Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Music

sa

 

 

Grate.

 

 

There are moments I stop playing video games.

I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.

Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.

It was never clear what triggered this.

Freshman year I was playing Grand Theft Auto on the Game boy Color.

Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.

Junior year and something shifted.

I turned to music.

I explored vinyl records.

I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.

I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.

Sound became important.

The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.

I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.

When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.

I knew what I wanted to hear.

I picked up my Game Boy Color and played Dragon Warrior for the first time since its NES release.

Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.

I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.

I listened to it everyday driving home from school.

I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.

Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.

My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.

I revisited games from my past.

Lion King. Aladdin. Super Mario 2. Guerrilla War. Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Contra. Jackal.

I experimented through them all.

I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.

I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.

 

Coil.

 

When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.

The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.

Everything from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had soundtracks that landed between what was and what was to come.

With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.

I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.

With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.

Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.

Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.

I cannot recall a single FFX theme.

When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.

It has no force.

The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.

Halo and its haunting, simple, choral opening.

Crysis 2 and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant, driven theme.

Armored Core V and its awkward, shifting, stuttering soundscape.

Transistor and its somber, tense, contemplative anthem.

Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.

As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.

By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.

 

Sea.

 

Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.

I skipped the N64, GameCube, Wii, and DS.

The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.

I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.

I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.

It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.

I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.

Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.

It was the perfect evolution of sound.

The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.

Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.

The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.

I needed to hear what was going on.

In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.

It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.

The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.

The music was light, crisp, and warm.

The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.

The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.

More than any other element, the sound design stuck.

Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.

I bought a Wii U not long after launch.

I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.

Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.

Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.

The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.

Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.

Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.

While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.

They understand how to build games.

They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.

They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.

Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.

Soulful and considered.

 

Grinning and whispered.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

 

 

 

Shamble.

 

 

Pop music is two things: Urgency and Moments.

Pop songs try to deliver their messages as direct as possible and try to make them stick.

The deeper the songs can drill into you, the more important the message becomes.

The louder it becomes.

Pop songs are all about mechanics. They are all about how to attack the heart of the listener.

They are strategic and tactical and hard.

 

 

The Ronettes‘ ‘Be My Baby’ is one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century.

The song embodies the genre and mirrors it to no end.

There is a sincere urgency in Veronica Bennett’s voice, there is a genuine pleading.

The instruments become time, caressing Bennett through each second.

Everything sticks and the song cascades moments.

The song grows so big that it becomes a world of its own.

 

 

Azealia Banks‘ ‘212’ follows the same methodology as ‘Be My Baby’.

Not only is there a frenetic urgency in the song, but it is always shifting, always creating newer, bigger moments.

Where ‘Be My Baby’ overwhelms with force of sound and honesty, ‘212’ floods the listener with intricacy and aggression.

The mirroring is more complex here.

Most would argue that ‘212’ isn’t pop, that it’s some kind of alternative genre mash-up.

But it adheres to the fundamentals of pop more so than anything else.

When I first heard ‘212’, I had to replay it multiple times to begin to understand everything that was happening.

There is no waste in it, everything has a purpose in its world and because of that honing it feels important.

‘212’ feels confident and fun and violent.

 

 

Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ has a lot of momentum.

Not only are Springsteen’s lyrics expressing the urgency of heartbreak, but the whole song is honest and transformative.

It is a pop song searching for better, stickier moments.

It is a song that understands its importance.

It never gets loud, its changes are subtle, but it is driven with a sense of purpose.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ sits in contrast to ‘212’ and ‘Be My Baby’: There is no overwhelming, global force to it.

The song resonates because it stays simple and earnest.

The song itself becomes the moment, it doesn’t try to be the world.

 

 

‘Pretty in Pink’ is similar in concept to ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

The song does away with momentum and world-building entirely.

It chases moments with a somber tone and that’s where the urgency lies.

While ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was about acknowledging darkness and trying to change it, ‘Pretty in Pink’ embraces it.

It uses a darker tone to drive urgency.

It cuts down deeper than ‘Dancing in the Dark’ vocally, while the music remains upbeat.

Bands like The Psychadelic Furs would end up informing an aesthetic that would bloom with groups like Interpol and The National: Pop beats echoing darkness.

 

 

Tiffany‘s rendition of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ is my favorite pop song.

The song never does anything outside of the immediate moment. It layers and repeats.

It’s both cyclical and unpredictable.

