The illusion of choice is present in every game, no matter how much developers might slap ‘open world’ or ‘emergent gaming’ on the box. Whenever you’re cycling through the same dialogue tree, or being stopped from climbing up the tiniest of rocks on the fringes of a map, the illusion drifts away and you’re exposed to the rules that the developers have tried to hide from you.
Protocol stares the illusion of choice squarely in the face. Rather than hide the rules it’s setting up for you, it wants you to see them, all the time, and obey them. You are told explicitly what to do – take some medicine, activate a terminal – and if you piss about or do something else, then you will die. If you fail to do it, you will die. Protocol kills you in a nuclear blast, in a fantastic example of gaming overkill.
The framework that allows all this to happen is pretty simple. You have been brought to a government complex called, uh, the Complex. It has been constructed around a crashed alien ship, and you are the one to make first-contact – or so you think – and your superiors, represented by a constant Wheatley-like AI, are twitchy enough about disease, invasions etc. that any false move means they will obliterate it all, including you. So, you are presented with the ‘Protocol’, and must follow it or face extinction.
Protocol (the game) takes place almost entirely in this Complex, completing tasks that wouldn’t be out of place in something more straight-faced, like Deliver Us The Moon. It is a process-oriented game that takes place in first-person, where you are following instructions, moving a technological gadget to a technological socket and waiting for the next task on the list. This structure changes up dramatically at moments – and revealing how they change up is tantamount to a spoiler – but the lion’s share of Protocol is like this. You will be completing autopsies, powering up weapons and interfacing with the spaceship while on a short leash.
Protocol has fun with this ‘obey or die’ structure in its opening chapters (depending on which ending you aim for, there is a maximum of seven chapters in total). They’re undeniably the game’s best moments. For example, the AI clearly states that throwing a snowball at her will lead to a breach of protocol and therefore death, so you naturally throw a snowball and get a bomb dropped on you. An achievement pops, and you get an entry into the ‘ways to breach protocol’ list. The switch flips in your brain, and you realise what Protocol is trying to do: this is going to be a fun puzzle game where you’re collecting ways of dying, similar to cult classic Reventure. It adds both threat and fun to the latter parts of the first chapter. In one sequence, you are asked to take a specific colour of pill, but your eyesight has been compromised and you’re temporarily colourblind. It’s a simple task, but not when you can’t pick out colour, and failure will lead to death, another achievement, and another addition to the ‘ways to breach protocol’ list.
This version of Protocol, if it had stretched to the end, would have been fantastic: a not-so-subtle commentary on choice in games. But, curiously, Protocol abandons it after a couple of chapters, and it certainly doesn’t have the ability to make death fun. Starting again after a death takes an age – we played on both Xbox One and Series X, and the respawn times on Xbox One in particular were close to a minute. You’re not dumped back at the point of death, either: you are often checkpointed a few steps back, before forced through cutscenes and dialogue. The achievements dry up after the first few deaths, the death-log is hidden on the pause menu and never really pointed to, and Protocol gets distracted with other ideas as the chapters go on.
The trade-off, however, isn’t worth it. The new ideas aren’t great, and you’ll be mourning the loss of a perfectly good game concept.
For one, in the second chapter the AI takes the form of your ex-wife, since she was the only person with whom you formed an emotional connection. What was once clever-clever satire becomes jokes and snipes about ex-wives, housework and lack of a sex life, which all feel ripped from a comedian’s stand-up routine in the 1980s. The constant back and forth between the main character and his ex-wife is mean-spirited, and you’d rather Protocol lighten up and mature a bit.
The same goes for the things you’re asked to do. In true Mitchell & Webb style, it’s pretty clear that we might be the bad guys here, and any twists in that direction can barely be called twists. But within the context of Protocol, you might well be able to make comments about how distasteful everything is, but ultimately you can’t say no or stop: you are going to be torturing people, carrying their wobbling bodies around and generally participating in murder. When coupled with the mean-spiritedness of the dialogue, you end up feeling like you need a scrub after each session.
