“Sound adds life to the environment. There is a presence you get from hearing sound. It’s real. An image is on the screen, but the screen is more real than the image. When you have sound coming out, it’s vibrating through the air—vibrating the room you’re in. It’s tangible.”
That’s what David Kanaga told me about sound and what it brings to games. Kanaga is the composer of the otherworldly Proteus, a musical experience—and he might say a religious one. Proteus removes the distinction between playing a PC game and playing a divine instrument. The world is an electronic orchestra—a playground of strange sound waves that are, at times, similar to the Vulcan harp, the theremin, a Catholic choir, and the soundtrack to any science-fiction film made with a Moog. We have seen games billed as EPs before. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP comes to mind. But S&S EP was an adventure game with an amazing soundtrack. When Kanaga says Proteus is an EP, he is describing a true hybrid of game rules and musical form.
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What are you up to these days?
I’m in Toronto right now. Just working on videogames all day. It feels pretty easy. It probably should be harder. I’m working on Dyad (for PlayStation Network). It’s a fun game. It’s set in a tube, like Tempest. It’s pretty wild. I try to have the music really hooked onto the game. Shaun puts it in code. We work together. We’ll say, “Let’s attach this sound to this object.” As you play the game, you grab things and move along. It feels like you are playing an instrument. When you are touching certain things in the environment, the game plays a loop. It goes, “daloo-daloo-daloop.” When you come off, that loop fades out. You can play different pitches: A, B, C, D, E, F. It’s a pretty crappy instrument. [Laughs] It has instrumental qualities though. Proteus, I think of it of a jungle made of musical instruments, with all these things singing and dancing. In Dyad, all these enemies and parts and beings are singing and dancing too.
But Dyad plays more like a traditional game. When I played Proteus, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do at first. I was confused. It’s a lot different than most other games. It doesn’t rely on game mechanics. The sound guides you to where you should go.
What was the point when you were frustrated, or stressed that you didn’t have something to do? Was there something that turned you on to a different way of playing?
I guess the frog. He was there croaking. There was nothing else to do but walk around this place. I was thinking: Should I turn it off? I didn’t know if it was going to go on—if the game evolved. The next thing I came across was a big hill with a grave on top. You kind of get lost in the game. You want to go somewhere, and then you turn around, and then you can’t find where you were going again. I got distracted by the will-o’-the-wisp green dots that float around. I guess it is the wind. It drew me over, and I heard their sound, and that’s when I realized the sound was guiding me.
I’m really glad the sparkles guided you. We want people to play through the seasons, but we don’t want to say, “Play through the seasons.” We want to navigate that psychological state of confusion at the beginning. You’re not told what to do at all.
There are so many experimental games out there that don’t really go anywhere. At first it seems like Proteus is playing the same sounds over and over. You don’t get the sense that it’s changing.
Because the changes are gradual.
How did you go about engineering Proteus’ sound space?
With Proteus, when I first played it, Ed [Key] had sent over the build, and I played it with no sound. I started trying to pull music out of the environment and see how it felt on my fingers. The ideal is to have every object making music. Every object is singing. And you can interact with it. You can feel the presence of the objects. If you’re around trees, then such-and-such a loop is going to play. If you’re near bushes, then another one is. Then, the frogs hop around, and so on. I make a lot of pieces—a lot of modules that could go together in any way. It’s fun to create pieces of music with open variables, where you say here’s what exists, but within those constraints, you can do absolutely anything.
What is your musical background?
I played instruments when I was a kid. There was a piano in the house, and I always loved playing it. I’d write little tunes and my mom would notate them for me. I was never very good at it. I never got into writing music until I was 12 and I got Fruity Loops. You could compose a piece of music without having quick fingers. You could create musically without mastering a technical discipline. My senior year of college, I wrote a piece for orchestra. Whenever there are players who are willing to play music, I feel that’s a good opportunity to write for them. I wrote a piece that used game ideas. It had the orchestra listening to one another and playing according to rules. When you hear this note, play that note. That sort of thing.
Like John Zorn.
Yeah, like Cobra! Absolutely. I played Cobra too. I had a group together at school, and we played it a number of times. It’s a really fun piece of music, and game. There is a group of players, and there is a conductor figure. He holds up cards with rules on them. He has a card with a “P” on it. That stands for pool. It means for everyone to play. Then there are cards that say crossfade. That means for everyone who is playing to fade out, and everyone who is not playing to fade in. There are solo cards. There’s a rule called the New York rule, where if you flip off someone, they have to stop playing. All the players can do these hand signs to cue those cards, so everyone, at every instance, is in control of playing their instrument—and also in control of structure and composition, which feels amazing. Most of the people I played with didn’t even know how to read music. That’s what I love about it. That there may be some way of playing music and games together that doesn’t require expertise.
Do you feel that games could benefit music?
At large? Like the history of music? Yeah. Totally. I have faith that what interaction does for music will be important. We talked in our emails about “the stream.” You know, [music critic] Tom Ewing’s idea. When we live in these digital technologies, our experience in them becomes less about the content—each song that we hear, or image we see—and more about how we navigate this information. It’s like playing a videogame. In Proteus, you’re asking yourself, “What am I going to do right now? If I can do anything in the world, am I going to let other people choose it for me? Am I going to follow a train of thought and go where that takes me?” There are big, interesting questions that we have to deal with. I think videogames, or just interactive music in general, and Cobra, and free jazz stuff, and John Cage’s disciples, are all ways we can meaningfully play.
You get swept up in the form, and you have this interplay between the form and the memes. By memes, I mean cultural identifiers—the things people do, like wearing beards, or hippies wearing tie-dyed shirts, or listening to a pop song. So the memes of music would be, I guess, how people play a saxophone. They can play certain notes. They can play it smooth. They can play it badly. They can play it like John Zorn. And the form would be the big abstract thing, like the rules to a game of Cobra. The music and the abstraction are playing off each other, so you get an improvisation not just between the musicians themselves, but also between the instruments and the abstract form.
I think a higher state of consciousness, a mystical experience, can be triggered. It has a religious quality. It seems this big idea is something that “play” can give rise to—playing within a system with the instruments, or with other people, or within the culture, and within everything. I don’t know. You’re probably thinking I’m a drug user and that doesn’t make any fucking sense. [Laughs]
It makes sense. But don’t you also think there is a danger that games can stifle the creativity of music? Look at Guitar Hero and Rock Band. You’re basically covering a hole when the game tells you to.
Those are horrible games. Music games have done a lot more harm than good. But there are some beautiful things that videogames have done. The best things they have done haven’t involved the music that we hear, but music that we feel. This music is how we move in a videogame—the freedom we can feel in a situation, and the creativity. Super Mario Galaxy is great. It feels like music to me. There is a beautiful rhythm to the jumping.
So you think there is a parallel between play and music?
Stravinsky is a composer that I’m in love with. I hear all those voices moving around and it sounds like the most beautiful game that could ever be made.
Do you think it’s possible to reach that level of ecstasy in a game?
It’s tough. I try to imagine it. Yeah. I think so. [Stravinsky] wrote very good music, so it’s a huge challenge. And it would be a different type of ecstasy than what he achieves, because he has total linear control of the whole experience. That’s the reason how we play a game is so important. We are the ones who are generating meaning. We need to learn to live our lives in a state of ecstasy, ideally, where everything is wonderful and new. And that’s what great art can do to us.
It’s hard to stay in that state. I’ll get there for a day, and be burnt out the rest of the week.
It’s very hard to stay there, isn’t it? [Laughs] I’ll go lie in bed a while and watch TV. How do we stay in that state?