Proteus’ soundscapes: the similarities between procedural generation and improvisation

Proteus in action - Picture lovingly lifted from

Video game music has come a long way from the humble bleeps of its youth. Where once fantasy adventurers would be chaperoned by the gentle whirs of a synthesised 70s sound system, a hero now has the backing of an entire sweeping, movie-style orchestra to keep him company on his travels – each triumph and tragedy accompanied by an appropriate Howard Shore-style blaring trumpet or aching violin solo.

With such advances in the complexity of video game soundtracks, developers have begun to put more thought into how they use them, as well as to consider the ways in which they can experiment with the relationship between the music and the player. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s “Proteus” is the result of such experimentation – a game in which the soundtrack is an integral part of the gameplay experience, far more than just a passive background to the action on the screen.

Instead of a game in the traditional sense, Proteus is more like an “exploration simulator”. The player is placed in an unfamiliar world, then left to discover it however they choose – no goals to aim for, no way to win or lose, just the exploration. However, the player doesn’t only explore the visual elements of the world, but its sound as well. In Proteus, every aspect of the environment produces a noise, and together these noises form the game’s music. Every tree, every mushroom, even the rain and snow combine to form a symphony inspired by the player’s movement, and it is this soundscape that players of Proteus are invited to explore.

Proteus short trailer (Indiecade) from Ed Key on Vimeo.

Walking the wilds of this strange, multi-sensory world truly is a fascinating and engaging experience, and the mellow, dreamlike tones that emerge with every step are very compelling. However, it’s the explorative element that really makes the game feel special. Just as listening to an album for the first time can prompt a satisfying feeling of discovery, so too can the more literal exploration seen here, and there’s a real feeling of uniqueness to every trip taken into the world of Proteus.

The game’s sense of a fresh and unique experience is not only due to the nature of exploration though – every trip into Proteus doesn’t just feel different, it actually is. Every time the game is loaded, the landscape is procedurally generated – this means that rather than being designed beforehand, the world that you encounter is put together automatically on the spot, according to certain algorithms. A different world each time you play.

This process of creating a new experience every time, yet one which is centred around the same basic themes and sounds, seems to me to be rather akin to live music. In both cases you are creating art around a theme by improvising within certain rules – the only difference in the case of procedural generation is that it’s a computer doing the improvising.

Evidently, I’m not the only person to see the connection. Procedural generation has already taken a step into the sphere of music – Brian Eno used it to produce what he called “generative music” as long ago as 1996. In his album Generative Music 1, he used it to randomly manage a number of set tracks, organised in different combinations to produce a massively varied piece of music that could potentially last 10,000 years before playing all possibilities.

Still, I feel that the most striking comparison between the procedurally generated worlds of Proteus and the music of a live concert is the feelings that they provoke. In both cases, the audience feels a great sense of anticipation that comes with not quite knowing what’ll happen next. They know the rough shape of what’s to come, but they also know that it won’t be quite what they’ve heard before, or in fact, what anyone has heard before. Each live performance is the result of a unique combination of factors, and it is a similar uniqueness that is at the heart of Proteus’s appeal – both through your own actions as player and the “improvisation” of the computer, when you play Proteus you will genuinely have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It’s hard to think of a better endorsement.

An alpha version of Proteus can be found here, though there are plans for an “E.P” and “L.P” release in the future.

Aryn is a freelance journalist and illustrator. He enjoys writing about arts, drinking Coca-Cola in wine bars, and long walks to the fridge.

Edit: Last year we reviewed Dear Esther, another game featuring an abnormally strong focus on the use of music as a medium to immerse the player within the game. You can find that article here.

One thought on “Proteus’ soundscapes: the similarities between procedural generation and improvisation

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s