Friday, 30 January 2009

Jan 09 Round Table: The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux

Jan 09 Round Table - Putting the Game Before the Book: What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? …rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Now I know the New Testament of the Bible is not strictly speaking one book, it’s made up of a bunch of them and they’re written by a number of different authors, however many Christians like to think of the Bible as expressing a single idea – or rather more specifically, the single voice of God. There are, as you may or may not know, many different views, perspectives and beliefs on how to read the Bible – all too many to count and list here in fact. So I will instead explain how and why I read the Bible in my own fallibility and imperfection and then get onto the interesting business of imagining how “The New Testament: The Videogame” (for Windows, Mac & Linux) would play and what it would be like if it were originally authored as a videogame.

I read the Bible because I do believe that it really is some kind of ‘designer’s handbook’ for life and living. And I believe in the central figure of the story – you know, that Jesus guy. Yeah he’s alright with me. However, I’m not altogether convinced at the moment that the Bible is as infallible as the institution often portrays and I similarly struggle to believe that it’s entirely reflective of exactly and specifically the intent of the author (talking about God as the author in this case not the human writers) but there are still plenty of people that do. And there are also plenty of people that think Braid is exactly authored the way Jonathan Blow wanted it to be. (Admittedly, that is rather a reduction of their arguments and points about the games, but an overarching theme of much of the discussion has been ‘what Blow was doing’ with the game and it’s hardly been studied in from the modernistic perspective as an independent work, studied in a vacuum if you will, with one notable exception.)

So let’s pretend that God sent his son Jesus to earth not in the first century but in the twenty-first instead. Two points make The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux a convincing possibility. Firstly, knowing that Jesus was a pretty contemporary dude for his time, it makes sense that he’d encourage his followers to be down with the ways and the means of the time. The 12 apostles would probably have held wicked awesome Halo LAN parties and frag each other late into the night, trash talking about who was greatest in the kingdom of Halo and all that. It would probably get a bit out of hand when Judas started TK-ing and the other disciples left Jesus to fight by himself, but somehow the peace would always be kept and a good time would be had by all. Jesus being the prince of peace and all that.

Also, as someone who was dedicated to speaking to people in a way that they could understand, using parables and stories to communicate his message, it seems rather credible that his followers would be just as dedicated, and want to tell people about him via the medium that they are both well versed in and which is rapidly emerging as the newest medium for human expression.

Obviously throughout the short history of games there have been a bunch of limp wristed, patently pathetic Bible based videogames and I’ve only (thankfully) been witness to a few of them. The most high profile of recent bible games would have to be the Left Behind game, based on the popular ‘Left Behind’ series and which plays as a spiritual focused RTS. No game, as far as I know has tried to be the Bible, even if many have tried to re-tell the Bible. So how would the Bible authors make The New Testament: The Game?

While the gospels in the New Testament are about telling the story of Jesus, the point of the gospels is not found within in the narrative, that is, by reading, studying and learning the order of events. Instead it’s about character and characters, people that are both saintly and flawed. The important things to take away from the Bible are not names and places and dates, but implications and ideas. Let’s take a small look at one idea that this Jesus fellow wanted to get across – this short passage is from The Message version of the Bible, which has deliberately been paraphrased from the original Greek so as to (hopefully) speak in a contemporary vernacular much as it would have for readers in the first century.

(This is Jesus speaking)

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off in some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees and their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.”

The passage is from Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 15-20 (for those so inclined to go look it up) and the point Jesus is making could be told in any number of ways through a videogame.

Maybe the videogame of The Gospel of Matthew is a tile based top down RPG, where you play as a follower of Jesus or even play through a series of Galileans, Judeans, Pharisees and Sadducees in a kind of fractured narrative style game a bit like the Call of Duty games and their three-way US/British/Russian story splits. The ‘game’ could even be a series of fully fledged proto-games, like a harvest moon clone where, in one of a number of vignettes, you’re a poor fisherman performing your daily chores only to hear of a visitor in town promising to make your sick daughter well. However the trade off is that if you don’t catch enough fish then you’ll go hungry tonight and your daughter will only get worse. Do you investigate or ignore this stranger? Maybe he hangs around for a few days, with each day your daughter getting progressively sicker until she either dies or you decide you’re getting desperate and what could it hurt to just go and see? Simulating the conditions for a random encounter with Jesus could be a method of showing something about Jesus’ life to people – he was around for only so long before he had to be elsewhere and if he’s truly as important as we say he is then you’d better go see!

After a bit of play testing however, maybe Matthew decides that, as the currently game works it’s making people think that the message of the game is “Go see Jesus or your daughter will die” which is pretty extreme and not exactly what Matthew wants. So he goes back to the drawing board and for a second version creates an interesting dynamic story where your daughter’s chance of survival is a mix of random chance and how well you care for her, with story options for what Jesus would do when he heard she died, if she recovered on her own, etc, etc… Like the real world, in The New Testament: The Videogame sad and terrible things happen and they’re often out of our own control.

