Proteus launched to critical fanfare back in January of this year, but it also managed to rekindle a few unsavoury debates. Having snagged BeefJack’s most coveted badge in our review, we caught up with Proteus designer Ed Key to discuss his goals with the game, strange feedback, tough design decisions and achievement culture.
I don’t want to dwell on it because I think you’ve made yourself clear, but were you disheartened by the response from a vocal minority of people arguing whether it’s even a game? Strikes me as irrelevant.
Yeah, I didn’t really expect it to be honest. I thought we’d got all that out of the way with Dear Esther and Journey so it was a bit weird. No one messaged me directly saying ‘screw you’, but there are loads of forum threads if you look on the Steam Community Hub for the game – there’s loads of nice stuff – but there are people repeatedly posting things like ‘buyer beware, don’t buy this’ and loads of them haven’t played it.
Do you think we’ll get over our fixation with pigeon-holing everything? It doesn’t seem so prevalent in TV or film.
Yeah, I hope so. I don’t know if it’s just a proxy of the medium. TV and film are just pictures and sounds and words. Games obviously have all these totally important elements of interactivity and it’s a bit more multi-dimensional than TV. There was a really good documentary recently, it was one hour of archive footage with music by British Sea Power.
It had no narration, it was just library footage going through the history of Britain’s relationship with the sea and the coast. It was amazing, but I guess if you went into that thinking, ‘I’m going to watch a documentary’ then you’d be thinking ‘where’s the person telling me facts about the sea?’ ‘Game’ has this weird overlapping set of different meanings for different people, but I’m all for grinding language down a bit.
Kieron Gillen wrote the example of comics and comical – his point being no one complains about comics not being funny even though that’s what the word means. They’re still called comics.
So it’s a very cathartic, easy-going game with no hand-holding. What do you hope players will get out of playing Proteus?
There’s not one central message. Take Journey, for example. Journey has this thing where you’re always being led – and this is how thatgamecompany work, they decide on which emotion they want to evoke and really press that – and I tried to avoid that with Proteus just because it’s nicer if you’ve got something which is rich enough to hang things of your own off, rather than say, ‘okay you’re going to cry now’.
So the core thing, I guess, is a solitary experience and escaping civilisation. It’s important in Proteus that there are no hardships so you have this dream-like way of exploring the world. Something I’ve been looking at recently is those Chinese landscape, scroll paintings with all these misty mountains. Looking at them you just have this feeling of being drawn in.It’s more about atmosphere than a specific emotion.
It’s so hard to put into words, but really it’s just finding that atmosphere and that sense of richness and having these semi-supernatural things. And then also trying to fill that arc of the four seasons so they’re almost like plot twists. You’re going through these different phases and it’s relating to the natural way the year feels with spring being lively and winter quiet. Although it’s missing the transition from winter to spring.
Speaking of the seasons, it’s a remarkably upbeat game until the fourth season, were you trying to tell a story with that?
Going back from winter to spring, I was a little bit torn about it. I think for that sense of closure it needed to be a linear sequence. If you’ve got a linear sequence of seasons it evokes a lifetime, but if you have the repeating cycle of seasons then it end lends itself to something else. I guess I was torn between which of those we wanted to go for most.
Purely from a personal perspective, playing it at a point in my life where I was having a rough time and videogames didn’t feel that important, it came as an incredibly reflective experience. Did you deliberately design it to that end?
A lot of people have said that, but I don’t know how deliberate it is. There are little fragments you can piece together and are designed to, if not quite fit together, at least have a kind of harmony to them. I don’t think it’s deliberate that we’ve said, ‘let’s make a reflective game’, but that’s obviously the core thing that we were going for: something that immediately lent itself to that.
People have said they’ve come home from work and played it every night. Or people send emails that are really hard to answer saying ‘I’m having a really difficult time in my life right now but your game has become really important’. It’s been really satisfying to read those emails.