Review: Proteus – Andy Robertson

Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita

To name their game so oddly, with a word found in Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth is telling of Ed Key and David Kanaga’s desire to challenge the edges of their discipline. Proteus may draw to mind all manner of meanings, from fictional steam trains to Greek gods and rare congenital disorders, but its slippery nature is entirely fitting for their video-game.

Proteus is an island exploration game played from a first person perspective with strange ancient mythologies to discover and animal inhabitants to investigate. Unlike other instances of the word, it appears to be the world that is ever changing here rather than the human protagonist.

You see, each time you play the game it generates a fresh island to explore. It’s this sense of temporarily visiting a living breathing landscape that gives Proteus its sense of wonder. Day passes into night, clouds bring rain, animals congregate in well trod hollows and the stars call your eye to the sky’s breath taking aurora borealis.

Some have labelled this more art exhibit than a video-game but this is to miss the player’s presence triggering not only the changing of the seasons but also the ethereal orchestra that adds sound to each interaction.

These intricate islands at first seem to be unchanging and eternal. There is awe in the detail, mechanics and simple pixelated portrayal of each place. These are locales confident in their permanence, happily populated with wildlife and seemingly unchanging through the years.

However, play for more than ten minutes and you soon discover the remnants of previous inhabitants. Hidden doorways, special standing stones and decaying Foleys not only offer intriguing ways to affect the island but also a window into its past.

As night falls fireflies call you towards a ring of obelisks, entering the circle causes the sky to flare back into day. Time rushes forward until you leave the space and discover that not only have days past but also the season. Spring turns to summer and brings with it a fresh sense of wonder and new things to discover.

As with the tension in scripture’s unchanging God who nonetheless passes from partisan to global concerns, Proteus holds out an island that is both permanent and changing. At first it seems it is us, the player, who is the point of consistency but soon we are revealed to be, in fact, the agent of change ourselves.

Pass through all four seasons and in winter the game concludes. Without asking we are slowly, almost imperceivably, lifted ever higher into the air until looking down on the island we once explored our eyelids close and we leave forever.

Proteus comes with a challenge. Change is inevitable, no matter how permanent, monolithic or all encompassing the myths, stories and ideas we create.

This is most piercing for video-games themselves. Not unlike other traditions its gatekeepers guard against change and impostors fiercely. Proteus has felt the sting of accusation, of not being a valid video-game for its unusual approach.

As faith communities have done through the ages with their texts, Proteus pushes at the margins of its genre and discovers new imaginative possibilities. Creator Ed Kay defends his corner with vigour. “Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of ‘game’ does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both”.

Proteus may be short, odd, inexplicable and frustrating but its existence insists we include it in our circle of video-games. Like more obscure readings of the bible, we cannot simply place it outside our comfortably colonised, domesticated definition of in and out. Quite the reverse, we need to be pressed like this in case we forget that permanence is provisional.

Andy Robertson appears as a gaming expert for the BBC and runs the Family Gamer TV channel.