The Mak­ing Of…

How Ed Key and David Kanaga chan­nelled the Bri­tish land­scape to make the mys­te­ri­ous Pro­teus

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY LEWIS GOR­DON De­vel­op­ers Ed Key, David Kanaga Pub­lisher Twisted Tree Games For­mat PC, PS3, Vita Ori­gin UK/US Re­lease 2012

Fit­tingly, the in­cep­tion of Pro­teus can be traced back to a walk. Specif­i­cally, around the vil­lage of Ave­bury in the south­west of Eng­land: it’s a site of star­tling oth­er­ness, a vil­lage wrapped in three stone cir­cles, as if lay­ers of time and pres­ence have been stacked atop one an­other. In the win­ter of 2008 Ed Key, lead de­signer of Pro­teus, was wan­der­ing through the ne­olithic mon­u­ments with his friend, Alex May, dis­cussing how they could ease the process of de­sign­ing land­scapes.“We were just walk­ing and talk­ing and Alex was say­ing, ‘I re­ally want to make a land­scape ren­derer’, and I was think­ing, ‘How could we make a land­scape gen­er­a­tor?’ We started out work­ing on some­thing, put the two halves of it to­gether, and then just had this thing that could gen­er­ate a mil­lion land­scapes.”

Key would turn the tech­nol­ogy that evolved from that con­ver­sa­tion into Pro­teus, a game in which you wan­der around a pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated is­land, soak­ing up the sights and sounds of the land­scape as it passes through day, night, and the turn­ing of the sea­sons. But the re­al­i­sa­tion of it wouldn’t oc­cur un­til David

Kanaga, a com­poser and sound de­signer, came on board to pro­vide the densely tex­tured au­dio that brings Pro­teus’ en­vi­ron­ments to life.

Prior to Kanaga’s in­volve­ment, though, Key was work­ing on Pro­teus in his spare time – a newly ac­quired lux­ury hav­ing re­cently quit the rigours of com­mer­cial videogame pro­duc­tion. Cit­ing both his grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the mech­a­nisms of stu­dio de­vel­op­ment and the re­al­i­sa­tion that he could go it alone, Key moved to the south­west of Eng­land with his girl­friend and got a job at a com­puter-aided de­sign and man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany. There was zero over­time and no week­end work­ing, a sit­u­a­tion that gave him the free­dom to fol­low his own en­deav­ours. “It was re­ally cushy but pretty bor­ing,” he says. “And es­pe­cially with this job, just hav­ing a lot of spare time and en­ergy, I re­alised that I could start do­ing stuff.”

Key be­gan to ex­plore var­i­ous ideas sur­round­ing the project. “I guess I wanted to make some­thing with land­scapes in, and some­thing pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated, but I didn’t re­ally know what it was go­ing to be. I was think­ing sort of a sur­vival-ish game.” An early ver­sion Key worked on with Ray­mond Cin­dric cen­tred on a 16x16 sprite of a cat, viewed in third­per­son, ex­plor­ing more densely set­tled en­vi­ron­ments. But af­ter the pair drifted apart Key would re­de­fine the vi­sion. “It was al­ways go­ing to be fairly ex­plo­ration heavy, but I think I got bored. I de­cided I wanted to make it first­per­son – and less ob­vi­ously retro.”

While the fi­nal game con­tains noth­ing as whim­si­cal as a cat sprite, the pro­cesses in­volved in thrash­ing out that look led Key to his first ma­jor break­through. “The tree was the thing that de­fined the look of it in the end. As it stands now, the trees in the game are a clus­ter of cam­era-fac­ing sprites with this hand-drawn ragged edge. And the trunks are just ragged out­line sprites that kind of fit­ted to­gether. Be­cause there’s no light­ing, ev­ery­thing just fuses to­gether into the same blobs of colour.”

This ap­proach en­abled Key to be more im­pres­sion­is­tic with the world he was build­ing. “I was study­ing a lot of the plants fairly closely, but then do­ing a lot of the sprites for them in an al­most im­pro­vi­sa­tional kind of way. And I started push­ing the colours a lit­tle bit to­wards the un­re­al­is­tic or hy­per­re­al­is­tic end of things, such as the pink sun­sets and the yel­low sky in the af­ter­noon of the sum­mer, kind of kick­ing away from my ten­dency to be quite lit­eral with colour choices.” Key’s ef­forts re­sulted in a strik­ing vis­ual aes­thetic, built us­ing the sim­plest of means and, cru­cially, es­chew­ing graph­i­cal fidelity for an un­mis­tak­able sense of place.

