Proteus: the best song I've ever played

Tom Francis at

Proteus

If you ever need to gauge my sense of awe and wonderment, you can check how stupid my face looks. My face just spent forty minutes looking very, very stupid. Try letting your jaw hang, then raise your eyebrows in surprise whilst also twisting them in puzzlement, and smile with your mouth open. This is what Proteus can do to a man.

It's a first-person exploration game in which the components of the music you hear depend on what you're standing near to. And the time of day, and what's going on in the rest of the music, and probably some other factors I'm too dumb to grasp.

You're washed up on a textureless island of mountains and trees, and all you ever do in it is wander around listening to the soundscape change. I was fairly sure I wouldn't like it, because the screenshots don't look all that inviting. But it turns out that all of Proteus's magic happens in the three things a screenshot is missing: motion, music, and interaction.

Seems weird to cite interaction as the point of a game that doesn't even have a 'use' button, but that really is the key. It doesn't feel like all the trees, creatures, shrubs and sparkles in this world are each emitting their own constant tone that fades in and out as you approach. All these things react to you, tensing, springing, shivering and flinching. And what they produce isn't just a sound effect, it's a thread of this evolving song. It doesn't feel like you're hearing these objects directly, it's like there's something in the air. Your presence makes the world react, and the world's reaction makes the air sing.

A lot of oversimplified or outright discordant dynamic music games have trained me to be sceptical of the term, but Proteus is exactly what I was hoping for in those. The soundtrack plays off your actions without being slave to them, so the changes always make sense for the music itself. Instead of feeling like you have to move in the right way to make it sound good, it's more like having an intelligent composer producing this shifting soundtrack to your actions. Your play is what explains this piece, but the piece itself would work in isolation.

I should explain what genre this music is in, but trying to makes you realise how outmoded that notion is in this context. The music in Proteus ranges from electronic to organic, frantic to ambient, melodramatic to chilled. If it's ever a type you don't like, move.

I didn't often find a tune I didn't like, but that relationship did change the way I explored. I'd expected the world to feel empty, but I had almost the opposite problem. Over there, specks of white dust are swirling from all over the island to a single point - what the hell is that? But over here, the forest is coming to an end and giving way to desert - what will it sound like if I go that way?

Even once most of your curiosity is satisfied, your exploration is still motivated by music. It's quiet at night, so I headed to the place that was most frenetic by day: the trees. Their tone and mood is different with the moon out, and it gave my song a new texture. I found an unusual creature and chased it. Each time it ran from me, its movement struck a new cord, one which tinkled on as long as I followed in its wake. It led me out of the trees, over a mountain, through the desert, and finally leapt into the sea. Its thread faded from the music, and as I watched the water glint, I realised the sun was coming up.

The day always brings pace to the music, but this time I noticed something new: a buzz. It happened as I looked at the sun. It was faint compared to the rest of the island's sounds, so I started to walk out to sea. The buzz grew, trembling and changing pitch, and the island sounds slowly fell away behind me. At the same time, the glare from looking at the sun was making the sea and the sky paler and paler.

I kept wading, and kept staring. The island sounds were gone. The screen was nearly white. And the buzz, now building to a crescendo, felt like a music of its own. It felt like a track I'd created - a crazy one, unlike anything my aimless wandering had produced before, but much more purposeful and exciting and strong.

After a few minutes of staring at a totally white screen with an almost unchanging tone in my headphones, inexplicably close to tears, I realised what was going on: I was tripping my balls off.

Even when you're sat opposite Tim howling in laughter at Battlefield 3, and Rich singing his "I am the greatest person in the world" song to Graham over a game of FIFA, Proteus can still grab you, intoxicate you, and hardwire your brain to its pixels and quavers. It is nuts, and magnificent, and engrossing and beautiful. And £5.

PS. Don't press Escape to pause it and write a blog post, because it turns out that quits.