Ed Key is a Cumbria-based game designer best known for the popular exploration game Proteus, which he made in collaboration with musician David Kanaga. In this interview, he speaks about the “difficult second album”, which for him was meant to be a “procedurally generated graphical storytelling game” called Forest of Sleep, and his current work with local artist Beck Michalak on a game about Cumbrian horizons called Fairmile.
You’ve said that the game you were working on, Forest of Sleep, has been on a “long-ish pause for a rest/redesign”. What happened there?
We kept saying; “Okay, we’ll do this stuff, and then we’ll do the thing that makes it work as a story, and then we’ll do the other stuff.”It’s always the next thing that’s gonna make everything fit together. We got into a weird dysfunctional set-up. It was going on for a long time, and we never had the point where it was the eureka thing of, “This now fits together.” We almost had that a few times, but it never got to the point where it’s like; “Okay, we’ve made a thing and we just need to finish it off, we just need to fill it out with content.”
When you made Proteus, did you have similar worries before you reached that eureka moment?
That’s a very useful comparison, because Proteus was a spare-time project up until beyond the point where we knew exactly what it was and we knew that it was just fixing bugs or putting extra bits of music here and there. And that game was just a thing I was noodling around for ages, and then there was a point where I was like; “Maybe I should talk to a musician and see what happens,” and then it was like, “Okay, it fits together.” But apart from time it was a zero investment, no time pressure thing. Nicolai and I had been talking about Forest of Sleep from a while ago. But then funding that, and having a ticking timer, and committing to thinking we knew what it was early on — not 100% committing because we were playing around with some more things — it’s really the difference between making something in a really casual spare-time way and then making something in a sort of more business-like kind of way; “We have to make a thing, otherwise we run out of money.”
There seems to be a cliché of the artist who makes a great thing, quits their day job, and then struggles to make the second.
Difficult second albums.
Do you think you’d have been better able to make the game if you were making it in your spare time, like Proteus?
Yeah, probably. I mean, it requires a lot more patience because you have less time to work on it, and you have to rely on those odd few weekends where suddenly, Saturday morning or Friday evening, you think; “Right, I’ve got an idea. I’ve got a thing that I can do in two days. I’m gonna implement that thing.”
What about if there was some kind of universal basic income and you didn’t have to worry about money?
Possibly. I think there’s also the fact that we’re trying to do something maybe too experimental. I had an interesting Twitter DM chat with Martin Hollis [a game designer known for directing GoldenEye 007] fairly recently. I said to him about Forest of Sleep, “I don’t really know what I’m doing with it. It’s too experimental,” or something, and he had a really classic Martin Hollis kind of thing. He said; “I agree about Forest of Sleep, and it was my impression that there was too much innovation, which is to say a three year project will generally innovate *this much* but not ten times more. It is always the mechanical and the signalling. It might be that you need to wait 30 years while making other projects and let your subconscious do the heavy lifting. Or a very young designer might be able to crack the nut because their ignorance lets them run free. I shouldn’t stress about your decision as that only makes damage. Toss a coin.”
What’s the plan for the future of Forest of Sleep?
Probably the thing to do is try to make something less ambitious, something that fits more within some existing pattern, like a board game pattern, or a sandbox with characters wandering around kind of pattern. Obviously we can still use the same graphic style and everything. But also the other thing that kind of puts me off from breaking my back trying to do the generative story stuff is that lots of other people are doing it, and they’re much more resourced and much smarter than I am. I think Bossa have hired Chet Faliszek to do some kind of procedural narrative thing, and Mitu at Spirit AI is doing that kind of stuff too. The thing that you choose to work on, the way that you make something that’s the most worthwhile thing to make or the most interesting thing to make, is to find the thing that you bring to it that other people wouldn’t bring to it.
The artist on the game, Nicolai Troshinsky, obviously brought that Eastern European aesthetic. Do you think you were able to bring anything Cumbrian to the game?
A little influence was that when Nicolai was visiting, I was encouraging him to draw or think about real plants. He draws perfectly nice made-up plants, but I was like; “What if we had these kinds of sprigs of green in distinctive shapes?” So we went on a few walks and I was like, “What about that plant there? That’s a really emblematic and evocative kind of plant.” He kind of got into it. We went on some nice walks, but a lot of the time he was like; “That’s just balls on sticks. It’s balls on sticks again.” He was thinking about, “When you reduce that down, what does it look like?” Fairmile, the thing I’m working on with Beck [Michalak], is a better fit.
Tell me more about Fairmile.
It’s named after a place near where I live. If you ever go up on the train further north, it’s the valley that the train goes through. There’s big hills either side, and the railway line goes right through this valley. The game isn’t particularly directly about that specific place, but it’s a nice name. I guess it’s about Cumbrian horizons. Part of it was about looking at distant horizons and imagining you’re walking along them or there’s a little figure walking along them. Beck grew up here as well. She grew up in Grange and Kendal, I think, went to the same school as me but something like 20 years later.
So the current version of the game features an indoor scene and a window through which you can see those Cumbrian horizons. What does the player do?
You can pick stuff up and take it with you. It’s kind of surrealist geocaching. The house will start off with house things, and then things that you find by zooming into various places out there — outdoor things, trying to avoid it being purely pastoral, a bit of a weird edge to it, pylons and radio masts and things like that — finding stuff there and cycling through this mixing up items from the outdoors and indoors. I think the idea is to have the things that you pick up and take with you affect the journey somehow. They’ll affect people you meet. So it’s a kind of discovery game of; “If I have this combination of items, that changes the landscape or that makes different NPCs appear.” Some of the objects might be more practical things, like if you took food with you then the journey could go on longer because the character would run out of energy. But you can only carry three things. People will carry a sheep’s skull, a lantern, and a sandwich, or something like that. Or an umbrella and some Kendal Mint Cake.
