The Atlas of Remote Islands is a handsome catalog of the world’s furthest removed, tiniest land masses. Though the locations themselves are real, this atlas is a work of cartographic fiction. In the book, author Judith Schalansky invents stories and lore for islands too remote to have recorded histories. She is speculating, making her the ultimate armchair traveler.
This is what it’s like to play Proteus.
Proteus opens on the ocean. In the distance, you see an island. In other fictions, it seems like the only way to get to a mysterious island is by shipwreck or plane crash. But you don’t get the sense here that you’ve arrived in a tumultuous fashion. Everything about the experience of playing Proteus feels relaxed and at peace. This is the game’s strength and weakness.
Proteus is concerned mostly with aesthetics. Its chunky sprite-based environments recall Minecraft, but with a stronger, bolder art direction. The island’s foliage expresses a bright palette of colors, its sky and sea a complementary array of soothing hues. Though the player can move around in three dimensions, many of the objects are two-dimensional. The visual disparity creates something unique and beautiful.
The game is directionless. There are no objectives or goals or directions. I found myself wandering around the island, enjoying the vistas, and discovering the wildlife — hopping frogs, flocks of chickens, singing mushrooms.
In Proteus, the player’s sense of wonder and curiosity gives the game meaning. It’s not too different from last year’s two darling semi-indie games, Journey, which was similarly interested in an aesthetic experience, and The Walking Dead, which derived its pleasures from the player’s personal satisfaction from making tough decision. Or like The Atlas of Remote Islands, where we imagine the meaning and story for ourselves.
In many ways, Proteus is a triumph of minimal interaction, but it’s even more impressive how the game compels you to explore the island without any sense of narrative. It feels like a sandbox (though technically isn’t, since Proteus has a distinct ending point). Moving around the island uncovers surprising interactions, sights, and sounds. There’s just enough around every corner to pique your curiosity. The environment reveals itself to you, and these revelations are always beautiful.
But what are these arresting sights and sounds supposed to say? If anything, Proteus is an exploration of the relationship between you and your surroundings. But that relationship is a simple one: you interact with nature, and nature responds.
The island has its own internal ecosystem. Rain clouds move in and out; the sun sets and the moon rises. But the environment doesn’t feel dynamic. The cause-and-effect relationship is limited. It is mighty pleasing to walk by a tree and have it rattle back at you, but these interactions reinforce that you are not a part of this island. You are just a visitor.
In college, I took a course on modeling climate change, which meant typing a lot of physics formulas into an Excel spreadsheet. Each week we would introduce new variables that iterated on our previous work. Being an English major forced to do very complicated things in Excel, what were probably very simple formulas looked like magic to me.
After a semester, we had a complete weather model, simulating Earth efficiently and unattractively within an XLS file. The lesson of the course was that the model was self-correcting — weather systems could survive a threshold of sudden change and intervention. But push the model too far and everything would shut down.
It’s a strange and terrifying thing to watch your model break.
Proteus is the opposite of that spreadsheet I made. It’s a breathtaking but superficial portrayal of nature; more importantly, there is no opportunity to break this ecosystem. Developers Ed Key and David Kadanga set out to create a relaxing, ambient experience. Proteus is stress-free because there is no way to do anything wrong, no way to lose. But in removing all tension between the player and the environment, the player never develops a meaningful relationship to his/her surroundings.
For most people, the distinction between vacation and travel is arbitrary, but I’ve always personally defined the two differently. The goal of vacation is to relax; to travel is to explore.
In Proteus, the key motivator is a sense of discovery. But in the end, the ways in which you can interact with the island are too shallow. It is a place you can visit, see, hear — a series of vistas — but there just wasn’t enough there to make me feel like I had understood something new. Proteus felt like a pleasant vacation, but it left me wanting to travel.