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Road to the IGF: Key and Kanaga's  Proteus

Road to the IGF: Key and Kanaga's Proteus Exclusive

January 27, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

There's something uniquely elegant about Proteus, a peaceful, open wildland that has its own primal beauty, despite -- or maybe even because of -- its pixel-chunky aesthetic.

The game, developed by UK-based Ed Key and David Kanaga, is a finalist in the Nuovo category, and also received honorable mentions in the Excellence in Audio as well as the Seumas McNally Grand Prize categories.

It's more than just a land to explore; its true charm reveals itself slowly and gently through reactive audio that, in the developers' words, "allows the player to explore the environment as music."

Kanaga and Key talk to Gamasutra about Proteus, and how their somewhat uncommon combination of backgrounds, goals and innovative way of viewing games helped create this uniquely mesmerizing game.

What background do you have making games?

Ed: When I was young I made BASIC games on the Spectrum and Amiga. I spent about 8 years in the game industry after graduating, working on things like Battalion Wars, but Proteus will be my first indie release.

David: Well, playspaces in general more than "game" games: writing pieces of music based on interactions-- response structures, etc. Forms for improvisation. Teaching. Throwing parties with strange moods.

What development tools did you use?

Ed: It's written in C# and uses Tao Framework, OpenGL, SDL and Lua for scripting. It's also using a big chunk of framework code written by my friend Alex May. I use various free paint programs and Sketchup for the occasional bit of 3D modeling.

David: All the music is done in Ableton.

How long has your team been working on the game?

Ed: I had to check back over old emails and was a bit surprised that it's been three and a half years since the early glimmers of the project. It only really kicked off in its current form when I got in touch with David about two years ago. It's been a very long fermentation process, which might show through in the game.

How did you come up with the concept for Proteus, and what were its inspirations?

Ed: It started out as various scraps of prototypes and ideas before settling into the form it is now. I was thinking about procedural landscapes and about the exploration and wandering parts in games like Morrowind and Oblivion.

I was also quite inspired by people like Cactus and Nifflas, making interesting retro-but-not, stylish, minimalistic games. A lot of influence came from outside of games, but that's harder to enumerate, more about trying to soak up influences from art and nature and pursuing certain philosophies to their conclusions.

I suppose I'm a bit tight-lipped on this stuff because I don't want to set any preconceptions. We're just exploring an idea as we go along, really.

David: Since Ed found me through my "Scenes for Arcturus" EP, based on the book "A Voyage to Arcturus" (best SF book-- read it!), I let myself take a lot of cues from moods and philosophies and changing states of consciousness in that.

Also mystical writings, psychedelic thinking, etc. 1 minute of Beethoven imagined as a game. 4'33". Improvising outdoors while the sun rises. Chuang Tsu, Julian Jaynes, Algernon Blackwood-- terrific recommendations from Ed.

What do you hope players will take away from the experience?

David: Peace, fear, whatever-- something coming from the need to figure out how to exist in an environment.

Ed: I hope it'll be refreshing. It's been really amazing to see and hear about so many people get so immersed in it, including young children and elderly relatives. People find little moments that may or may not be unique to their session.

Part of the fun as the creator is that everything is left rather vague and unspecified, with no text or explanations, so you get some interesting interpretations from players. This has actually fed back into the design on several occasions.

How would you address those who'd say that a game "needs" goals and objectives?

David: I'd say they're being dogmatic and silly! If games "need" these (and, specifically, need to impose them on players, rather than suggesting or enabling them), then I'm more interested in the broader category of playspaces than in games. Why not let the word "game" mean more?

Ed: Haha yeah, I agree with the idea of a "playspace". Play in pure sense does not need imposed goals, it's more about experience and discovery.

Children don't have goals and objectives in make-believe games and we're trying to channel a bit of that kind of free spirit and still make it compelling. Sometimes it feels like a lack of goals is the ultimate escape, but maybe I'm a bit of an extremist in this regard.

What kinds of tasks can the player give him or herself in Proteus?

David: Look, listen, move, disturb. These are input/output things-- the more interesting things, as always, are internal, and I don't know how to list them.

Ed: I'd hate to use the word "task", it sounds too much like work! Players should cultivate a certain idle curiosity. There are certainly quite a few things to discover in Proteus, and we'll be adding more as we go on.

What's next for Proteus? Is it final? How about you -- what's the next challenge you want to tackle?

Ed: We're committed to opening a beta access pre-order in time for GDC and aiming to release the "final" version in Summer. Post-beta plans will depend on how the beta goes, but we're not thinking of a long-term Minecraft-style beta for various design reasons. I've just quit my dayjob to focus on my games: I have a few ideas for the next project, quite unlike Proteus, so it's an exciting time!

David: Yeah, finishing up Proteus; also finishing work on Dyad, another game I'm doing music for that's also coming out in the next few months. After that, I want to keep on exploring, seeing what can be done with games (play) as music... figure out how these interactions can feel right -- not gimmicky, but really serious (playful) stuff.... how we experience meaning from touching music.

I'll be improvising a lot more, maybe writing for instruments, too -- a lot of the solutions to these problems are pre-digital, and many happen in play rather than in design.

Played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you particularly loved?

David: I love Way-- I played at Indiecade, and there's something so touching about learning to communicate in it like you do. It's kind of a forced language, of course, but expressive. It's short and sweet; you finish the whole thing pretty quickly, and then have a terrific drawing jam with your partner on a big map, and then feel very sorry to lose them forever.

Also, in it you can jump on each other's heads when you finally meet up, and this is the best mechanic to have in multiplayer games-- it's strangely intimate. I've played others, too, so much great stuff! Joust in the desert <3

Ed: I've played a few: GIRP, Frozen Synapse, Way, Spelunky, English Country Tune and others, all excellent. The range of games seems so diverse this year. I've also been in the right place to play J.S. Joust several times, once in Death Valley with Doug and friends, which was incredible.

I'm really excited to see Dear Esther, as it looks and sounds amazing. Botanicula is very intriguing, as Machinarium has a special place in my heart. I should stop before I name all the games!

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

David: It's great! New ideas are blowing up all the time, creativity seems to be flowing very nicely.. I want more interactive music, and more play, but I think the time will come (is coming) for all of this...

Ed: Seems like an incredible time! There's such a variety of scope and ambition in the games around right now, I can't possibly imagine what this year will bring. Seems like we'll definitely have more bundles, so it'll be interesting how that plays out.

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