Wednesday 31 December 2008

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.

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