Listening to Proteus

It’s spring in Proteus, and the whole world sounds like it’s in bloom. Made by two men—Ed Key, a programmer and designer from Cambridgeshire in the UK, and composer David Kanaga, who lives in Oakland, California—Proteus is a very unusual video game. The player is presented with the most remarkable island, randomly generated by the game’s rules and imagined in strokes of hard, ungradiented colour. The world is a blanket of greens, browns, pinks, blues, whites, oranges. It looks like Kandinsky with a copy of MS Paint. For the player, there are two possible things to do: you may walk or sit. That’s not entirely true—players can also look and listen. These mundane acts of the senses, so routinely overlooked in favour of the more complicated interactions that video games can offer, become paramount in Proteus. It is a video game for contemplation, not reflexes; the world of Proteus is for rumination, not ruination.


Screenshot from the game Proteus, released 2012

The island is the brightest green for today’s spring. There is a smattering of trees, their brown, pink and khaki shapes dot the island with meandering pathways leading nowhere in particular. Holding down the space bar of my computer has the effect of lowering my viewpoint slowly until I am at ground level, the trees now well above my head. From here, I listen.Listening is important in Proteus. The island’s greenery has a peculiar sound to match its peculiar appearance: it hums digitally, a calming bedrock of low harmony, punctuated by whirring chirps and bubbles. This is no stagnant audio track, content to saturate the game regardless of mood or moment; the sound in Proteus shifts organically and restructures itself depending on your movements across the island. This creates the unusual feeling of being able to control sound through movement, creating a kind of performance through navigation. From my viewpoint, I can still see the sea that encloses the island, and the clouds above that now roll in towards the land. As they approach, the grotto around me grows darker and indistinct, while another layer is added to Proteus’s aural environment. The rain sounds like a hundred toy pianos, jangling softly overhead, adding texture and weight to the thin grey lines drizzling in front of me. A small creature catches my eye, and I get up. It is white, indistinct—maybe a rabbit, maybe a frog—but before I can reach it, it hops away shyly, cheerfully blipping like a power-up from a Super Mario game. I walk down to an inlet and find an assembly of crabs that waddle along to the groggy sound of an African talking drum without much care for me. These layers of sound shift in and out of the music of the game, spots of sonic colour that project above Proteus’s gentle hum. Proteus’s music is alive and unrepeatable, further blending the already muddled meanings of ‘play’—playing a game, playing a song, playing an instrument. Playing Proteus.

In summer I sit under the largest tree on Proteus’s island, and a squirrel with xylophones for feet appears above my head. I move towards it but, like most animals on the island, it quickly retreats from me. Proteus’s inhabitants are quite bashful. ‘There’s wildlife you can’t quite grasp, there’s a wild world and you can’t go and pet it,’ said Ed Key about the game in 2011. ‘You have to look at it from far away.’1


Screenshot from the game Proteus, released 2012

Summer has a different groove to spring; it’s all syncopated clacks and bass fizz. Likewise, there’s a little more ochre to Proteus’s green island. In the distance is the circle of stone totems that players use to travel between seasons. In the evenings, after the sky turns orange and then a deep, dark blue, a luminous flow of tiny white bubbles begins to congregate at this place. Further lines of totems spread out across the island, some acting as guides towards other stone circles. As each totem is passed on the player’s way to the circle, a sonorous gong is sounded, with a different frequency for each. The power of these gongs causes the whole island to vibrate in sympathy—trees shudder and more xylophones sound—and by moving quickly, a melody of sorts can be formed.Much has been made about the video game’s power to create unreal spaces and environments. ‘Video game spaces stage our dreams and nightmares,’ writes theorist Michael Nitsche.2 Through the medium of the video game we may tour digital facsimiles of Renaissance-era Florence or Rome or current-day Manhattan; equally, we may get lost in a non-Euclidean Escher’s maze, a world that remodels itself after your actions, an architecture that fights you for spatial supremacy. The geography of video games has become increasingly complex in recent years; contemporary designers commonly imbue space with emotional and narrative qualities too.

