Wednesday, 31 December 2008

From Go to Woe - Only The Best of SLRC in '08

Two Thousand and Eight in the year of our Lord was the year SLRC really entered its stride. While the URL of ‘’ was officially claimed in October of Oh-Seven, the first real piece of writing on the blog that says anything worth reading was the April ‘08 Round Table entry ‘Starcraft and the power of 3’s’. Off to a slightly shaky start, the piece was roughly shoe-horned into the round table topic of the month but was ostensibly targeting the potential within asynchronous gameplay.

Actually, there was a small piece buried in the earlier fluff that pointed towards the future direction of the blog – a post about how System Shock 2 is a bit skewed towards the hacker/navy career path. I think that I was actually wrong in saying that though (even if I didn’t exactly test the alternatives in practice), but I’d be interested in hearing other tales from SS2 players, if only because it’s such a classic (and dare I say canonical?) game. Its influence on the hallowed Bioshock is deeply profound and obvious to any veteran of the earlier ‘Shock game.

In May, while researching my thesis I attended the “first ever academic conference held in World of Warcraft” and then promptly cancelled my subscription. I never did go back for Wrath. Also in May, I presented to my honours class, a seminar on immersion in videogames and took an Xbox with me to show them all Call of Duty 4. Immersion is an interesting topic, and the class members were most familiar with literary comparisons – an interesting counterpoint to my own reliance on CLINT HOCKING and Chris Crawford for theories of videogame immersion.

In June I created the ‘Things-to-do-while-you-should be working on your thesis’ tag, which was first applied to one of my most enduringly popular posts ‘10 Free Indie Games to play while not working on your thesis’, although… it seems I never applied that tag to that actual post. Nevertheless, it fits, and it has been consistently a popular search result on Google for ‘Free Indie Games’. Also in June, I blogged what is possibly my longest post ever, ‘A post for Xenia: Simulation and an apologetic explanation of Super Columbine Massacre RPG’. Which was probably the first post of mine to gain some real traction in the blog-o-sphere, going purely on comments. L.B. Jeffries managed to succinctly sum up my argument saying,

If I'm reading you right...the basic idea is that instead of making a bunch of events to experience the creator should instead be creating a bunch of reactions to the player.

Which would have only been so much easier if I had just said that, but then it might not have been as persuasive? Who’s to know. It was also an important landmark for SLRC because it really hints at the focus of most of my analysis and player/experience centric-criticism for the rest of the year. These are the things that ‘I’m Quite Interested In’.

July was almost a non-starter, busy as I was with thesis coursework, but I managed to squeeze out a post asking the question ‘Should we aim for some sort of rating system for indie games?’ after I introduced DEATH WORM to a bunch of 6-10 year olds to general hilarity.

In August, I wrote up what eventually became the motivating question for my thesis – why do game developers think a linear medium like music can just be shoved into a nonlinear videogame? – in the post ‘Videogames and Digital Musicians’.

September opened with the cracking ‘What speaks to me the most’, a post all about my inclination towards the ‘tourist’ player type in Mitch Krpata’s New Taxonomy of Gamers, the spiritual successor to Richard Bartle’s earlier ‘taxonomy of MUD players’. Expanding on that idea and partially in response to a post by Corvus Elrod adressing player preference for first person or third person camera, I wrote ‘The peaks and perils of first person camera’. An interesting foreshadowing of things to come – in it I mentioned a Game Set Watch column which pointed out how ‘innovative’ the latest Alone in the Dark game’s mechanic of forcing you to check your body for injuries was. Almost in answer to my criticism of AitD (Why would you need to know where to heal yourself if you are actually in this body?), Far Cry 2 would later in the year present a similar focus on embodiment minus the need to ‘discover’ where you were injured. In the rest of the month of September, I wrote about ‘The Affect Discussion’ which still hasn’t really been addressed adequately by videogame critics or proponents, and did a back-and-forth retrospective with an old friend of mine in a retrospective on the classic computergame-making-game ZZT.

If April was SLRC’s beginning, October was the month in which we could finally say ‘SLRC has arrived’. The big announcement in it was the completion of my thesis, but it was quickly overshadowed by, first, my second ever contribution to the Blogs of the Round Table ‘Playing Halo with my Mother’ and later by my initial burst of enthusiasm for Far Cry 2. The initial pre-game discussion in ‘Why I’m so Fracking excited about Far Cry 2’ was quickly followed by ‘Far Cry 2: Wrongs and Rights’ in which I had my first encounter with a game designer In The Wild when CLINT HOCKING stopped by the blog to thank me for the attention paid to his game. I then tried to pry myself away from Far Cry 2 to play Fable 2 with a rather scathing result, and at around which point SLRC celebrated its technical First Birthday. October rocketed home with ‘War Stories from Mosate Soleo’ leading the charge, followed up close behind by a quick photo-journey through Far Cry 2 (which has sadly since been broken by my flickr reorganisation). Finally October culminated in the Magnum Opus ‘Hocking’s Masterpiece’ which has been rather widely linked to as an excellent example of SMART fanboyishness.

Ah, November, what a month. If I had to pinpoint the onset of The Madness it would be somewhere in November. Two Posts about Valve’s Left 4 Dead added a distinctly metallic taste to the month and with the additional arrival of Fallout 3 it became a bit of a clusterfrak. Far Cry 2 had well and truly ruined me for any and all future games with Fallout 3 not surviving the comparison with honour intact. However, with the posting of this rather vitriolic diatribe against its rather flaccid ending (which was supposed to be more entertainingly ironic than I think the post it ended up) I think I needed to straighten-up and fly right by criticizing a rather less easy target. And perhaps a little more coherently. Which I did when I got annoyed by the vapid portrayal of ‘the moustache twirling evil doer’ character, Mister Burke and pointed out how he should have been more Heath Ledger and less Jack Nicholson. And there’s was a photo of a scorpion stuck on a fence! Giggle!

