Staying Humble: Proteus’ Origins And Ed Key’s Next Game

Proteus is a warm, soothing bubble bath for the soul. The lo-fi first-person explorer lets players loose on an island that’s one part rainbow dreamscape and another chirpy chiptune music maze. Basically, it’s what I imagine nature lovers believe the outdoors to be, even though every real-life forest, hill, and tree is actually made entirely out of spiders. And yet, for all of Proteus’ high-minded inventiveness, it certainly didn’t start out that way. Creator Ed Key had to learn some very important lessons about, er, not being Skyrim before his first independently developed game traded bullets for butterflies, and – despite Proteus pulling in a fair deal of money – he’s trying very hard to keep them in mind for his next game.

“The beginning of Proteus was weird, because it started out in lots of different places,” Key said during a recent interview with RPS. “There are some people working on a port right now, and they’re finding all sorts of weird code like ‘Battle Tester State’ and other ridiculous stuff I’d forgotten about. Economies and things like that. It was going to be more of a procedural RPG with combat.”

The beginning of Proteus was weird.

“I was originally thinking it’d be a bit more like Skyrim or I guess Oblivion at the time. It would’ve been an RPG where you went to towns and did quests.”

So then, what happened? Well, you might remember that Oblivion and Skyrim were created by hundreds of people. Key – imposingly wholesome though his Peace Deity beard/chops combo might be – is just one man. Even with another creative tour de force, audiovisual maestro David Kanaga, in his corner, the game’s development was shaping up to be a Herculean ordeal.

“It became obvious how much work I would’ve had to do procedurally,” he shrugged. “It’s not like it’s impossible, but it was just a lot and I wasn’t even sure what the project was going to be. So I don’t think Proteus was a reaction [to action-heavy games] originally. But it became apparent that it was possible to make something sort of nontraditional and non-violent.”

It’s like the old (?) adage says: creativity emerges from constraints. Proteus rose from the ashes of its own limitations, and – in a conventional-wisdom-defying twist – it only got better as Key and Kanaga removed more and more traditional game elements. “Even beyond the point where it hit regular development and we got into the main body of it, there were a lot of things that went in and then came back out again because they didn’t really stick. Like, I’d put stuff in and then David would play and find it to be too videogame-y,” Key explained.

And it worked. Proteus applied a light touch – a gentle stroke of minimalism – and nothing more. As a result, it stood out from the crowd, like a four-word poem in a forest of prose. But Key’s got other ideas and influences flitting about in his noggin. Some – for instance, an X-Com-style tactics game – are even quite elaborate and traditional, and Key now has the means to realize them.

“Yeah, it’s really strange [to have a lot more to work with],” he admitted. “Technically I could afford to hire artists and other things like that, and I really don’t know what I’m going to do with that yet. It’s hard to say.”

There’s a difference, however, between picking up a few helping hands and opening up your own evil, serf-based game development volcano lair, and Key’s not in any hurry to do the latter. He wants to make games that are inventive and personal, and in this case, bigger is only better until it fee-fi-fo-fums all over his vision.

“Certainly I’m not going to start a studio,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable growing that quickly. And just having been in the industry before, I like the idea of having complete control over the thing I’m doing. Even if it’s not as broad in scope, your strength is the personal feeling you can put into it. That aspect is much more fragile when you get, like, 40 people working on it. It’s a kind of luck of the draw thing as to whether you can get everyone moving in the same direction.”

“You’ll have to ask me in two years, but I hope I learned a lesson from the early part of Proteus. I want to apply that to making something that’s new and different, but not going off on, like, a five-year quest to simulate the entire solar system.”

So much for Proteus II: Everywhere Else, then. But where exactly does that leave Key? Well, he’s begun work on a little something new, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. It does have trees in it, though.

“I’ve started on some kind of basic prototypes. Something I want to do. It’s like a boardgame-y, chunky, card-game-y kind of thing, but translated into videogame form. But I’m testing out the traditional gaming part of it and the aesthetic part of it right now. I had this idea for a part where one of the characters is ill and you’re kind of playing the game to get him back. I mean, it’s still kind of about ‘plants are great’ and nature and things. I figure there’s still stuff to do in that sphere.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, however: Proteus may still have a little life left in it. A morsel. A dew droplet. A seed. But that’s enough – especially when mod tools could be involved.

“One of the big things about working on something like this is figuring out when you’re happy with it,” Key sighed, weary yet proud. “And that’s never gonna be when it’s perfect. It’s just about finding that point where you’re broadly satisfied. Where you can sit back and say, ‘Well, I think it’s kind of OK.’ And I do think Proteus kind of lends itself to additional things because it’s so open. It could be, like, new features or crafting, fishing, or sailing. I don’t want to do too many new things, though. Maybe something like a modding system, which is partly a priority.”

“But I didn’t expect to have such a strong sense of closure on it when I released it. Much more than I expected to feel. So it just feels a bit hard to go back to it. That’ll just leave me with more loose ends. It’s kind of hard to disturb it now that it’s settled. The short answer is that it’s pretty much finished, but maybe there’ll be a little more.”


  1. Skeletor68 says:

    I think I took more screenshots during my short experience with Proteus than I have with any other game. It was a really nice experience mad even better with some sweet headphones and time to play in solitude.

    • Clavus says:

      Same here. When I climbed the hill with the statues on it at night, and the stars started doing their thing, I just stood there in amazement. That’s when I figured out what the game was exactly about.

  2. Perjoss says:

    I really enjoyed Proteus. I admit that my first 15 mins or so with it were just me trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and trying to decide whether or not it was actually a game, until i realised that I it really didn’t matter at all because I was totally falling in love with it.

    Too many people focus on graphics these days with hardly anybody focusing on sound and music.