Fol­low­ing the re­fine­ment of the game’s vis­ual ap­proach, Key be­gan to look for the next com­po­nent of Pro­teus: the mu­sic. He did so on in­die de­vel­oper fo­rum Tig­source, where he found Kanaga’s work. One of Kanaga’s re­leases, Scenes From Arc­turus, im­me­di­ately res­onated with Key, partly be­cause of the tonal sim­i­lar­i­ties it shared with Brian Eno’s 1992 al­bum The Shutov As­sem­bly. In an early email ex­change Key told Kanaga how, when he was younger, he would lis­ten to the al­bum while he played Ul­tima VII, and so as­so­ci­ated it with ex­plor­ing the vir­tual forests found in the game. Key, in fact, used a track from that Eno al­bum as a tem­po­rary sound­track for an early video of Pro­teus. “Some of David’s stuff had sim­i­lar sort of floaty, pitch-bendy stuff in it. And Brian Eno’s thing is lots of lay­ers of tape loops and strange things, so, yeah, it was pretty im­me­di­ate.”

Kanaga also felt an im­me­di­ate kin­ship with the project, warmly re­call­ing his first im­pres­sions of Pro­teus. “I fell in love with the vi­su­als re­ally quickly. It was just such a beau­ti­ful, child­hood love or some­thing. I just got lost in it.” With a de­ter­mi­na­tion that his au­dio should re­flect the vi­su­als of the game as purely as pos­si­ble, Kanaga em­ployed an al­most im­pro­vi­sa­tional ap­proach to com­po­si­tion: “I was just, like, ‘I’m gonna play the game and try to sort of trans­late the spirit of the vi­su­als as I feel them’.” Kanaga also brought his own ex­pe­ri­ences of land­scape to the fore, chan­nelling his Pa­cific North­west roots into the game. “I grew up in the coun­try­side in Ore­gon and I think that I read my own in­ti­macy with the land­scapes into how I was read­ing the game. It’s not as hilly there, but it’s kind of sim­i­larly north­ern in terms of the cli­mate, and it’s very lush – a lot of ev­er­greens.”

Cru­cially, Kanaga’s own ideas about the func­tion­al­ity of mu­sic – of its need for a spe­cific con­text – also found form in the world of Pro­teus. “All the sounds in the game, their func­tion is to ex­ist in a com­mu­nity with each other,” Kanaga tells us. “But also, cru­cially, with the in­put of the player. Be­cause, for me as a player, the most ex­plicit con­nec­tion to the com­mu­nity of the game is how you’re ac­tu­ally touch­ing it.” In Pro­teus, that touch­ing of the game stems sim­ply from the player’s pres­ence – of ex­ist­ing in re­la­tion to


the land­scape they’re a part of – which in turn shapes Kanaga’s amor­phous sounds. The player’s prox­im­ity to par­tic­u­lar ob­jects, be that a tree or a build­ing, or their al­ti­tude level, shapes what sounds they’re hear­ing, cre­at­ing an ever-shift­ing, dy­namic sound­track. “There are prob­a­bly times in the fi­nal ver­sion of Pro­teus where it’s play­ing, like, 20 things at once,” Key says. At times, the sheer den­sity of sounds can lead to the game feel­ing over­loaded, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the sum­mer por­tion of the game, but Key main­tains that it was a con­scious de­ci­sion, de­signed to re­flect the height­ened sen­sory stim­u­la­tion of that time of year. “We de­lib­er­ately made it so it feels kind of over­whelm­ing. We weren’t try­ing to make some­thing real­is­ti­cally im­mer­sive. It’s an im­pres­sion­is­tic-slash-ex­pres­sion­is­tic im­mer­sion that is sub­jec­tive; whether it’s pleas­ant or un­pleas­ant to be hemmed in by trees, and if the air’s re­ally hu­mid, you can choose to be over­whelmed.”

Cre­at­ing a spe­cific feel for each of the sea­sons pre­sented its own chal­lenges. The early stages of Kanaga’s in­volve­ment were spent on spring, but as each sub­se­quent sea­son was in­tro­duced, the com­plex­ity of the project be­gan to un­fold. “At first it was very much, ‘OK, we’ve got this one space and we’re gonna do all these changes for this sin­gle static space,” Kanaga says. “But then it be­came day and night time and so dif­fer­ent sys­tems needed to ex­ist for that. And then we mul­ti­plied that again by the sea­sons, where we needed to have all of these dif­fer­ent sys­tems re­com­posed per sea­son.” An even greater chal­lenge lay in main­tain­ing con­sis­tency across the con­trast­ing sea­sons. “One of the ma­jor dif­fi­cul­ties was try­ing to take the di­ver­sity of mu­si­cal moods and make sure they all re­main an­gles of one mood,” Kanaga says. “But Pro­teus has this po­etic, placid tem­per­a­ment that ex­ists through­out the whole game. There’s a beau­ti­ful unity to it, which is very much to Ed’s credit.”

