Proteus made no small splash when it launched to critical fanfare back in January of this year, but it also rekindled a few unsavoury debates. Having snagged BeefJack’s most coveted badge in our review, we caught up with Proteus designer Ed Key to discuss his goals with the game, strange feedback, tough design decisions and achievement culture.
I don’t want to dwell on it because I think you’ve made yourself clear but were you disheartened by the response from a vocal minority of people arguing whether it’s even a game? Strikes me as irrelevant.
Yeah I didn’t really expect it to be honest. I thought we’d got all that out of the way with Dear Esther and Journey so it was a bit weird. No one messaged me directly saying ‘screw you’, but there are loads of forum threads if you look on the Steam Community Hub for the game – there’s loads of nice stuff – but there are people repeatedly posting things like ‘buyer beware, don’t buy this’ and loads of them haven’t played it.
Do you think we’ll get over our fixation with pigeon holing everything? It doesn’t seem so prevalent in TV or film.
Yeah, I hope so. I don’t know if it’s just a proxy of the medium. TV and film are just pictures and sounds and words. Games obviously have all these totally important elements of interactivity and it’s a bit more multi-dimensional than TV. There was a really good documentary recently, it was one hour of archive footage with music by British Sea Power. It had no narration, it was just library footage going through the history of Britain’s relationship with the sea and the coast. It was amazing, but I guess if you went into that thinking, ‘I’m going to watch a documentary’ then you’d be thinking ‘where’s the person telling me facts about the sea?’ ‘Game’ has this weird overlapping set of different meanings for different people, but I’m all for grinding language down a bit. Kieron Gillen wrote the example of comics and comical – his point being no one complains about comics not being funny even though that’s what the word means. They’re still called comics.
So it’s a very cathartic, easy-going game with no hand-holding. What do you hope players will get out of playing Proteus?
There’s not one central message. Take Journey, for example. Journey has this thing where you’re always being led – and this is how thatgamecompany work, they decide on which emotion they want to evoke and really press that – and I tried to avoid that with Proteus just because it’s nicer if you’ve got something which is rich enough to hang things of your own off, rather than say, ‘okay you’re going to cry now’. So the core thing I guess is a solitary experience and escaping civilisation. It’s important in Proteus that there are no hardships so you have this dream-like way of exploring the world. Something I’ve been looking at recently is those Chinese landscape, scroll paintings with all these misty mountains. Looking at them you just have this feeling of being drawn in. It’s more about atmosphere than a specific emotion. It’s so hard to put into words, but really it’s just finding that atmosphere and that sense of richness and having these semi-supernatural things. And then also trying to fill that arc of the four seasons so they’re almost like plot twists. You’re going through these different phases and it’s relating to the natural way the year feels with spring being lively and winter quiet. Although it’s missing the transition from winter to spring.
Speaking of the seasons, it’s a remarkably upbeat game until the fourth season, were you trying to tell a story with that?
Going back from winter to spring, I was a little bit torn about it. I think for that sense of closure it needed to be a linear sequence. If you’ve got a linear sequence of seasons it evokes a lifetime, but if you have the repeating cycle of seasons then it end lends itself to something else. I guess I was torn between which of those we wanted to go for most.
Purely from a personal perspective, playing it at a point in my life where I was having a rough time and videogames didn’t feel that important, it came as an incredibly reflective experience. Did you deliberately design it to that end?
A lot of people have said that, but I don’t know how deliberate it is. There are little fragments you can piece together and are designed to, if not quite fit together, at least have a kind of harmony to them. I don’t think it’s deliberate that we’ve said, ‘let’s make a reflective game’, but that’s obviously the core thing that we were going for: something that immediately lent itself to that. People have said they’ve come home from work and played it every night. Or people send emails that are really hard to answer saying ‘I’m having a really difficult time in my life right now but your game has become really improtant’. It’s been really satisfying to read those emails.
One of the more interesting criticisms I saw levelled at the game was there’s no replay value. For me, that’s fine. Do you envisage people returning or was it designed to be experienced once?
It’s definitely designed to be replayed, and people definitely do replay it. It’s designed so if you enjoy it the first time, if you play it again, you’ll probably see different things and get a bit more out of it the second time. So yeah, I disagree. Nothing says ‘hey you can replay it and see other stuff’ but that’s part of my contrary nature of not wanting to tell people – part of my contrary desire to throw something out there and see what people make of it rather than really leading people through things.
