Imagine a radio made out of a world. What would you tune in? The rain, maybe. The stochastic dance of its droplets. Rrr rr rr rr r r r. I like it best when it strengthens enough to chime against the windowpanes. Fluid fingernails on the glass.
Sound fills spaces. It's called diffusion, the spreading of sonic energy in a physical environment. Perfectly diffusive spaces share the same acoustic properties all throughout. Such settings have to be engineered, whether architecturally -- like a carefully designed concert hall -- or prosthetically through the addition of sound diffusors like one finds in a recording studio.
Most spaces aren't so purposefully designed; they are "non-diffusive," which is just to say, ordinary. You configure your home theater to offer an ideal listening space around your couch. You lean in, struggling to hear your dinner companion because the restaurant was designed to maximize liveliness around your table rather than to optimize conversation upon it.
In our daily lives, we shift constantly among different sonic domains. Our bias toward visual culture means that usually we see that transition more than we hear it, but careful attention can help attenuate visual in favor of auditory sensation. Instead of seeing a morning comprised of house, yard, car, if you squint a bit you can hear one made of kettle, birds, engine, NPR Morning Edition.
Sometimes you have to close your eyes to hear. So overwhelming is the visual sensorium, and so central to our social lives. We close our eyes to calm ourselves because it's so hard to focus on our inner thoughts with so many outer influences pouring in. The guru does not advise the meditation practitioner to cover the ears, but to close the eyes, at least temporarily, to reset the dynamic energy of vision, but not so much as to fall into slumber.
You probably do this more often than you realize, but still not often enough. Morning again. The door latches behind you, leaving behind the thud of children's feet, the clank of the dishwasher, the chatter of Matt Lauer. Instead: a deep breath, the swoosh of nearby leaves, the whirr of a distant lawnmower. A small moment lost among larger moments, but precious for its modesty. Like seeing the big eyes of a small child, hearing the wind beetle through leaves draws out vice from the chest and spreads it across the skin, where it burns and then evaporates.
Such moments are rarer than they could be. You might visit the woods behind the park or drive out to the nature preserve or the beach, or the shopping mall even, but such propositions are too inconvenient to become habits.
We've tried to domesticate them: fireplaces, aquaria, the white noise generators that take the place of alarm clocks in mid-range hotel rooms: gentle rain, crashing surf, babbling brook. But these aren't meant to be heard, just to mask out other sounds until boredom or slumber overtakes them.
Proteus offers an alternative: a sonic device one uses by moving through its spatial landscape and its temporal fluxes. If a toy like a Spirograph is used to produce complex mathematical curves by manipulating its far simpler physical apparatus, then a world like Proteus is used to produce complex sonic configurations in the same manner.
Exploring Proteus is also an optical experience, of course. The game presents a rendered 3D environment that facilitates navigation. But its imprecise, indeterminate visual style invites the player to deemphasize the usual desire for scintillation through visual verisimilitude in favor of listening for desirable auditory configurations. One moves through Proteus not to see, but to arrange a particular kind of hearing.
At first this is rough going. All you hear are random sounds, a cacophony of electronic tones and noise. A jumble. A weird mismatch, too: a pastoral nightclub run by pixel cupcakes. But it's just the surprise of auditory novelty, like the first sonic deluge of New York City to the novice ear. Eventually patterns emerge; or rather, you become able to produce sonic patterns by orchestrating your movements. Proteus is an island you tune like a radio. Or maybe, a radio that looks like an island.
What's playing? Spring-night-rain-meadow-fireflies. An oscillating whistle of the insects along with the sprinkle of rain, which slowly subsides as the clouds pass, giving way to the pure tone of digital owls.
The nuisance of the sunrise, whistling flute-like. It's worse than the alarm clock's klaxon, but like the latter you cannot escape it. Just wait it out, let the rosy dawn give way to cyan and the flutes to frequency-oscillating sine tones.
Seeking respite from the din. A tall mountain on this run of Proteus, blanched by snow and beset with the silence of dead goblin trees on one side. The wind. Finally the throbbing ebbs. Too soon really, it becomes stifling in turn. A tall castle's keep without surrounding battlements presents itself at the opposite end of the peak, radiating abstract, oscillating squawks. The wind sounds cold when married to it.
Finding a frog or a brace of ducks. In Proteus safari is not just a matter of seeing a new creature, but of mixing it down with the background tracks, of dancing with the bounce of square amphibians and semicircular fowl. Then lingering with the frog until night falls, when it sings a rhythmic, fizzy ballad if undisturbed.
Every channel is synesthesia and mixed metaphor. Summer is syncopated flowers. Autumn draws itself out, but still jingles with the bells of leafiness. Those chimes don't represent the leaves like the droplets represent the rain, no more than the French horns represent clear skies. Rather, to hear the horns, escape the rain. Just before daybreak autumn creaks like a boat. Winter's midnight jingles like the paralyzing ghost of an alien carnival where, years ago, an almond-eyed daredevil was decapitated.
A music visualizer does just what its name suggests: it makes music visible by transforming an audio input's frequency spectrum into parameters for a moving image. You've seen them in Winamp and in iTunes, and in Jeff Minter's Neon light synthesizer in the Xbox 360. But Proteus is not a music visualizer. It does not present a visual, traversable representation of a musical composition. Rather, it is a habitat receiver that can be tuned in for sound, like a radio receiver can home in on a waveform's amplitude or frequency.
And like Winamp or iTunes, it's best to run Proteus windowed. As your work progresses, different moods will suggest themselves. Just drop back in and tune in the right habitat. Save a few postcards like you'd fashion a playlist or save a car radio preset. You'll know you're using it right when you know where you are at a distance, from Word or from PowerPoint.
Eventually, I began to grow irritated that my MacBook keyboard's play/pause button wouldn't temporarily silence Proteus when a call came in or a meeting had to be conducted. I'd finally learned to stop looking at it, at all. It had become an audio tool, albeit an unusual one. Instead of scanning a playlist or submitting to a Spotify recommendation, I learned to relocate my auditory alter-ego.
A radio station transmits on a carrier frequency, and a radio tunes it in by converting that signal for demodulation. Proteus is transmitter and receiver in one, the simulated world doing the transmission and the player's position within it acting the indicator on the broadcast band. But unlike a radio frequency receiver, which hides all the alternatives via filtering, Proteus has no fixed stations, no clearer or weaker signals. Any position on the habitat modulation band might be equally desirable, depending on the circumstances. A world radio without static, generating bandwidth forever.