In the last review, things got slightly dark, and we went to some strange messed-up places filled with strange, messed-up…..things. Let’s just leave it at that and shift gears a little bit. I know my mandate states that I review story-rich indie games, and I do. But of course, there has to be the odd exception. Sometimes a game comes along that doesn’t require a nuanced story in order to be powerful and captivating. The game I have in mind does have a sliver of direction to it, though it does fall into the category of ‘interpret it however you like’. Without further a-dyoo, I give you the enigmatic Proteus.
Before discussing the game in any depth, let’s first brush up on some history. In Greek mythology, Proteus was an early sea-god, possibly the first-born son of Poseidon, which would explain the name (from the Greek ‘protos’, meaning first). Proteus was meant to represent the constantly changing nature of the sea. The sea is formless, without shape, forever altering its dimensions on the climate and the time of year. Indeed, it is from the deity Proteus that we derive the adjective ‘protean’, which we use to describe something adaptable, changeable, or capable of assuming many forms. Some descriptions of Proteus even include the ability to see the future (more on that later). Fascinating stuff, right? I am actually going somewhere with this though. The main reason I bought this game was that I had read that the music and ambiance adapted to your presence within the environment, and the surroundings were in constant flux. The geography of the landscape is supposed to be procedurally generated so that it is different with every playthrough. These reasons alone were enough to make me pull the trigger on it. Reports of the rich soundtrack and the beautiful big-pixel art style sealed the deal.
The game loads up. As we begin, we open our eyes and discover we’re in the middle of the sea. Already the connection with the Proteus deity theme seems well-deserved. Travelling in all other directions yields nothing fascinating, so I make for the only land visible. The moment I take those first few tentative footsteps on the beach, I start beaming uncontrollably; walking onto the beach causes the soundtrack to kick in. An achingly beautiful aural soundscape grips from the outset, which is made all the more stunning as it seems as if it was made purely by synthesizer.
As advertised, the soundtrack is exquisitely married to the game art. And the art….I never thought an environment so pixelated could be so beautiful. I wander past trees, along beaches and over hills, soaking it all in like a wine stain on a white shag-pile carpet. Completely immersed in this world of rich beauty and entrancing music, I feel like I’m taking a long, relaxing bath in warm fudge cake. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Even though I’ve had all this swirling in my head, it’s still pretty much within the first two or three minutes of gameplay, and I haven’t travelled too far. A moment of additional exploration reveals perhaps my favourite element of the game: the wildlife. Get within touching distance of with any of the various fauna dotted around the island, and you’re rewarded with playful arias from upbeat keyboards as they react to your presence. Due to the big pixel art it’s tough to discern the actual animals encountered, but there are what I believe to be frogs, rabbits, crabs and flightless birds, each with their own musical idiosyncrasies. I’ve never felt more like a 5-year-old by walking up to a flock of the birds and sending them scurrying away with pitter-patters of high-pitched keyboard notes ringing in my ears. Even if the whole game consisted of simply repeating that over and over, I wouldn’t get bored!
As I watch from a hilltop, the sun begins to set and the colour of the sky slowly morphs from pale blue through to an ever-darkening palette of yellows, oranges and reds until the moon rises and night is summoned. Pinprick points of starlight begin poking their way out of the night sky fabric. The tone in music becomes softer and takes on a dreamlike quality. I explore more, and come across some small, ethereal wisps. They lead me to a clearing where countless other wisps are all converging at the centre of a stone circle. Again I start beaming; the wisps are swirling around in a circle on the ground. Excitement rising and instincts kicking in, I enter the circle.
What happens next happens very quickly. The sun and moon start flashing past in fractions of a second, as if a giant finger has hit ‘Fast Forward’ on the day/night cycle. Shooting stars thread the sky, and the screen gets brighter and brighter until the whiteness is blinding. Clearly something big and transcending is happening. Like a sailor holding their breath at the crest of huge wave, I hold mine as I anticipate what’s on the other side…
It soon becomes apparent that the game is split up into stages, and the stages represent the different seasons. After this ‘transition’ the game’s colour palette has become brighter and more vibrant, and the sun sizzles in the sky. Summer has arrived! The animals I encounter are different too: hordes of flying insects are everywhere, and approaching a swarm of charging bees provides a moment’s speed boost as I sprint for cover.
As one would expect, each season has its own quirks and characteristics. Getting to autumn, the mood turns more somber as the trees start to lose leaves, rain is more prevalent and the flying insects are dying in droves. Though the transition between seasons is much the same each time, with the night-time wisps converging on the stone circle and the sun/moon time-lapse, the animation preceding winter is slightly different. Just before the time-lapse is triggered, I get a quick vision of snow, fog and bare trees before reverting back to the stone circle scene at night. Remember earlier when I said that the god Proteus was able to glimpse the future? Sure enough, after the transition, the exact same setting materializes.
However, winter is different. Instead of music, winter’s theme consists of an orchestral choir singing a simple, repetitive chant; quite reminiscent of the opening theme to the ‘re-imagined’ Battlestar Galactica. It feels melancholic with an air of finality about it, like the end is coming. Then, as I walk, I begin to get the curious, inescapable feeling that my feet are leaving the ground and I’m being pulled upwards. Wait, I really am! What’s happening? Can I fly now? Am I dead and this is my spirit ascending? Rising above the clouds, I look round, and am awe-struck by surely the most beautiful big pixel northern lights display ever rendered. I’m still rising, but I no longer feel no fear or confusion. This feels right, like it was inevitable, the peace washes over me like the light from the moon and those fantastic lights. My character closes their eyes, the game ends.
Just, wow. This game was a true journey. It’s very hard to analyse my response to it; each season left its own impressions and influences on me. Spring was young and playful, summer was bright and busy. Autumn was forlorn and foreboding, and winter was final yet peaceful. A few minutes after the game ends, whilst furiously processing the final scene and trying to pinpoint the underlying allegory….it hits me. In a way, the game is a metaphor for the life cycle. Playful in one’s youth, busy in one’s adulthood, worrying in one’s middle age and peaceful and accepting in one’s twilight years. Another thing I think it teaches us is how quickly life travels. Forever changing, forever forcing one to adapt, it never stays truly constant from one moment to the next. If only there were a certain adjective we could derive from the game’s title that accurately describes this quality…
I had a ton of fun with Proteus. Yes, there’s no real story and you have to go looking for it a little, but like poetry, it can be profound when you find your interpretation of it. The sense of wonder and excitement when first exploring your beautiful surroundings is uplifting. The game art, pixelated and low-res, is astonishingly pleasing to the eye. The ‘interaction factor’ through the music and wildlife chasing is extremely addictive. If you, like me, intend to use this game as your go-to for stress relief, I highly recommend adjusting the day-length settings to give yourself longer in the spring and summer months. Field-of-view is also fun to mess around with.
At £6.99 on Steam, I think it’s a steal, even if the game only lasts about an hour. At the end of long day at the office, or an argument with a loved one, Proteus is escapism at its finest, for the price of two large cups of coffee. No-brainer in my view.
Letter grade: A-
Thank you all for reading, and stay tuned for a new review soon!