But just because Matthew is an indie dev of shmups and RPG’s in this scenario doesn’t mean that the disciple Luke will be – maybe he’s much more into the FPS. In his gospel, the focus is less on the experience of meeting Jesus and more about remediating the ideas that he espoused and personally represented. So to express something like the passage above – that charisma is less important than character – perhaps Luke designs a mod for an existing game, like Half-Life 2.

In The Gospel of Luke, a mod for Half-Life 2, he codes and makes changes to the levels, giving you the player the ability to divine the real nature of a character, and see past the facade. It’s probably a bit more of a ‘proof of concept’ demo than full mod because it only works on that first level after you get off the train and until you reach the building where you get chased by the combine. But in the first area of the game, it works by letting you touch a human or combine NPC to see a short flashback from an earlier moment in that person’s life – with each example being something the person has done that has contributed to making them the person that they really are. Maybe one of the flashbacks shows a person surrendering to the combine and turning collaborator, naming their friends as members of the resistance. A flashback for a particular Metrocop could show quick, rapidly cut scenes of the combine transformation process – how they were afraid before it happened, and how that fear turned to terror as their personality was destroyed and replaced with machine.

Why do you have this mechanic? There’s no in-story reason for it, but it’s a nice experiment as part of The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. The point of the mod is to show that appearances can be deceiving and while there’s no ‘practical application’ involved with seeing these flashbacks it would probably change the way we perceive the particular NPC’s. Imagine if you could do the same thing in the real world – think of all the things you would rather keep hidden from random strangers, all the things you’ve ever done you’re not proud of.

So I’ll leave the rest of the imagining up to you – these are just a few ideas I half-baked in my noggin, I’m sure the real version would be way better and have much higher production values anyway. I mean, have you seen how much money is in Christian lifestyle books these days? Then again, maybe the early Christian’s would have been edgy and cool and gone pure indie – 8bit all the way. Yeah, I think that’s it. Solid.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 6

Sometimes, the most valuable lessons are learnt from the things that just don’t work as expected. In this, part 6 of the seemingly never ending interview saga that is my interview with Bungie’s Marty O’Donnell, he talks about the ‘misses’ in the music of Halo 2, working with music from outside Bungie, in particular the rock band ‘Incubus’, some of the reactions to the music and whether he likes to use musical ‘leitmotif’.

Ben: So can I change gears for a second and ask you if there were any areas in the music for Halo that you weren’t happy with? I think you mentioned in one interview that you probably didn’t quite the level of polish for the mix in Halo 2 that you wanted to. Was there anything that if you had another week or month you’d change?

Marty: The mix is probably the biggest thing. It’s really hard because you never know how somebody’s going to play. And the mix isn’t something you set, it’s that you allow the game to mix based upon what’s happening. So, if dialogue happens to come in, then whatever music is playing will be ducked 6db or whatever explosion is happening gets ducked… and playing around with all of those, attenuation and EQ and all the rest of it that we can do in real time and actually really testing it all out in as many ways a possible is just tediously hard to do, and we just never get enough time to do that… yeah, the mix is my biggest complaint.

One of my other complaints would probably be… just the amount of music that I would be able to compose after a level is completed and designed. I would rather be able to compose more music in response to what I’m playing rather than having to do it prior. My ideal would be that all the music that’s composed is composed for what I’m seeing and I never use another piece twice. Especially in Halo 2 I think you’re going to at least hear I think every piece of music probably is repeated somewhere in the game. But it’s not going to be repeated verbatim, because the system won’t let it, but it’s still the same piece. That is simply because we only have so much time and room to shove things on the disc. I would love to have it be a more original from beginning to end… I still think themes should return and be developed but I would rather have it truly be developed and be new than repeated.

And then the other thing for Halo 2, I experimented with using some music from some outside bands. I think that it’s a sort of mixed bag – stylistically it wasn’t as successful as I would have hoped.

B: I quite liked them, especially Incubus’s instrumental ‘The Odyssey’ pieces.

M: Oh good, well I liked that one too but it was tough. There were a couple other things I wasn’t as happy with and I actually wish I had more time to play with the incubus piece and actually work it in better than where I worked it.

B: So that wasn’t where you would have ideally put it in the game?

M: No, it was OK just I think in the long run, that particular level was a flying level and it was the only place I used it and I think it was a little bit soft and it didn’t’ quite do everything I was hoping it would do for that level.

And then I’ve had enough push-back from other people who were like “What the heck was that doing in there, that stuck out like a sore thumb!”

B: *laughs* Really? Wow.

M: Yeah, I’ve had people say that. But, y’know a lot of people, other people really liked it, and I liked it too, but there were some other things scattered throughout the game that I wasn’t necessarily as happy with.

And there’s always little choices that I’ve made, like here’s a piece I wrote and put in this section and think it’s great, then a month later after we ship the game I listen to it, ‘Wow, what was I thinking that really didn’t work’. That’s always going to happen.

B: On that development of themes idea… do you deliberately aim for that Leitmotif style?

