First Person Walker Footnotes #1: Ed Key


Researching for my article on "First Person Walkers" I sent a few questions to some of the developers regularly accused of producing "walking simulators", a term mainly used in a derogatory fashion. Ed Key, developer of the lovely Proteus, had this to tell me on the topic.

Do you find the term "walking simulator" used to describe your game derogatory?

Yeah, I find it pretty stupid. I was talking about this on twitter recently and how QWOP is the only real walking simulator. Rich Wilson pointed out that Miasmata was another one - since this actually does emulate some elements of physically walking over different terrain, like momentum when running down slopes. My counterpoint to this: Why don't we call all tradional FPSs "face clickers"? It's a similar kind of reductionism.
On the other hand, perhaps it is genuinely useful for some people in identifying games within this vague genre of exploration with minimal interaction. I don't get too stressed about it.
How would you define player agency in your game?
Agency in Proteus is more about moment-to-moment framing and mixing.
Well, you can literally go anywhere with nothing telling you when to move on! I'm not sure if this is exactly on-topic but one of the things I like about Proteus and the reactions to it is that nothing tells you what to do or even tell you there's an arc or an ending. I think a lot of people struggled with this, most of whom probably switched it off, but I love hearing from people that got drawn through that, maybe after a few tries and end up really enjoying it. 
It's deliberately kept minimal because giving more options to affect the world would change the focus of it, and make it become about "doing" those things. Agency in Proteus is more about moment-to-moment framing and mixing, and the inherent choice in where you are. Player agency is hugely important to me but I guess it manifests in subtle ways in Proteus.
Would you agree that games in general are unique in that they allow players to experience atmosphere, rather than merely be shown or told? Would you agree that the agency you allow your players is mostly about shaping this experience?
That's a good way of putting it.  Instrumental music is also similar - in fact, any artwork that allows interpretation has a kind of built-in freedom and agency to it, but perhaps I personally feel like I get this most with music. Of course, this is much more concrete in videogames, and inherent in the capability of the medium. It's still highly dependent on what individual creators do. There are games that basically don't use atmosphere at all, and games that do but throw it away with excess prompts and pop-ups and interruptions. 
How would you define "gameplay" in regard to your game?
I would say it's mostly the same as the idea of agency and continually reframing the world for yourself. It revolves around following little sensory threads in the world, discovering now entities, events and scenes. I think of it as taking the exploration element from bigger games, removing anything else that would intrude or distract and then making it pleasantly responsive and reactive to your presence.
Did you receive negative feedback for your game's lack of "real gameplay"? How did you react?
Yeah, we definitely had that. Probably most vociferously on the Steam forums, with the effect that I gave up on using them altogether. One always focuses on the negative, but in the end we've had way more significant messages of thanks and support so it wasn't a big deal. It also made me think about how a lot of "accepted" games are just about things like upgrade cycles, making numbers go up steadily, and how it's possible to make something that the average gamer would be happy to call a game but which would be totally hollow and un-playful.