It is desperate and joyful. Bright and Curious.

It has a lot of physicality to it: The drums stick like in ‘Be My Baby’ and Tiffany’s voice expands and soars.

It shares some of the momentum of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and it shares some of its focus on the remembering of moments.

‘I think We’re Alone Now’ has the honesty of youth and the urgency of milliseconds.

 

Break.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song.

It is constructed both on and in the moment.

Every moment in an action game needs to express something and make whatever it is seem like the most important thing in that time and place.

Running/jumping in Mario. Shooting in Doom. Locking missiles in Ace Combat. Combos in Street Fighter.

A good action game needs to understand what it is trying to say.

It needs to understand what it is trying to do: Is it trying to build a world like ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘212’? Or is it trying to be small and deep like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Pretty in Pink’?

It needs to understand what makes it compelling.

Good pop songs tend to rapidly shift focus in moments without losing sight of the end, without losing sight of their urgency.

When an action game loses its urgency, it becomes slow and plodding.

For instance, when Castlevania made the shift to 3D with Legacy of Darkness in 1999.

The main series has stagnated since.

 

 

God Hand is considered by many to be a pinnacle of 3D action games.

God Hand is the equivalent of ‘I think We’re Alone Now’: It has a lot of physicality.

It is dense and cyclical, but it allows for a huge amount of intricate creativity.

It also never takes itself too seriously, but never loses sight of the immediate.

To grow in God Hand, the player needs a strange kind of patience, the kind normally reserved for fighting games.

And like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, it is a product of its time.

It could’ve only happened when and where it did.

 

 

Metal Slug 7 is a very smooth game.

It is meticulous and aggressive. It has the most-designed difficulty curve of any Metal Slug game.

Its intricacy lies in how the games stunning art feeds into the action.

While that is a staple of any Metal Slug, MS7 is the most holistic of the series.

Its message is pure like ‘Be My Baby’, but it has the clean production of ‘212’.

It requires an extreme amount of focus and the friction of its world is perfect for a 2D action game.

The way the bullets flow out of the heavy machine gun. The little bit of lag when firing the rocket launcher.

These details make the game feel bigger, they give the game more momentum and presence.

Metal Slug 7 succeeds because it achieves a balance between aesthetics and mechanics not many games do today.

 

 

Videoball is what made me care about games in a genuine way again.

While still unreleased, I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East 2014.

With its minimalist style, it’s difficult to understand just how thorough Videoball is.

It has very satisfying friction in terms of both movement and shooting.

Winning your first dogfight in Videoball ranks up there with other action game moments like pulling off your first complicated combo in a fighting game.

Every moment in Videoball will either make you feel elated or exasperated at your own skill.

It is a factory of moments.

Videoball shares the ‘Pretty in Pink’ aesthetic.

It is a small, focused game with bright colors that hide a darker, more aggressive undertone.

Like the pop beats/dark vocals duality, Videoball disguises its seriousness with a light-hearted facade.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song: Confident. Harmonious. Adaptable. Focused. Urgent.

No creative endeavors stand alone in this world and one of the problems with the world of games is that it is highly insulated.

This current state is to no one’s benefit, least of all to the players.

It’s this strange insulation from other cultural worlds that allows for mobs like ‘GamerGate’ to form.

In order for games to develop and grow, the thick walls of this community need to be torn down.

We need to stop treating games as objects in-and-of-themselves and look at them as cultural products that are a part of a wider culture of expression.

I believe games deserve that much at least.

For all that games have done for us, we have done too little for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Construct.

 

 

“We are more free than ever before to look around in all directions; nowhere, do we perceive any limits. We have the advantage of feeling an immense space around us – but also an immense void.” – Nietzsche

 

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I remember Destiny.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

Mario is desolate: Why is the Kingdom so empty? Where did everyone go? Whose footsteps wrap around the mountains?

Where were they going? And why did they leave?

Games suggest so much more than they are, but the space always cracks and no amount of environmental density can cover the silent, screaming vacuum behind their blind walls.

There are those that celebrate this wasteland: the Souls series, but their understanding never lasts.

Art emerges from the medium and implies texture and flesh. Warmth and dirt. But this is never translatable.

The system loses the context and renders an approximation of an open heart: trash tumbling in the light of a cold wind.

A problem of translation of place.

In Dark Souls, the player enters a painting: The Painted World of Ariamis. The painting hangs in a large cathedral in the middle of the domain of dead Gods.

