Games Played: Proteus

Proteus is a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga in which you wander around an island and stuff happens. Its minimal resemblance to a typical game has caused some to brand it an “antigame,” or not a game at all. This ongoing turf war in the gamer community over what is and isn’t afforded that status is a curious echo of old 20th-century arguments about music and art. In fact, Proteus could just as easily be called an interactive audiovisual artwork, raising the question: What is the difference, anyway? Does it even matter?

Despite what the semantic warriors insist, Proteus does have a very effectively game-like progression, with mysteries to solve, discoveries to make, and yes, an unmistakable ending. Because this progression is so essential, still images of Proteus really don’t do it justice. While the pixelated aesthetic Key creates is appealing in a way that invokes early Atari games, playing the game is another experience entirely. As the title suggests, Proteus is all about change and transformation. Without giving too much away, encountering these transformations is where the game really takes off. (The sunrises and sunsets, in particular, are mesmerizing.)

But Key’s visual design only tells half the story. Kanaga’s sound design—or “music design” as he calls it—is incredibly dynamic and layered, with samples culled from an overwhelming number of sources. The game makes use of over 350 audio files, from short blips to longer textures. Making your way across the island, these sounds are constantly intermixed and juxtaposed according to where you are, when it is, and what’s around you. The countless, ever-shifting combinations that result make it hard, at times, to even revisit a particular sound palette.

Kanaga’s musical aesthetic mirrors Key’s visuals in certain ways. Like the jagged pixel edges, the music also has visible (audible?) seams. Paradoxically, these quirks become part of the immersive experience, as you explore a world with qualities slightly orthogonal to our own. When a texture loops, there’s no particular effort to disguise or smooth out the endpoints, and it can be jarring to hear pure synth tones mingle freely with field recordings and fleeting orchestral fragments. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe is most prominently featured, though an astute classical music fan may detect many more references. On the other hand, maybe not, since they’ve likely been chopped up, sped up, slowed down, pitch shifted, reversed, or otherwise obscured.

While Kanaga says he has forgotten the origin of many samples, an hour-long mix created last year as a prelude to a live set reveals some of his influences and inspirations, including Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Brian Eno, Erik Satie, the Beach Boys, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Gesualdo, Satie, Bach, and Ravel. In this mix, too, Kanaga allows these disparate musics to overlap in unexpected and poignant ways.

Proteus: Timeline

click image to enlarge

Kanaga views his overlapping textures as a kind of counterpoint, and draws a connection between theories of polyphony and the discourse of free improvisation. Both traditions look at “multiplicities as unities… [placing] an almost ethical weight on the idea of the independence of parts… collective freedom, sort of an Enlightenment idea.” He credits his experiences with improvisation as essential to the development of his musical aesthetic, explaining, “Improvisation is very important to me. Many of the most profound musical experiences I’ve had have been non-performance improvisations with friends that probably wouldn’t have sounded very good, or maybe even interesting, to an outside listener.” This led him to conclude that the interactive and tactile aspects of music making were just as important as the music itself. To illustrate this, Kanaga invokes one of Theodor Adorno’s maxims: “To interpret language means: to understand language. To interpret music means: to make music.” Kanaga translates this as: “Play is FUNDAMENTAL to musical experience.”

This sense of play is immediately apparent from the first moment of Proteus, and Kanaga hopes to find it in classical music, too. He suggests, “I think we’re at a point with classical music that to bring it back to life—not as an old man on life support but once again as a DANCING CHILD—perhaps we’ll need to destroy it with even greater vigor.” He points to John Cage and the avant-garde developments of the ’60s and ’70s as productive destructions in this vein, but laments their current legacy. “I think it’s a shame that sound should become amusical… Sound is dry, rational… music is irrational, playful. Many people these days are afraid of irrationality, but it’s exactly a kind of acceptance of the unknown in music that’s needed.”

Proteus is currently available for PC/Mac and downloadable through the game’s website or though Steam. Kanaga’s music can be found on Bandcamp and his writings at wombflashforest. He also releases solo and collaborative improvised music with Ilinx Group.

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