Yet what is not often spoken about is the power of video games to invent sonic geographies as well as visual ones. After all, making space is often just as much a question of noise as it is of sight. Consider the noises that define your space right now; perhaps there is some music or the whirr of a computer fan, or the murmur of traffic nearby. Some of these sounds might be unique in your life to this location, while others might be commonplace. Spaces can sound like places and they can sound like nowhere at all: the traffic of a metropolis, the gunfire reports of a warzone, the footsteps of an impossible space. What does a stone circle on Kandinsky’s island sound like? How does an 8-bit squirrel walk? Such is the challenge of environmental sound design for video games, and a game such as Proteus. The right sound, the right music, can make all the difference in the world, giving weight to weightlessness, and meaning to superficiality. As Siegfried Kracauer wrote in his Theory of Film, with the addition of music, cinema’s ‘ghostly shadows, as volatile as clouds, thus become trustworthy shapes’,3 and a process on a larger scale can occur with the video game, too.

Of course, to step outside the limited frame of video games is also to realise that Proteus is far from the first work to link the power of place with the power of sound and music.

In Alaska, John Luther Adams created a room that can sing the northern lights. Adams, the ‘chief standard-bearer of American experimental music’ according to New Yorker critic Alex Ross,4 has lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, for more or less his entire life. He once considered moving to a metropolis, but decided against it when, among other things, another composer by the same name—John Adams, the minimalist composer of the opera Nixon in China—broke into the public consciousness in New York. ‘Alaska’, said Adams in a 2011 interview, ‘gave me not only a life, it gave me a life’s work.’5 His music is experimental, but it is also glacial, moving in slow patterns and flows, as though giving voice to his surrounds. I saw one of Adams’ most striking pieces, Dark Waves, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last year at the Melbourne Recital Centre in Southbank, with dozens of musicians on the slightly cramped and elegant wooden stage; violins, bassoons, cellos, trombones and all. Dark Waves comprises layered modules of sound that are placed against each other; various sections of the orchestra are given languid, enveloping perfect fifths (the fundamental building block of all harmony) to play, working in differing and conflicting scales. Gradually the notes are set on top of each other, building and overflowing across the orchestra until the climax sees all twelve notes of the chromatic scale played at once—the harmony of someone sitting on a piano. It was electrifying, a sheer cacophony of a scale and power I had not previously encountered. The woman behind me said at interval that it had sounded like a truck emerging from a tunnel, all reverberation and anticipation. Whatever it was, there was something elemental about it.

The Place where You Go to Listen—the room that can sing the northern lights—is a sound-and-light installation at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska. It is a musical work (perhaps composition is too strong a word for it) that runs infinitely, constantly responding to live weather data that are fed into the exhibit by way of seismological, meteorological and geomagnetic stations across Alaska. There are fourteen speakers around the stark white room, which envelop visitors and create a geographic experience as much as an auditory one. Indeed, the title The Place where You Go to Listen derives from Naalagiagvik, the Inupiaq name for a location on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, in legend, a woman went to sit and quietly listen to the language of birds and unseen things. ‘At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness,’ writes Adams in one of his short essays. ‘The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.’6 The Place, just like Naalagiagvik, tells you things about itself.

The music of The Place, dependent on the outside world for structure, is in concert with Alaska’s weather. Depending on the time of your visit, you will hear either what Adams calls the ‘day choir’ or the ‘night choir’, each structured differently in undertones and overtones; one major, one minor; one dark, one light. Both move around the room, focused on the direction of the sun, and rise or recede in strength based on the position of the sun above or below the horizon. Another tone follows the path and phases of the moon over the course of a month, and passing clouds mute the brightness of all effects. The room’s bass rumbles in accordance with seismic activity, discharging rounds of what Adams calls ‘Earth Drums’. If a full-force earthquake were to strike The Place, they would sound at 24.27 Hz, ‘the fundamental frequency (derived from the earth’s daily rotation) on which the whole sonic world of The Place is grounded’, says Adams in his guide to the installation.7 Lower level rumbles are no strangers to The Place, as Alaska is one of the most seismically active places on earth and records around twelve thousand earthquakes a year.

But it is the northern lights, the aurora borealis, that provide the most striking audio element of The Place. The shimmering, dancing lights, hungered for by tourists the world over, are fed into the installation by data from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska. Here, they become a sweep of pink noise that varies in intensity and location, moving with the lights over the Alaskan terrain. These shimmering, intense sounds crown The Place, overlaying the complex blanket of frequencies, the highest peak in a musical, ecological landscape. They fly above the other resonant frequencies and are tuned to a different system, making them sound as though they come from a different universe. For visitors to The Place, the northern lights sound as bells; to me, they sound like the world is singing.

