A Psychogeography Of Games #5: Ed Key

This is article 5 of 6, adapted from my Psychogeography of Games series for London’s Videobrains. If you enjoy this, please consider backing me on Patreon, where there’ll be a zine of these texts coming out in the New Year, plus an exciting new project announced soon(ish).

In the months running up to the walk, Ed has sent me the occasional email, each time with new ideas for route near where he lives (and grew up) in Cumbria. The night before, we spread an OS map out on the table and he points out wild swimming spots, walks he went on with his parents, places not explored yet. Jack, a black and white cat, sits on top and bats at Ed’s finger each time he places it down. In the end we decide on Borrow Beck, in Borrowdale. The walk doesn’t look far on the map.

By the end my Garmin watch shows 8 hours and 8 minutes of time passed, 16km of distance travelled. We spend 5 of the 8 hours getting very rained on, do 708m of climbing, and I record 1,342 calories of energy spent.

We set out around half ten. As I walk, Ed wanders, both in feet and mind. He will point out animals, name and pick plants, test things by eating them. He picks out a lot of edible plants, handing them to me to taste. I’m hesitant, which he says is a good thing. Sometimes he’s just handing people an interesting but inedible plant to look at, but then they eat them. Un-ideal.

People joke about Ed being That Nature Guy quite a lot. He says he doesn’t mind, but that “I’m probably more likely sitting in my study, not going out the whole day or something, [rather than foraging]”. Ed does not help this statement, however, by halfway through getting distracted by a raven, then rummaging in some brush before proffering me something with the words “I don’t know how keen you are to crack nuts with your teeth but –”

Ed explains that he came to making games independently out of working for studios in the 2000s, he explains he was glad to leave behind punishing hours and terrible management practices, but misses the people. The first game Ed made independently was a hexagonal island building game which in turn led him to an interest in procedural generation. Then, around 2006 he started playing around with developer Alex May on a new 3D terrain project.

Alex made a terrain renderer, and I made a terrain generator, and put them together and had some 3D terrain, and then it was like… what can you do with [this]?

I move to London in March 2013. London is the first city I’ve lived in. I’m skint, I live in a tiny, expensive room in a mouse and cockroach-infected house in Lewisham. I travel everywhere by bike and therefore spend most of my time missing death by the width of London drivers’ belligerence. I had moved thinking ‘I have loads of friends in London’ but it turns out that to get the bus to visit them takes longer than it did by train when I lived in the Midlands. In March 2013, I download a game called Proteus.

For a little while, I play it at night, before I go to sleep. At that time I missed the routes I used to run along the River Soar, I was missing seeing spring grow by inch, bud and fledgling, I missed horizons, and stars. As I walk around the island in Proteus, there is something not too far from those things I miss.

I talk to Ed about how Proteus has become a kind of waypoint in our conversations about what videogames can be; shorthand for a certain kind of experimental, independent game development. Ed explains that originally the game was more of a “Zelda-ish thing of going to a place and do a little job for someone, a kind of wander between two places”, quest driven. But in getting David Kanaga on board to do music, the game became something new. David’s non-games background pushed at Ed’s worries about games conventions: that people would get bored or wouldn’t want to carry on playing without a direct task.

A huge part of our interaction was the tension between his more improvisational style […] he didn’t feel bound by conventions. [It became] a mix of both of our tendencies.

The rain pauses. We scramble 200m up Ashsteads Fell through a firebreak in some spruce. The climb is steep, I feel that if I stood up straight I would fall backwards. My feet slip back with each step in borrowed walking boots. I grasp the heather gently as I climb upwards, nervous that it will come away, and then, after a little while, as a kind of embrace. My time became breath and step, breath and step. I sweat through merino into the shell of Ed’s partner Tamsin’s National Trust employee waterproof. My thighs tense and release, tense and release, calves screaming as they hold me flush. I find an outcrop of rock and pause, look behind me to see I’ve left Ed behind. Many minutes back. I have not felt time pass.

Ed hates the term ‘walking simulator’.

