Proteus opened the 2013 indie gates with its mysterious narrative, mysterious art style, and…well, mysterious gameplay. Equally mysterious were the two minds behind it. Composer David Kanaga had previously made a name for himself with several other projects, but despite experience with commercial games, programmer Ed Key was virtually unknown.
Last week I hopped on Skype with Ed, the other half of Proteus, in search of answers about the game. Greeted by the avatar of a man with a thick beard and intent gaze – every bit the image of someone who might explore his virtual island – I found not only pieces of Proteus but a discussion about game design, digital storytelling, and the project’s early days.
Jon Dantzler for Comics Bulletin: Proteus being defined as an “antigame” by GamaSutra – and your response – has generated a lot of controversy and debate within the gaming community. Did you anticipate Proteus getting so much attention?
Ed Key: Uh…no. (laughs) Dear Esther came out last year, and there was a lot of debate that went around that. And it seemed like that debate was kinda’ done with? So, no. I don’t know if it’s how I phrased things, or what. But no, I don’t call Proteus an antigame. I know that some people do call things antigames, but I dunno.
It’s in this weird place because it’s being sold where games are sold, it’s being covered by press that cover games, and it’s difficult to classify. You have these things like train simulators, which aren’t games, and which are sold and covered and those places but don’t seem to trigger the same kind of uproar and debate about them. But I don’t want to call Proteus a simulator, because that’s not what it is. So the other option is to call it something really wordy and pretentious, like an “interactive art experience.” Game is a short word, you can just say it.
Let me add to that, even though I don’t think that’s necessarily the important aspect of it, it does have game-like boxes. Like it has an end state, and a definite route to get to that state. But it’s deliberately as thin and lightweight as possible.
CB: Going off of that: because Proteus doesn’t have any real “goals,” aside from exploration, do you think there’s a trend in the mainstream industry toward “handholding” players?
Key: Oh, yeah, totally. It’s very much like handholding your way through areas, just basically following directions. That’s…not fun. (laughs) And the flipside of that, every time you do something, you want it to be validated by the game system. You want it to just say “Oh, you discovered X, well done!” (laughs) I didn’t really do any of that in Proteus. You can kind of quantify certain things. You can quantify if you discover, say, some creature. But there’s things that you can’t really quantify, random little situations and bits thrown out. Things that get kinda strung together as you play through it. Seeing a picturesque sunset in some valley. You can go halfway and quantify some of those things, but I have this kind of theory that it would give less weight to things that aren’t quantifiable.
CB: You have mentioned that Proteus was influenced by Ultima and The Elder Scrolls, and was originally going to be a sort of open-world RPG. What made you take such a radically different direction?
Key: See, that was a long time ago; it was one of a few projects I was working on. I really like those kinda games. I was heading in that direction, procedurally generating towns, and I was getting a bit bogged down with it. Making things like that can sorta feel like making a lo-fi version of something else. So, I got with [Proteus composer] David Kanaga about doing some music for it, and he’s really into doing “reactive” music, so we came up with this plan to have the environment kinda feed into the music, to make it an exploration game.
CB: So Proteus is procedural. But the question is how procedural is Proteus, exactly? There are certain sights you typically see every game, but I didn’t even see some parts until my third play through. So how much of the game is random and how much isn’t?
Key: Well, so…one of the original principles…it’s not strictly stuck to. (laughs) One of the original principles was to be able to see everything on the first play through. You play through again because you want to, or you’re curious about things you might have missed. So yeah, the island is made of the same components, really. You’ll get different landscapes, but everything from the plants to animals to locations all have this scripting system to where they kind of know where they want to go. So it keeps this consistent feel to it.
And the music…I wouldn’t really call it randomly generated. It’s a bunch of static files, but it’s dynamically mixed based on where you are. And there are event-based sounds. But yeah, the music is kind of more authored than the island, so they complement each other.
CB: Probably the most well-known procedural game is Minecraft, which has a world that’s basically infinite. Do you think Proteus could work with a world of that size?
Key: Yeah, Minecraft is basically the size of Saturn (laughs) But yeah, I guess I started it off being an island, partly because islands are cool! But it’s also practical. If it were bigger, back when I was making decisions, I would have had to make the technology to stream in chunks. And that didn’t seem particularly necessary.
As it matured in that form, I was thinking about the familiarity of locations. I really wanted the idea of seeing the same place at different times, like you’ve been down this path before, how dramatically things change as you revisit them.
CB: So I know it’s probably frustrating to get that question “What’s it all mean?” but…without spelling it out, what sort of narrative – if any – is present in Proteus?
Key: I mean it’s certainly not a conventional narrative, where everything is really put together to tell a story, or there’s a ton of backstory. But everything is designed to be sort of harmonious. It takes little fragments of places where I’ve been and lived and puts those together. And then you have the arc of the seasons going through, which is obviously suggestive of a lot of things. I’m being vague here, but it’s meant to resonate in certain ways rather than specifically have a message.
CB: Following that, let’s talk about story in games in general. John Carmack (creator of Doom) has said that story in a game is like a story in a porn movie in that you expect it to be there but don’t really care about i
t. What are your thoughts on that?
Key: I don’t know about his particular perspective on it, but I’m a big fan of things where the player is creating their story as they go along. Although, I really enjoyed Dishonored, which I played recently, and it was an amazing world and story and restored my faith in Bethesda. I have a lot of friends who make quite story-heavy games, and I wouldn’t say “oh, why are you putting all that story in there?” But I suppose it’s my personal tendency to make something…whether it’s as minimalist as Proteus, or whether it’s something bigger, that when you play it feels like you own the experience.
There’s value in telling that experience, rather than just saying “oh, go and play that game and you’ll have the same story that I did.” Because then, it’s so much less interesting to talk about. It’s less of a personal, social thing.
CB: You said in your response to GamaSutra that sales have been good enough to potentially finance a new project. Any hints at what that might be?
Key: Well, yeah, they certainly have. It’s only the first week but it’s a good start. Even then, it’s definitely taken a lot of pressure off from before launch. One of the things I want to finish is to enter the 7-Day Roguelike competition. Just to do some little short, jam kind of projects. I wanna do something else, which is probably another exploration game, and probably…and this sounds like a reaction to the discussion last week, but to do something with more game mechanics and more traditional stuff. Something…well, roguelike. Although my contrarian nature says I might just be doing that to fit in! (laughs)
But basically, I’ve planned to do that for a while because there’s certain things I want to do, like exploration and traveling through worlds that just don’t fit in Proteus. There’s a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about doing where I’ve been like “oh, that’s for the next one.” Like a folklore setting, a forest or something.