Electron Dance
25Oct/11Off

For A Few Explorers More

This is a follow-up to last week's article “For The Explorers” on exploration in games.

[proteus game title screen]

At this time of the year, Great Britain loses its sunlight pretty early, and I realised the current incarnation of the Little Harbour Master, three years old and fairly articulate, had not witnessed the world at night. So, last weekend, I took him out for a walk to the local corner shop at 6 o’clock when night was falling.

He delighted in pointing out all the houses and shops with lights on as well as directing my attention to illuminated doorbells. His world is still one of continual construction upon a relatively blank slate. Whereas adults often need to travel far and wide to see things that surprise them, the Little Harbour Master sees such things right outside his door.

I think that’s why the explorers amongst us find joy in virtual game worlds as they allow us to become children again: not in terms of play but in reviving the process of learning about the world.

Is it possible, though, to boil a game down to pure exploration? Dispense with the puzzles, points, rewards and any hoops to jump through?

And so, Proteus.

In the comments on last week's article about Richard Perrin’s Kairo, Armand wrote that Proteus was at the top of his list of exploring games. Doug Wilson of the Copenhagen Game Collective also piled the pressure on, tweeting that I should really, really play Proteus.

I caved.

Proteus is an exploration game by developer Ed Key and musician David Kanaga, an album of ambient music reconstructed as a procedurally-generated island. But this fails to articulate its other-worldly fabulosity. I probably have to start making words up.

[proteus scene]

Proteus is a difficult game to talk about. A game is the experience you have and never the compiled bytes of code flying over the internet. In the example of Proteus, that personal experience of feeling your way around the island is what the game is about. To tell you about it is to mar that experience for you. What I can tell you is that there is virtually nothing to do but walk around.

So how can I explain to you why it’s worth your time?

After I’d played the old version of Proteus that Key made available in February, he sent me a copy of his latest build. I wasn’t intending to play through it until later this week. But on Sunday afternoon, I found myself entertaining the Little Harbour Master on the PC for a few minutes and thought he might find the new version of Proteus diverting.

A fascinating thing happened. Instead of the Little Harbour Master simply watching Daddy play, he participated and issued instructions about where to go and what to look at. We were exploring together.

This led to a brainwave: the game reflected in a child's eyes would be the perfect way to convey Proteus’ beauty without real spoilers - what a child sees in Proteus is not so different to what an adult sees. So I recorded our conversation while we played.

If you loved the Little Harbour Master's scathing critique of Portal 2, you will find four minutes of his Proteus observations enthralling.

So don't read about it. Don't go hunting videos about it. Just go explore it for yourself.

You can download a very old version of Proteus from Ed Key’s tumblr site. There is a dedicated Proteus site but there’s little to see there right now. Key is planning to sell an “EP” version of Proteus later this year and, if successful, work on an “LP” version next year.

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Posted by HM

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Comments (17) Trackbacks (2)
  1. I’m thinking I need to play this. It kind of reminds me of a low-res Love visually.

  2. Funny you mention Love switchbreak. as this reminded me very much of wandering through it’s abstract landscapes. Although I never got around to playing more of it I loved (ha) the concept. Nice to see (hear) games being enjoyed by the HM team.

  3. Hi Switchbreak, BAshment! I should mention that although I fell in love with Proteus’ publicly available version, it is somewhat more primitive than the build discussed in the video. But the direction of Proteus’ development is obvious, intent on becoming more interesting as a place to explore.

    The old build should be enough to tell you whether it’s your kind of thing or not. I believe Ed Key was planning to make a more up-to-date beta available but if he’s aiming for release by Christmas then I’m not convinced we’ll see one…

  4. Damn! I can’t watch that alluring vid at work! Damn!

    Proteus is a lovely thing and I can’t wait for the final version. I kind of don’t want to play it any more than I have for fear of spoiling some of the surprises.

  5. Adorable video, which really does show how wonderful this game looks. I recall reading Armand’s Indie Fix coverage of it a month ago (http://bnbgaming.com/2011/09/24/the-indie-fix-proteus/) and was enthralled. This has now just tipped me over the edge – I shall have to download this later. Many thanks for the link!

  6. That is rather cute. I have to admit that the game’s visuals as shown in the video don’t do much for me, but then Love didn’t look at its best in stills rather than in motion. (Shame I never figured out how to play Love. When the tutorial doesn’t quite match the UI, and further support is “go on teamspeak and chat with the developer, well. Something is a bit wrong. I may go back when it’s ‘finished’.)

    I think you’re onto something in terms of the appeal of game exploration being linked to a nostalgia for a childlike sense of innocence, mystery and discovery. Albeit sometimes with the shooting of men and monsters, which I only /imagined/ I did as a child. :)

  7. To jump across to a rather mainstream example, I played a bit of the upcoming Zelda game, Skyward Sword yesterday and was thoroughly impressed with the exploration elements of the game. It would have felt fresh, were it not for the fact that Zelda games used to be all about this.

    It’s nice to see that some devs (both large and small) are putting some emphasis back into exploration. While storyline can be a great motivational tool for advancing through a game, I feel it’s completely redundant compared to good ol’ fashion lookin’ around!

  8. It’s so pretty… I haven’t been impressed by day and night cycles in a while. Probably due to how often they aim for realism with them, which for me triggers the parts of my brain simply for receiving information (“almost time for night monsters to appear”), as opposed to “Oh the sun’s about to set, it’ll be gorgeous.”

    That said, the abstract visuals are key to this. Our idea of a sunset is prettier than the majority of sunsets we see in our lives, since it’s composed of all the best sunsets we’ve ever seen. That idea is what something like Proteus can communicate that a less beauty-centric game cannot- fidelity of ideas as opposed to reality.

  9. @Martin: Yeah, I guess I worry that there’s too much focus on turning exploration into an “achievement-based activity”, that is, rewarding those of us who do it anyway seems to cheapen it somehow. It was always nice in RPGs turning up special swords and funky armor in unlikely places. But now we have “15 out of 231 flags done!” Missing the point…

    @ShaunCG: I wouldn’t be too hung up on the visuals because that’s not the main draw here. The island doesn’t feel like some static structure with a bunch of objects littered across it. The various threads of Proteus wave together to make the island feel… alive in some sense.

    @BeamSplashX: Yeah, that’s what I said. =) No, seriously, that’s a lovely way of putting it.

  10. That was freakin’ adorable! so damned cute. You are an awesome dad!

  11. @Armand: I hope my son agrees! =)

  12. no mac version, no dice.

  13. Ahhh, sorry to hear that Adam.

  14. There will be a mac version at some point I hope, I just physically don’t have a mac to do the port!

    The mac version will have dice.

    PS: As HM knows, I love this article and video very much indeed!

  15. And thanks for the other thoughts and comments, people!

  16. I agree with the last sentence in this article. Proteus is a title that you should experience for yourself first and then watch videos and read reviews about it if you still want to. That said and as someone who has already “played” Proteus (I put play in quotes because this is a game where you explore more than you actually play,) I think this is one of the most refreshingly unique titles of the past few years. Everyone who’s willing to try something different should definitely give it a chance. Just try to avoid every article and video about it before you explore the world of Proteus. It won’t disappoint.

  17. Hey Eric, thanks. It’s been interesting seeing reactions to Proteus after the release. Some people become engrossed; others are done in an hour. It affects everyone in different ways and it’s better not to be conditioned into a particular response.