Gaming Feature: Pixel Postcards from Proteus

A picture of the start screen from Proteus.

Proteus is an Experience, with a capital E. It’s one of those games that makes me think… nay, feel! It makes me feel emotions as I play, with its dynamic music and plethora of curious and, at times, intimidating sounds. And it makes me feel like a sophisticated, clever, mature Indie-savvy fellow just for having played it. But is Proteus a game that’s actually worth playing?

Postcards

A picture of Spring blossom trees from Proteus

Speaking as someone who doesn’t normally play Indie titles, this game is a bit of a mixed bag. It does offer a genuinely new experience. But that experience is entirely encapsulated within what is essentially a pixelated 8-bit exploration sim. There’s atmosphere and immersion, but no overt gameplay objectives or goals. The only real gameplay “feature” that there is other than moving through the environment is that you can take screenshots, or “postcards” as the game calls them, and you are actively encouraged to do so via a provided hotkey. In a way, you can start to feel like you’re doing a lo-fi version of what Dead End Thrills does! Speaking as an amateur photographer myself, it can be enjoyable to hang around, compose something, and wait for the right weather conditions or time of day to make the picture more interesting. But that’s probably just me!

Other than that, it’s all about exploration.

Exploration

A picture of a pathway in the rain from Proteus.

The pathway beckons you on…

Proteus revolves around the idea of procedurally generated islands. You get a new island every time that you play – if you quit, that’s it: you hold down ESC, your character’s eyes close, and the island is gone. You start again the next time with a new island – there’s no persistence like in Minecraft. This doesn’t really matter as you don’t need too long to explore what an island has to offer.

The environment of each island has various mysterious elements. At one point I encountered a house, just sitting there, with no sign of inhabitants. There are things that look like gravestones spread all over the island, and rings of standing stones. There are odd structures that look like demolished towers (or felled massive trees) which elicit strange and creepy music when you get close to them. You black out temporarily if you touch them. On every island there’s a hill with statues that look like tribal totems. All of this suggestion of previous inhabitation increases the feeling of aloneness, a little bit like Journey perhaps.

A picture of broken towers from Proteus.

Strange things are happening on the island…

As you explore the island, you begin to encounter the game’s dynamic 8-bit-sounding music, that changes with the weather and where you are on the island. The island also has many varied sound effects, again influenced by where you are and also by what’s near you. Pass a group of crabs and you’ll get an appropriate 8-bit scuttling sound effect, but it’s kind of abstract, like an odd sort of tinkling music. There are strange sentient blobs all over the island, and little faeries (Navis!) that will chirrup happily at you as you pass. Try and chase a bunny across the plains, and you’ll hear its hops to a strange harp-like tune. If you want to know more about this, this blog article does a better job of explaining and exploring the game’s music and sounds than I could!

These sounds and changes in music are very atmospheric, and at times can be intimidating. I played this game blind, having deliberately not read too much about it before hand. The isolation of lone exploration and lack of feedback from the game, combined with the weird signs of inhabitation and odd noises, made me become a little paranoid – are there natives? Am I trespassing, or is this some sort of joke? Is Slenderman going to pop out from behind that next tree with Rick Astley and have a karaoke session? But no, nothing like that happens. This is a fluffy, friendly game where the player is never actually in any peril.

A picture of trees, mist, and snow from Proteus.

So is Proteus worth playing?

You may well ask. Even though Proteus is rather abstract and lacks in objectives and challenges, I still believe in calling this a game, in that there is an exploration process that you can follow that leads to an ending of sorts on each island. I’m hesitant to go into too much detail, as it is actually worth experiencing it for yourself, but basically there’s a mechanism that you can use to fast forward through the various seasons, which leads you to an eventual conclusion. This entire process takes about 30-40 minutes, probably less if you rush it.

Will you play it more than once or twice? Probably not. I’ve played for about an hour since I bought it more than a week ago. It just doesn’t necessarily have much replay value – at least, not for adults.

I’ve been thinking. This game seems like something to introduce a child to before letting them loose on the likes of Minecraft and games with actual peril in them. More than that, it seems like an excellent potential learning tool for children. I’m not the only one who thought of this, as I found a blog by a primary school teacher who has used the game as just that – a tool to prompt learning. And he got results! It’s great to see games being used this way, and it increases the potential value of Proteus considerably.

“Blissfully, we glided through the inky blue, glassy waters as blue as diamonds, we wade through the waters to a distant bay…” – a quote from one of his students – gaming-inspired poetry!

A picture of a sunset through the trees from Proteus.

I said at the beginning of this piece that Proteus is an Experience. As a result, you do have to experience it yourself to really understand how it can make you feel. It may have no effect on you whatsoever, in which case you will be very bored. But if it does happen to pique your interest, connect with you, and immerse you in its Proteus-ness, it actually is quite a special experience. The atmosphere of the changing seasons, the sounds of the strange blobby creatures, the unexplained structures of the island, the sense of exploring alone and being influenced by the island’s mysterious forces… all of this combines to create an original, unique experience.

All in all, I think Proteus offers something to the games industry and indeed to games as learning. It’s the latest in a line of voxel-based games that are trying to do something different.

Is it actually worth playing? Yes. Is it worth the money they’re asking? Perhaps not – I would suggest waiting for a Steam sale or Humble Bundle (I bet it’ll be in the next one) to get the most bang for your buck. But it’s up to you.

What do you think about Proteus? Comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Gaming Feature: Pixel Postcards from Proteus

  1. I think it looks gorgeous, but I am sad it doesn’t have the replay value that I would expect for its current price point. I kind of wish they had worked something more in there, even if it was just a Pokemon Safari style ‘take pictures of things’.

    • Totally. It needs another element to have replay value I think.

      One thing that would be good is if you could collect a history of islands you’ve completed – like with time played, how many creatures you interacted with, etc. Or some photography type gameplay like you say. Also it seems like those weird towers should do something, not sure what though! Maybe they’ll do a gameplay patch in future that adds a little extra.

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