It’s just nonsense – it really annoys me, [walking isn’t just one thing] – what are you walking for, are you walking to pay attention to things, or have you just got your head down, going somewhere? […] There’s lots of different ways of going for a walk, right? […] The point of Proteus is that people […] [have an opportunity to do] sort of mindful walking. […] Think of all the amazing stuff that’s between places, that we miss.

He read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain just after he made Proteus, and says it explains really well that “much more intimate, slower, mindful, less achievement-driven [walking], it really felt quite kindred to what we were trying to do with Proteus.” Ed also talks about the influence of Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text which gives Twisted Tree Games – his studio – its name.

Zhuangzi was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was “of no use for anything”, Zhuangzi then said to his disciples, ‘This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.’

Ed’s new project is a collaboration with, amongst others, Nicolai Troshinsky, a Russian filmmaker. Forest of Sleep is a kind of procedurally generated playable compendium of folk stories. Featuring no speech or text, the player adds visual clues, characters, and items together to produce stories.

Proteus has this kind of arc going through it with the seasons, […] you’ll naturally gravitate to the next thing, you are sort of creating your own pacing […] and that’s really similar to what we’re doing with this, but rather than the seasons it’s [a] three or five act structure.

We are pattern-recognising animals. We are storytelling apes. Story is central to how we have thrived, how we build our identities, our cultures, our society, it is how we tell where we came from, examine who we are now, think about what we might be. In words, in song, in games. They are a human cartography. Proteus and Forest of Sleep are games with no words, that instead are a text or score written by the choices of the participant – a duet between design team and player.

6 hours earlier Ed said:

You break walks into chapters […] this is the time when we were starting off in the car, this is the bit before the bridge and the bit after the bridge, and the bit where it was really hard going and the bit where it was a nice path or something, and the bit where it rained… it’s not a particularly deep thought, [it’s just] the narrative tendency of… of applying a structure to an experience, without necessarily it being explicitly structured.

Navigating home originally was supposed to be easy; via two communications masts which are usually visible peak to peak across the valley, but we walk into the cloudline, and everything is extinguished. Walking through clouds is hard to describe. Lighter than mist. Heavier than air, finer than steam, extinguishing sight and breath. All we see is our feet. Purple heather picked out against moss in huge lumps fine like a constellation of stars that on returning home we Google and find out is called Tortula Ruralis, in common English: Star Moss.

2 hours after getting lost in the clouds we finally sink back into sight. The textures and colours are sharp and high contrast. We squelch onwards, boots full of water, clattering through a stream that has replaced the path. This is the end. Quiet. Wet.

11 Comments

  1. padger says:

    Yeah.

    *puts on boots, walks out the door into wilderness, forever*

  2. Shazbut says:

    Loved it. Love Proteus.

    I wish Ed was my friend. ED BE MY FRIEND

  3. caff says:

    Great series! I related more to this article because of my passion for Proteus.

    Please RPS employ Hannah for more stuff like this.

    • hannahnicklin says:

      Thanks for your ongoing enthusiasm and support for the series. It’s great. I almost secretly suspect you’re my mum.

  4. Wings says:

    This series has made me re-think my image of games journalists. I’m sorry I thought of you all as pale skinned computer chair jockies. Shying from light and living off doritos and mountain dew. My bad. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  5. colossalstrikepackage says:

    Wow. As a supporter, my knee-jerk reaction (pre-reading) was ‘why do I sponsor this?’. Post-reading, I went for a walk with my wife. Bravo – more of this please, RPS!

  6. ansionnach says:

    Enjoyed this, thanks – there’s a nice mixture of familiar experiences: cycling everywhere in a city (taking your life into your own… and placing it in many other people’s hands!), walking in remote places (although anywhere will do – walking home for hours through a city can be interesting too), games, programming at all hours for someone else, doing it myself and being broke, getting rained on. Nothing makes me appreciate the outdoors like the city… and nothing makes me appreciate the city like the outdoors. Showers are nice… often nicer than a brisk was in an intemperate river.

