Exploring the mesmerising nature of pixel wildernesses

Nature has been extensively explored throughout the history of art, from paintings of woolly mammoths on cave walls to futuristic wilderness walkthroughs via virtual reality headsets.

Video games are arguably the most successful medium at recreating nature. These interactive experiences are capable of immersing players in detailed natural worlds, where exploring enormous landscapes can be as simple as pushing a few buttons.

Unlike films, games can allow their players to choose how they interact with nature. You might decide to follow a wild animal, climb a mountain or swim in the ocean, for example.

Of course, the developers of such games face a far greater challenge than the players—evoking the same feelings of wonder we get from exploring our planet is bound to be a formidable task for any artist. While large teams of developers were recruited to create the mind-blowing pixel landscapes in games like Grand Theft Auto V and Far Cry Primal, talented developers from the indie games scene are proving that you no longer need a huge budget to give players a memorable stroll through the virtual wilderness.

In 2013, English game designer and conservationist Ed Key released Proteus, a first-person indie game centred around exploring a procedurally generated island and discovering the wildlife that inhabits it. Unlike more traditional video games, there is no obvious mission to complete in Proteus. The goal is simply to immerse yourself in the virtual world: as the in-game seasons change, so do its sights and sounds, encouraging the player to witness new life emerging in the same area over the course of a year.

We spoke to Ed to find out about the inspiration behind Proteus, and gain an understanding of how video game developers go about recreating the awe-inspiring experiences of nature in their work.

What originally inspired you to make Proteus?

It’s really hard to pin down an exact moment of inspiration, but one important time was walking around the stone circles at Avebury (a Neolithic henge monument in Wiltshire, England) and feeling that deep sense of mystery. This was around 2009 with a game developer friend, but before that I often felt inspired on family holidays – visiting old monuments, Scottish islands and so on.

Why was it important for the game to lack the traditional ‘quest’ format that many other open-world games revolve around?

This was one of the main design goals of Proteus, once we had figured out the sort of thing we wanted to make. We wanted to make the experience rather slow and undirected compared to most games, so instead of following waypoints to find your next task, you are left feeling a bit lost and waiting to discover something that looks intriguing enough to pull you onward.

We found that with enough of these effects people were drawn in and bounced from place to place in really surprising ways. I think that lack of direction really mirrors the best moments of standing in the midst of ‘real’ nature and feeling the tug of hundreds of little interesting things.


How did you decide on the art style featured in the game?

Mostly purely practical considerations, and then figuring out what could be made that would look interesting and unique within that. I’m not a genius programmer or graphic artist, so I made something that was very simple—not quite retro, but that would allow us to play with bold blocks of colour and leave a lot to the imagination. Even if I could have made something ultra-realistic it would probably have been less interesting.

What research did you do into animals and plants for the game?

All the vaguely-real animals and plants are just things that were around at the time of making the game, like the squirrels, owls, frogs and hen-like things. They are so loosely-rendered both behaviourally and graphically that I just tried to capture some aspect of them that I observed. The plants are mostly based on ones that I enjoy in some sense, like the tall purple ones which are based on swathes of rosebay willowherb that grow in verges and waste ground. 

How much of the game was inspired by your real world experiences in nature?

Almost all of it really, although I’ve never seen the northern lights beyond more than just a soft glow in the sky, so things like that and some of the more psychedelic bits are just made up. Since Proteus was developed slowly over a long period, it was fun at times to realise I was developing a feature appropriate to the current season outdoors, or to notice the moon setting outside at the same time as watching it set in the game.

During the making of Proteus, I also got into foraging for wild edible plants. That probably had some subtle influence, although not literally as a plant-eating mechanic in the game. I did consider it in an earlier version, before we focused the design.

How did you decide on the musical signatures for each species featured in the game?

This is all down to the game’s audio composer David Kanaga, and his intuitive impression of how a creature should sound, what it should add to the mix, and what time structure it should have. Usually I’d put something new in the game in a simple way, and then David would send over some sounds, then I’d implement them, then we’d go through that cycle a few times. 

What other depictions of nature in video games have you found to be particularly inspiring or thought-provoking?

I do like a nicely-rendered AAA nature scene, like the bits in the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that feel like you’re riding through an Ivan Shishkin painting, but I also like the weird kaleidoscopic stuff: Panoramical is probably the high point of this, which can feel like looking through a microscope at swimming bacteria or staring at galaxies in a very abstract way. Orchids to Dusk is really beautiful and has a poetic message about life and death. Lieve Oma is one I just played yesterday and is a short story about picking mushrooms with your grandma. Lastly, and this is more game-art than a game itself, the San Andreas Deer Cam project created using a modded version of Grand Theft Auto V) is really fantastic, suggestive and intriguing


Why, in your opinion, are video games an exciting medium for recreating and exploring the wonders of nature?

I’m not entirely sure! Maybe it’s that systems can be at play in a game world in the same way as in a natural environment. It could also be that games let you explore and digest something at your own pace, but in some ways other media can do this too.

I do think a lot of video games capture or reflect the natural world badly or in an uninteresting way, so it’s hard for me to wholeheartedly endorse it as a medium. Something that bugs me a lot is when a game’s objectives or basic dynamics steer you towards eradicating the ‘wildness’ from a game’s landscape and turning it into a tame, functional place. I’m thinking of making a game that is the exact opposite of this at some point, but I’m not yet sure how.

What aspects of Proteus are you most proud of?

It’s hard to pick something out. I’m mostly just happy with how it all came together into a coherent whole, and how people playing it tell me about their experience in such different ways: the different sequences of things they encounter, and the different meanings they ascribe to it.

Find out more about Proteus and Ed’s other games on his website, twistedtreegames.com.

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