Lovely for a few minutes, but there's not much beneath the surface

User Rating: 4 | Proteus PC
Proteus launches, and I am standing in the ocean, looking at an island in the distance. Everything I can see is constructed out of blocky, Atari-2600-ish pixels. Not knowing my purpose in this world, I slowly tread water to the beach. I find a cluster of small white creatures there bobbing their heads and chatting with each other in honks and blorts, looking like something from a cross of Princess Mononoke and Tron. When I get too close, the little mob shrieks and darts underground.

Ah yes, this is an "artsy" game.

I stroll through the grass looking for things to touch. A small tower pokes above the horizon. Squelchy sine-wave bagpipes play as I approach it. Over my shoulder, wisps dart amonst the trees. I stand amongst them, and the sun and moon quickly trade places in the sky as time shifts into a faster gear. I touch the center of the circle and am returned to the normal flow of time. Surprised leprechauns hop just out of my reach with the tweet of Pitfall Harry. Gravestones thump with heavy drums and low tones, like the weight of death's contemplation. Mountains provide a vista for peering over low clouds that waft just above the timber line.

Everywhere I walk, the background music changes in bits and pieces with all of the elements of the landscape that sing to me. Time passes, and the sun and the moon trade places again, each bringing its own unique line for the harmony. It is all peaceful and thoughtful. And after about a half an hour of this, I'm asking myself, "Okay, now what?"

The news items on the game's store page link to discussions amongst the defenders of the sacred words, where people are arguing over whether or not Proteus is actually a "game." This doesn't surprise me - I've heard this kind of whinging before over other artsy games. It also bores me - I don't care if it's a "game" or not. Is it on a computer? Is there some small level of player interaction going on? Okay, it's a game. Whatever. I stopped arguing about semantics sometime after I left college.

The problem with Proteus isn't that it isn't a game. The problem is that it's kinda boring.

Some of the recent indie art games aren't especially deep in terms of gameplay, but they do rely on a certain level of interaction. There's some bit of narrative that makes more sense when you interact with a sequence instead of just watching it passively on a TV screen. Say, the state of mind you would get from looking at a picture of a man stuck in a mudsink is different from the sense of pushing a button on a controller to make a man move forward and not getting anywhere. That small interaction lets you share in that frustration, or in the accomplishment of completing a simple goal, or the awe of looking around an environment. Some little taste of involvement adds something to the experience.

In Proteus, you walk around a landscape and let things sing to you. Is there a certain way you should interact with these things to generate different meanings? No, you're just on a leisurely stroll through nature. Is it a sandbox where you build little worlds and reflect on your creations? No, you have no control or interaction over anything, save for how living things run away when you get close. Does the game have a narrative to tell you? Are things juxtaposed against each other to tell the player a story? No, the islands are procedurally generated at random.

Most importantly, is there a whole world to explore here? No, you can walk around for about half an hour and touch everything the game has to offer. The game's library of single-color animals and flowers is small even by ten-dollar-game standards. The blocky graphics and surreal creatures are compelling for a few minutes, but the limited depth of the horizon stops you from taking in the entire depth of its unnatural habitat. You might catch a complex view looking down from a high point, but look up from any point, and you'll see mostly flat sky. The musical pieces don't feel complementary, either - the bagpipes and goofy animal talk don't seam with each other in any particular way, so the music feels aimless and superfluous rather than evolving and natural.

Proteus is akin to giving a child a single 100-piece box of Legos and an old 8-track tape, then telling her that the world of imagination is at her fingertips - and maybe you should let dad snap those pieces together for you so you don't catch your fingers. There's a lovely walk here that lasts for a few minutes, but if you were interested in spending ten bucks on a such a small experience, maybe you'd get in tune with nature faster if you loaded a Let's Play video of this on your iPhone and watched it while going outside for a real walk.