This feature was written for the Guardian
For people who don’t play computer games – myself included – it’s easy to assume all virtual reality has to offer is the dubious opportunity to wield a weapon. Thankfully, that’s only part of the picture.
Enter planet Proteus and you’re invited to wander through a rough-edged landscape that responds to your presence with music. Eufloria blends exploration with a cultivation quest and is more aggressive, involving fighting a diseased strain of seedling that’s hindering your attempts to colonise an asteroid belt with trees. Both games are inspired by the natural world, and both are selling surprisingly well.
The first thing to ask, of course, is why bother gardening via a video game or going for a virtual walk? If these things are possible in the real world, why play a game? Well, you could say the same about books, exhibitions or films. All offer interpretations of the world but none are replacements for the real thing. Plus you’re unlikely to get the chance to cultivate an asteroid any time soon.
“Proteus is a reaction to landscape and the world, and enhances and changes the way you feel about it,” explains Ed Key, one of the game’s creators. “We’re consciously trying to the mirror the feelings of observing something in the natural world. It’s impossible to have the same infinite variety but we hope that people get a sense of it. But the abstract style of graphics and sound means it’s not trying to be realistic, it’s evocative and invites you to fill in the gaps.”
The island in Proteus is user-generated, so it’s different every time, but it’s shaped by Key’s time in Cumbria, Wiltshire, Orkney and the Western Isles. The unusual colour palette is inspired by the paintings of Paul Nash and Art Deco tourism posters, where the New York sky might be yellow and the trees blue.
Proteus is structured into four seasons, the final one being winter. “It’s a carefully crafted sequence through four acts but with no pressure to go onto the next,” says Key. “There are levels and a measurable sense of progress, but it has a user driven pace. There’s no endgame or checklist, which are common in games that cater for a competitive urge.”
You don’t have to be a gamer to understand this is quite an unusual approach. “We have been surprised by its success,” admits Key. “Proteus isn’t an explicit challenge against violence but people have championed it for that. It provokes people to think there can be more to gaming than violence and military style games.”
With its simplistic version of outer space, curling tree roots and swirling seeds, Eufloria may also seem a serene place. Alex May, one of its creators, points out it’s actually “horribly violent… Its veneer is peaceful, and the violence is not explicit, but you are routinely sending hundreds of seedlings to their deaths in this game.”
Violence varies – nature has a brutality that is entirely different to the carnage inflicted by your average shoot ’em up game. May says players have told him Eufloria is a breath of fresh air in comparison, something he can appreciate.
“I attended E3 in LA a couple of years back and being in the show hall was a remarkable experience – it honestly sounded like a warzone,” he says. “There was no refuge from gunfire or some other kind of violence, and you were never out of sight of some kind of sexist iconography or characterisation. It was absolutely repellent and yes, I feel that Eufloria is a sort of antithesis to that culture.”
In both games, the soundscape is as important as the landscape and Brian Eno an inspiration. Proteus’s creators say “music is a core part of the design: the world sings to you.” Ed Key explains that his co-creator David Kanaga is interested in musical structures as play structures, and in allowing the user to influence what they hear.
“There are lots of musical loops playing simultaneously, you raise the volume of certain loops as you get close to something,” says Key. “It’s like an internal mixing board and it allows a conversation between the player and the game.”
Eufloria also uses ambient music, something suggested by the game’s other creator Rudolf Kremers and composed by Milieu (Brian Grainger). “I think the music goes a long way in evoking the nature of the world we’ve depicted,” says Alex May. “The game would be extremely different without his work.”
So, what next for these nature loving game designers? Are plants the next big thing in gaming? Probably not, but both Ed Key and Alex May plan to continue with the theme. Key, an amateur botanist with a foraging habit, wants to make a hunter-gatherer survival based game next, while May likes the idea of one where you can create your own personalised vivarium.