Getting lost in Proteus: An interview with Ed Key

One of the remarkable things a game can offer is the ability to get lost in a world–to go on journeys, to explore. Few games can truly capture the idyllic, child-like magic of a good saunter–most of the time, traveling is a means to get somewhere, to do something. It’s utilitarian, or unremarkable.

Proteus is a break from that paradigm. To traverse and appreciate the landscape is the singular purpose of the game, and as Tom found out, Proteus captures the spirit of contemplative wandering well.

Though part of the charm of Proteus comes from its alien landscape, some of the inspiration behind the game was practically in the childhood backyard of the developer, Ed Key.

“There’s a ridge of hills near where I grew up (and where my parents still live) called Whinfell. It’s only a few miles away and sits on the horizon to the north…Growing up with a view of faraway places, I guess I’m fascinated by the simple contrast between seeing a place from a distance and standing in that place,” Key revealed to me in an email exchange.

Pictures provided by, and belong to, Ed Key

Whinfell ended up being not only one of Key’s most memorable places to walk and explore in life, but also an integral influence for Proteus–as some of the following pictures will attest to.

“A while ago I visited my parents’ place and ended up exploring it – being dropped off by a roadside and walking along the ridge and back home. From a distance, it’s just an interestingly shaped group of hills.”

“Once you’re walking on it, there are all kinds of strange things – peculiar cairns, small forests, mountain meadows, ruined stone huts, radio transmitters.”

Ed told me a bit about his most memorable walk in Whinfell, and unsurprisingly, the elements of what make Proteus’ design so captivating are exactly the types of elements a good walk, too.

“At one point I threw a stone in the air and continued walking in the direction it pointed. It was a good feeling knowing I was near enough to home to not get seriously lost and to have no real pressure to follow a strict route. I was going to go back there last year and camp overnight, but the weather was pretty wild so I chickened out. I’ll try again someday.”

I became curious as to what sort of worlds the mind behind Proteus likes to get lost in, but it’s not something that happens very often for Key.

“Getting pleasantly lost in games seems to be pretty rare. Usually you have to go to a specific place and getting lost is a frustrating negative thing, or you have a map or a waypoint marker that immediately removes the sensation and usually breaks immersion,” he explains.

Delving into that thought further, Ed told me about the problem most games have when it comes to exploration and how well games capture the essence of a sublime landscape.

“I’m a bit conflicted about the sense of scale and magnificence of landscape in games. There’s a lot about standing in front of an incredible scene in real life that’s impossible to capture literally on a screen. If you stand in front of El Capitan in Yosemite or on the dunes in Death Valley, it feels like the world is going to swallow you… like a kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I’m currently thinking a lot about this, both for Proteus and another game. Rick Lane wrote a fantastic article arguing for the sublime in games, in particular Skyrim, and it’s very inspiring, but in a very real way games just can’t do it. I think more abstract approaches are needed, but I’ve no idea if I’ll ever be satisfied.”

Nonetheless, there are places he can get lost in.

“Actually perhaps my favorite time I got lost in a game was in Minecraft: Early on in a singleplayer survival game, i’d just finished collecting a ton of coal and was heading back to my base when I found I was in a complex of canyons and the sun was going down. Frantically searching the valleys for home was a really powerful feeling.

“ I’ve been sinking a lot of gaming time into Skyrim. Even though it suffers from those same problems and has a lot of terrible immersion-breakers, there are some great moments of discovery. My favourite thing is glitch-scrambling to the top of mountains, either to break the sequence of part of the map or just to get to some forbidden peak.

“To pick a couple of non-games media: The Shutov Assembly by Brian Eno is my go-to choice for a album to get lost in. It’s a big inspiration for Proteus.

“There’s also an incredible Soviet animation about getting lost called Hedgehog in the Fog”

Don’t think that just because Key designed the game, he can’t still hop in and get lost in it, too. This is thanks to the ‘island generator,’ which keeps what Proteus offers fresh.

“It’s still got the ability to relax me at times too, which was nice when we were panicking trying to finish setting up the IGF booth.

“It’s most relaxing watching someone else play, being a step removed from it. When I’ve been working on it for a long period I often just get that classic game dev feeling of “What is this nonsense I’m looking at!?”

Proteus can be preordered here, and that pre-purchase comes with a lovely demo.