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If These Pixels Could Talk

Nothing happens in Proteus. Everything happens in Proteus. Co-designer Ed Key on the development of his trippy island experience, the world's response, and the language we use to talk about games.

Proteus, an experimental first-person musical adventure set on an island with psychedelic pixels everywhere, was nearing the finish line in early January. Now, the hard part: it was time to sell it.

Proteus generates a world just for you every time it boots up, but there are common moments and seasons in every one.
Proteus generates a world just for you every time it boots up, but there are common moments and seasons in every one.

It’s one thing to build a genre-bending experience and show it off to friends and like-minded individuals, folks interested in stuff that’s purposely different. It’s another to drum up a pitch that describes the game in understandable terms to a larger audience and not confuse them.

That was the conundrum for Proteus co-designer Ed Key, and one I struggled with myself. When I’ve mentioned the game to other people, I found myself using some similar phrases: “It’s an art game.” “It’s an experience.” “It’s like exploring a painting in a museum.” This all felt like a disservice to an experience--see, there I go again--that I very much enjoyed, and struggled to find ways to express what Proteus was in context of what’s come before.

Having to be so reductionist about the game seemed troubling, and it’s left me wondering why.

“It’s a linguistic problem and ‘game’ perhaps doesn’t really cut it as it stands, but if you move away from ‘games’ there is no neat single noun that will cover it, really,” said Key. “You start saying ‘it’s like an ambient experience,’ or ‘interactive art’ or something, and anything you say like that always has...it's kind of annoying to say from the fact that it's got two words and lots of syllables. It always sounds much more pretentious than I want it to be. I tend to call it a game but I’ll qualify that as carefully as I can afterwards.”

Proteus doesn’t have a traditional skill-based arc to its gameplay. It’s about the journey.

As our definition a game expands, we'll have circular debates about the semantics. The larger problem is our inability to crystallize and explain non-traditional experiences that aren’t easily defined by what’s come before it. We can't properly articulate what these new games are doing. The term “art game” has negative implications for some people. Maybe they hated Flower but loved Journey, and while both would fall under a similar umbrella, Journey’s easier to explain because of its platformer trappings.

Proteus didn’t start from such a different place. It had much more traditional ambitions years ago.

"It always sounds much more pretentious than I want it to be. I tend to call it a game but I’ll qualify that as carefully as I can afterwards."

Ambition made steps toward reality when Key emailed musical collaborator David Kanaga on February 17, 2010. (The full emails are on the game’s website.)

“I just read your post 'Scenes from Arcturus' (and listened to several of the mini-albums) and wondered if you might be interested in a project,” wrote Key to Kanaga just over three years ago now. “It's a kind of ambient exploration game, perhaps with some survival mechanics. [...] Also, I felt I should qualify it with "slow-burn" as it's not really progressing much at the moment (injured my wrist so can't do a lot of computer work) but it is definitely alive and well, just hibernating...hopefully it will be back on track in a few months. Regarding money, my plan was to make it freeware. If it seems to have the potential maybe it could be sold at some point, but that's some way in the future, it's too much of an experiment at the moment.”

(Obviously, those survival mechanics never actually surfaced in the game, and Proteus would go on to become an experience worth asking people to pay money for.)

“I'd definitely be interested in doing some gentle reactive ambient music for this,” wrote Kanaga in response. “You said ‘I don't have any clear idea for [developing player motivation], but maybe the music could be a part of it?’ -- I definitely think that if the music is reactive enough to give the player a sense of "performing the landscape," that it could provide a good deal of motivation for play. For instance, when I see all the different types of vegetation in your game world, right away I imagine them having (subtle) musical tracks which get louder as the player approaches them; flowers could produce some sort of soft chimes, the yellow trees could have a different sort of musical character, etc.”

Sounds a bit like...Proteus!

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Some of the original ideas that inspired Proteus were more game-like. Key had prototypes riffing on a procedural world with adventure and RPG elements. There was nothing about player-driven music. Unfortunately, to make what Key wanted was impossible for a one-man show, especially since Proteus development was largely happening on the side. (It wasn’t until roughly a year ago that Key quit his full-time job as a way to push Proteus along). Key has a love for the worlds lovingly crafted for RPGs like The Elder Scrolls. Key wouldn’t be able to build layers of mechanics into his: it would be all world.

Key remembers the moment he started giving up on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

“I’ve got three quests that start in that town or I’ve got a quest that starts here and has got to go over there and then that town has three quests in it," he said. "It was like I just spent half a day playing--just tackling my inbox of quests. By the time I’d done that, I was pretty much done with it. Fuck it. It killed it for me. Glitchily climbing up mountains in Skyrim was one of my favorite things to do.”

Largely by necessity, Proteus would focus in on those moments.

Seasons defining a loose narrative arc came relatively early, but wasn't cemented until it was shown to people at festivals. No one was telling Key and Kanaga when Proteus had to be finished, but when he’d committed to showing it off, those deadlines became moments where Proteus was forced to take shape.