That attitude of X needs to be this long, is that poisonous? Nobody dismissed Toy Story 3 for being 90 minutes long and not three hours.
Yeah. That was another thing where I thought someone else has taken the flak for this before me, I won’t get flak for it, which was Thirty Flights of Loving. That’s a really short game but it’s really finely crafted. The pure length thing is strange because a lot of games are padded out and it’s annoying. That was actually a factor in designing Proteus. I didn’t want to make anything where you had to play through five times to unlock something. Respect peoples’ time, give them a short experience and then support replays, have multiple paths through it. Something like FTL, it’s stretching the definition a little bit, but those coffee-break rogue-likes where you have something you can play for an hour. There are lots of different ways through it, it’s kind of short, but it has this richness that comes out from replaying it so you don’t feel like you have all these unfinished games or you’re missing a massive part of the game. Also with long games, you also get this problem where early content is generally more polished and tested with the stuff at the end not so much.
Exploration games have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence with games like Proteus, Journey, Dear Esther and Kairo, why do you think that is?
My annoying answer is I’m not sure Dear Esther and Journey are particularly exploration games. I guess Dear Esther kind of is but it has all these glass walls and wrong turnings. You can certainly go down a path and find out what’s down there, but exploration is this nebulous concept. Somebody that played the Proteus beta, to them exploration meant going over much greater distances and finding big ruins and secrets, which is fine, it’s another word like ‘game’ that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. I know what you mean, the general thing of games that are more ambient environment games, but I don’t know why. Dear Esther’s funny because it came out just before we launched the initial paid beta and I was really nervous about that because I fired it up thinking, ‘is this going to be really similar to what we’ve almost finished?’ but it was fine because it was really different.
For me I get a real sense that I have some hold over what happens, some freedom.
Yeah, right! And there’s an angle to that which is the achievement culture or achievement focus – where you have to have a little tick appear to say you’ve done something. It’s a bit ridiculous. Obviously it’s a real human urge but if you can provide something which doesn’t do that and is still engaging it feels like it’s a worthwhile thing to make.
Do you think achievement culture has had a real impact on game design, particularly this generation?
I don’t know about game design but definitely game audiences. Xbox 360 was the first one to popularise it with gamer points, and people are totally free to enjoy it, but it doesn’t appeal to me particularly. I’d rather have something where you’re not being led by the hand and you’re not being patted on the back. I think the other thing is – in relation to this – thinking about things like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft, these are games designed around telling your own stories as a player and Proteus, I think, does a little bit of that. Things that become meaningful because you played through them, you discovered them for yourself and you’re constructing this experience as you go along. That seems really important to me and I hope future games that I do will also play into that.
So here’s another annoying argument for you. I’ve got a buddy who asked me what the point of a game solely about walking was.
That’s another weird one, it’s quite annoying. It’s a strange thing to say because if you look at, I really want to avoid claiming it’s art because it’s made in a context of videogames and that’s a whole different…
Do you not think it’s art?
Well, I just don’t like to say. I don’t complain if someone else says it’s art, I say thanks. But the going for a walk thing is weird because you don’t look at landscape paintings and say, ‘why would someone paint that, you could just go for a walk’. Personal aesthetic reactions to experience, you can’t reproduce that effect by going out and going for a walk, dammit that’s not how art works!
Absolutely not. So is there a grand plan for the future? More Proteus or something new?
I want to work on some prototypes, probably more exploration things. I’ve got a couple of promising ideas but I really need to prototype them. And probably, they’re things that will be less susceptible to the ‘is it a game?’ argument, although I almost feel as though I don’t want to do that now. Hopefully if you like Proteus you’ll like these things because it’ll have a lot of the same principles, but maybe with some survival mechanics or FTL style generated story. But yeah, after the ‘is it a game?’ thing my contrary side just says, ‘no, I’m not going back to something more traditional.’ And probably sometime in the middle of this year I want to go back, if David’s up for it, and add a bit more content to Proteus as a free update with new things to discover and keep it ticking on a bit.
This interview was originally published on BeefJack