Protocol also lurches away from satire and into referencing in the latter chapters. In come parodies of popular games, like Flappy Bird and Space Invaders, and an entire level that changes to a completely different game genre. They are bonkers 180-turns from everything that came before, as if the designers got bored. But just like Eat Lead, Bedlam and Deadpool, which attempted similar things, Protocol makes twin errors: the games are worse to play than those they are parodying, and the references are often in there solely for reference’s sake. What has a game of Breakout got to do with anything, and why am I controlling the paddle by moving my reticule left or right, rather than having direct control over it? Every single one of these weird deviations feels misguided and painful to play through.
Controls are a constant, buzzing issue with Protocol. This is undoubtedly an ambitious indie game, being a first-person adventure in a large game world, with spin-offs into different genres and perspectives as it goes. But, as it turns out, something else turns out to be the biggest overreach. That award goes to the introduction of physics. Protocol wants you to make all of the physical interactions yourself – opening boxes and then dropping things in them; turning valves on doors to open them – and it’s clear from the very, very start that this isn’t going to work.
One of the first interactions is to put your clothes into a hopper. You’re not allowed to bring in contaminated material, so it’s time to get nuddy. Clothes are placed at your feet (Protocol doesn’t have a physical inventory, so it has the supremely quirky answer of putting your items at the lowest point of the Y axis), so you pick them up and try to place them into the hopper. But if you get too close to the hopper, the item tumbles out of your hands, as you’re deemed to have collided with it. Uh-oh, you’ve failed the task, and you explode. The ‘butter fingers’ physics is a constant bugbear, and you’ll be losing items on the cluttered floor, never to see them again (and even dying for it), over and over and over.
Okay, so we’re going to stand on the hopper and drop our clothes into it. Except dropping is inaccurate, and seems to change its arc based on whether it thinks something is in the way. Uh-oh, now we have dropped it outside the hopper and we explode. There’s actually a throw button (RB), but Protocol has an annoying habit of withholding this kind of information. It gives you the outline of what you need to do, but little specific information about how to do it. We guarantee that you will be stopping every five minutes to wonder what exactly you should be doing at that moment, because the general outline doesn’t cut it, and the built-in hint system isn’t enough. Four or five times in Protocol, we couldn’t progress because of bugs, but Protocol is so wayward that they could have been intentional.
In perhaps the most misguided mechanic of the year so far, you also have to bring a keycard with you. You need it for pretty much anything in the Complex, from opening doors to accessing technical macguffins. But you have to actually remember to bring it with you, which means ejecting it from doors and consoles, and stop-starting your way to a destination. We lost count of the number of times that we backtracked to find it, forgot which of the many machines it was in, or even accidentally dropped it. Posters on the wall wisecrack about this, with “Don’t forget your keycard!” festooned around, and we wanted to burn them, tear them down, or eat them.
And throughout, while Protocol loses its own interest in collecting deaths, it won’t stop it from occasionally remembering the whole mechanic. It will kill you for something arbitrary: you’ll have put on the wrong helmet, added the wrong key, or turned the wrong way. Suddenly, you’re nuclear dust. They’re almost completely random, and without the ‘death collect-athon’ of the first few chapters, they become an annoyance rather than a fun joke.
It’s tough to recall a more frustrating game experience than Protocol. That frustration isn’t just down to the lost keycards, the items spilling out of your hands, the awkward controls, or the lack of logic. That frustration comes from the clear potential in Protocol, squandered by a kind of attention-deficit, as a strong opening idea is abandoned for weird and tangential ideas that are both borrowed from other games, and don’t functionally work.
There is so much ambition to be found in Protocol on the Xbox. At times, it’s on a path to becoming a hybrid of Prey and Portal, both in the way it feels to play, and its ability to generate left-field ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas never fail to be executed poorly. Thanks largely to its controls, you will be, by turns, infuriated, bored, confused and offended. For a game that starts by feeling like a commentary on the lack of control in video games, it’s when you’re handed control that Protocol is at its worst.