The tem­per­a­ment Kanaga speaks of may have re­sulted from the pair work­ing on it in their spare time un­til the fi­nal year of de­vel­op­ment, al­low­ing for pe­ri­ods of cre­ativ­ity to oc­cur or­gan­i­cally. Key, based in Cam­bridge, would of­ten wake up to find ZIP files of “mys­te­ri­ous sounds” that Kanaga had been work­ing on the night be­fore in Cal­i­for­nia. Im­por­tantly, there were none of the pres­sures that ac­com­pany com­mer­cial game de­vel­op­ment. “This is a thing I feel acutely now – that sense of feel­ing more pres­sured to make some­thing, when pre­vi­ously we were both just do­ing it in our spare time,” Key says. “The vibe of play­ing it, and the point where the soul of the game was be­ing cre­ated, could well have been in­flu­enced by the fact that the de­vel­op­ment process was pretty leisurely.” That vibe is one that hasn’t yet been matched.

Pro­teus, to this day, re­mains a sin­gu­lar force in its un­com­pro­mis­ing med­i­ta­tions and re­flec­tions on the nat­u­ral world and our own place within it. But fol­low­ing its re­lease the game was met with the pre­dictable groans of those who re­fused to clas­sify it as a game, an opin­ion de­rived, pri­mar­ily, from its lack of con­ven­tional goals. “It was kind of an­noy­ing at first,” Kanaga says, “but then it be­came won­der­ful be­cause it cre­ated con­tro­versy and dis­course. I don’t think I dis­liked any of it ex­cept just the idea that it wasn’t a game, but even that was fine be­cause I thought it was a lively dis­course that was hap­pen­ing.” Pro­teus, along with the likes of Dear Es­ther and Jour­ney, led the charge for games where at­mos­phere and nar­ra­tive were val­ued over mas­tery of skill. “At the time there’s a de­light in feel­ing con­fronta­tional or com­pet­i­tive about things,” Kanaga says, “but in ret­ro­spect I think it was very much part of the zeit­geist. All of those things were re­ally ex­cit­ing, too – all these dif­fer­ent an­gles of look­ing at this same idea, strip­ping games of goals, which I think could be sort of ground zero for games.” But Pro­teus is a game of goals, how­ever small they might be. They’re scat­tered around the en­vi­ron­ment’s re­ac­tive wildlife, the pro­gres­sion that oc­curs through the sea­sons and, ul­ti­mately, in the game’s ethe­real end­ing. Key re­calls an im­por­tant mo­ment in his own re­al­i­sa­tion of how the game func­tioned while at the 2012 In­die Games Fes­ti­val: “I was watch­ing peo­ple play it and they were say­ing things like, ‘Oh, I saw the frog, and then I fol­lowed the frog, and the frog took me to a tower, and then I looked at some­thing else.’ Peo­ple were de­scrib­ing these chained-to­gether ex­pe­ri­ences and at­tribut­ing in­ten­tion­al­ity to them that wasn’t there. I guess we man­aged to make some­thing that sort of al­lows you to hitch a ride on these threads of cu­rios­ity, just the gen­tlest of for­ward pulls on these things, and it’s part of why it works.”

Key’s right, of course, but Pro­teus op­er­ates on a deeper level, too. Just as Kanaga brought his own ex­pe­ri­ences of his na­tive Ore­go­nian land­scape to the de­vel­op­ment process, peo­ple find a way of read­ing their own mem­o­ries and feel­ings into Pro­teus’ sur­real is­land. And while Key is hum­bled by, and grate­ful for, the game’s en­dur­ingly warm re­cep­tion, he wasn’t quite pre­pared for the im­pact it would have on his per­sonal life. “Pro­teus was the first in­die game that I re­leased on my own and it was kind of like a light­ning strike of un­ex­pected pop­u­lar­ity. I think I found it quite hard to rein­te­grate that back into my per­son­al­ity, to kind of as­sim­i­late it.” He now ap­pears ready to move on, though. Work­ing on his next project, For­est Of Sleep, full time thanks to the suc­cess of Pro­teus, it’ll be fas­ci­nat­ing to see whether light­ning strikes twice.

Af­ter a primer on colour the­ory, Key was able to push the look of the game into the realm of “hy­per­re­al­ity”, cit­ing the artist Paul Nash and art deco as “big in­flu­ences”

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