The Making Of…
How Ed Key and David Kanaga channelled the British landscape to make the mysterious Proteus
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
AN EARLY VERSION KEY WORKED ON CENTRED ON A 16X16 SPRITE OF A CAT, VIEWED IN THIRDPERSON
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”