Which leads into December, wherein The Madness reaches a head – starting with ‘Frank Bilders is Dead’, a first person perspective piece. Look ma’, I’m in a vidjagame! Erm… I also posted a review for a game that came out two months prior, and with which I was right pleased (the review, not the game: that as pretty dumb) – here’s to more videogame review gigs! Then I wrote what I felt was perhaps a slightly overlooked piece on Far Cry 2I have two hands and with them I touch the world’, which (I thought at least) was Pretty Smashing Actually and all about the difference having hands as the central embodiment of the avatar made over traditional FPS gun-centrism. Around that time the whole ‘Games Journalism Journalism’ trend fired up again (lead by Mister Snappy Gamer and his Angry Internet Man impersonations) and I had to have a go myself – writing to criticize the trend of talking about games and mechanics as though it was more maths than art. Yes that touched a bit of a nerve, but the cool was kept. I’m just much more into the experience and the subjective (done well) – and this could not be made plainer than by my ‘Going Gonzo’ piece. In December I also finally got my thesis marks (86 – High Distinction, just) and posted the full text for all and sundry. With that, I started posting the (exceptionally long, but terribly worthwhile) transcript of my interview with Marty O’Donnell – composer and Audio Director of the Halo series. It’s going to run to about 7 or 8 parts, but I promise, it’s totally worth a read. Shortly thereafter (and just to fill in a posting gap, I might add) I re-posted a lightly edited excerpt from my honours thesis, ‘Audiosurf – Breakfast of Champions’ which swiftly got picked up by Kieron Gillen of Rock Paper Shotgun in linked to in The Sunday Papers. The result was no less than 700 pageloads in the space of a few days. Just going off my own habits, I click through maybe one or two items in RPS’ Sunday Papers weekly, so if I’m at all indicative, their readership is probably quite easily in the 5,000-10,000 reader’s mark. And that’s just their more intellectual and less busy weekend post! Phwoar!

A number that big requires a brand new paragraph to get over, so lets finish the last part of December by mentioning that I was (to my own child like delight) included in Michael Abbott’s wonderful end of year gamers confab epic podcast of legendary proportions. That was an absolute blast to be on and a huge honour to be considered alongside some truly respectable bloggers. Not content to finish the year on such a self-congratulatory note, I then went and followed up with a second Gonzo journalism piece “Gonzo Pt 2 – Return of the Shark”, which was either brilliant or a spectacular failure. And, that’s the only way I’d want it. Look for more of same in early Oh-Nine. Toot-Toot! Last but not least and barely sneaking into 08, I finally got around to playing some more Spore and discussing (if ever so disdainfully) the procedural music in the game, with "Spore 'n' Eno".

Thanks for reading (or even glancing over), all you readers out there. You know who you are and I don’t (but apparently Feed Burner say’s there’s now 60+ of you! Where’d you all come from?!) so you’ll just have to give yourselves a pat on the back for discovering SLRC ‘before it jumped the Shark’. Onwards!, to Twenty-Oh-Nine with nary a backward glance and a slight ringing in the ears. Enjoy the New Year and please drink responsibly.

Spore 'n' Eno

You’ve gotta have an angle. I don’t remember exactly where I learned that, but I must have picked it up somewhere in between the beginning of 2nd year uni and the end of 3rd. If you’re aiming for a high distinction mark – to stand out from the crowd, you always need an angle; a thesis to your writing, if you will. I’d be willing to go so far as saying that sometimes (not all the time) it’s better to have a slightly suspect angle than to try and go without having anything useful to say at all. And that sounds like common sense, but it’s a lot harder to follow than you might assume. Of course, sometimes the winning option is saying nothing at all, but we don’t always have the luxury of that. In this instance I actually did have that luxury and yet forced myself to get this out anyway. Call me crazy and all that jazz. So after playing Spore for long enough to reach the space stage again this week, I can say in all honestly that I have no angle on Spore. I don’t even know if it’s possible to have one.

I was going to focus on Spore’s music because it’s in line with my own experience and interests – this blog is supposed to be somewhat inclined towards talking about music in videogames, rare as that may be. And my thesis topic was the potential of generative and interactive music in videogames after all. So believe me when I say that having no angle is not for a lack of trying. I wanted to fault it for imperfect execution, but it’s not exactly a spectacular failure. I also want to take it to task for being under-ambitious, but given all I’ve learned about the problems and issues surrounding using generative music in videogames (from people like Marty O’Donnell) I’m having difficulty even saying that. Spore and its soundtrack reached for something unique and ended up with… what exactly? Perhaps a videogame version of the most average pop album you can think of. Lady GaGa or anyone you’ll find on the front page of the iTunes store, perhaps. Think any band’s ‘sell out’ album where it’s clear they’ve gone and gotten a really great producer and a pile of cash… but there’s just no heart to it anymore (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean). Spore went and sold its soul to The PadSynth Devil.

Take for example the ‘creature’ stage. If your little sprogling is the social type, whenever you do a song and dance to win over the hearts and minds of some fellow creature, a semi-circle bar (reminiscent of the Molyneux Fable 2 emote system) appears and you perform some rote social actions. Along with this bar and it’s filling up motion comes a glissando upwards noise that follows its trajectory. The sound it makes would not be out of place in a track on a CD in a hippy/new age shop’s $2 bin.

I want to scream, “Eno, stop pulling your punches!” I’m no devoted Eno listener, but where oh where has the avant-garde composer gone? Someone help - he’s been subsumed between layers of ambient looping spacey sounds! Where are the piercingly edgy tones of a broken speaker feeding back, lovingly sculpted into a unique sonic event? Where’s the see-saw sample that sounds like it’s audibly protesting its very existence? Why this mess of mellow in the middle of the spectrum? Audiences are ready for more.

Or are they? Honestly though, it’s not even valid to say that the music is bad. It works really well… but it puts me to sleep. I didn’t even realize it while playing all day, but when I put on some bangin’ Justice in the afternoon to do some quick cleaning and cooking I was suddenly the most wide awake all day. Does Spore really never aim to transcend its middle-of-the-afternoon public radio aesthetic? Or is it just the easiest (only?) way of overcoming the inherent problems with out of rhythm actions starting musical motifs? I refuse to believe that a consequence of generative music has to be that the listener is put to sleep. There is always going to be a dangerous temptation to incline towards more ‘mellow’ sounds to offset the ‘dissonance’ when music happens out of time, but surely the entirety of the game should not be spent in one musical register.

