Proteus vs. Photorealism

Tom's weird morning adventure.

So I was sitting here having a tedious morning and it was making me grumpy and frustrated. Email replies were late and vague, phone calls were going unanswered, and that creeping sense of anxiety I sometimes get was bubbling up in the background. You may know the sort of thing I mean: I suddenly become more and more aware of the complexities of the interactions that make up my existence and gradually feel overwhelmed by them.

But hey, enough about my mental health! For some reason I latched onto something Notch tweeted in response to something 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann said to GI: "I had way more emotions playing Proteus than I ever did playing any 2K game."

I thought: Hey, I never tried Proteus. I wonder what it's like.

So I googled it and found the website.

"Proteus is a game of pure exploration and discovery, developed by Ed Key with a reactive ambient soundtrack by David Kanaga."

I watched the teaser video. I had to resist the urge to click on something else 20 seconds into the video when nothing much was happening. "You always do this," I said to myself. "Actually watch it to the end." So I did. It didn't tell me much. I clicked on the gallery page, which was more promising. Bright colours, vivid landscapes rendered in never-quite-primary hues, maybe 3D or 2D but it's kind of hard to tell. I clicked back and saw a quote from RPS.

"An experience not unlike that bit in a movie where a child wanders into some weird wonderland and ends up gazing about in slack-jawed delight."

Alright, you got yourself a sale. Is it out? It's in alpha, but it's the Minecraft model. $9 gets you a downloadable alpha and 1.0 is due out later this year. Fair enough. I bought it.

I can't believe how much playing Proteus changed my mood. I just spawned in this beautiful 3D world that looks like something built out of sprites from my Dad's old Spectrum +2 and rambled around while this reactive electronic soundtrack purred and pinged at me. It said it was a game of exploration, so I went with that and just moved towards interesting shapes - I followed a little bounding frog for a while, circled a couple of things which may have been buildings, walked under a raincloud and looked up at the raindrops, and then climbed a mountain to look around. I actually felt myself welling up. I was more happily immersed in this abstract place than I have been in anything else I've played lately. It was so soothing. I felt calmer, like I'd just been on holiday and left my phone at home.

As I was wandering down a path towards the sea, the colour of the sky changed as the sun started to set, and I remembered there was a screenshot key. I was like, "Aaah, I must capture some of this!" So I ran back up the mountain to try to capture the image that had made me feel so refreshed, but by then the moment had passed. It was practically night.

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I walked down the mountain again and continued to potter around. I saw a swirl of what looked like fireflies, so I moved towards them. They seemed to be moving faster, so I joined their flow. They sped up and up as I moved with them, and the music changed, and then I was frozen in place as these blocky white sparks rose up around me like a tempest, and then I was transported into the middle of a summer's day, with the sun now blazing overhead, its surface dotted with tendril-like penumbra.

All around me were fields and flowers and birds.

I had to stop at this point and do some work, but it was hard to pull myself away. I recommend anyone having a slightly crap day to bury their head in Proteus for 15 minutes. If nothing else, occasionally it's nice to give yourself a really quick snapshot reminder of Why We Love This Stuff. For some reason that was proving elusive this morning, but now it isn't.

Oh, and it's quite funny to go back to the original quotes that Notch was disagreeing with:

"To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console."

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