Proteus Preview — Exploring a Mystical, Empty World

You awaken in the ocean not far from a mysterious island in the pixely first-person adventure Proteus. The island rears up before you, and with no memory of how you got here or why, it glitters like a jewel and demands to be explored. And as you come ashore, the mysticism of the place takes hold; its soft colors, gentle sounds and remnants of some past occupation.

Except the island is mostly empty. As you walk the beaches and fields of Proteus, you’ll discover a lot of interesting things, but never another soul. It’s a game of “pure exploration and discovery,” as it’s described on its website, and thus you’re more the interested observer than interactive participant as you move about the island.

Developed by Twisted Tree Games, Proteus reminds of a few of the popular indies that have sprung up recently. Its graphics, low-res and high color as they are, remind of the pixelated fields of Minecraft. The empty island and the emphasis on exploration, with the lack of ability to interact much with the world around you, call upon Dear Esther. Proteus manages to be something else though – it’s a strange experience, in which the world visually and audibly wraps around the player. Each time the game is loaded, the world is procedurally generated, and different objects and areas project themselves into the game world through an ambient soundtrack that shifts depending on where the player is and what he or she is seeing.

At first, there doesn’t appear to be a lot to Proteus. Stepping on the shores of my island, I first glimpsed empty fields as I started to trudge inland, wondering what to expect. It wasn’t long before I discovered a brown path weaving between pink trees and cutting across rolling green hills, so I followed that for a bit. A frog (I guess – he was pretty squarish) caught site of me and leapt away as I approached, giving off a twinkling sound. I chased him for a few moments, but could never catch up.

Ahead on some cliffs I saw black spires; approaching them, they more resembled castles or towers, and they give off ominous musical cues as I came close. But I couldn’t enter them, and they don’t appear to offer anything more in information.

As I continued, the sun reached midday and I discovered flat rocks arranged in a line, not unlike tombstones. They came together in a ring in a low basin; above it was a hill littered with strange statues that looked like ancient warriors. Everything was surreal and foreboding – the lone tombstones standing under trees; the single brown cabin I discovered away on a hill; the tiny inlet on the far end of the island.

Then the storm came. Low clouds rolled in (so low they at first appeared to be fog in the highlands), rain drenched the landscape and the sun set. Still, I had no idea where to go or what to do, though developer Ed Key had mentioned in his introduction to the preview build that it had a definitive “end.” And that suggested goals – so I trudged on.
Night fell and I was starting to wonder what the hell Proteus would ever get up to. That’s when the wind kicked up, blowing white specs across the landscape. With no other clues as to where to go, I followed.

That’s when the game started to mystify me.

I was drawn to the lowlands area where I’d discovered the ring of tombstones. Just beyond I could see the hilltop with the slightly frightening statues looking on. The wind picked up again and started to swirl around the ring of tombstones in a perfect circle, like a flat cyclone. Then the ring contracted to a much smaller one, perhaps five feet across, at the center of the circle of tombstones.

Clouds raced overhead and the stars began to swirl. It seemed the tighter the ring became, the faster the sky moved over me. Time was picking up speed. I stepped into the ring and night became day, day became night, and suddenly, as – it was summer. The entire island had changed.

So … that was pretty cool.

My Proteus playthrough from start to finish – and an interesting finish it was – lasted less than an hour. Nothing ever attacked me and I never discovered anything to do more than observe and explore, but like Dear Esther, the game still manages to convey a sense of wonder and weirdness. One can only hope that later builds of the game add to the intrigue while expanding on what the island of Proteus holds.

Twisted Tree Games (which is mostly the lone effort of developer Ed Key, paired with the “reactive soundtrack” of David
Kanaga) is working on a longer experience than what I played through, which is more EP than LP, according to the game’s website. Key has described the game as such to RPS: “It’s more of an ambient piece than a game, although there is some challenge in finding the location that allows you to progress, and in finding the other couple of locations on the island that have interesting effects.”

And as such an experiment, Proteus is an interesting piece of interactive entertainment. It’s beautiful and haunting in its own way, and leaves many a blank for the player to fill in as he or she wanders its shores. Twisted Tree is bringing a beta version to GDC 2012 and plans to release the “LP” version of the game sometime in Fall 2012.

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