, the transition from autumn to winter and winter itself are not quite as impressive. While winter looks really cool when you first see it, it quickly becomes frustrating as you try to figure out where you're going because of low visibility, and after a while, the game begins the ending process without so much as a warning. I also wish that the game would let you go back to spring once winter is through and keep on playing, but the developers may have had their reasons.

Proteus could maybe benefit from a few more game-like touches, like achievements (so you know the breadth of what you haven't seen yet) and a minimap (so you could see how much of the island you haven't found yet and find things on the island that you had previously found), but adding those in might destroy the delicate balance of solitude and exploration that Proteus has. I'm sure as more player feedback is added, the makers of Proteus will expand and deepen the world even more.

That being said, Proteus is a really incredible experience, although it's not for everyone. If you want a game where you can run around and shoot things, Proteus will bore you to tears. However, if you want a game where you can investigate and enjoy a strange new world, gasp at the sound of a flying owl, watch shooting stars light up the night sky, or just walk through an orchard of cherry blossoms as the falling blooms make gentle tinkling sounds, Proteus is magnificent.

Final Grade: B