It’s certainly largely unswerving in the space stage and the reverb comes thick and fast. In all honesty it comes more ‘slow and low’ but there’s still a hell of a lot of it. Place any building in a colony and you’ll hear your race’s ‘leitmotif’ (which I might add you can semi self compose, but not share as a ‘creation’ as there’s simply not enough potential variation), drenched in a good two to three seconds of reverb. And that’s when the ‘instrument’ itself doesn’t already have a long and sustained tone.

Another way of thinking about it is in terms of answering the question “what can be made to work in a videogame?” Was there ever any question that reverb soaked synth, lots of low resonant sounds, plenty of sustain and long attack times would largely work in an interactive, generative environment?

The really disheartening fact is that if you thought all of this “sounds like it would be a brilliant realization of many of the ideas espoused in Ben’s thesis” then you would be right… but it’s also really not. And I’m seriously struggling to articulate why. Maybe it’s the influence of the rest of Spore which while highly ambitious also seemed to peter-out when it came to the crunch. Or maybe I’m just a pedantic contrarian and what I’m asking for would be horrible in reality. That’s a very real possibility – and if even Eno can’t do it what chance do the rest of us stand? But I suspect it’s not going to be impossible for long. And that’s about all I think I have to say about it.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Gonzo Pt 2 - Return of the Shark

I’ve torn up two other introductions to this piece already, so this is as good a start as any. I’m mildly drunk as I’m writing this (gonzo) and feeling rather quite ill – but I think it’s more to do with my intolerance to lactose than to any real level of alcohol poisoning. Then again, what do I know, I’m feeling very stupid and ignorant right now which is probably less of a delusion than the regular brand of self satisfaction. I could probably power a small car off that thing – like that episode in the Simpsons with the inventor who is so proud of his Green Cred that he invented a car to run of his own satisfaction. Yeah, I could be that guy, but not right now because my stomach is reminding me that I’m mortal and my throat has a minty taste in it that is making me feel like retching.

And I’ve blown my lead on 2:44 am post-drinking un-wellness. Thompson would be proud. And honest to goodness, after finishing that sentence I just rushed off to the bathroom in a fit of nausea.

So – videogames. Sexy, Sexy Leigh Alexander mentioned over twitter just the other day how tired she was of talking about, writing about, thinking about, even playing videogames. And I must confess to a brief spell of the same – except that I’m not over writing about them, which has become more and more fun as I’ve gone along, while still somewhat being less excited about playing them (or some of them at least). Probably a fair bit to do with how much fun it is to write in the Gonzo style, and while done poorly it is massively self-indulgent, when good it’s great. In this follow up to my first (moderately well received) Gonzo piece I had thought to go deep gonzo in some serious game from the recent past. L.B. Jeffries (Hey L.B., we need to drink together some time!) of the Banana Pepper Martini’s blog and the moving pixels blog, gently directed me in the direction of Braid which I would be more than happy to do except I don’t want to spend the money (This is not a hint for someone to buy the game and gift it to me – that has already happened far too often in times past and I really don’t think that sort of thing should be encouraged. Or at least I should not be encouraged in that manner – it’ll just delay the onset of the ruthless urgency to find gainful employment that I know has to come soon).

My next thought was Fallout 3. But that’s almost too easy a target for batshit insanity, so I thought I’d pass. Also I don’t really like Fallout 3, so any excuse will do. I also briefly considered Bioshock, because it’s a pretty decent game (I also owe Michael Abbott a game review for it – but that’s neither here nor there) and seemed to possess enough of the requisite chin-strokey seriousness that a gonzo style dive piece would benefit from in its subject. It’s certainly long enough to generate some hilarious anecdotes that I’m sure could benefit enormously from a bit of hyper-inflation and dramatic retelling from the first person. However, like Fallout 3, I didn’t really enjoy Bioshock all that much – certainly not to the same extent as many, many fellow game bloggers. Actually, on second thoughts, maybe that’s a decent enough reason in itself – perhaps it’s a way for me to get into the game from a different perspective, or to vilify it and explain why as I seem to recall it didn’t manage to live up to the hype for me. How much was hype affecting me the first time I played it? I’d hazard a guess quite a fair lot actually. Hype, as a target in itself, is probably more than well overdue of a seriously trippin’ expose piece.

But maybe not right now. The third game I thought of and which I’m probably most inclined to actually pursue is Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. Yes, the classic game which just received a rather iffy reboot/sequel recently, because it seems to me that game has been praised quite a bit and often without much of a clear articulation of what’s so great about it… but then, that’s not even really the point of a gonzo piece is it? It’s not supposed to praise a game, nor to analyse (unless you had a marvelous experience with it and there’s a great story to tell). It’s more about mulling over and relating to a reader as intimate a sense of the experience as can possibly be rendered unto text. It’s a skill I feel I’m getting a little better at and even if I’m not noticeably improving, like I said, it’s still hella fun. There’s a reason Thompson stuck to it like some suitably sticky metaphor.

So my last idea was to do something on Spore, that procedural wunderkind that sprung from the mental loins of Will Wright. Spore is crazy. Sharkbite & Powershot crazy. The amount of soft-core Sporn creatures out there is truly staggering, but unless I want to feel the wrath of the EA Banhammer I think I’ll stay away from them. But I do think that making a landshark and walking around eating other procedural monstrosities could be fun, if only for a while. And the procedural music in Spore is pretty awesome too – there’s a post in me about that, somewhere. Actually, if it had come out early enough, and if I’d played it, it could seriously have gone into my thesis for an extra 1,000 words over my limit, just because it’s so close to this imaginary ‘ideal’ that I had for videogame music. The fact that the music in particular didn’t exactly make massive waves in the industry is not a very encouraging sign. Still, if a company wants to hire’s me (even freelance/contractor style) I’d be happy to write you a paper on why the music was so good. Hell I’ll probably end up doing that for free before long, David Carlton just finished Spore and was looking for more posts on the game. And I’m a sucker for any guaranteed readers something’ll get me.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I don’t really know what game exactly I’ll be putting on my wizard hat and cloak for, this coming week. Be sure that when this author does, however, it’ll probably be somewhat slapdash, substandard and of questionable literary merit.

