Archive for the ‘Audio&Games’ Category

Game Music 2021

Monday, May 31st, 2021

Ha, the classic question. If you look at most games of the past twenty years, you will find two genres in videogame music: orchestra and bleep bloop. There are also basically two feels in videogame music: serious as fuck and whimsical as hell. Yes, you might have the quirky Lo-Fi Hip-Hop loop in the in-game’s shop or the jazzy nostalgic music in the game menu but overall let’s be real: videogame music follows the most rigid aesthetic and in general never really expanded, ever.

Which is why we’re collectively wondering regularly about what videogame music can be. Short answer: everything.

I grouped the most interesting —most liked— answers to Alex’s question.

That’s definitely out of the usual. There is some in Guacamelee but sadly they added 8bit stuff (I have a hard time with SQUARE leads, always had) and electronica on top of it.

Two things: boldness of an aesthetic statement VS game development ultra pragmatism

Game development is insane, with a million things to deal with. Aesthetic boldness is usually expressed through graphics, while music and sound design will be aesthetically “following”, that is, they will be pretty much as boringly expected as possible. Let’s take the example of a “serious” space-themed game. You will have Vangelis type of background music because that’s what everyone in the team will want and settle on. Because it is a safe choice. Games are so complicated to make that they become even more a team’s baby than any other creative output I’ve seen. Therefore taking risks, making bold aesthetic statements like adding some jazz that only two folks in the team feel, will not be done. Even if the public might absolutely love it.

It doesn’t matter that in this example you could say “Cowboy Bebop did it and it works so wonderfully people still talk about it 20+ years later”. If the lead programmer or creative director believes that it’s wrong or that it would only work in anime (or that he/she hates anime), then it’s not happening. There’s never much iteration on music genres in games, if at all. I mean probably at Nintendo, but you know by now that they are the exception (and the metric we’re still humbly trying to match).

SO TRUE. All the technical excellence and overall quality of music can be easily forgotten if you can’t hum something you heard sometimes for hundreds of hours. Nintendo is the King at this. I can hum many of their leitmotif coming to me randomly, decades later (water level in Mario64, I don’t know why). Nintendo always cared.

Music is never thought as an integral part of western game development, it’s always just a layer put on top. Therefore balancing things out cannot be done because it is already far too late and game designers have already moved on to (way bigger) problems. Western game development doesn’t care about music like that. Just slap a big composer name if you can, fade out the music if you can (or just abruptly end it), done. I wish it would change, for sure.

This happens actually quite a lot, it’s just that most people don’t notice :) We have complex game audio engines today (FMOD-Wwise) taking care of that. Why is it usually a bit dull or in the background? Because sudden changes in audio is not a good feeling nor good design. Our ears simply don’t like that. It needs to flow and be fluid. Now, wouldn’t it be cool if we could mute/unmute tracks within the music? Yes it would, but it’s asking the game audio engines to deal with huge amounts of audio data to move around very quickly and, games being EXTREMELY sensitive to anything impairing performance, it’s basically never worth it. Could we do that with less data, with say a MIDI track muting/unmuting MIDI channels? Yes, but it’s still a lot of work and a complex one: it’s a blend of music composing, game integration and iteration with level design to see what works best and what does not. It’s also an aesthetic issue: not every music genre works well with MIDI-only, and telling composers to not worry about their raw audio output is heretic.

The world of audio and music likes to stay rigid and is quite often, conservative. Which is very much the opposite of how games are developed: it’s all about finding new ways to do something better, hacking and tweaking your ways through it.

GIRL. I wish that too! I thought it was obvious that this was needed. I can’t believe —yet it makes sense that we still mention twenty year old games thanks to their music.

Funk is inherently a playful genre of music that Japanese composers have rightfully started to incorporate in their 80s and 90s games and on (I can’t remember which arcade game has straight James Brown samples in it, but yeah). Funk became the backbone of R&B which became known as K-Pop in the late 2000s, go figure.

It has to be said: in the western world of game development, composing that type of breakbeat/funky stuff music is not really considered composing. You compose music only if there are cellos and timpanis otherwise you still compose music but. Anyway.

Vocal samples are to me one of the most iconic and unique aspect of game audio. It’s what made arcades so amazing: those funny, energetic sounding machines, that digital laugh, the corny lines, blasting in sync with flashing lights and screens. It’s all fun and part of the culture. Who doesn’t have a “it’s me Mario” or a “Heavy Machine Gun!” popping up in their minds from time to time, I know I do.

Right! It’s super hard to do. Not so much to sync audio and gameplay, though that can be tricky, but to make a rhythm-based gameplay interesting and not feel like a fad after two minutes. Also it needs to never break and that’s where things usually fall apart. If few games have done that, it’s because it doesn’t work very well.

