It’s the mid-afternoon, and I’m on my way to London Indies, a monthly event where independent game developers gather in a pub, get merry, swap stories, and share their works in progress. The last train I needed has been cancelled, and I’m on my way back into King’s Cross station to try and find an alternative route.
I turn. It’s Ed. Ed is someone I met at London Indies, but who I’d spoken to for an interview a while beforehand. He’s friendly, calm, happy, and very talented. He shows me over to the bus stop, and we take an alternative route. He’s content to listen while I talk about my work, and I’m consciously aware of the importance of his. Why?
Because Ed made Proteus.
Working with composer David Kanaga, developer Ed Key created a game that to me exemplifies exactly why games should be classified as art. Proteus is a beautiful game in which you slowly explore a randomly-generated island and interact with its colourful, low-res environment, adding sounds to the ambient music in the background.
It’s the most deeply profound, curiosity-rewarding, beautiful experience I've ever encountered with a controller in my hands. I remember my first time — sitting in a room with my headphones in, as two others watched television. I sat, mouse in hand, earphones in ears, near tears at the amount of sounds and light and colours that were being presented to me. Everything was full of beauty, of wonder, of opportunity. I’ve never had a game allow my innocence and desire for experiences far off the beaten track take complete precedence above all else.
Key didn’t exactly grow up on the beaten track, spending years in Cumbria, in Northwestern England (as of last month, his home once again), and his love of exploring various countrysides certainly influenced the way in which Proteus was designed. “The game comes from landscapes other than where I live now. Where I live now is really flat — it’s almost claustrophobic in its flatness. I really like seeing hills ... . There’s something kind of simple about being able to see faraway places, and being able to go there. You almost become aware of that difference between seeing distant landmarks and actually being there and looking round them. It was a fascination with that effect.”
Proteus does indeed deal with hills fairly often. In fact, if you’re looking to unlock the game’s secrets, you will, as with many games, have to seek higher ground. But the game never punishes you for attempting to scale surfaces. You’ll always ascend at the same pace you traverse flat terrain, and there are no walls or cliffs blocking your path. It’s a mechanical encouragement. “I really wanted to make it so you could go anywhere,” says Key. “You can go in the water — and I could’ve put invisible glass walls around the beach, but I think we felt that it’s more up to the player how they almost roleplay, rather than putting barriers in the way that might be immersion-breaking.”
One of the reasons Proteus is such an immersive experience is the music. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it was the reason it’s always been so all-consuming every time I boot it up. Working so closely with musician David Kanaga on a project that is driven largely by sound must have been an interesting experience, when soundtracks are normally just another part of your average video game. There are wonderful touches, musically, and while it was a traditional process for Key and Kanaga — David would work on the sounds of Proteus in the States while Key continued on with the development back in the UK — the way in which music comes into play in the game is important. Former PC Gamer writer and now renowned indie developer Tom Francis said it was “the best song [he’d] ever played.” I couldn’t agree more.
Ed states that on his last project, he'd “go away and come back with a bit of music. [Proteus is] obviously very different. With David, I was looking online in the TIGSource forum for musicians, and I was imagining it being a traditional process. I wanted to find someone to do some static — some fixed loops of music. But he's really into reactive, dynamic music, and music as a kind of play-space in itself.”
Proteus is certainly a divisive experience. Some have even challenged Proteus' claim to being a game at all, and I feel like many of them are either missing the point or clinging to some traditional notion of interactivity that feels irrelevant to whether you're having fun. “There’s a strange thing people say about games,” says Key, “where you can understand wanting to drive a tank in a game, but most people can’t drive a tank in real life. Having that experience in a game has a novelty value — doing something you’d never be able to do in real life — exploring space, or something like that. People often comment [on Proteus] on articles online and say, ‘Oh, well why would I want to do that?’ But it’s a strange thing when you look at landscape paintings, because then why would you want to look at that?’”
As it happens, Proteus is well past the speedbump of any concern about what constitutes a game, or what constitutes a game that’s worth playing. Having taken part in one of the recent Humble Indie Bundles, its sales have understandably spiked. “It’s crazy. The first twenty-four hours or so it hit a million dollars gross [in combined revenue]. When you’ve got that live stat thing, it’s addictive.”
It must be an amazing experience to create something so beautiful and unique and have it effectively change your life. Key went full-time indie during the development process, and now enjoys the ability to focus on his development work. But working on Proteus has changed his view of what projects will sit well with him, in much the same way as my work on Hug Marine did. “Having made something once which doesn’t have shooting and killing in it, it feels like it would be easy to just go back and rely on a classic videogame thing like shooting. There’s something about having that kind of foundation that feels like ‘Here’s a stepping stone off in a different direction. Is there another thing in that same direction, without making a shooting game?’” This, to me, underlines that Proteus isn’t just incredible; it’s also important. Like Journey, or Papo and Yo, Proteus shows that it’s wholly possible to create an interactive experience that doesn’t rely on violence in order to make the player feel engaged and content. Key has at least one project on his horizon, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. For now, though, I think I might award Proteus my highest possible accolade: It’s a safe place that I can dive into whenever I just want to escape — and what a marvellous escape it is.
Proteus is currently only $4.99 during the Summer Steam sale on all sales platforms. Disclosure: Ed and I do know each other in real life (a fair part due to this interview, but also through London Indies), but I would recommend this to you anyway, I assure you.