Yeap, I’m pretty sure it was the milk that did it earlier because that lacteeze tablet I took has worked like a charm. Now I think I can go to bed and sleep until I wake up. Bloody hell it feels good not to have chills from suppressing the urge to retch.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Featured on The Brainy Gamer Podcast

As a special part of the end-of-year discussion, Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer has assembled the whole crew of The Gamers Confab to do a huge round-up of their favorite games of '08. I'm in the second half of the 1st podcast (being 3 in all - there sure are a lot of us bloggers!) and you'll get to hear me rave about the game that I love from this year (the biggest non-secret around I believe) saying such silly things as "In the game the environment almost becomes a character itself...etc". Phew!

Also, a big thank you to Kieron Gillen over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun for linking to my post on Audiosurf yesterday/ earlier today in The Suday Papers. It's very nice to know someone like him is reading (even occasionally) the things I write, and it's a great privelege to be linked to by the boys.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Audiosurf - Breakfast of Champions

I’ve been playing Audiosurf recently, and it struck me that buried deep within my thesis was a nice little bit of theorising about the game. So I've chosen to reprint it here, slightly edited, for the convenience of anyone who can’t be arsed to wade through my multiple thousands-of-words thesis and pick out the good bits (probably most people).


Audiosurf was the work of primarily by one person, Dylan Fitterer, and was released on the Steam digital distribution platform in February 2008. Audiosurf requires music to play – it takes your music collection, and creates a 3D track based upon features of the music which is then navigated by the player who, depending on the game-mode, collects coloured blocks that visually correspond to the music. The game ostensibly provides a way to ‘ride your music’ as the game’s tag-line suggests[1] - a feat of musical gameplay that is operating on a rather different level to a game like Guitar Hero. It’s also a great step towards overcoming some of the widely acknowledged problems with games like Guitar Hero - many critics have noted that the strength of a music game is largely subject to how good its track listings are[2]. Alec Meer says,

…we were all playing Guitar Hero and wishing we could stick our favourite music into it. Audiosurf says “fuck it, why not?” and provides the scaffolding of a game around it[3]

Audiosurf’s particular implementation of representing and performing music in a game does however come with a number of its own disadvantages. Firstly, the way the three dimensional track is generated by the program is fixed and determined by a set algorithm[4]. In an interview with Ars Technica, the developer Dylan Fitterer commented on the way that the algorithm turns the song into a three dimensional track, saying;

…when the music is at its most intense, that's when you're on a really steep downward slope, like you're flying down a rollercoaster in a tunnel. When the music is calmer, that's when you're chugging your way up the hill, watching that peak in the distance you're going to reach.[5]

The experience of playing the game itself is where I personally find the major innovations of Audiosurf as well as its major problems. When surfing a song the game’s analysis algorithm has pre-determined the majority of the course’s parameters from the musical elements contained within the recording. Some aspects of the course are determined from relatively transparent musical parameters – the track’s length corresponds directly to the length of the song and the contours of the course are derived from reasonably straightforward aspects such as volume and dynamics. In music with a strong steady beat, the track will often appear to undulate along beneath the player’s ship character in time with the rhythm of the song. The comprehensible translation of the music into visuals, or lack thereof, is where I encounter the main problem of Audiosurf.

In the examples outlined above, the relationship between music and the visuals (the track environment) is clear and direct, making sense to the player and allowing for a pleasurable and organic merging of knowledge of the song with knowledge of the corresponding Audiosurf track. This is a significant aspect of the appeal of the game as much community discussion goes on about the suitability of tracks for surfing[6]. Indeed the process works effectively on the macro structural scale, however a core component of Audiosurf is a ‘match 3’ type block collection game, where the block placement – called ‘traffic’ by the game – is generated from the rather more musically ambiguous parameter of “volume spikes”. The developer, Dylan Fitterer, describes the process saying

…whenever there's a spike in the music, the intensity of that spike determines the block's color. So the most distinct spikes, like a snare drum, that would tend to be a red block, a really hot block. If something is a little more subtle, like a quiet high hat, that would be a purple block, which is worth less points.[7]

This kind of relationship between music and visuals or environment becomes, musically at least, increasingly murky on this micro level as a sheer ‘spike’ in volume is no guarantee that a listener would make the corresponding connection to what they are hearing. Indeed the issue of what a listener actually perceives about a song when listening to it is much, much more complicated. Albert S. Bregman, author of the comprehensive text ‘Auditory Scene Analysis: The perceptual organisation of sound’ coined the term “stream” for what he identified as an audible cognitive process which was lacking adequate terminology. Bregman’s research noted a significant distinction between the cognitive process of the grouping of sounds that ‘go together’[8] from what might be distinguished as pure ‘sounds’. He notes that, ‘A series of footsteps, for instance, can form a single experienced event, despite the fact that each footstep is a separate sound.’ He also makes a musical comparison, saying that,

A soprano singing with a piano accompaniment is also heard as a coherent happening, despite being composed of distinct sounds (notes). Furthermore, the singer and piano together form a perceptual entity – the “performance” – that is distinct from other sounds that are occurring.[9]

Kieron Gillen writing for Rock, Paper, Shotgun says that

The problem with Audiosurf is that the concentration you take to really make the block game work is entirely the opposite of what you need to do to feel the music. The two parts of the game can tug at each other a little...On one hand, a zone game. On the other, a high-speed sorting puzzle.[10]

What I believe that Gillen has identified here is the inherent disjunction between what the musical listener focuses on when listening to the song, and what the game makes the player focus on. I suggest that this phenomenon is somewhat analogous to Ian Bogost’s term ‘simulation fever’. The concentration Gillen identifies as being necessary for successful play means that the player is acutely aware of block placement, largely determined by the volume spikes mentioned earlier.

