Is Proteus a game -- and if not, who cares?

Proteus isn't your typical video game. With the game finally getting a release this week, developer Ed Key discusses the antagonism that still surrounds "anti-games", and why game theory definitions mean nothing.
It's typical, isn't it: You wait ages for a bus, and then three come along at once. Antichamber has been in development for a few years now, and is finally getting a release later this week. But it's not the only notable indie game finally set free into the wild this week - there's also turn-based strategy game Skulls of the Shogun and, more excitingly for UK game development, the long-awaited Proteus. Proteus, for those who have missed it, isn't your typical video game. Players wander around a gorgeously pixelated world, taking in the scenery and exploring every corner to find wildlife and other niceties. There isn't a goal as such, leading a number of people to question whether Proteus can actually be classed as a game.

"Not a game"

In fact, developer Ed Key, alongside musician David Kanaga, thinks of it more as an "anti-game" -- although he isn't a huge fan of the "not-game" term that has been splashed around the last few years. "I quite like 'anti-game' as it feels a bit cheekier," he laughs. It's obvious, however, that all joking aside Key is not hugely enamored with the notable resistance against these sorts of unique game experiences. While he believes that last year's Dear Esther marked a breakthrough with gamers, there's still a vocal number of people who don't see this expanding of the medium's borders as a good thing.

"I think there's still a bit of antagonism around, both in comments thread and in game design circles," he notes. "I don't really care too much about it, but sometimes... there was a Rock Paper Shotgun article about the game, and the first comment was just 'not a game.'" "It's comments like that - 'not a game' - and how much of that is a kind of defensive reaction against a certain strand of the culture," he continues. "If you say 'not a game', are you saying it shouldn't be covered by a video games website? I don't really know what the answer is - it's just something that strikes me about the implications of the debate about definitions." Key believes that strict definitions really don't matter at all when it comes to game design -- what actually matters is making an experience that people will enjoy. "If you're constrained in what you make by definitions, then you're less likely to make something unique," he adds. Look to board games, for example. "Game definitions have always been quite vague in terms of current usage," he says. "If you think of things like, for example, Snakes and Ladders - there's no decision making in that at all. There's a goal, but it's clearly luck-based. In the strictest sense, you can't call that a game." And yet Snakes and Ladders is very much known as a classic board game. Says Key, "As soon as you get down to specifics, you can start saying 'Oh it's not this kind of game,' or that it doesn't fulfil certain game theory criteria." proteus 1.pngThat's not to say that the pressure to make Proteus a bit more "gamey" hasn't gotten to Key at times. "Before I really started showing the early versions to people two years ago, David and I had this idea of making it an exploration game all about finding how the world interacts with the soundtrack, and then we just kept building on that idea," he tells us. "But in those early stages, I was thinking 'maybe this isn't enough, does it need more interaction and mechanical stuff?'" And then, over the last few months, that sense of doubt has once again creeped into Proteus development. "In more recent months as we're grinding towards the end of the project, I thought again 'is this enough?' But I'm glad I didn't [add more traditional game elements], because if you're just designing something to tick boxes, then you're not necessarily improving the quality or the enjoyment of it." It was the people who played Proteus in its various development forms that really kept Key focused on the same path. "There was sort of an encouraging factor in that people who played it got much more involved in it than I thought they would - it seemed like there was something there viable to make a full game out of," he says. Not that everything has stayed the very same throughout. Before IndieCade in 2011, Key found himself discussing with Ricky Haggett of Honeyslug how best to give a sense of closure to the title, rather than just leaving players wandering around until they grew tired of it. Having an ending to the game "wasn't part of the original concept," admits Key, but it ended up giving more than just closure to the title -- it also provided a sense of progression, and a sort of narrative arc. "It's a narrative-like structure of pacing that we paid attention to," he says.

Proteus: The subtitle

Notably, Key and Kanaga had a scare last year, when it came to light that they may have to alter or even completely change the name of the game. "Back in February last year when I released the public beta, I thought it'd be a good idea to register the name as a trademark, more as a defensive thing that anything else," explains Key. Once a trademark request has been submitted, it's then a case of waiting three months, during which time other companies who own the same mark can choose to object. Unfortunately, bad news came in before that three months was up. "I got a phone call from Alex Tutty at Sheridans [the company handling the trademark submission] last year saying, "Don't want to alarm you..." laughs Key. proteus 2.pngA defense company had objected to the filing, stating that it had a similar product with the name Proteus. "Their Proteus thing is a system for generating after-action reports for battles, and it's not even sold to the public obviously -- it's sold to defense clients," notes Key. "But it had things like processing reports about how some tanks were attacked or whatever, so it actually had a landscaping component to it as well." Key and Kanaga subsequently spent some time discussing whether it was worth tacking a subtitle onto the name as a means of getting around the issue -- but in the end, it wasn't such a huge deal. "It just cost a small amount of legal fees to pay to discuss it with them," Key says. "We had to narrow the specifications of the trademark a bit, so it said it was 'an interactive video game that involves a musical soundtrack.'" "But in the end they said yeah, it's different enough. But it was just another month of stress wondering whether it was all going to be OK." Proteus has been a long time coming, but it is finally released today for Windows PC and Mac via Steam.

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