Mar 7, 2012
This is part one of a two-part look at Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, based on several builds of the game plus an interview and email correspondence with Key himself. Part two will be released tomorrow.
Sat at the end of a long terraced street, the unremarkable new build home I grew up in as a kid was the gatehouse between a grey suburbia and a put-upon but utterly addictive spinney. The garden backed onto a haphazard cryptoforest – squeezed on either side by a deserted barracks and a new building estate – full of sycamores, nettles, shopping trolleys and endless adventure. I would have lived there if it weren’t for the monsters at night.
I never mapped this jungle, despite the benefits of being able to navigate its smelly, sickly streams or escape the yawning, pit-of-the-stomach horror of me and my friends realising we were utterly lost in its belly as the sun began to set. Why not? I think, despite the terrors, deep down I was aware they were nothing against the value this rich, story-filled space held as a mystery. The phrase ‘here be dragons’ is the most exciting part of any map…
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, currently in development for the PC (Mac and Linux versions to follow), locates itself like that childhood home on the razor’s edge between disclosure and mystery. Described as ‘a game of pure exploration and discovery’, Proteus places the player behind the eyes of a lone character on a virgin island with no map, no monsters and an environment that, in the hands of a master, can be played like a violin.
With its stripped down mechanics, it’s an experience as simple, refreshing and exhilarating as running along a beach in no shoes. It’s still a videogame though and Proteus’s aesthetic, storytelling and bright blue skies all bear the imprint of some surprising gaming influences…
A SMALL DISCOVERY
Videogames have long fed upon our compulsion to explore. I still remember being mystified and delighted as a twelve year old by the surprise discovery of the underground monorail in Durrell’s Saboteur! – a landmark that used up precious bytes of my lowly 48k ZX Spectrum’s memory but reinforced the believability of the game’s military industrial complex setting. All I could do with it was ride on the damn thing. I didn’t get any extra points or hidden bonuses. But it felt like I’d found something special.
Proteus is, in one sense, an attempt to sustain that moment of discovery across a whole game. The single player wanders a small island pretty much left to his own devices. It’s a beautifully designed environment complete with shoreline, trees, mud and changing seasons – plus an ecosystem of creatures to discover. There’s no enemies to fight, no levels to complete, and no game to win. And it’s arguably the richest gaming experience I can remember for one simple reason. It asks the player to bring his own systems to the table.
Videogames have affected our vocabulary of interaction. When we play we’re all about how we can ‘use’ the environment to our advantage, whether that’s cover from a hail of bullets, grappling along a parapet, flicking a switch to open a door etc. Proteus has no ‘use’ or ‘action’ button. You can’t even jump. Direction keys and mouselook are all you get and the result is you start to use aesthetic, emotion and ambience to interact with the gameworld.
Proteus’s beats are gentle inclines – tracking down a frog in a marshy copse of grasses, watching the sun set between a pair of trees – but the island’s language, while softly spoken, is no less engaging. The success of the ‘smithing’ mechanic in Bethesda’s Skyrim demonstrates audiences’ appetite for smaller interaction.
Proteus ruthlessly removes opportunities to compete, collect or catalogue. As Key outlined when I spoke to him at Nottingham’s Gamecity last year, “The message of the game is to not feel like you’re driven by goals all the time and smell the flowers…” It’s an Urb Ex approach to interaction – ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.’ But fill your senses.
“There’s a deliberate lack of agency and creativity in the world, to reflect the qualities of walking in a natural environment,” Explains Key. “There might also be a bit of influence creeping in from Taoism about non-action and not interfering with things. There’s a saying about the ideal activity of the emperor being to simply sit facing south…”
The examples of favourite real life explorations Ed offers when asked reflect this focus (as well as providing some insight into the inspirations for some of the game’s environments). He highlights Nine Standards Rigg’s ‘stones of uncertain purpose’ in the Pennines (below) -
Themselves reminiscent of Proteus’s line of standing stones (below).
And Whinfell Ridge in the Lake District (below).
Both go-to destinations for fell walkers, which Proteus seems to repurpose as story beats.
“NOTHING HAPPENS IF THEY CATCH YOU…”
Much of the pleasure of Proteus comes via engagements and interactions other games often devalue – revolving around ‘soft ambient’ exploration and observation such as spotting a new creature, enjoying the accidental composition of a copse of trees or walking a shoreline.
Nonethless, the reaction of game world elements to your presence also allows the player to engage with Key’s ecosystem. Moving towards frogs makes them hop away, but by carefully positioning myself at the right angle I found I could ‘herd’ the frog to hop towards, and eventually next to, a companion, at which point the two starting merrily burping at one another!
The consistently engaging process of finding and observing the island’s wildlife led me to suggest to Ed my proposal for a DIY I-Spy book for Proteus offering a guide to tick off and catalogue what I found (‘Crabs = 5 points’ – that kind of thing). I wasn’t the first. “Someone suggested a kind of checklist, almost like a bird spotting thing where you tick things off when you see them. It turns out it’s not really needed. I like birdwatching but I don’t like ticking things off in books. It’s fun but it’s kind of a compulsive thing and I don’t really feel there’s a need to feed that…”
It’s not a surprise that me and others have attempted to gameify the experience. That’s what games are, right? You do stuff and score points. But Proteus is a holiday from compulsion; Key’s response an order to relax. In service of this, there’s no healthbar, no compass and no game map. You start using the sun, landmarks and the game’s exquisite, dynamically generated soundtrack as bearings. The surprising result of this pulling back is an increased engagement with Proteus’s world.
There’s still fences in this virtual paradise though, perhaps as a result of Key and Kanaga’s drive to provide a setting for beginnings. Nothing dies. Proteus has seasons, and they’re beautifully implemented, but you’ll never experience the shock of finding a dead rat by a stream, as I did one sunny summer morning while exploring my spinney. This is possibly the one area where, by distancing itself from videogames, Proteus also removes itself from nature. The battles in Skyrim’s antecedants bring little emotion but death can be a shocking discovery. The magician who falls from the sky to his doom on a picturesque, leaf framed path just outside Seyda Neen in Morrowind, or the discovery of dozens of dead Goblins following a grand battle between rival factions in Oblivion are harsh lessons, but they’re utterly immersive, prompting reflection and an awareness that you’re but one figure in a vast gameworld tapestry. Time and the world moves on. Proteus is an amberised experience – with all the suspended beauty that suggests.
That’s it for part one. In part two, I’ll look at Proteus’s aesthetic, its approach to discovery, Rescue on Fractalus and Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures.
Key and Kanaga’s Proteus is available to preorder for Windows now with OSX and Linux versions to follow.