Proteus is a spectacular combination of unspectacular elements. It was released in 2013 for various platforms, both PC and consoles. I own the PlayStation 3 version, and I am only mentioning that because there are slight differences between the releases; the PlayStation release came last and as far as I know has more content than the PC versions.
As always, this article is not a review. I’m not going to attempt convincing you to buy Proteus. My objective here is to discuss the game’s positive design elements and what we can learn from them.
Initial Reactions and Intensity Through Subtraction
You begin Proteus in the ocean, in view of a nearby beach for the randomly generated island which exists for your exploration, the entire point of the game (I’ll return to this point). Many factors affect the initial impression you take away from this. But the most powerful factor is the complete absence of information.
Proteus has no HUD. It barely has a help screen—there are only two buttons to explain anyway, and using either is never mandatory; you will never see those controls explained unless you bring up the start menu, so the game assumes you don’t need to be told how to move around 3D space with two analogue sticks. The title screen has no cut-scene or introduction to give you an idea of what’s to come; although that screen does help establish the atmosphere. There are no goal markers, no map, and text never once appears on screen. Proteus subtracts so much from its opening that it enhances the impact of seeing the mysteriously island before you, because there is literally nothing else to distract you. In this way the game immediately directs the player’s focus towards the island with razor-sharp precision. Not every game should be as extreme as Proteus with regard to its omission of common game foundations, but the game serves as a nice reminder of how effective it can be when you throw the player into the game as fast as absolutely possible. Contrast that with, say, opening cut-scenes in modern Final Fantasy games which tend to precede tutorials.
The Objective of Proteus, or Lack Thereof
I have heard some people refer to Proteus as a non-game, and I agree with them. I’ve also heard it described as an example of ‘game as art’. I’m not sure if I agree with that, but that’s a topic I intend to write about another day.
The reason it’s fair to call Proteus a non-game is because it has no objectives or challenges. You cannot win or lose. The entertainment comes from exploration and experiencing how the game ignites your imagination, not from overcoming obstacles as in a traditional game. In this regard Proteus is similar to Dear Esther and Datura, and parts of Journey.
This is a risky design, if only because successful execution requires balancing on a knife’s edge. A few boring or tedious elements are more acceptable in an action RPG or a first-person shooter where the player has many other activities to hold their interest. But when your entire game can be summed up as, “You walk around an island and look at whatever interests you,” then the smallest of mistakes can be fatal to the player’s enjoyment. Proteus is not flawless in this respect, and later on I will examine what I feel are some of its errors. However, it’s at this point I must say that I respect creators Ed Kay and David Kanaga for rolling the dice on such a non-traditional game that it earns the ‘non-game’ moniker.
So a game like Proteus that focuses exclusively on exploration, with barely any interaction—how do you design such a non-game? What does Proteus do well that makes it a successful achievement?
Aesthetics, Art, and Sound
A still screenshot gives no insight into the way Proteus changes color schemes to evoke changing seasons, or how dusk and dawn affect your view of the landscape, or the changes one sees on a cloudless night versus being underneath a rain storm, and so on. But there are some design choices we can extrapolate from that screenshot.
I suspect one such design choice will be immediately obvious to people who played PC games in the early to mid-1990’s: the use of 2D sprites in 3D space. Many elements of the island, like bushes and flowers and even wildlife, are represented as 2D sprites. So when you move around them in 3D you see the sprite constantly turning to face your point of view, similar to the original Doom, except in that game you would start to see different sprites representing enemies from different angles if you were approaching them from behind, for instance. Proteus doesn’t even go that far. You rarely see any sprite from more than one angle. Some gamers may discredit this approach as laziness; it is quite possible that limitations in budget and time played a role, but who knows. But the artistic choice serves the game well. Since Proteus hinges entirely on its ability to entice the player into exploration the game benefits from artistic choices that betray modern expectations. Not only does it contribute to a consistent aesthetic quality found throughout the game, the abundant use of 2D sprites in 3D also drives home a sense of oddity which supplements the player curiosity on which the entire game stakes itself.
The sound design plays an important role in creating the atmosphere and employs a few techniques that could benefit other games. Many of the sounds themselves are the types of high-pitched beeps you would expect from a synthesizer or old-school Commodore 64 games. They blend will with the old-school style of graphics in Proteus. The soundtrack is composed of similar synths, but here Proteus separates itself from most games. The soundtrack is ‘reactive’, and what I mean by that is the music smoothly transforms based on where you are on the island and what landmarks or environmental effects are nearby. For example, as you climb to the top of a mountain the music becomes softer and more whispered, evoking the sound of blowing wind, particularly when you find a mountain high enough that its peak is above the clouds. In contrast, the valleys closest to sea-level have the most intense forms of music. If a rain storm comes overhead then the music is augmented by sprinkles of synth-keyboard notes representing the raindrops. All of this happens smoothly; you will notice the music changing, but there is never an abrupt stop or pause during a transition. If you’re familiar with the use of music in Journey then know that Proteus uses that same technique. This type of reactive music contributes to the game by bringing an element of liveliness to the environment. Again, since the entire game hinges on your interest to explore, this reactive soundtrack serves Proteus well by both giving the island ‘flavor’ and reinforcing the overall aesthetics, making the island feel more alive and thus worth exploring.
Risks and Mistakes
There is absolutely no story to Proteus. The island is randomly-generated whenever you play but certain fixtures always appear: a solitary cabin, a circle of gravestones, statues atop a mountain peak, and so on. Any story you extrapolate from such elements is a product solely of your imagination. On the one hand this is an interesting design choice; it practically guarantees that each player will walk away with a different experience. On the other hand, it’s also a risk because Proteus’ trust in the player to craft their own explanation about the island around them is going to be lost on players who would rather have a story told to them—and I can’t blame them for that. Every time I’ve played Proteus I have discovered something new that I never saw before; in my most recent play-through it was a very large tree that lit up the area around me in the middle of night while fire-flies pulsed all around, and again here the music was appropriately reactive by raising from its previously quiet ambiance. But there is nothing in Proteus to indicate that a subsequent play-through will reveal anything beyond merely a different randomly-generated island. I consider this a design flaw, but at the same time I cannot offer a plausible way to address the issue. It’s a shame that some players will never see anything cool like the Northern Lights illuminate the sky if it happens to not occur on their first play-through. Maybe a simple message at the game’s conclusion telling the player there are different things to discover each play-through would be sufficient.
Proteus is a case-study in open-world exploration, and games with similar elements (e.g. the Elder Scrolls series) would do well to study how Proteus attempts to make the sole act of exploration interesting for the player, in the total absence of interaction with the environment. Many people praised Shadow of the Colossus for the times when you rode through the Forbidden Land on your way to the next battle; the game offered pretty much nothing to do during that time, unless you liked sniping small lizards, but it demonstrated how the act of the journey itself can be a positive force in a game’s design. Proteus is that concept taken to the extreme. Because of that what it does well, it does extremely well. And likewise, where it fails is equally obvious.
I recommend Proteus to game developers. It has interesting ideas, and while they are not all executed successfully the game still drives home the value a game can have in what would otherwise be “down time” in other titles.