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A Psychogeography Of Games #5: Ed Key

A walk about games about walks.

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.

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