While both are clearly interested in what links sound, space and weather so strongly, The Place is a kind of inverse Proteus. At The Place, the weather dictates the experience of visitors—if it is cloudy all day, with no seismic or geomagnetic activity, then a visitor may hear very little of interest, but that same visitor may come back to an orgy of sound and light the very next day. Proteus, on the other hand, is both more controllable (a player turns it on and off, and decides which part she wants to experience next) and more wild (with its randomised, procedurally generated environment, not even its creators can forecast its weather for you). The Place, then, is a simulacrum that resonates in sympathy with the world outside. Proteus, by contrast, is a world unto itself, but one that responds and reacts to the actions and decisions of the player.

Both works explore the power of music to tell us about space. In this sense they can be taken as something like siblings—and as part of a family of music that predates them both. Musicians of all stripes have been making songs about land and place since time immemorial, but there’s a strand of classical music of the twentieth century—and, counting Adams, the twenty-first century—that feels particularly affiliated with Proteus.

Consider Charles Ives, for instance, an insurance director, baseball captain, and likely America’s first great classical composer. In his Piano Sonata No. 2, published in 1919, he drew a musical portrait of the transcendentalist movement associated with Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid nineteenth century. Regarding his ‘Thoreau’ movement (all four movements are named after transcendentalists—the other three are Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts), Ives writes, ‘Thoreau was a great musician … He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude.’8 The resulting music—the final movement of his Piano Sonata—is achingly beautiful and enigmatic, at once intensely dissonant (some say Ives ‘discovered’ atonality before Schoenberg) and melodic. ‘Thoreau’ hints at a harmonic centre while simultaneously refusing to conform to it completely; in this sense it is reminiscent of the man who inspired it, living like a hermit on the shores of Walden Pond. The music tells us about a place and a time, illustrating ‘the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude’ by way of Walden and Massachusetts—a sentiment that is, despite the interval of nearly a century, not too distant from Proteus.

Then there’s Jean Sibelius, the Finnish patriot who spent his later years in seclusion, as Thoreau did, living at Ainola, his house on the banks of Lake Tuusula, near Helsinki. His fifth symphony, from 1915, was seen by contemporaries as a reactionary composition, featuring neither Schoenberg’s (or indeed Ives’) dissonances nor Stravinsky’s rhythmic intensity, the key markers of musical radicalism of the time. It is instead a near weightless piece of consonance and melody that moves in slow undulating waves. Sibelius seems to have been inspired by a group of returning swans over Ainola; he wrote in his diary, ‘it’s strange to learn that nothing in the world affects me—nothing in art, literature, or music—in the same way as do these swans’.9 The symphony concludes with six vast chords that have the sound to stop time, with each staccato stab spaced by many seconds of dead silence. These ripples might be either the unhurried wings of a gliding swan or the lapping waves of a flat Finnish lake; either way, the notes tell us as much about where Jean Sibelius was when he wrote them as who he was or what the composition means for twentieth-century music.

The music of birds was literalised by the French composer and dedicated ornithologist Olivier Messiaen. While other experimental composers of the mid twentieth century such as John Cage and Morton Feldman were delving into composition by chance and graphic notation (their experiments with randomisation would fit well with Proteus), Messiaen was devotedly transcribing bird calls into music. ‘Birds are my first and greatest masters,’ he announced at a lecture at Darmstadt University in Germany, a famous hotbed of compositional radicalism.10 Much of his life’s music was modelled on the innumerable forms of birdsong, the pinnacle of which is his 1953 work Réveil des oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds). The twenty-minute piece for piano and orchestra is a dawn chorus for musical instruments; even to an untrained ear, the origin of the melodies is obvious. Another familiar element of Messiaen’s compositions was the early electronic instrument the ondes Martenot. Somewhere between a keyboard and a cello, the ondes Martenot produces eerie, wavering notes that were convenient for the science fiction films of the 1950s, but Messiaen made effective use of them in emulating his beloved birdsong. And, while it is unlikely to be an ondes Martenot (the instrument is famously rare today), a similar electronic cry heralds Proteus’s dawn chorus, personifying the game’s daylight life.

