The latest causality in "Games as Art" debate.
Have you ever played a game where the mechanics were so rich you felt like you could refine the entire thing into one concept and it would still be great? That feeling may work for many games but most of the time you won’t find out one way or the other. Most designers and gamers alike understand that games are an amalgamation of many ideas rather than a thoroughly impressive one-trick pony. This understanding seems to have evaded the creators of Proteus, or maybe they thought their game was exempt. Proteus is a one-concept tech demo that might’ve been neat if it was part of something bigger but what’s there isn’t enough to keep your interest or justify the seemingly inoffensive price.
The concept of Proteus is relatively brief. You control a first-person character that starts off in the ocean with an island in sight on the horizon. Once you get to the island, your only source of interaction is what you walk next to. The game reacts to your presence by playing different music depending on your location and occasionally there is a sprite animal or insect that runs away from you. That is the entire game. There is “progression” and an “endpoint,” but not in the way you might hope for. Endings are usually synonymous with finales or closing thoughts. Proteus’ ends a lot like a High School final project. They probably could’ve kept prolonging it for a better grade but the class already lost interest and the teacher gave a glance that implied what they had was good enough.
That’s not to say that “good enough,” is actually any good. Proteus’ quality hinges on the music and visuals, neither of which is very impressive. The artwork may be appealing in screenshots, but the environment remains completely static during gameplay. There are occasional lighting effects which add a bit of variety but nothing to make up for the overall stiffness of the game. As a result, the world feels very lifeless and the lack of interaction from the player doesn’t help.
The music doesn’t add much personality either. Proteus’ concept of “different music plays depending where you are” certainly works but the sounds you’re hearing sound like placeholders rather than actual music. Most of the tracks sound like someone pressing buttons to see if the instrument is working rather than playing actual music. This blunder contributes to the feeling that Proteus is an undeveloped tech demo, not an actual game.
If you somehow “finish” Proteus, you won’t be getting much more from the experience than the person who loads it up for five minutes and closes it out of disinterest. This game may be the latest discussion in the “are games art” debate but I’d argue that Proteus offers absolutely nothing to the player. There is no interaction to speak of, the music is amateurish, the visuals are mediocre and the experience is pointless. There is no message or mood established in Proteus, it’s the definition of wasting time. Proteus may serve as inspiration for a mechanic that’s a part of a bigger game, but on its own there’s nothing worth playing.