    • frightlever says:

      I got something out of Proteus but nothing like what you or the first commenter did. I’m pretty sure I would describe my time with Proteus as “enduring”. I endured Proteus, doing what was necessary until I could “finish” it and put it away. I saw nothing in it that evoked any shred of emotion and certainly nothing in the actual landscapes that surprised or impressed me. The actual vistas in Proteus, my Proteus at least, weren’t all that epic.

      And I’m not slamming the “game”, I’m just mildly annoyed that I’m clearly missing something.

      • Ross Angus says:

        Perhaps the issue was the particular procedurally generated island you got. Perhaps it came from (wait for it…) a bad seed.

      • phelix says:

        Proteus isn’t about winning, completing objectives (or completing anything for that matter), it’s more about the experience, I find.

      • Wedge says:

        Nah, you didn’t miss anything. The procedural generation in the game has almost no effect on anything other than an irrelevant change to the terrain and layout of the same few bits everytime. So it really has no re-playability past a single go. I saw everything in an hour and uninstalled it. What was there was ok, but the entire procedural generation part meant nothing.

  3. golem09 says:

    How is that side project for Oculus support going?

    • Clavus says:

      I have a Rift, but I wonder if it’d fit well with this game. The thing is, in VR, sprites and 2D billboards look exactly like they’re defined: completely flat. Proteus uses those all over the place. The world design and part of the visual trickery will fall apart once you get actual depth perception, which would be sad since this game leans heavily on immersion.

      • golem09 says:

        I expected that, yes. I’d go for a non 3D Oculus mode, just use that headtracking and the high fov.

      • HilariousCow says:

        Actually, it’s… more complicated than that.

        Stereoscopy is the perception of depth via differences in images.

        Proteus’s flat colours mean that these differentials only occur at sprite outlines. Everything inside of that could *plausibly* be any depth.

        Actually, it’s… simpler than that.

        Because of the low fi aesthetic, you get to a state of suspension of disbelief a lot faster than games which attempt to be at all realistic.

        Regarding development: we’re doing it in our spare time, so it progresses, although slowly. We’re taking this chance to experiment with a new movement scheme. Standard WASD/joystick control will still be there, but we have a chance to experiment with other approaches.

  4. engion3 says:

    Biggest regret of a game I purchased on steam.

    • BarneyL says:

      If your biggest regret is a game that costs £6.99 at full price you’re doing pretty well.

  5. wisnoskij says:

    So is that why it is so expensive, and only has like 15 minuets of gameplay with 5 sprites that repeat over and over again?
    Because 99% of the time he put into the game was not seen in the final version?

    • Wurstwaffel says:

      Yes, I wasn’t particularly impressed with it either. It seems like it gets a lot of praise because people want to be seen liking artsy stuff.

      I think it could have been pretty neat as an actual rpg, even a basic one.

      • Urthman says:

        Accusing people of pretending to like something they don’t actually like is pretty much the #1 dumbest argument I see on the internets.

  6. Skabooga says:

    Proteus is so wonderfully relaxing. I want to thank Key for creating something beautiful that has had a small but significant positive impact on my mental health.

    That being said, I am interested in hearing more about this undoubtedly more tense tactics game Key is thinking about.

  7. Liudeius says:

    I imagine playing Proteus is about what it feels like to be tripping.
    That is a really weird but pleasant gaming experience if you can sink into it.

    Does anyone know, does it change if you replay it? Is there a set line of events, or can you discover new things happening if you replay it?

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      phuzz says:

      The layout of the island will change, which might lead you to discovering things that you’d not found in your first playthough. I guess it depends on how much exploring you did.
      Did you ever go to the graveyard in autumn? I loved that place/time.

    • tormos says:

      hint: most things people describe as “being like tripping” aren’t. Proteus is quite good though.

  8. Maxheadroom says:

    is it just me or does that top screenshot remind anyone else of the ancient C64 game Forbidden Forrest?

  9. RogerioFM says:

    I really wanted to enjoy Proteus, unfortunatelly, I could not. I simply wasnt into it, you see, I love RPGs and old adventure games, because they almost always have at least two of the three things I look for into a game, narrative, atmosphere and gameplay.

    I really enjoyed Dear Esther for example, it had an outstanding narrative and atmosphere, the music too was haunting, like Proteus, it barelly had any gameplay, but it did not matter because the rest was soo good. Then there is Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, they had a little bit of a story and plenty of humor, but what really made me enjoy them was the gameplay, it was just pure fun and sometimes it is enough, Tetris for example, it does not need a story to be just perfect.

    Another great game that I loved, Fallout NV the best moments on the game were not even doing quests or dig into the main story, it was arming my rifle and explore the World, I avoided all the npcs that I could, just to discover new things on the map, enter houses, factories, pierce the story of what happened, it was so atmospheric and well done, for example, when you enter a house and see the bones of a deceased family, its pure narrative genius.

    When a game just tries to be fun I can dig it, but when it tries to grab us by its sheer artistic value alone, more oftern than not it will fail if the whole value is not there, and that is what I think about Proteus, it just let me hollow. While people sometimes fight to define what as a game, I simply want to know if it has any emotional value, for me.

    If it has too many english mistakes I am sorry, I do not have auto correct on this machine and english is not my first language.

  10. LennyLeonardo says:

    It’s weird how little people talk about Proteus’s sound. It sounds incredible.

  11. brutaldeluxe09 says:

    to me, Proteus is first a soundtrack, second a relaxation exercise, and only then a game as although it does have an objective, it’s very slight. I think to really be able to appreciate it generally helps if you are over 30 years old, like ambient techno and can appreciate a good use of colour. The need to be able to understand this as a video game is really not important to the experience.