Autumn in Proteus is brown, red, yellow and orange. The sky is overcast and the trees are shedding their leaves. The music for the season has changed again, this time moving between a series of languid minor chords, spaced out and atemporal, just like the end of Sibelius’s fifth. Night falls quickly, and I decide to climb to Proteus’s highest point. At the peak of a snowy mountain the music drops away, leaving only a soft, awe-struck bed of shimmering, synthesised strings as I look out over the clouds that cover the island. In the cool night sky, I look up and see rows of dancing, brilliant lights in the sky above, an Alaskan aurora borealis.

Winter is almost silent. It is ghostly white, with only the stark black outlines of withered trees to break up the landscape. Now it really looks like Fairbanks, Alaska, or Ainola, Finland. The natural sound is so quiet as to be almost inaudible; the musical foundation for winter is only a single brittle synth, playing a handful of modulating, unfaltering notes.

Night falls for the last time in Proteus, and the island turns a deep blue. Snow falls from the blanketed clouds above. As it gets later, the brittle synth recedes, and the music turns into sustained humming voices, perhaps the only clearly human element in all of Proteus. As I walk down a hill, dark in the winter night, my feet lift from the ground. I am ascending, flying. I am leaving Proteus’s island. I fly through the clouds, which obscure everything, precluding all vision in a cover of whiteness, and then, suddenly, I am looking down on them and the island.

As I float higher and higher, the moon dips in reverse motion, sinking towards the horizon. With the island far below, the sky begins to brighten for a final time. Closing eyelids—a signal of finality for a video game about senses—slowly shut off my vision, and Proteus is finished.

These humming voices—the sound of Proteus’s coda—are reminiscent of a more contemporary musician concerned with landscape and sound. In 1998, Björk moved from London, the site of her pop-dance breakthrough success, back to her hometown of Reykjavík and started to make music that was at once clearly Björk and influenced by her Icelandic surrounds. At this time Björk also became perceptibly more interested in the possibilities of the voice, touring Vespertine (2001) with an Inuit choir and recording Medúlla (2004) almost entirely with vocal sounds, which the hums of Proteus clearly recall. Perhaps these are the places of Proteus’s winter, then: Fairbanks, Alaska; Ainola, Finland; and Reykjavík, Iceland. Uncannily, the ninth track of Vespertine, ‘Sun in My Mouth’, parallels much of Proteus, thematically and sonically. Musically it’s not a bad match for Kanaga’s Proteus sound design, with celeste, harp and strings shimmering and pulsating just like the effects of Proteus’s vibrating trees—not to mention Björk’s voice, which has an austere, powerful beauty just like the game itself. But it’s the lyrics to this song, taken from an E.E. Cummings poem, ‘I Will Wade Out’, that are truly remarkable when considered alongside the game.

As though anticipating the climax of Proteus, Björk sings, by way of Cummings, ‘I will wade out / Till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers.’ In the moment that follows, the loop of place and music in Proteus is closed; from Ives to Sibelius to Messiaen to Adams to Björk, the strange musical power of geography in this video game is revealed.

‘I will take the sun in my mouth / And leap into the ripe air,’ Björk sings, ‘Alive with closed eyes / To dash against darkness.’

  1. Robert Yang, ‘Level with Me, Ed Key’, Rock Paper Shotgun, 29 November 2011, <>.
  2. Michael Nitsche, Video Game Spaces, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2009, p. 2.
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton, NJ, 1960, p. 135.
  4. Alex Ross, ‘Letter from Alaska: Song of the Earth’, New Yorker, 12 May 2008, <>.
  5. Molly Sheridan, ‘John Luther Adams: The Music of a True Place’, NewMusicBox, 1 March 2011, < -adams-the-music-of-a-true-place>
  6. John Luther Adams, ‘The Place where You Go to Listen’, in David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus (eds), The Book of Music and Nature: An Anthology of Sounds, Words, Thoughts, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 2001, p. 181.
  7. John Luther Adams, The Place where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 2010, p. 136.
  8. Charles Ives, Essays before a Sonata, Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1920, p. 56.
  9. Sibelius, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise, Picador, New York, 2007, p. 182.
  10. Messiaen, quoted in Ross, The Rest Is Noise, p. 491.