I would argue that simply focussing on volume spikes is not adequately representative of the music to withstand the scrutiny that a player applies to it. I propose that, in a situation of high concentration on music, a more complex system is needed, one which addresses the issue of how a listener perceives a song. Admittedly, this is a daunting prospect and one inevitably encounters certain apparently insurmountable barriers to rendering onscreen what any one particular person is most likely to concentrate on within a song at any one time, needing as it would to take into account personal differences and background as well as individual musical training. However, the fact remains that this process is undertaken by humans themselves leads me to believe that a more accurate model is possible. When listening we can (and do) lock onto a number of particular elements of a song – the melody, a catchy lead rhythm or hook – and this is not always represented visually on screen. While Audiosurf often wonderfully represents the underlying kick-drum rhythm, especially if it is prominent, it will rarely pick up and single out an element like the aforementioned melody or hook unless it stands out in a particular way – namely through sheer volume.

Guitar Hero, in contrast, sidesteps some of these problems through both its position as a guitar game (with the player’s concentration largely limited to being focussed on the guitar) and by having a human pre-define the on screen actions the player has to undertake to ‘perform’ the song. However it does not yet allow for any meaningful input of a players own music library, and for that I am continually thankful for Audiosurf’s existence – imperfect though it may be.


[1] Wikipedia contributors, "Audiosurf," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,, accessed October 7, 2008.

[2] See for example, Mitch Krpata, ‘Rock Band 2: Why now?’, Insult Swordfighting,, accessed October 7th, 2008.

[3] Alec Meer in ‘The RPS Verdict: Audiosurf’, Rock, Paper, Shotgun,, accessed March 3, 2008.

[4] Thomas Wilburn, ‘Catching Waveforms: Audiosurf Creator Dylan Fitterer speaks’, Ars Technica,, accessed

[5] Dylan Fitterer in Thomas Wilburn, ‘Catching Waveforms: Audiosurf Creator Dylan Fitterer speaks’.

[6] See the comments section of any Rock, Paper, Shotgun Post tagged ‘Audiosurf’ – every single one involves readers suggesting songs that others should try:

[7] Dylan Fitterer in Wilburn, ‘Catching Waveforms: Audiosurf Creator Dylan Fitterer speaks’.

[8] Albert S Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis : The Perceptual Organization of Sound, 2nd MIT Press paperback ed., Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999, p.9

[9] Ibid, p.10

[10] Kieron Gillen in ‘‘The RPS Verdict: Audiosurf’, Rock, Paper, Shotgun,, accessed March 3, 2008.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 2

Marty O’Donnell is a man on the bleeding edge, being responsible for the music and audio vision for the stratospheric Halo trilogy from Bungie studios. I wanted to try and find out what this leader in the field of music and sound for games had to say about the subject and get some input for my then to be completed thesis. Around August of this year I embarked on a campaign of multiple emails to multiple addresses to somehow get in contact with Marty for an interview. After what seemed like a longer period than it probably was, finally in October a scant week before I had to hand in my thesis I spoke to the man himself via phone. Even though I approached him essentially out of the blue, Marty held no qualms about chewing my ear off for close to 90 minutes, to my own delight of course, and it is clear that music for videogames is a subject about which he is fiercely passionate.

In this, the second of the series, I ask Marty about his views on using a ‘granular’ live assembled music approach for videogame music, and he explains both why he doesn’t like that approach (for the time being) and what his own approach looks like.

Ben: I guess what’s most deceptive is, because Halo’s levels are designed so that there are multiple ways through it, but you go from point A to point B, you end up hearing all the music in the same order and maybe that contributes to the sense that you hear the same thing every time through. But I never got bored of the music in Halo either, so it’s obviously doing its job.

Marty: Halo 2 was a while back for me now, but I think the first level is the space station, right? If you got to the last encounter in the space station just before the end cinematic, pay attention to when the music actually starts, what the music does, how the music changes based on how you perform and then how the music actually seamlessly goes into the cinematic music, which is a more linear piece because I’m scoring something that’s cinematic… If you were to play through that sequence several times, try to go really fast, try to go slow, try to see what happens when the music in the level and the music in the cinematic go together, you’ll actually get several different kinds of recordings out of that.

Now it’s not like an entirely different experience, that’s not the point… it is still like, ‘that is the piece of music that plays there’, but it’s not a linear piece because different sections don’t happen in the same order and the way the music leads into the cinematic… it doesn’t [just] cross-fade it actually plays simultaneously with the cinematic music but it plays in sync with it in a way that changes depending on how you get into it.

B: So what would be your reaction to someone that wanted to do away with that sort of authorial control you have by mixing it up, and says ‘well lets set some parameters, and if the player health gets to this, do this’ (obviously that’s a simple way of doing it) do you think you do lose something if you take that step back?

M: Well you know it’s interesting because, as someone who’s worked with computer generated music or computer controlled music… and as you know in the music business and creating music, we use digital for everything… I remember back when there were music programs that were… basically lets generate music algorithmically. And I remember hearing a lot of that stuff and playing with all those things and… because I think I’m probably more of a traditionalist when it comes to what music I like, and what music I think actually evokes emotions and what music actually speaks to me, I think the composer still makes better choices than just a combination of random events.

Even when I was using algorithmic music programs, out of an hour’s worth of stuff that was generated I would find maybe 30 seconds of it that was actually interesting. So that’s my problem with that. I think that you might get some fun stuff, but I don’t think you get stuff that really speaks. Most of that stuff doesn’t end up telling a story musically, and I still think that the power of music is a storytelling power, and I might be wrong about this, but I still think that a composer tells stories better than computers do.”

However, if something is repetitive, even if it’s really, really great and you keep hearing it over and over again, and it plays back the same way every time – that is to me where boredom set in or it just starts getting annoying. Which is why when I hear games that use linear music that always plays back identically and starts to get repetitive, and loops... when I notice where the loop is I get really annoyed. That’s something I’m trying to eliminate. I really don’t want people to hear where the loops are.

