Ed Key, one half of the team behind Proteus, talks to Niall Gosker about the audio-visual delight that boldly defies gaming convention

Standards form quickly. An expected way of doing things that has worked well in the past develops over time and so, continues to be used. Video games are no different in this sense. Genres exist to easily categorise and understand games at a glance, but too often it feels as though these arbitrary tags actually dictate the course of development.

This makes it even more striking when games emerge that, by their very nature, resist classification. Proteus, from Ed Key and David Kanaga, released earlier this year, is one such example. It has no direct objectives and to a large extent, lacks traditional video game structure, making it a genuinely refreshing experience.

Proteus’ primary theme revolves around exploration. There are no real gameplay mechanics to speak of. Instead, the player inhabits a beautiful lo-fi rendering of nature and it’s up to them to engage with the environment on an experiential level. “A fascination with that feeling of aimlessly wandering through nature, absorbing it all”, is what Key credits as the primary motivator behind the desire to create the game.

“I grew up with hills and lakes and holidays to places with stone circles so I think eventually I wanted to express this in a game. There are a few games that have nice exploration aspects like Kyntt, Ultima 7, Minecraft and others and they all informed the design a little”, he adds.

While the pixelated, minimalism of its visual design is the most immediate aspect of its presentation, audio plays just as important a role in the strength of Proteus’ ability to immerse. Key explains, “Structurally, the music of Brian Eno was a big inspiration for me. David [Kanaga]’s musical work takes in a lot of stuff from Stravinsky, Ravel and abstract artists like Kandinsky.”

Kanaga was responsible for music composition, but the two worked together very closely to ensure it would be implemented in a meaningful way. “It is composed and arranged in real time according to the player’s actions. David and I had a process where we bounced ideas and partly-working versions back and forth for each bit of audio interaction, adding layers that respond to different factors, that sort of thing.

“It’s actually simpler than it appears when you look at the rules for it. I think the main thing is how it directly responds to you, whilst also having a life of its own due to the processes running in the world.”

Proteus’ challenging of convention has garnered the critical adoration of many, but has also proven to be its biggest criticism by others; the latter group arguing that it lacks too many of the expected touchstones. Ultimately, it comes down to the definition of a video game as it is perceived now.

Key says, “It seems like the popular definition that Proteus clashes with is really way too narrow and just based on what’s currently popular on Steam. If you really try to nail down the definition of what games must have, then lots of things that are already considered part of the continuum get left out, like Sim City or tabletop D&D, etc.”

Not having to think about the normal aspects of game design afforded both Key and Kanaga the opportunity to focus their attention elsewhere. “It was a challenge to keep it engaging, but I think rejecting those kind of imposed goals, signposts and extrinsic rewards gives it a unique feeling.

“Being adrift at first, and then pulled along by various little attractions, then making surprising discoveries; that’s how we hope it works anyway, and it seems to be so for a lot of people. It’s a nice change to a lot of modern games where you have a list of quests or targets or whatever. Some people recoil at this lack of direction, so it’s a risky design, but it seems to have worked out okay overall.”

Selling something that doesn’t fit into easily marketable terms is another issue Key faced with the game. Thankfully though, the current downloadable climate accommodates such niches. “Steam sales are great when you have some extra visibility on the storefront, but are a bit disappointing if not.

“They still generate 20 or more times the sales you get outside of a Steam sale though. In general, Steam sells about ten times as many copies as selling direct, in my experience. Humble Bundle is also totally mind-blowing.”

He continued, “Some people asked, ‘Do you mind if I only paid the minimum?’, but even though a lot of people are getting the game for cheap, the overall numbers meant that it was a big chunk of revenue, probably equivalent to the first few months of sales combined.”

It’s comforting that despite the uneasiness that still hangs over games like Proteus, there are ways for them to viable propositions for developers. As for the future, Key is already at work on what he refers to currently as “Game 2”. He hopes “to do something else on the theme of wandering in the outdoors, keeping some of the same spirit of Proteus, but blending it with procedural story-telling as in games like FTL and King of Dragon Pass.”

Having quit his day job to focus completely on his own projects, Key wants to be able to continue producing interesting experiments. If the reaction is as strong as it was to Proteus, he should be able to do just that and in the process, make another important contribution to the evolving nature of the medium.

To experience Proteus for yourself, go to www.visitproteus.com/