“I was thinking about what kind of stuff can we do to tie this together?” he said. “Make it a more neatly encapsulated experience for submission to this thing. Obviously, competition submissions are really good deadlines for thinking about this stuff, and thinking about how it’s going to be experienced by someone else who’s looking at it quite critically. So it really pushes you into thinking...how can you get something else out of it? How can you present it in a neater way? The linear thing came out of that, along with the ending sequence that there is now.”

When you play Proteus, it might not seem like a game with an ending, but it’s there. Keep going.

Slow but steady work on Proteus continued throughout 2010, 2011, and 2012. When Key quit his job in 2012, he was relying on his girlfriend’s salary to keep going. This was a planned move, and had a useful caveat: a deadline. Key and Kanaga decided on a release date for the end of 2012. That didn’t happen.

As simple as the game might look, the interactions between the music, world, and creatures means it’s not an easy task to continue adding bits and pieces to the landscape.

“There’s lot of things we could do with this, we could just keeping doing stuff with it,” said Key. “It’s that cut-off point. You could just keep adding to it because the type of game it is, the type of world it is. It constantly suggests more things you could add. You could have lots of different kinds of creatures and you could have different ruins and this and that. But they’ve all got to fit in neatly together.”

"I had a whole slew of ‘how to subvert achievement’ system ideas. Like you had just a button on the front end that said ‘I renounce achievements’ and you click it. Or you have achievements for standing still for five minutes or so."

The game slipped to January, at which point the two decided it was truly time to “beat it into shape.”

Besides locking down content and erasing bugs, this provoked logistical questions. Should there be achievements? It’s expected your game will have achievements these days, and Key spent time talking to friends about what might make sense for Proteus.

“I had a whole slew of ‘how to subvert achievement’ system ideas,” he said. “Like you had just a button on the front end that says ‘I renounce achievements’ and you click it and it's an achievement. Or you have achievements for 'you stood still for five minutes.' [...] That’s this weird thing about Proteus, as well. It doesn’t give you any validation about when you’ve seen something new or how much there is left to see.”

Key felt achievements, even subversive ones, would turn the game into a checklist experience, rather than encouraging players to swap stories about what each of them had seen--and didn’t see. Since it turned out Steam achievements weren’t mandatory, he ultimately tossed them out.

With some help from a group of dedicated beta testers, Proteus was released on January 30. As part of that, Key created a description of the game for the masses. Here’s what he came up with:

“Proteus is a game about exploration and immersion in a dream-like island world where the soundtrack to your play is created by your surroundings. Played in first-person, the primary means of interaction is simply your presence in the world and how you observe it.”

That’s pretty good, actually. Descriptive and accurate.

Steam is home to plenty of esoteric experiences like Proteus, including Bientôt l’Été, Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, and others. Stuff that doesn't adhere to genre conventions. But by and large, Steam is populated with tons of software that falls into established game categories. If you were to purchase the latest indie game promoted by Steam, you’d be pretty safe.

“The weird thing about Steam is that because it was on the front page, you get a lot of impulse buys or people who see a new indie game come up and buy that,” said Key. “So it’s that mismatch between how much promotion and advertising it’s getting--which is just down to Steam, really--compared with people who are finding it because they’ve sought it out or read something about it. People are buying it because it’s been advertised and it looks nice on the banner and has nice screen shots.”

I captured this meteor shower on my second time through. It never happened the first time. Some stuff is truly random.
I captured this meteor shower on my second time through. It never happened the first time. Some stuff is truly random.

A not insignificant number of people ended up purchasing Proteus this way--at least, that’s what Key suspects. Upon playing the game, though, everyone wasn't happy.

“I think a percentage of those people were annoyed with it,” said Key, “but it’s really hard to tell whether it’s the people that are complaining who have actually played it or whether it’s people complaining because they feel it shouldn’t be on Steam.”

Key noticed something interesting in the feedback, too. Some felt Proteus didn’t deserve a spot, and wondered how this game got there in the first place. Greenlight is Valve’s recently launched player-driven service to upvote new games into Steam. Any developer or publisher who does not already have a relationship with Valve have to go through Greenlight. Proteus did not go through this process. Proteus was recommended to Valve some time ago, and Valve extended a spot on the service for when the game was done. The users had no say.

“Obviously it’s generalizing, but some proportion of Steam fans or community feel like they’re gatekeepers of the service now,” he said. “ [...] There’s been people complaining about it that haven’t played it, which is kind of weird.”

The relationship between creator and player has evolved greatly in recent years. It will only get weirder.

So far, Key and Kanaga consider Proteus a huge success. 5,200 copies were sold during the game’s closed beta, but it’s sold over 23,000 copies now. There are plans for a summer update, but what exactly it contains has yet to be determined. Key is working on a modding system, and is receptive to the idea of introducing a screensaver-like mode where the game runs through the world automatically.

Patrick Klepek on Google+