Proteus is My Kind of Blue
“Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” — Art Blakey
Last week, someone asked me, “What makes Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue so special?” and my response was a slightly incredulous, “Well, have you heard it?” The implication was clear: this is an extraordinary, magnificent record, and as such its greatness isn’t easily articulated.
When I talk to people about Proteus, every conversation seems to be tinged with the same hint of pretension. Even though the concept of a challenge-free game isn’t absolutely mainstream yet, I still find myself somewhat flummoxed when someone objects to the idea.
“So you just, kinda, walk around?” they say, sometimes adding a dismissive, “Boring!”
Just once I’ll shout in return, “If an Atari 2600 suddenly gained sentience, its evolution would eventually lead to Proteus – what’s not exciting about that!?” before realizing the implication that our future is ruled by out-of-date electronics with a love of free jazz.
To that end, I’ve been thinking that there must be a better way to pitch the conceit of Proteus that won’t elicit a yawn. It’s a creative, simple, and serene adventure game for the lollygagger in all of us. However, for individuals who crave action with a lot of crouching and grunting, Proteus remains a difficult sell. Since calling it a game for potheads would likely be considered pandering, I found myself having to come up with a far more studious approach.
Proteus, at its absolute worst and most derisive, is really just a palette cleanser. It’s the kind of unique, brief experience you crave after finishing a massive JRPG or sinking an astronomical amount of time into a military shooter. The game doesn’t have a goal, per se, but that’s the entire point: it’s a leisurely stroll or a sojourn. If you see a hill that you want to explore, you should go explore it. See? Now you’ve made an objective.
But at its best, Proteus is a brilliant jazz record akin to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
Kind of Blue is a remarkable record for most academics because of its reliance on modal composition, but some (myself included) feel its true secret is chemistry. Arguably, it was Miles Davis at his creative peak, but his band for the recordings included the likes of Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, and John Coltrane – each an enormous talent in his own right. And yet, Kind of Blue is celebrated for its restraint; it’s a study in ego, or rather, the lack thereof. Each of these musicians is a significant figure in the history jazz, but they take turns letting each other shine, and the end result is a monumental recording that’s not only soulful but also evocative.
So, too, is Proteus. It’s jazz with space that gives it room to breathe. Elements of the game effortlessly blend without overstepping their bounds or interfering with each other, and just like Kind of Blue it’s evident that chemistry and genius are both at play here. David Kanaga’s soundtrack, at once easy and melodic with hints of twentieth century atonality, would fit in with the oeuvre of Jim O’Rourke or Nuno Canavarro. It belies the tone set by Ed Key’s decidedly simplistic graphics.
My earlier comparison to the Atari 2600 wasn’t just for a cheap gag, either. The art style of the game is perhaps more retro than some are comfortable with, which helps contribute to the aforementioned theme of restraint. There’s no doubt that the game could have been programmed with monsters, danger, or towns… another person, maybe? But there’s a startling lack of definition in everything, too, which combined with the lack of other elements only serves to create mystery – mystery that wouldn’t exist without that restraint.
Kind of Blue wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is if all of the musicians were playing solos over each other. And the space that’s left? That’s restraint, and what makes a jazz record fun for me is that feeling of discovery as you find out what’s in that space. It’s like an archeological dig: every time you listen you can mine something you hadn’t heard before, be it a buried horn riff or someone yelling a cue off-mic.
In the same way, every trip through Proteus yields something fascinating, be it a strange musical phrase or a wisping particle that seems to portend another oddity in the world. How Proteus makes you feel will depend equally on what you want from it and what you put into it. On good days it can be your escape; on bad days, an aimless, fruitless endeavour. It may excite you or confuse you, but either way I think you owe yourself a visit, because you never know – your feelings about the game just may blossom into A Love Supreme.