B: Michael Chion wrote in the 90’s about audiovisual relationships in film and he talked about how if you strip the music off a piece of image, and you just place a selection of random other songs… some pieces of music work better with others. He said that in a few pieces… you will get a few moments of almost serendipitous synchronization between the audio and the video, so I guess where I see the potential for the live generated, granular, building the music up from individual notes, is the potential to pick out those points of synchronization and specifically hit them with the moment that you really want.

M: I would say… I have not been one of the guys who advocates the tiniest granular approach. There are some music engines and music for games approaches that’s very, very granular and right down to the individual sample level. ‘This will interact in this way’ and ‘this will interact this way’, it’s all possibly midi controlled, note generated everything.

There’s a couple reasons I don’t like that, number 1, I lose some of the fidelity that I like, I lose some of the live performance that I think is still essential… A midi flute performance just does not compare to a live flute player performing a melody. I don’t like walking away from something that has a giant history of success, so I’ve never really been an advocate of the high granular approach to writing music for games.

That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way, it’s just that it’s my preference. The biggest problem I have with scoring a game is that if there is a sequence or an encounter or a moment or whatever it is… the most important moment is how it begins and then how it ends. Because it’s a game and there’s a human being interacting with it, what I don’t have any perfect knowledge of is exactly how long the entire experience is going to last.

So what I decided early on was, I can control when it begins, I can control when something ends, musically, what I need to do is keep the middle section malleable. And if I can do that without people knowing that it’s being malleable – so if they have a 2 minute experience some place then they get a 2 minute piece of music and they’re happy, but if somebody else play it for 5 minutes they get a 5 minute piece of music and they’re still happy because the beginning, middle and the end all correspond with what they wanted the experience to be, then I feel successful.

So it’s all about variations on the beginnings, on the ends, and being malleable with the middles. I keep trying to advance the way that stuff is manipulated musically and it’s sort of an interesting puzzle for me. I really enjoy it, I like doing it, I like composing music that I can kind of dissemble and say “what are different ways of telling the same musical story but making the middle something that is sorta indeterminate.” I don’t know if that makes sense but that’s the system.

In the next post, Marty talks about how close he’s coming with his own musical approach to realising a high level of ‘granularity’ in the music. I ask whether you can get away with more if you’re aiming for an ‘electronic’ sound, as opposed to orchestral and Marty talks about Rez & the potential for more ‘synaesthesia’ in games.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 1

Marty O’Donnell is a man on the bleeding edge, being responsible for the music and audio vision for the stratospheric Halo trilogy from Bungie studios. I wanted to try and find out what this leader in the field of music and sound for games had to say about the subject and get some input for my then to be completed thesis. Around August of this year I embarked on a campaign of multiple emails to multiple addresses to somehow get in contact with Marty for an interview. After what seemed like a longer period than it probably was, finally in October a scant week before I had to hand in my thesis I spoke to the man himself via phone. Even though I approached him essentially out of the blue, Marty held no qualms about chewing my ear off for close to 90 minutes, to my own delight of course, and it is clear that music for videogames is a subject about which he is fiercely passionate.

In this, the first of a series which will include nearly the full transcript of our interview, I ask Marty about a few things to do with my thesis. Namely, what I identify as the inherent musicality of the sound effects of Halo 2, whether or not his unique role as audio director uniquely enabled that process to occur, and Marty elaborates on his own personal philosophy for music in games.

Ben: I’m doing a music degree, in my 4th year (honours), and writing a thesis that combines my love of music with my passion for videogames. So I wanted to look into what makes videogames unique and specifically the new ways that videogames can use music.

So, coming to the music of Halo, I started with this hunch that Halo did a bunch of interesting things with music, but I had no idea what it was… And while doing my analysis I came to realize that if I think about the music of Halo 2 as broader than just the composed music… I started noticing all this musicality within the ambient sound and the composed sound effects. That relationship between the music and sound effects is really interesting. It seems to me like there’s so much cross pollination between the music and the sound effects. The first thing that came to mind, or that inspired me to think about this was the covenant carbine & it’s scope zoom. It’s got this sort of low synthy, resonant note. And I though, hang on I can kinda pitch that, and it sounded like an interval of a perfect fourth going in and out. So do you think this is an accurate kind of assessment? Can you see the musicality in the sound effects?

Marty: The most general thing that we do is we try to make the basically human vehicles and weapons sounds actually sound close to what real world sounds might be and we tend to take the alien sounds and try to give them a little more… I guess you could say they were a bit more synthetic. We used more of our musical instruments to create the sounds of the aliens so that… that whole suite of sounds sits in a different place from the human sounds.

B: I think that’s really, really cool. So you just mentioned that was intentional, do you think that was helped by the fact that you were a composer and musician yourself, as well as the head guy in charge of sound? Do you think that would have happened if it was just some sound engineer in charge of the sound effects?

M: That’s an interesting question. I had a long career in music and sound design for movies and television & commercials so I was used to dealing with all those areas but when I was able to get into the game business it was much more wide open. I could be an audio director, which means I was able to say, ‘look, there should be nothing that ever comes out of speakers in these games that I didn’t approve or create’… that’s something you don’t necessarily get to do when you’re part of a team making a film or a commercial or a TV show or something… you’re a composer or sound designer or you’re a sound effects editor or a re-recording mixer – you have a lot of different roles and sometimes there’s no singular audio vision for the whole project and I was always hoping that was something I could do, and games gave me the opportunity to do that.

B: Is that a unique thing to games?

M: If you look for the term audio director in any movie you won’t find it… so it’s unique to games. And I am happy to say, I am probably a pioneer in that area.

B: I’d definitely agree with that assessment, yeah.

M: I mean I actually sorta insisted. I kinda made up the term and said ‘No I’m audio director’ and I told those young guys ‘here’s what that means: It means anything to do with audio comes through me’.