Dear game developers: people LOVE music diversity. Please offer it, hire folks who can do that (shameless plug: I CAN) don’t deny it for things like “I personally don’t like that stuff so it shouldn’t be in the game I work on”.

I just started watching a new game, Scarlet Nexus. The game begins with slow jazzy, sad chords on a solo piano for the main screen and the first mission starts with fast pop-ish, dubstep-ish house music. And then contemplative breakbeat in slow moments. And of course, it’s all working and exciting and fun and dope.

Why this seems impossible to  create in a western development team, I don’t know but let’s change that.

Oh, the game audio scene LOVES diegetic music. That’s film school influence. I feel like it happens often enough to not be something lacking in games, but I can see how it could be happening more often or in a more subtle way.

The thing that we need to keep in mind with game music: we can do everything. Aesthetically, technically, there are basically no limits besides our own.

English major in the System

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.

On System Shock, a remarkable and very important 90s game.

It’s just interesting to read that, as this would never happen today. People with all the skills don’t get hired nowadays.

On game creators responsibilities

Friday, March 19th, 2021

Here, then, we come to the fatal flaw that undermines almost all applications of this argument. Its proponents would seemingly have you believe that the games of which they speak are rhetorically neutral sandboxes, exact mirror images of some tangible objective reality. But this they are not. Even if they purport to “simulate” real events to one degree or another, they can hope to capture only a tiny sliver of their lived experience, shot through with the conscious and subconscious interests and biases of the people who make them. These last are often most clearly revealed through a game’s victory conditions, as they are in the case of Colonization. To play Colonization the “right” way — to play it as the designers intended it to be played — requires you to exploit and subjugate the people who were already in the New World millennia before your country arrived to claim it. Again, then, we’re forced to confront the fact that every example of a creative expression is a statement about its creators’ worldview, whether those creators consciously wish it to be such a thing or not. Labeling it a simulation does nothing to change this.

The handling — or rather non-handling — of slavery by Colonization is an even more telling case in point. By excising slavery entirely, Colonization loses all claim to being a simulation of real history to any recognizable degree whatsoever, given how deeply intertwined the Peculiar Institution was with everything the game does deign to depict.

Jimmy Maher, at it again, being such a treat to read.

“A creative expression is a statement about its creators’ worldview”. Very powerful and very true. It is the reason why creators have to expand their knowledge, to go broad rather than deep but I digress.

Game developers still don’t do a great job at grasping consequences and outcomes. It’s not a surprise that we talk so much more about tools and new tech or production than morality, gameplay and what kind of fictional reality game developers create for their players.

Spending all kinds of energy to avoid accountability doesn’t scream maturity.

SFII Audio

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

Guile looking like he spittin spittin.

Dhalsim about to DROP it.

Chun li playing fat bass lines on her Moog.

Zangief definitely on some Chicago House mix.

Cultural bros

Friday, January 29th, 2021

Hip Hop was created by creative, poor young black men in America in the 70s.

Video games were created by creative, wealthy young white men in America in the 70s.

Hip Hop immediately became a cultural behemoth and was already HUGE at the start of the 80s.

Video games immediately became a cultural behemoth and were already HUGE at the start of the 80s.

Hip Hop became a massive, international, multi-billion dollar market by the end of the 90s.

Video games became a massive, international, multi-billion dollar market by the end of the 90s.

Very few white men made a career as Hip Hop artists.

Very few black men made a career as Video games artists.

Hip Hop has always mostly dismissed women working in it.

Video games have always mostly dismissed women working in it.

Both added to and shaped our cultural worlds for the past four decades. It’s interesting how they couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed from the start, yet followed *exactly* the same successful path while they both culturally convey the same exclusive club thing that is so part of their identities. Dude’s stuff I guess?

I’ve always wanted more.

Communities slippin

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

If there’s something extremely consistent with online worlds and communities, is that they get big and always end up being unmanageable.

Even with the best people, the best intentions, the best dev team, the most experience, the less friction.

It *always* happens. And then it’s a mess of decisions and counter-decisions to attempt to fix “the problem”. And it never gets fixed, really.

It’s more than a hard problem. I believe that large scale gathering is just not possible for humans to behave decently in. Especially in virtual worlds where consequences exist but are still virtual.

The Shareware Scene

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

Filfre has been at it again.

Shareware. Just that word triggers many memories.

It also gives us a light on what computing meant way back in the days. Andrew Fluegelman, one of the pioneer of this business model:

“Like Brand and so many others of a similar bent, Fluegelman saw great potential in the personal computer as a force for social liberation.”