    As is usually the case, I’m never in complete agreement with anyone. I found Proteus an interesting curiosity, albeit one that wasn’t worth what I spent on it. What I like about my walking, cycling and other quiet activities is that there’s a lot going on in the world – as much as there is for anyone so caught up in all the pointless fetch quests that they don’t know where they are… but I choose to put them aside and treat them with the importance I feel they deserve… be it for the days, weeks or hours that I’m out or the time I spend in silence on the computer. Pretty much the same goes for other activities – going into town, getting involved in cultural activities that the wilds would never provide, spending time with family and friends… and running about doing things for them – these are things I find worthwhile to me as well. I think that in each case the absence of something makes me appreciate it more when I get back to it. “Civilisation” everywhere would be depressing (where it’s largely an artificially constructed world) and in nothing but pure wilderness we’d have to start again from scratch and build a lot of things that don’t need to be rebuilt. The programmer in me doesn’t like the sound of that!

    • Danley says:

      I really dislike the distinction between the city and the wilderness we generally make, when wilderness actually pervades the city, busting through the surface at every turn and held in check only by great effort, billions of lawn mowers that start anew the next day. I think it’s fair to say wilderness has so far endured the attempt itself to create civilization in it.

      At the same time, the distinction leads to thinking of industry, technology and civilization as necessarily disparate from wilderness, so that there is no need to design it to resemble the world we otherwise live in. So living in the world becomes ‘camping,’ understanding our relationship to our environment and being able to adapt to it becomes a rural practice or mere recreation. Even though, again, all technology is subject to the same physical rules that have sculpted the world and our minds within it. Our brains are grown from the wild and never stop living in it. The particular ways in which we conceive of wilderness are derived from being essentially rooted in it. To construct our shelter (which is certainly the genesis of civilization) as if it stands in opposition to the wilderness is a delusion, as it is wilderness that gives shelter something to stand upon. To generally construct our technology and civilization to eradicate wilderness might be why there is fifty times more plastic in the surface depths of the ocean than there is ‘organic’ material, or why deforestation destroys soil biomes so that it requires consequent artificial fertilization. In attempting to deny that all technology is still inherently natural, we’re ignoring how much about natural processes we have yet to understand and that we have yet to incorporate into it. The city that incorporates what people call ‘sustainable’ technology will be one with forests on its roofs and walls, gardens and farms in the unused spaces, plastics that biodegrade in methane-capturing landfills from fungal GMOs in your trash can, vehicles that recycle their exhaust so they produce no pollution, protein alternatives identical to animal flesh so we don’t have to dedicate all of our land, water and atmospheric resources to raising incredibly inefficient food just because we have a taste for it. Because the wild shapes our taste and our ability conceive of the fact we’re destroying the world to feed it.

      I could go on the rest of my life about this. Emerson’s Nature essay makes many of the same arguments, though without the context for computer technology we have today. To be fair, this context may present the potential that there is a civilization that could exist independently of its terrestrial origin, and that perhaps that form of life is in fact more preferable, and that eventually technology will actually replace wilderness with something new.

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Borderer says:

    Nice article, it got me thinking about how I play games.

    I used to live in Cumbria too, at Denton Holme in Carlisle. I mostly used to go walking to Cummersdale or Dalston or exploring some of the less visited (but safe!) parts of Carlisle and I walked to Armathwaite ten miles away to see my Grandma a couple of times too. I always thought the journey was as important as the destination. I moved away to Oxford in 2004 in less than ideal circumstances then became ill with ME about a year later. I went from being able to walk ten miles a day easily to struggling to walk ten metres overnight.

    Since then I have done my walking and exploring starting with games like Morrowind and GTA:SA. I would just pick a point on the map and go there while seeing what was going on along the way. I did get Proteus in a bundle but it was neglected by me, as I had plenty of other worlds to explore, whether they be Elder Scrolls, Fallout, GTA, Borderlands or Assassins Creed, just to name a few. I really should sit down and explore Proteus one night this week.

    I always used to say that I didn’t like FPSes except for a few but now I realise that it’s more that I don’t like being heavily restricted in where I can go and the FPSes that I do like are open world or pseudo-open world.

    • hannahnicklin says:

      Thanks for sharing this, I’m sorry to hear about your illness, and really glad that games have made a space for you to wander.

  8. sketchseven says:

    Really loved this piece, very much enjoyed it.