B: Sounds like a good approach, it’s definitely working.

M: Well thanks. *laughs*

B: If you were, say, trying to make a game like the Call of Duty games where they’re aiming for realism and that strict attention to detail do you think that you would be a bit more constricted?

M: In videogames and especially in the Halo audio engine…content is probably only half of what is important; the other half is how all the music and sound effects are manipulated in real time. So you can record the sound of a realistic engine but that doesn’t help make it seem real when someone’s actually driving it in a virtual world. You have to have a lot of different parameters you control to make it feel like the engine, or the sound of the suspension on the warthog, or the tyres or the gravel getting kicked up… all of those things can’t just be pre-rendered. You want to have good content to begin with but it has to be manipulated in real time. We’re using all sorts of real time parameter controls and digital signal processing that is controlled in real time to make it feel that it’s actually happening.

You have a little more latitude with weapons and vehicles that are alien because you’re not starting from something that you’re trying to recreate… like, the way a jeep sounds when it’s driving over sand. …The way an alien hovercraft sounds when it speeds past you – no one knows what that sounds like, you can make it up as you go along. And you can probably be a little more crazy with how the real time parameter controls actually manipulate the audio when it’s an alien weapon, or vehicle or sound effect. You can be a little more adventurous.

B: I found it really interesting reading a piece by Jim Rossignol that recently got reprinted recently on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In it he mentioned the Multiwinia developers Introversion and how they were working on some animations that at first seemed somewhat so-so, but when they put sounds to it, it made the actual animations look better as well.

M: Right. And that’s one of the other things that’s actually interesting about games, and for the most part especially the Halo games, everything is virtual so we have no source to begin with… there’s not live action that we shot [to] listen to what we recorded and implement, everything is virtual. Character models, weapons, vehicles and you name it are all completely virtual so they have absolutely no sound. It’s like animation, there’s no sound at all, so in order to bring these things to life we have to do it in real-time.

B: There’s a guy who wrote a book called The Acoustic Ecology of the First Person Shooter, and he talks about how sound effects and the in game sounds that the player hears form an ecology, but he kind of writes off music from that relationship. Do you think the music, the linear compositions of music, can contribute to the ecology of sounds?

M: It’s probably somewhat difficult to disassemble [the music of] Halo just by playing it, but if you play sections over and over again… I would suggest actually recording the music you hear when you’re playing it, and then comparing the performance of the music back to each other, especially the in-game music. The reason I would suggest doing that, is ...I think you’ll be surprised at how much non linear-music is actually happening in Halo 2.

B: I guess the impression that you get if you just go straight through, and listen to all the CD’s you go “Oh yeah, it’s that song, it’s that song” and it’s sorta hard to pick out where it does change more than you think.

M: Just so you know, my own philosophy of how music works in games is that’s actually my ideal. I want people to play through a level or play through a game or play through a section or whatever and actually think that somehow the music just happened to be scored for their experience. And what they had was a linear experience because that is all you have – When you play a game you are having a linear experience, you’re playing for 10m you have a 10m experience. But if you play that 10m over again, believe it or not, the music will not play back the same way.

And that is all on purpose…I don’t want people to be aware that the music is actually adapting or interacting with their interaction, I want people to think that it’s just a linear piece of music that seemed to somehow fit what they were doing and they had a good experience. If they are aware that they are changing the music then I think I’ve failed.

B: Right. So you want to avoid what happens in some games, where you know you’re being attacked because the battle music has started.

M: Yeah, right. But it’s not just that… even when a piece of music starts, there are sections where the linear pieces of music that I basically reassemble in order to make a CD soundtrack out of it, but these things are not just disassembled and have stems… you know, you have a rhythm track or a pad and these things cross-fade or whatever, I actually have different sections of music that randomly fit together with each other and give you a different linear experience based on some random chance elements that happen. And I can weight the chance so that section D has only a 10% chance of playing. So you have at least a random playback of what is happening; then there will be more intense sections, or less intense sections, or things that overlay that only happen because of actions that you are doing. If you decide to speed through an area you’ll get a completely different piece of music that basically feels linear from beginning to end, but if you linger and do something different you’ll have a completely different musical experience. That’s actually something that I think is fun to do and to try to find those sections, and try to analyse how many different things are you hearing that are changing up.

In the next post our discussion moves onto granular music approaches in videogame music, why Marty has not been one to advocate a granular approach to videogame music, and what his own alternative approach is.

An investigation of new musical potential in videogames; A Thesis

So the day has finally arrived and the chickens can now be counted. First the raw mark:

For my thesis, which I spent all year writing, I received a mark of 86 which is safely within the High Distinction band. Accordingly, the full text of my thesis is now available here. Go read it, print it, bind it, critique it, lambast it, or just put it on your coffee table and let it look pretty.

So here's the inside scoop on what to expect:

- Chapter 1 is me raving, perhaps somewhat inadvisably, about a loony Indie game for 1000 of my 17,000 word limit before getting around to talking about music and what I'm going to say in this wordy monstrosity.

- Chapter 2 is my literature review (highly skippable if you aren't interested in either a) Ian Bogost or b) Gonzalo Frasca)

- Chapter 3 is all about how I think the current musical paradigm in videogames is, erm... how you say? COMPLETELY RUBBISH (okay, not quite, but almost) and then I talk about games like Guitar Hero, Audiosurf and Everyday Shooter and how wicked awesoe they are....

- Chapter 4 is the thesis, really, and it's where I interview the awesome Marty O'Donnell in an attempt to glean some insights about music for videogames from him. If you only read one chapter, it should really be this one.

Which also reminds me that I've got the full text of the interview ready to put up, so I'll kick start that series later in the week - keep an eye out for it. I think Marty has some genuinely interesting and important things to say about sound and music in games - and about game design more generally.

What are you still doing here? Go download it already!

Also: props to my man in Melbourne, Dan Golding, who recently posted his own thesis for which he got an even better mark (90) so go download and read his when you're done with mine.

