Platforms: PS3 | PS Vita (cross-buy, £9.99)
Developer: Ed Key | David Kanaga
Publisher: Curve Studios
Halfway between a gorgeous abstract adventure game, screensaver, electronic musical instrument and pleasant recurring dream, Proteus exists in a world of its own.
It is a world of its own. Proteus plonks us on a procedurally-generated island and simply lets us explore; climbing mountains, trekking through forests and gawping at genuinely beautiful vistas as the seasons change around us, all the while tickling our eardrums with a profoundly soothing dynamic soundtrack. The directionless approach ended up severely splitting opinion when the PC version launched earlier this year, with many players decrying it as pretentious nonsense while others defended its minimalistic overtones.
Luckily I have the answers. Put simply: Proteus is your happy place, somewhere you can go to relax and unwind in a totally stress-free environment. Thanks to a new cross-buy Vita and PS3 version from the inestimable Curve Studios, we can now visit it on the train.
You'll open your eyes knee-deep in surf, beholding a unique island rendered in eyecatching minimalistic blocks of colour like a post-impressionist painting. Up hills and down dale, across the plains, from mountaintop to sandy shore, you're free to roam anywhere you like, and to set forth into this lovely dreamlike wilderness as the year gradually advances from Spring to Winter. There are no preset objectives, no scoreboard or challenge, just us and the island. Instead of interacting with the world through the barrel of a gun or a cursor, you'll instead influence the island in small and subtle ways just by being there; a startled owl here or ripple there. "Go," says Proteus. "Explore."
There is a beginning and an end, a narrative of sorts, and a few questions thrown up by some of the more suggestive scenery elements. "Who am I?," you'll ask. "Who left these mysterious ruins?" "Why am I here, and who's buried beneath this gravestone?" It's possible to endlessly debate some of these mysteries, but Proteus leaves it entirely up to player interpretation rather than actually providing a traditional storyline. If you're the kind of gamer who lives for the 'would you kindly' moment, there's nothing like that here, rather the emphasis is entirely on simply experiencing and exploring the island for its own sake.
It's so beautiful. Despite being procedurally-generated, Proteus' islands feel like they've been meticulously curated and hand-crafted, the abstract visuals conspiring to present any number of profoundly wonderful moments. Perhaps you'll behold the sun setting behind a stone circle or the rain sweep in over a graveyard festooned with cherry blossoms. A lone cabin stands proud against the horizon, its inhabitants long-gone, now overtaken by barren winter. The joy of Proteus stems entirely from appreciating these random yet profound moments, and knowing that you were there.
You could also argue that Proteus is more of a musical instrument than a traditional videogame - perhaps the logical evolution of the theremin. Like the theremin's pitch changes depending on distance between the operator's hand and the antennae (a gross oversimplification, but work with me here), Proteus' dynamic electronic soundtrack changes and shifts as you draw closer to scenery objects and animals, all of which have their own distinct sounds. Mysterious ruins emit distorted bagpipe riffs, mushrooms burst forth with discordant melodies as you approach, frogs honk and hop, while trees and mountains all broadcast a soothing ambient groove. Curious players can, well, play it, while enjoying the relaxing juxtaposition with the dreamlike visuals and stress-free gameplay.
The cross-buy PSN version emulates Proteus in its entirety, with a little visual cleanup to retain fidelity on larger screens. As you'd expect, the Vita's OLED screen brings a whole new dimension of crispness and clarity to the experience. A few new procedural generation options are on offer, including a GPS-based seed mode if you own a Vita 3G model, leading to some pleasingly bizarre geometry on occasion. The Vita's touchscreen also presents an interesting if somewhat underutilised new opportunity to directly affect the environment in a fairly minor cosmetic way, which I'm loathe to spoil (Proteus arguably needs to retain a few surprises). Otherwise it's a competent, no-nonsense port.
Most importantly, the Vita version becomes a perfect way to relax and unwind after a long day. Just grab a pair of decent noise-cancelling headphones and the bustling tube carriage melts away around you, along with your worries and cares. You can carry your happy place with you wherever you go.
Proteus definitely isn't for everyone. Indeed, any number of players angrily railed against it at launch, branding it pretentious, directionless and pointless... and in all honesty I can understand their point of view even if I don't share it. Abstract adventure games can and have included more interesting statements, storylines, themes and real gameplay; the superlative (and unfair comparison) Journey notwithstanding, MirrorMoon EP does a much finer job of letting you explore a procedurally-generated minimalist universe. There are times when it feels just a little too much like a painting and not enough like a game, especially when you learn the knack to advancing the seasons.
But if you're a curious soul who cares more about experiencing and experimenting rather than noscopes and following checkpoints, this fascinating and pensive indie title will add another dimension to your gaming life, and a change of perspective that shows how uniquely inclusive and creative the medium can be.
- Fosters exploration and curiosity without obtrusive hand-holding
- Phenomenal dynamic soundtrack encourages you to play with it
- Soothing and evocative; genuinely beautiful minimalistic visuals
- Procedurally-generated islands feel painstakingly curated
- Near-total lack of direction, traditional gameplay and challenge will thoroughly infuriate and disappoint many players
- There are more interesting abstract exploration games on the market
- £9.99 is appropriate and fair, but can feel like a big ask if you don't cross-buy
The Short Version: Proteus is a lovely little world of its own. Somewhere to retreat to, to explore, to simply enjoy being in as it creates an evolving soundtrack around you. Though light on traditional notions of 'gameplay,' this gorgeous stress-free curio will become your new happy place if you let it.