The explorer staggers to the top of a small scrubby rise. He has wandered for hours searching for something, he knows not what. The sun has long since sunk beneath the horizon, with the moon ruling the skies above. Cresting the hill, he surveys the lands ahead. A vast pastel forest paints the plains ahead. As he sweeps his gaze across the landscape, a flicker of pure white movement registers in the corner of his eye. Could this ghostly presence hold a clue to the secret of his journey? Resolutely, the explorer strides forth, towards the hidden depths of the forest.
Welcome to the world of Proteus. In a time of eye-bleedingly gorgeous studio games, here is a glorious love letter to the uncluttered and the 8 bit era. You start out at sea, before washing up on the shores of a riotously colourful lo-fi island. As you wander, the ambient chiptune soundtrack alters to reflect the actions you take, the wildlife you encounter and the sights you see. Developer Ed Key is creating a world where curiosity is rewarded and minimalism is king. Think Dear Esther if it were released on the Commodore 64.
The forest looms all around, blocking the sun from view. Disoriented, the explorer circles, looking for signs of his spectral target. A flash of light in the distance spurs him onwards through the gloom.
We live in an age of activity. Modern video game world design decrees that large, open worlds require oodles of minor activities for the protagonist to undertake in order to stave off dreaded in game boredom. Thus we get busy work such as Skyrim’s blacksmithing, Red Dead Redemption’s hunting and Grand Theft Auto IV’s darts. Games which are not stuffed to the gills with mini games and side quests are derided as being empty and sterile.
We also live in an age of experimentation. It is true major studio releases continue to rely on proven design elements in order to maximise sales. However, the burgeoning indie movement, having different commercial imperatives, has much more freedom to break the iron clad rules of gaming and see what happens. Proteus as an open world game is highly reminiscent of its AAA brothers, in an impressionist sort of way. Where it differs is that it gives the player absolutely nothing to do. No explicit tasks, objectives, missions, side quests or distractions. It is an open world game distilled down to its simplest activity, pure exploration.
A bank of fog rolls through the forest, reducing visibility to near zero. The explorer stumbles onwards, feeling his path through the trees with outstretched arms. The ground slopes upwards again now, and progress is becoming difficult. He grits his teeth with determination and continues up the wooded hill.
Exploration as the sole mechanic has been visited only rarely by video games. Part of the problem has been making worlds that are detailed enough to be interesting to explore with whatever the current leading graphical capabilities are. By stripping back the visuals to an untextured retro gloss, Proteus somehow manages to become far more detailed and interesting than many other highly designed virtual worlds. New wonders and sights are hidden in every corner of the island, and the idea of pure exploration proves to be an unadulterated, awe-inspiring joy.
Further regular updates to the current build are expected, with new creatures, creature behaviours, locations, and events planned. Also in the pipeline is an intriguing sounding ‘living postcard’ system, which allows players to share screenshots of their islands, which can then be explored by the postcard recipients.
Breaking through the top of the cloud cover, the explorer finds himself on a hill populated by a single tree. A snow white owl regards him gravely with its oil black eyes. Moments pass, the moon continues its stately path across the heavens. The owl ghosts away on silent wings, as the explorer feels an incredible lightness in his very core. Spiritually buoyed he surveys the view to select his next destination. The sun will rise soon. The explorer sets out once again, searching for new wonders beyond the horizon.
A beta build of Proteus is available for $7.50 from visitproteus.com now. The full version is scheduled for release in the Northern Hemisphere in Autumn.