Thursday, January 23, 2014

Interview with Ed Key

The unique little exploration game Proteus released at the beginning of 2013 and immediately carved out a respectable fanbase and contributed to the ongoing controversy about the definition of a videogame.  With 2013 behind us and everyone still going ga-ga over Gone Home and Papers Please, I thought it would be a good time to remind people of this little interactive audio/visual masterpiece, and finally ask developer Ed Key a few questions about it.

Thanks for agreeing to this interview!  Let's start with some background questions.  What are some of your favorite games,  Both AAA and Indie?

Ah, I'll pick a random sample but I'm bound to miss some that'd I'd rather have included: Ico, Pikmin, Baldur's Gate, Kerbal Space Program, Phantom Leader, XCOM, Towerfall. 

Have you developed any other games besides Proteus?  Are you working on any new games right now?

I worked in the commercial games industry for a while. Probably the best games I worked on were Battalion Wars 1 and 2 for the Gamecube and Wii respectively. I haven't released any other indie games but have various unfinished prototypes. I'm currently working on an idea for something like a sandbox narrative RPG, still with a procedural world but probably 2D.
What was the development of Proteus like?  Did you and David Kanaga work closely together on the game as a whole, or did he simply fill in the aural portion?

When I was working on it on my own I was mostly just playing around with procedural generation and vaguely thinking about making some kind of open-world RPG. I lost momentum with this and around the time I started talking to David we decided to try and make something more about exploration and atmosphere with the music being a major part of it. From that point we both worked closely on the design and the design for various interactive and musical details went back and forth between us.

Did you code Proteus from scratch or did you build it on a pre-existing engine?

Basically from scratch, although a friend did a lot of the early graphical engine stuff so it wasn't a solo effort. 

How did you go about getting publicity for Proteus?  Did you have to do a lot of advertising, or did the game achieve popularity more by word-of-mouth?

Just a combination of submitting it to big festivals (and getting picked) and emailing press like RPS. Other than that it was just word of mouth and press coverage kinda feeding back of each other. I had lots of little lucky breaks, like Notch tweeting about it a couple of times. 

Are there any plans to update the game with new content?

Not really at this stage. We have Oculus Rift support almost ready but the development process (mainly the fact that David and I are on other sides of the world) makes it hard to just keep adding to it. Also it's so easy to get burnt out and disillusioned just working on the same thing long after release, so I'm planning on putting my time and resources into new projects.

Were there any major influences on Proteus (either videogames or other mediums)?

There were some minor influences from other games: Knytt showed you could make a great little game about exploration, even though it's really different to Proteus. Minecraft's procedural landscape probably fed into it somehow too. Even though I didn't do any music for Proteus, Brian Eno's "Shutov Assembly" was a huge influence on me. I know David has a much broader set of musical influences: Ravel, John Zorn, etc. We had a lot of discussions about philosophy but it's hard to trace exact influences there. Probably some Kant and Zhuangzi. 

Is there a subtext or hidden logic to the world of Proteus, or is it intended to be understood from an abstract perspective?  For example, is the circle of statues that shows up on tall hills supposed to be understood as a relic of some ancient religious custom--evidence that the island was once inhabited--or is it merely a suggestion of a mood or nebulous concept?

Exactly, both! There's no fully-fleshed out backstory, it's more like fragments of places and structures, blended together. Those things are all meant to imply a lost religion or habitation. The standing stones in particular are based on a type of prehistoric monument found in the UK and elsewhere and I was hoping to capture that feeling of walking around a place and really knowing that it had some significance to a lost culture but only being able to guess at it. I think it works as an abstract too - that's how we enjoy music. It doesn't directly *mean* something.

One of my favorite games of all time is Noctis IV, a small DOS-based space exploration simulator with a focus on visual aesthetics and exploration for the sake of exploration, much like Proteus.  Have you ever played or heard of it?

