Time means everything in Proteus. It helps us understand the game’s semblance of a story–otherwise known as the passage of the game’s four seasons–and helps players come to terms with the product itself. Proteus has baffled video game essayists and players alike since its release in January, sparking a debate over the term “non-game” that led to game creator Ed Key to weigh in on the matter: “Proteus was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things. None of that is really important, because the proof is in the playing.” This reviewer agrees with Key’s point, but it’s important to understand games in a variety of contexts. Proteus is significant on its own, but it also exists as an entry into an increasingly long line of games that perform beyond their intended programming.
Games have reached a level of versatility that most gamers probably refuse to consider or simply forget about when they step up to the virtual plate. There are entire lesson plans created around the idea of using Minecraft in the classroom. A playthrough of Valve’s Portal has been paired with a sociology book for a course at Wabash College. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found a heart-warming report of Proteus being used as an inspiration for creative writing in younger children. Games are tools, education, entertainment, exploratory pieces, surrealism, audio-video experiences, dream sequences, puzzles, action set pieces, allegories, inspiration, and much, much more. So when you first step into Proteus‘ randomly generated world without direction or purpose, know that it is gaming, too.
You walk and look around in Proteus (with the help of WASD + a mouse), but not much else is done to experience the world Ed Key and musician David Kanaga have dreamt up. Players generate a world and are dropped directly into the vivacious colors and chunky textures without instruction or purpose. Meander through the field of green and find yourself under a tree that happens to chime with every leaf that floats down. Hike to miniature mountaintops and listen to the chill of the wind as you do, then investigate some crudely carved statues that defy explanation. Watch a sunset or four and marvel at the wonders that nighttime brings to the island. Proteus has no defined way of play, and you can try to defy it however you wish. In one playthrough I set a hairbrush on my mouse so that I would continue to walk across the ocean and into the horizon. The passage of time stops for no one in Proteus, so I was treated to twinkling stars cast out over the ocean and a peaceful soundtrack for some light reading.
Proteus is an audio-visual experience, so I’d be remiss not to mention how integral the sound is to consuming what this game has to offer. Certainly, the dancing fauna of summer is a treat for the eyes, but the thick, syrupy synth rhythms give a hallucinogenic quality that makes the season disorienting to step into. Proteus morphs Sound Shapes‘ ability to create a musically-based world into a world that can’t separate itself from music. Frogs hit their high notes as you chase their bouncing bodies across the landscape, the falling leaves of trees can be become sorrowful tunes to pass by in autumn, and the strange teleportation-enabling ruins emit an electronic hiss as you approach. Every object and being within Proteus is a unique chime and you, the player, are a glorious gust that never stops.
Proteus requires a desire to explore, something that every gamer ostensibly possesses but is rarely asked to use. Much like thatgamecompany’s Journey, Ed Key pushes a spiritual experience that feels fresh immediately upon entry. Yes, it lasts about an hour. Yes, it is enchantingly poetic. And yes, it is deserving of as much play as open-minded gamers are willing to give it.