Monday, 28 January 2013

Proteus - we're not in Croydon any more.

There is a Buddhist centre in Croydon. It surprises you when you find it because it's right on the High Street in amongst all the hustle and bustle, the strident adverts, the temples to commercialism and capitalism.  It has a small, peaceful garden where you can sit and rest and gather yourself before venturing out again into the pell-mell, the crush, the frustration.  Proteus is like that garden. It's a small oasis of calm and peace in the middle of the busy, overwhelming world that we live in. It's a soothing balm for your soul.  It's lovely.

Bit like Croydon
Proteus is an "explore em up" created by Ed Key and David Kanaga (I bet they hate it being called that) and it does away with most traditional game components.  There's no shooting and there are no enemies or treasure, and instead the player is left to explore a world rendered in blocky graphics and minimal sounds. Let's be honest, that doesn't sound like a great game, does it? But the wonderful thing about Proteus is that it is so much more than just a sum of its parts. It reminds me of Yeti Hunter in that respect; each component is pretty basic but when they are put together they create something quite magical.

When you start the game an eye opens on your screen, as if you have just woken up (or fallen asleep and started dreaming) and this sets the tone for the rest of your experience. The world that Proteus provides for you is very similar to our own - with trees, clouds, rain, the sun and the moon - but also quite different. There are secrets hidden away and there are things to see, hear and enjoy all around.  You can go wherever you like, and night will fall and seasons will pass.  The sun will rise and clouds will form overhead and you are free to explore its similar yet different landscape to your heart's content.  It reminds me of going for a walk in the Summer in the English countryside. That may sound like a strange thing to say, but the quality of the light in it and the sounds that you hear evoke exactly the same feelings. It brings back clear memories for me of being a child and walking through a local nature reserve in the sunshine.  It's a brilliantly peaceful experience and there's something quite wonderful about that.

Toowhit.  Toowhoo.
Tonight, for example, I spent about 5 minutes following an owl. It hooted when I got near and then flew off to another tree. I thought it might guide me somewhere but it didn't seem to and eventually I lost it in the forest.  Another time I followed some things which looked like rain drops but they were singing and flowing along the ground and then they formed a spinning circle round me and the screen faded, and I woke up somewhere else.  There were insects there, on the next island, which looked like Japanese characters, but I somehow knew they were dragonflies.  I followed a frog as it hopped away from me.  Later on I stumbled into some bees, who chased me from the flowers they were pollinating and I went careering down the hill, back to the sea, and, always around, there were standing stones, giant tree trunks, odd statues on hills and other things which demanded to be investigated.

This sceptr'd isle
The screenshots may look quite primitive and blocky but they don't do Proteus justice for two reasons.  Firstly they are not moving, which is important, and you also cannot hear the sound effects which accompany them.  David Kanaga does a wonderful, minimalist, job in creating the soundscape for this world and it deserves a special mention.  Audio effects are often linked to events on the screen and you create your own soundtrack as you move through the environment.  Sometimes these connections are obvious things, such as rain falling or crickets chirruping at night, but they can also signify when you are near certain scenery or which season it is.  They accompany the game extremely well and make it a much more immersive experience than it would be otherwise.  They are an integral part of the world and it really wouldn't work without them - they are what brings it all alive.  As I said above, the game is much more than just the sum of its parts and the sound is a major reason why this is the case.

 I recently wrote something about how playing Super Mario Galaxy with my 3 yr old son saved my immortal soul from the scourge of eternal hellfire.  He played a starring role in that story but it did raise some interesting questions for me about the role of video games in parenthood.  I felt a bit bad about using him to keep me sane whilst taming my inner demons, and so I have been looking for other ways to teach him how to use a mouse and become accustomed to computers than those which involve violence, or which demoralise him by being too difficult.  Proteus is perfect for this.  There's no way to die, there's nothing he can do wrong.  I give him the mouse, and give him the keyboard (he just presses "W") and then we can talk about where to go and what to see. "Let's go there and see what that is", "What are those statues doing?" "Daddy, it's raining!" "Look at the size of this hill!"

This is a game where the commands are "walk", "look around" and "sit down and take in the view" (and no, I've not made that last one up), so it is an absolutely perfect thing for a bit of adult child interaction.  It makes a welcome change from collecting things, hitting things and falling off platforms into black holes and while it's obviously not quite the same as actually taking a walk in the open air, it's as good as you're going to get in Britain in January. 

Proteus is still in beta stage so it's not quite finished yet and I have encountered a few instances when it won't load properly from the desktop shortcut, but you trust that this will all be sorted out by the time it is released.  You can visit the world by going to its website and buying access to the beta for about £5.  It is also going to be released on Steam on Jan 30th.  Why not give it a go and try out something truly unique?  I'd recommend it.

PS - Since writing this Proteus has been released.  An updated version is available on Steam for £6.99 (currently 10% off too.)  I still think you should give it a go.  ( & that bug has disappeared.)

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