Yeah! It looks great. I've never managed to get it working, but it's cool that stuff like that existed way back then. I've been getting my space exploration kicks with Kerbal Space Program recently. It's amazing how solid and unforgiving the exploration is in that. (Sorry to sidetrack!) 

One of the most striking things about Proteus is the way it marries the physical environment with the soundscape.  Do you think other games could benefit from this approach?

Yeah, I think so. I feel like making something in future that's much more about jumping, gliding, skiing, etc and having those factors drive a soundtrack. David is also really into the idea of games as "musical possibility spaces". I think it's definitely a good thing to explore. I'm always a bit disappointed when someone says that a game is like Proteus because it's just walking around, because they're missing out on that part of it.

Although Proteus doesn't have a "storyline," per se, I thought there was a definite feeling of narrative structure to the experience.  Was this sort of extremely subtle storytelling an intentional goal?

Definitely! We wanted to give it a strong arc and feeling of progress, even though as you say it's really subtle and unspoken. Again, this is something more like a piece of a music than a story, but of course it is (hopefully) evocative of certain feelings and meanings along the way. 

On a related note, what are your thoughts on the state of videogame storytelling?  What games do you think are setting a good example, and what games do you think aren't?

I like games that give the player agency in how the story unfolds or allow you to tell stories about the game (as in Dwarf Fortress and similar), or games that give you a lot of material and let you fill in the gaps. I love the stories in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and I loved the detective work in Gone Home. I think my favourite stories are the ones that are really mixed in with how you're playing it... maybe stuff like King of Dragon Pass. I guess I'm bored of cliche "hero saves the world" stuff as a half-baked frame for action sequences but there are too many games to mention.

Proteus is undeniably a very pretty game, with a simple yet striking artstyle.  If you had more resources, would you have made the game more reliant on impressive graphical effects, or do you feel that the visual simplicity is an essential part of the game?

Thanks! The simplicity and restriction is definitely a bit part of it - it leaves room for your imagination rather than just aiming for something "realistic" as I always just pick flaws in those sort of graphics. If I had infinite resources I'd probably push it more in that direction, with more flowing shapes and such, whilst still keeping the rough shapes and flat colours.
Games like Gone Home, Dear Ester, and Proteus itself have sparked arguments about what a "videogame" really is, with some maintaining that the aforementioned titles are in fact a different medium.  Total Biscuit suggests that such games should more accurately be called "virtual installations", and that Proteus falls into this classification.  What are your thoughts on this?  Do you think such a distinction should be made, and if so, do you think Proteus qualifies as a "virtual installation" rather than a videogame?

I was really surprised when this flared up around Proteus as I thought it had all been discussed with Dear Esther. Obviously not! I just end up calling Proteus a "game" (and then clarifying what to expect as needed) because mostly longer phrases are equally meaningless and rapidly become nonsensical when you're talking to press or putting it up on a site for sale.  The other thing for me is that "videogame" is *already* this huge hybrid mish-mash of things and it just seems silly to ignore that, or make a special case for Proteus-y "unchallenging" things.  Another example is puzzles: No-one would look at a stack of physical wooden puzzles and call it a game, but people are totally happy calling a series of digital puzzles a game. The whole thing is bound up in paradoxes like this. 

As an indie developer with a fairly successful release, do you have any advice to other indie developers?

I think my main piece of advice is to keep your day-job (if you have one) until a time when you are confident that something is going to take off, and make sure you have an escape route if it doesn't. Obviously this isn't always possible, but it's scary to see people jumping in with both feet and assuming they'll finish their thing in 6 months or whatever.  My bonus second bit of advice is to get people playing your game once it's in a state you're happy with but before everything is set in stone. Don't tell people what to do or how to do it, and see how it communicates and if they seem happy or bored. Then figure out what to tweak, add or remove whilst maintaining a coherent vision!

Thanks very much for your time!

No problem - I ended up writing a lot! Haha

You can find my review of Proteus here, the game's official website here, and my opinion of the "what is a videogame?" controversy here.  

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