The painted world was more tangible than the game’s reality. It distilled the lingering misery, focused it.

Warmth made of glass.

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I wonder about the people. I wonder about their fear.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

And what of the actual World?

It is also wrapped in an incomprehensible emptiness.

Is all our art and culture just a means to focus our anxieties of the void? To manufacture space and meaning?

To focus our misery?

The world as an engine of art and anxiety.

I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare one year after being stuck in a war zone.

The ‘attack helicopter’ killstreak gave me nightmares.

Games are somewhere between our subjective real and waking dream.

They have an influence of vision, they manufacture questions of perception and alter the gaze.

I lay down on the grass. I watch the light drip through the shaking silhouette of leaves. I think of Crysis.

The bigger a game tries to pretend to be, the less interesting it is.

The bigger a game tries to be, the more brittle the walls and the vacuum becomes intolerable and loud.

Open-world games try to keep their promise. Worlds where the player can mold their own narrative: An assumed simulation of living.

But this world itself is not open, none of us can go where we want.

We are stuck with our anxieties, our hate, our love, our need.

We are rooted and our imagination is crumbling.

What made FFVII so successful is that it understood the minute scale on which a world operates. It understood the sequence of place and the fragility of people.

And similar to Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, every character was colored by the tragedy of existing in that world.

Square never captured that feeling again. No one has.

In college, I would experiment with noise. I listened to a lot of Merzbow, Bomb 20, and MITB.

Other genres of music, when pushed to their natural ends, often failed to capture the absurd notion of creating meaning in a life of constant fear and a notion of the inevitable end of all things.

Eazy-E almost got it.

He wrangled his own understanding out of the bowels of cosmic indifference and died.

 

Bearing.

 

“Why do you like games so much?”

We were sitting at a Mediterranean cafe downtown. The light was dim. There was a lot of noise.

It was raining outside. We were drinking mint tea.

I looked at her.

I shrug.

I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t.

And I don’t think anyone does.

I barrel through the darkness. I listen to Chipzel. I feel remorse.

Her music emerges from the ancient dead. It isn’t about reminiscing, it’s about digging through potential.

Games are barren. They wrap their creators’ hands in dust and bone and call it love.

An existential war between iterations of conflict and empty memorial: This is the current state of things.

“Why do you like games so much?”

Maybe because I like the promise of their parts: Games as reverse-Gestalt objects.

The parts are more than the whole.

Engines of art, music, philosophy, narratives, experience. Everything that emerges from that space is more exhilarating than the space itself.

Factories.

I sit on a hill. I stare through the heart of the city. I watch the sunset. I listen.

How many times has the world cracked open to bear itself to the distant, dying stars?

How many times have we accepted the mess we are and the mess we are in?

Are games attractive because they give us a controlled space to act? But the finality is there and the player is actively driving that world to its own end.

No matter where we go, we devour worlds and drink space.

Always running from ourselves and into each other.

I was watching G4. It was a live broadcast of E3. They asked for viewer feedback about a game with ‘choice.’

They aired the response of a stereotype.

An obese, white male discussing how he always makes the ‘moral’ choices. That mattered to him.

He wanted to be the classic hero.

I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for how much pain he must be in to imagine that his choices and his feedback mattered.

The greatest fraud: That the worlds of games care about what we think or feel.

It’s all fish eyes and limbs. Gasping and clawing. Remembrance and money.

 

Dancing.

 

We made MMOs because we couldn’t handle the end.

We decided we needed persistence. We needed more time in the wasteland between dream and abyss.

A wasteland with no virtual end: A depraved mimicry of our reflections.

I look up at the sun. I remember the canvas, the page, the brick, breathing, waking.

Games are barren. They are made and call themselves ‘World.’

And we run into them with a love and expectation that is always broken.

Why do you like games so much?

I stayed up all night and read ‘I, The Divine‘ once.

A novel written by a man from the perspective of a Lebanese woman trying to write her life story.

A novel of first chapters.

Where do our lives begin?

I walked to the lake at 4 am. I sat by the shore.

It was snowing. I lit a cigar.

I stared into the black.

And I accepted in that moment, there was no one to embrace.

And I accepted, once and for all, that I have no answers.

 

I am become boredom, the cancer of worlds.

 

“…It can only persist…as long as it’s possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.” – Noam Chomsky