"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." That'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.