Sometimes a game comes along that reminds us why we play games. Games are about escaping—a way for us to go somewhere else and play a part in a story. Some of them let us create our own stories, some lead us along, and some slowly unfold around us.
You wake up mid-day standing in the ocean. An island is barely visible in the distance. You could keep wandering around the sea, but you decide to travel to the island. Strange creatures hop and buzz, the trees around you seem to sing, and here and there you’ll find ruins that tell you a wordless tale. This is how Proteus begins.
The game is similar to Dear Esther or Journey, in that it revolves heavily around exploration and does very little to push you along. The story is based solely on your own interpretation, although anyone familiar with the Greek legend of Proteus (the old wise man on the island) may have a little more to go off of.
The world of Proteus undergoes a transformation each night. Stars flow down from the heavens and gather in a circle, and if you want, you can go and stand in the center of that circle. The world starts to spin around you, the sun passes over the sky, and when things become clear again, you’ll find that the world has changed.
Proteus takes you through the four seasons, starting with Spring and ending in Winter. Each night it moves to the next season, and you’ll be in a very different world from the last.
It’s much deeper than just a game about seasons though. Proteus, to me, is a reflection on life and death.
When you start, the world is filled with wonder. You want to chase its bouncy rabbit-things, run through its fields, and dance among its stars. Then it moves to the Summer, and suddenly the world is brighter and you want to explore its mysteries—and there are many places and creatures in Proteus that will affect the world in strange or pleasant ways when you stand near them.
The music, meanwhile, accompanies you on this journey, and changes with every season, and with everything you encounter.
When the game switched to Fall, you’ll find the world around you has begun to die. Most of its creatures are gone. You hear a shuffling sound and find the swarms of bird-like animals are now fluttering helplessly on the ground. New plants can be seen here and there, and there are clouds and fog for you to find your way through.
Then Winter comes, and the world is dead and frozen. You wander through it as its last drop of life.
But there is a sort of redemption at the end, and it’s something I won’t spoil for you. It took me completely by surprise, and brought Proteus to a perfect end.
What I found genuinely interesting about Proteus is that it could evoke an emotional response in me, without any words, combat, or what we’d think of as the conventional character. It’s difficult to make someone feel an emotional connection to a piece of art, whether it be a painting, a movie, or a game—but Proteus does it.
Proteus makes you appreciate its world, and makes you feel sorry for it as it fades into Winter. It reminds me of an old Chinese poem: “Deeply I sign for the falling flowers in vain.”
My own story revolved heavily around a massive tree. I found it in the Spring, and ran around beneath it for a brief moment before running up a mountain to see what was on top. In the Summer, I walked past it while looking for a circle of carvings I found earlier. In the Fall, I searched for it, hoping it wasn’t dying with the rest of the world, and I stood beneath it in that Fall night and it illuminated the now dull world around me. In Winter I searched for it again, and when I found it dead, I genuinely felt sad.
Now, there are a few things I’d like to mention. Part of me couldn’t help but think this game would be wonderful with realistic graphics. I think it would be stunning. But I can also understand why the developers chose to go with the dreamy pixelated look. There’s a concept in poetry that you need to make the familiar strange. In other words, if you show a person something they’re already familiar with, they won’t analyze it and you won’t be able to evoke an emotional response. You need to take what they’re familiar with and show them a side to it they’ve never seen before. The graphics in Proteus achieve this, in their own way. You know a tree when you see one. You assume the bouncing thing is a rabbit, or the buzzing things are bees, but it shows them in a way that makes you want to interact with them instead of saying “oh, bees,” and just moving along.
The game is also very short. Expect a good 30 minutes or so of gameplay, although you’ll likely return a few times to seek out the many things you missed the first time around. You’ll be paying $10 for your time in Proteus. Think of it as buying a movie ticket, to a calming and deep film. Proteus is short, but it’s also just as long as you’d want it. It’s also enjoyable and leaves you thinking afterwards.
Proteus reminded me why indie games are so important to the world of gaming. We need a game this daring, that’s not afraid to try something so completely different, and explore new forms of storytelling. Bravo to Ed Key and David Kanaga for taking us on this journey.