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IGF Factor 2012: Proteus

Ed Key and David Kanaga do the chat

Today in our series profiling (almost) all the PC/Mac-based finalists at this year's Independent Games Festival, we turn to wondrous freeform exploration game Proteus. Here, developer Ed Key and composer David Kanaga talk about the game's origins, the role of music in games, quitting work to go full time on Proteus, wandering hobos and their answers to the most important question of all.

RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?

Ed: Hello! I'm a coder who worked in the games industry for a while but dropped out a few years ago for a standard 9-5 job which just happened to let me work on some little prototypes and other larger obsessive projects, like this one. I grew up with 8-bit games so it's nice to resurrect those days when people weren't really sure what games were all about. I'm pretty much equally interested in trying to make weird, arty suprising games and trying to reinterpret the games I grew up with, like XCOM and Warhammer.

David: I'm a musician. I improvise and I write for instruments and computers. A few years ago, I realized that the kinds of musical ideas I've been increasingly interested in-- open forms, free improvisation, etc-- are the same kinds of ideas that can be explored in videogames, which I've played on and off since I was young. Thinking about the huge potential of games and music and play made me very excited. I still am, but I'm also generally disappointed by the ways that existing games are using music... I'm hoping to explore alternatives to how things have been done by writing these dynamic scores, feeling out this process, trying to make all the music as interactive as possible without sacrificing its heart (ideally making the interaction itself the heart-- like in the best jazz)... I guess sort of trying to destroy the boundary between composition and sound design-- which maybe only exists because of that too-common sort of sad quest for "realism." I'm not interested in the way big budget games use music and sound, with a few exceptions (Nintendo is often doing some amazing things, there are others, too...). Indie games seem to be the only type of games that allow for much new thinking, not constrained in all sorts of ways to try to reach the huge existing audiences.

RPS: Tell us about your game. What was its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?

Ed: Back in 2009 or so I was playing around with ideas for a "wandering hobo" themed roguelike, along with some world generation ideas. Through various drafts and dead-ends these turned in something like what you see now. At that point I didn't know what the game was going to be at all. Maybe an open world RPG about a chinese exorcist? Anyway after hooking up David for the music, it became an integral part. I wasn't sure how it'd be recieved without any traditional goals or rewards but many people loved it enough to make me remove any remaining hints of goals. I'm happy and a little suprised that it seems to be so refreshing to so many people. There are a bunch of philosophical things I was trying to do, but I'll spare you the exposition.
If I could, I'd change: Everything. Or at least rewrite a load of internal stuff. The codebase is really crusty after the back-and-forth development process. Would have been nice to do a load of shader effects in the same style - maybe next time.

David: When Ed first sent me an old build of the game, I was thrilled-- the visual style seemed to take an idea (the necessary distance and flatness of 3d game environments?) to what felt like its logical conclusion... The space is so inspiring. I played around on the island for a long time with no sound, just imagining things. I was experiencing the space as music in a way; I went near the beach and climbed mountains and walked across meadows and my musical experience would change with every little visual/environmental change. So, when I set out to do the music, the goal was to try to create something along the lines of what I'd experienced. Of course, it turned out totally different than whatever I'd been imagining, but the attitude stayed roughly the same, I think.

RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?

Ed: It's amazing! We're delighted to be nominated, especially amongst the incredible list of other games. My memory is terrible so I can't remember all the games that were entered but I've heard great things about Hokra and FTL. I'm hoping to sneak a play of those at GDC even though they're not exhibited.

David: Very pleased, and very impressed with the other finalists, particularly those up for the Nuovo award-- an amazing bunch of games!

RPS: Which game would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?

Ed: Probably Joust, because once you've played something in Death Valley, it's hard to that shake off. The nomination list is crazy though, it's totally impossible to compare them!

David: J.S. Joust--it's so fun to break its rules :). Though if I could choose non-nominees, I'd consider Coco & Co.'s Way, or Stephen Lavelle's Salome, or Doug Wilson's Dog the Wag, a violent tail-grabbing wrestling game which I prefer to Joust.

RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?

Ed: Exciting! As Ian from mode7 said, it's a bit of a slow-motion explosion at the moment, not only in the games being produced but also the various events and meetups springing up everywhere. Lots of break-out stuff like Joust and wonderful ambitious "core" games. It's very interesting to see big publishers leaving opportunities for indies by spurning huge audiences with the recent FPS remakes. Maybe the Firaxis XCOM will fix that, hard to say.

And bundles. What are they up to, eh?

David: There are some brilliant things happening in the indie scene. It seems to be as strong as it's ever been and is only growing stronger, though much of the musical interaction in the games leaves a lot to be desired. I want to see more work done with interactive music, independent musical thinking, crazed game designs-- particularly new ways of encouraging and providing spaces for non-goal-oriented play; there has been a little headway, but really trying to create proper musical playspaces-- this is an important project for designers and musicians to work on-- finding some of the real meaning at the heart of musical play and working to put that in videogames.. basically, writing videogames as improvisatory digital ballets.

RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?

Ed: Terrifying! I've recently quit my job to go fulltime on this stuff. Hopefully that means Proteus will be released within a few months and I can get working on the next thing. Having vastly more time but also financial pressure will be interesting but I'm confident. I have a couple of plans for the next game, both very different to Proteus, but with some common ethos. I'm sure at least one of them will be another collaboration with David. There's also a possiblity that we'll revisit Proteus to make an expanded version.

David: It's looking exciting. Finishing up Proteus, and I also have another game I'm doing music for that comes out this spring or summer, Dyad. After all that, I'm excited to start working on brand new things.. music, games, etc. Doing stuff alone, collaborating, playing, whatever!

RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?

Ed: What do you look like from above?

David: :O

RPS: Thanks for your time.

A beta version of Proteus will be released to the public in early March. Says Mr Key, "The plan is to make the latest beta available for $5, along with some preorder-exclusive MP3s. The final version should be out sometime June-July, depending on how the beta goes. The first beta will be Windows-only, but hopefully OSX version will not be too far behind." The full list of IGF 2012 finalists is here, and keep an eye on RPS for more interviews over the coming days and weeks.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.