Bonus Rounds are short, 5-minute musings on quirky titles that either end up hidden down the back of the sofa, or lost among the endless pile of Steam games and Bundles you own, but have never got around to playing. These could be reviews of PC, iOS or console games, Early Access titles, games made as part of a Game Jam, and so on. They’ll predominantly be games made by indie developers, and usually (but not always) published on a Sunday.
A couple of years ago the gaming industry saw a slight shift in direction, with many releases more akin to “player experiences” rather than interactive games – sometimes known derisively as “walking simulators”. Dear Esther took the form of a virtual ghost story, with the player exploring a bleak, deserted island. Gone Home took this a step further by constructing a wonderfully tense environment that directly fed into an expertly told narrative.
If both of these titles are to be considered virtual books, then Proteus should be considered a virtual oil painting, if oil paintings were made with pixels. With nothing in the way of storyline, apparent purpose, or guidance, you open your eyes to a brightly-colored, procedurally-generated island and left to discover its secrets alone. You’ve probably got it in your Steam library somewhere – it crops up regularly in bundles and Steam’s wallet-destroying regular sale events, often for as little as few pence. But have you actually played it? I mean, really sat down and tinkered with it for more than 5 minutes? If not, you should give it another shot.
Proteus provides a gorgeous looking environment – almost like a 3D interpretation of old Commodore 64 graphic adventure games like Twin Kingdom Valley or Zzzz. In an industry dominated by worlds full of brown, with often dark, moody environments, this was and still is a much needed breath of fresh air. The color change during the day / night cycle alone is worthy of a special mention and is a sight to behold. Thought hasn’t just been given to the visuals, either: as there is no text, nor instructions of any kind, sound is intrinsically woven into everything you experience. All of the wildlife, flora and fauna, are accompanied by a unique chip-tune sound or melody – creating a wonderfully discordant and immersive environment.
Proteus is very much about its environment then, using procedural generation to create a unique landscape every time you play. That island you’re on? I’s yours. Nobody else will have visited that island and your experiences are discoveries are all your own. Key landmarks do remain in order to draw your attention to specific points, albeit in different places each time – and herein lies Proteus‘ major weakness. Particular locations set off certain reactions, and once you start recognizing the same sets of stones, or a cabin, or a tree, a little of the mystery fades. Of course it’s not just about setting off these reactions (or is it?) – so much is left to you to discover that following a certain path or chasing a certain animal may just reap a different kind of reward (or will it?).
From a technical viewpoint, Proteus delivers the basics well enough. Due to its multiplatform release it features full controller support (a nice touch, as playing from the sofa with this hooked up to a large television is the way to go). There are a good range of screen resolutions are available all the way up to full HD and beyond (though it will always look pleasingly lo-fi) as well as changing the field of view. Due to the simplicity of the style, even when the clouds are rolling and the rain is falling, frame rates are solid throughout. If, however, you own a modestly powered PC or laptop, you can tweak the draw distance to compensate. I would love for it to have Oculus Rift support too; it would only serve to further enhance immersion of the alien, yet strangely familiar nature of the island.
Ultimately all this beauty, mystery and intrigue give Proteus a unique quality missing in so many titles these days. Of course your mileage will varym and will depend on whether or not you are willing to accept the fact that there are no instructions, no actions to be taken, and no conclusions to be had. Some may revel in the enigma, others may want a more action-orientated, structured experience. It’s certainly not for everyone. Regardless of these wants and needs, and playing it again years after its original release, Proteus remains one of those rare titles that everyone should experience at least once.