Edit: Matthew Gallant from The Quixotic Engineer has graciously provided hosting for my thesis so I don't have to use Mediafire. Isn't he lovely? =)

Monday, 15 December 2008

Going Gonzo

So I’m trying to write a bit Gonzo – more Hunter S. Thomspon than Muppet – after being inspired by reading Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 which, I might add, is a cracking read. Absurdist humour has always tickled my funny bone in the best way (Q: How long’s a piece of string? A: A bowl of soup this colour) and Thompson at the height of his powers does absurd the best. But it’s actually harder than it looks and even he doesn’t get it right all the time. When he does though, as in describing his wanting to put together an Outrage like releasing 50,000 bats into the Democratic convention centre on the night of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential nomination, which he declines on the grounds that getting the nomination would be punishment enough, Thompson lights up the page like the fourth of July

So it strikes me that Gonzo works best when you’ve actually got something worth writing about – like picking up some hitchhikers who also happen to be part of the Freak Kingdom on the road to Washington just before dawn. In this my own personal Post-University purgatory I don’t have nearly as much to write about that’s actually interesting. So instead, it occurs to me that Thompson has another fall-back in his writing; talking about stuff that really freaks him the fuck out. And there’s a lot of that going round in my world right now.

For starters, to make any kind of objective evaluation of my own chances of procuring employment within my chosen industry (videogames), a highly competitive career path to be sure, I’m much too close to myself to make any kind of objective and rational evaluation of my prospects. People I talk to on twitter say, ‘Quit worrying, idiot, you’re smart enough to get any job’, which is a lovely sentiment and I appreciate the vote of confidence, but they’re not the one trying to overcome a lifetime of stay-at-home complacency and inaction when it comes to employment… and I don’t exactly have an abundance of funds when it comes to cash.

Which reminds me of another thing Thompson loves – short paragraphs. And elipses… I thought that particular habit like nail-biting, dropping them in like pennies in a Christmas pudding, was a more modern practice but apparently not. He also likes to let his sentences run on for a really long time, much longer than normal. In case you missed it, I did it in the first paragraph and it seems to have spectacularly backfired, but that’s what you get for trying to write in the style of a Pro like Thompson. It’s also a tendency that I’ve worked quite hard to circumvent in my own writing (academic at least) since it was pointed out to me earlier in the year that while my sentences made sense to me and managed to articulate complicated points, they were usually impossible to read for anyone else. It kind of annoys me that Thompson does it so well and without making them convoluted and confusing. Overall though, I think my problem was I used commas too much and needed to just stop my sentences more often. It might actually be a good thing that I trained myself out of the habit because now I can do it deliberately and, dare I tempt fate and say, somewhat more properly.

So where was I? (That’s another thing Thompson does endlessly – go off topic and then reign it in again as if he was talking to you on the telephone) Something about breaking into the games industry. Thinking about it, how does anyone ‘break into’ any industry? The obvious answer is that some kind of training is supposed to provide with the foot-in-the-door that you need, but thinking about my soon to be graduated from Music degree… I don’t exactly have a massive stable of bankable skills and I’ve been thinking long and hard recently about how the hell I can convert those skills into finances. I thought about doing some freelance writing; it is supposedly my strength, after all, unless I’m deluding myself; but I have this sneaky suspicion that when I am not being exceedingly lazy and posting at 1 in the morning, I’m capable of producing some solid copy. But hey, words are cheap, right, so what’s my other skill? I can edit and proofread and there’s always (well not at this time of the year, but in a few months time) a market for students that have papers due that could seriously benefit from a quick once-over. I could charge $50 for 20 pages and that would at least pay for my board for the week and stop my parents making me homeless before the new year – I’ve currently paid up till the Saturday before New Years day and I have about $33 left in my bank account[1]. I have another $35 in my wallet, but I suspect that unless I somehow arrange to not leave the house before NYE that I’ll need some of that just to get around.

My God, living is so expensive. Whoever came up with the capitalist idea of actually contributing to society ought to go and jump in front of the nearest locomotive. I write a bloomin' videogame blog that aims to elevate the medium above the general level of “Hey, fuck you, my mum is a classy lady” Xbox live discourse which, I occasionally suspect, may be a noble yet Sisyphean effort. I mean, who even reads me? And who would want to after this ridiculously long-winded and self indulgent… tangent? I can’t blame you for turning off half-way through this piece, it’s really nothing but a blatant rip-off of L.B. Jeffries attempts at emulating the style of Lester Bangs in aid of game criticism. At least he had a point in his writing about games, what have I got? Certainly nothing about game criticism just a pointless whinge about how life is so hard for a middle class white kid who’s house-bound with nothing but the internet and a boxed set of Futurama DVD’s for entertainment.

You know, people I know have said “I would give anything to be able to do nothing, like you”, but what I think they fail to understand is the absolutely soul crippling effect that doing nothing all day has on you. When you do nothing, you become nothing (or you feel like you become nothing) and it’s bloody depressing. Exercise is actually a good cure and I’ve started jogging in the evenings just for something to get my heart racing a bit. Anyway, what friends of mine should understand, before wishing nothing upon yourself, is that it’s really not that great. Sure, it was fantastic to take time off after finishing that thesis I spent the whole year working on but that got old really fast, like in a day or two. I should have actually seen it coming – it always happens and I guess it’s probably inevitable that we put on the rose tinted glasses in the middle of high stress periods. But I could certainly have done a bit more to prepare.

Erm… so let’s bring this to a close. I don’t think I’ll edit this, just whack it up and put it out there – do the authentic Gonzo thing even though I don’t really have a deadline to meet. Feels more raw that way, and hopefully I’ll learn something from it. Might go self medicate or something. Okay, so I lied, I edited it but it really didn’t need much. Maybe I’m a better writer than I think. I should approach some vain Official Australian Xbox magazine or something and get them to feed me games to review and play if only to take my mind off my impending bankruptcy.


Okay, so I have a trust fund that my parents set up for me as a kid with a couple grand in it but using that to pay my parents to continue to live under their roof seems either hilariously ironic and appropriate or just pointless, not really sure which.