It’s hilarious to read in 2020, isn’t it? There was a sense that software and computers could be leveraged to help any individual. The IBM PC did just that to millions. My mom started her accounting business thanks to an accounting software and two big, beige boxes. A woman in a world of men. Social liberation.

Anyway shareware, aka free work with donations which is so widely used now, was not computing for kid-me: the idea felt right, but it ultimately didn’t seem to be working because being dependent on people’s good will seemed extremely unstable? I remember being excited by shareware yet, not getting how you could possibly run a business afloat with it. It was totally going against the obvious.

“My wife said I was “a foolish old man” if I thought even one person would voluntarily send me money for the program. I was more optimistic. I suspected that enough voluntary payments would come to help pay for expansions to my personal-computer hobby – perhaps several hundred dollars. Maybe even a thousand dollars (in my wildest dreams!).”

Jim Button, another shareware pioneer was getting $1000 worth of checks in the mail every day by 1984. His business peaked at $4.5M and 35 employees. Not too shabby for a donation-based business.

Those pioneers were pressured to release their work in big boxes sold for hundreds of dollars yet they didn’t cave. They were doing fine and simply didn’t see any benefit about making more money. I love to see this.

Of course, parasites appeared and destroyed many things about shareware including trust, which is so central to it. By the mid 90s, shareware was quite dangerous if you didn’t know what you were doing.

I’m going through those stories (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) and reflecting on them and the digital world we have today. It’s fascinating.

Games as educational tools

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Jonathan Blow had a talk this week on the subject, which was very interesting. And Hacker News had a thread recently as well, spawned from this blog post. Excellent points being made.

This is very important to me. I started my career working on educational games. Now it’s 2020, kids are at home and school will probably never, ever be the same.

It’s the perfect time.

I don’t want to go through all the obvious –games are all educational, it’s hard to make interesting education games- but I’d like to point out to one thing that games teach better than anything else: management, aka navigating systems.

Management is about so many things. Secondary goals, short-term, long-term actions, timing. All those things that we do to maintain, sustain and run systems. Management is something a bit impalpable that’s being taught in every single game you play (these days games want you to manage the same things for hundreds of hours, which is problematic because it’s so unnecessary). The first thing management teaches you is to observe what is going on. Isn’t it something you need, whatever you do in life? Yes. Games are the best management playgrounds ever.

Get burn, do badly it’s okay, do wonderful and it doesn’t really matter, it’s a game. But those moments taught you. Those moments will stay with you and later on you’ll intuitively know that if you don’t pay attention to a certain little thing, this might end up into a big problem. You’ve learned so much through navigating those systems and that will be useful in life. You just don’t know how, but it will (I know I’ve become better than average at navigating crowded space thanks to playing shoot ’em ups and Counter-Strike for years).

The big question would be: what kind of games do we want to create so that people can use more directly their newly acquired knowledge and management skills? I have one.

Take The Sims building houses part. Add actual numbers about insulation, material used, costs etc. This way, people can actually play to make a home –that can be build in the real world- as they want, costing as less as possible or having the best temperature inside without running AC. Or just trying things out.

I would love to see people obsess over insulation R-value, optimizing and understanding house shape and material, understanding that hemp is fabulous or how small homes are far more efficient and just fine. And then people could visit their creation in VR. Now that’s a really useful, down to earth, global thing!

It makes me think that games, tools and toys are all intertwined and useful to learn and teach yourself a million things. We game developers and designers need to cater to this need though.

This is the direction I hope and wish a branch of computer games culture will follow. We need it.


Friday, June 26th, 2020

So, rampant abuse in the entertainment industries came out all week long. I feel like last Friday was a year ago.

That’s on top of the usual layers of brutality against Black people and this fucking covid-19.

I am doing everything I can. The environment, all of it from living situation to global economy goes from a lil toxic to extremely putrid.

Regroup. Dance. Rest. Stand.

Half Life Alyx

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

I think this game illustrates perfectly the paradox of games, technology and cutting edge technology.

HL:A is a single-player, first-person shooter.

HL:A apparently redefines the VR experience.

HL:A demands technical knowledge. I’ve heard of people fighting to get the game to run. I’m talking hours before being ready.

HL:A demands a $3K hardware investment or the experience will be poor.

HL:A was in production for at the very least five or six years. It will not break even (I imagine Valve doesn’t care so much about that but other developers would).

Despite all that, the reviews and what I gather is that the experience is phenomenal. That HL:A is one of the best game experience ever made.

And that this experience involves shooting at people, having a dedicated room, a powerful computer, being very tech savvy and that this game cannot be shared with anyone else.

Simply put, that is very 1999.

That’s like the opposite of the zeitgeist right now. On the other hand, A single-player VR game in a quarantine and self-isolation era sounds great. Except that we all long for socialization and going outside.

Humans! Games! Stuff!