Do you often find sheep skulls when you’re out and about?
Oh yeah, quite frequently. Or finding a boot under a rock in a cave or something like that. I guess it’s “environmental storytelling”, isn’t it? It kind of evokes something that’s happened there. We’re still thinking about this and figuring this out, but it’s sort of the sense of almost a mini ritual of taking an object from where it should be and putting it somewhere else. I guess that object inventory management thing, the sense of going on a hike — What do you take with you? How much can you carry in a rucksack if you’re going for two days? — does become very video gamey. I guess it’s taking that and doing something a bit more surreal with it. The other game that we were referencing with this was that frog game [Tabikaeru] by the people who made Neko Atsume. I was kind of drawing on a sense of having a stage where you’re preparing for a journey and then going on a journey.
Why do you have the indoor space as well as the outdoor?
One of the things that we found was when we put the original window in there was just a really nice thing about having a context, a frame, a literal frame but also a figurative frame of; “At one point this was just a landscape, and when you put that landscape through a window it suddenly has a different romantic kind of feeling to it, just looking outside at the rain and the trees.”
Are you trying to evoke a particular feeling?
I guess it’s meant to have that sort of wistful sense or a slow kind of sense as well. I don’t know. Another thing the indoor stuff gives you is that kind of cosy space. Somebody wrote a great big long article about cosiness in game design [https://www.projecthorseshoe.com/reports/featured/ph17r3.htm], and that was definitely a bit of an influence as well. It helped sort of focus it in. The cosiness of looking out of a window, the rain dropping on the glass, and feeling warm inside. I don’t know how to describe it better.
What about this game makes it Cumbrian?
It’s the palettes and the horizon lines. Very Cumbrian, very grey.
How did you and Beck end up working together?
I can’t remember. I knew that she was looking for projects and I’d seen her landscape paintings already. I’d seen ones that were really evocatively Cumbrian. Cumbria is sometimes sunny, but there’s that very specific kind of muted colours and brown and autumn bracken and mist covering the horizon lines and things. And I was just interested to see what we would make. We’d been talking about stuff before. She was talking about a game where you pick up stones and put them on cairns, the piles of stones on hills. This game isn’t that game, but it definitely overlaps with that, that sense of picking an object and putting it somewhere and leaving it in a place.
Do you think that reflects a human impulse to put our mark on nature?
That’s part of wide-ranging local political things as well, a question of; “To what extent is this kind of landscape, these bare hills and stone walls and patches of river, human-created, or is it natural?” It’s obviously a bit of both, but it’s very very human influenced. Even the bare hills that obviously have a wildness to them, the reason they don’t have trees on is because people have used them for grazing sheep over thousands of years.
What do you think defines art made in this region? Does it have a signature?
A lot of it is definitely just reacting to the landscape. There’s a local art group that I know of called Green Door Artists. A bunch of their art is really landscape or agriculture based.
Do you wish there was more collaboration between people in different fields?
Yeah, I think it would be interesting. I don’t know if I feel that as a lack at the moment, but it’s always interesting in video games to talk to someone who’s come from an architecture background or something. That always helps pull games out of a spiral of focusing on one particular thing. Games become extremely self-referential. Working with Nikolai as an example, the stuff that he brought to Forest of Sleep is really coming from a traditional book making and illustration background. That’s not unique, but the fact that he’s really strongly pulling from that rather than pulling from, ‘How do we do a good game art?’ is always good.
Are there any disadvantages to making games where you live?
Compare it to Cambridge, when I was living there in 2011, 2012. There was enough of a concentration of indie developers there — a mix of people who were doing stuff in their spare time verses people who were doing it as their job, like Terry Cavanagh — that there was enough of a critical mass, I guess is the cliché, to have a weekly meet-up, and be able to just bounce ideas off people and see what people were working on, and show something to someone and have them react to it. It feels quite validating, either that they’re saying; “Oh, that’s amazing,” or that they’re saying; “Maybe if you change that thing,” which is kind of lacking here. But I sometimes go and hang out with Sophie [Houlden] and talk about projects. She actually helped out doing some early prototyping on Fairmile. So there are a few people around, but there isn’t really a hub or a culture or something. There seem to be lots of places in Yorkshire, Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds, things like GaMaYo [Game Makers, Yorkshire]. There’s lots of things with funny names that have never really made it to here. It’s the London effect. It’s so easy to just go, “I’ll go see people I know, and I’ll go to events in London,” and just jump on the train and go down there. Feral Vector is the thing with the biggest draw, I guess, that isn’t on that funnel into London. But as soon as you start going across the spokes then everything is so much slower, and you have to change trains, and you have to get the Cross-country trains. So there’s things in Manchester and there’s things in Yorkshire, but just the way the country is organised, it’s so much harder to get to those sometimes.
What about advantages?
I guess the stuff we talked about before: if you want to make something and not just try and scale some massive design mountain, then perhaps the most effective thing for you to try and make is something which is kind of unique to you. So the place where you live is something that you can bring to that work. And also, just having nice scenery and things is kind of relaxing to be around. And it’s cheap. It’s cheap to live. That’s the big difference.