M: Yeah, I’ve had people say ‘Hey here are the 5 main characters and here are the 6 locations and we think it would be great to have a theme for each location and a theme for each character and I basically say, that’s not me that’s not the composer that I want to be. I’m not writing Peter and the Wolf, as much as I love Peter & the Wolf… I’m not Wagner, but I think Wagner did some things that I think were kinda cool…

So it’s not like ‘Here’s a theme and it comes in every time this guy comes [on the screen]’. Sometimes by having certain themes that are kind of associated with some characters or even the emotion a character might feel, what happens is… this is just me, my personal opinion… if you say here’s the heroic Master Chief theme and every time Master Chief does something you play this theme, it’s like, well, how does that work when Master Chief is the player, and the player is really freaked out or scared or something – that theme just doesn’t work. I like ‘emotional leitmotifs’, so to speak. So it’s like, ‘Here’s the love theme, here’s the heroically successful theme, here’s the scary theme’…and then it doesn’t matter who the characters are if they’re going through that emotion I can bring that in.

These things tend to develop almost on their own – you realize… this music worked really worked well over here and this is the emotion that was happening, so I can do that again over here because that same kind of emotion is happening.

It seems like it ties together, and it seems like a thematic thing but it’s almost like, ‘Wow, isn’t that great that that works?’ Anyway that’s my approach if that makes sense.

In part 7, the final installment in the series, Marty Talks a bit more about his ‘emotional leitmotif’ approach, the affect of instrumentation on his music and finally he answers the question ‘What gets you out of bed in the morning’.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Suddenly: GONZO

This post was entirely written on a mobile phone in the early hours of this morning then meticulously copied over to PC by hand.


There are few places colder and sadder than Strathfield station at 12:30 in the morning. I’m listening to electronic music and plotting ways of killing a friend, out of some deep irrational, simmering hatred that finds its was to the surface after a vodka and red bull.

* a paragraph is missing here. It was accidentally deleted. I said something about being the whitest dude on the station, and explained that I was working on this post, writing on my Nokia phone to take my mind off my predicament. *


Because I’m typing this on my phone, I just lost the last two paragraphs, but that’s ok. I’ll pretend they’re still in here and you can guess what was in there.

…So can a 3D space in a videogame ever be proper Gonzo?


I’m tempted to think not, but only because I can’t see how a method of storytelling that relies so much on the reader trying to imagine the outlandish and the plainly ridiculous… (I failed to finish this sentence, the slow type speed broke my train of thought)

Could a narrative be told then in a game that is Gonzo in style? The best games clearly ‘show not tell’ their stories which would render the florid descriptions of scenes crafted to highlight the insane, pointless. Could we visually highlight the crazy, or must we rely imperfectly on a narrator?


Oh man, Metronomy just came on my iPod and it stirs up a feeling of regret; i missed their concert just the other day because i didn’t have anyone to go with. (note: Spencer Greenwood was considering it) That’s partly why I’m pissed at my mate (note: not Spencer), because he wasn’t there to go with me to see them. But also it’s because of a girl (Shhh! Don’t tell!).

What makes a situation Gonzo worthy? L.B. Jeffries pointed out that it’s not the drugs that makes Gonzo, that was just what HST just used to get in the groove or the flow or something. The drug culture (freaks) however, and identifying with its ethos, was however and the clash of cultures was often the source of most of his anecdotes. Having the head political wizard of the McGovern campaign (note: Frank Mankiewicz) waiting for Thompson in the bushes outside his hotel to club him over the head in retribution for something Hunter had done was very much an invasionary possession of the poor fellow by some demon of drug-taking.


Editing on a nokia phone isn’t easy so getting it right the first time is important. Thankfully it’s impossible to write faster than a few words per minute, so the pace of writing is in my favour at least. The train is also so empty by this time, being ten minutes good of 1am. That’s also ok, it’s just me and a sleeping old guy who has shifted in his sleep once the whole trip. I accidentally the whole trip. And the whole ticket collector, who checked my ticket in a lovely way, wishing me a lovely trip. There’s an ad campaign running at the moment “a lot goes into a forgettable trip”, and the slogan could be applied to game design. The unforgettable games are often the worst ones, or the worst experiences.

When I was a fair bit yo9unger I hired Playstation games based on what was supposed to be good. Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid, both, were atrocious for someone of my age, experience and skill. It didn’t make sense to me to run from zombies and hide from the guards at the bottom of the elevator. Games are bout killing and doing stuff, not running away and hiding, surely! A slight variation on the basic idea and we get ‘hiding’ as the main game verb, and just so with Gonzo – an injection of personality into reportage.

And in that same way, we get blogging on a phone – a slight variation on the theme and a product of a very particular situation. Short and sweet, take it or leave it. FIN.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 5

In part five of my interview series with Marty O’Donnell, I ask about music in multiplayer game modes, to which Marty shares a few tidbits about what he’s currently experimenting with. He also talks about music for MMO’s and gets onto the topic of musical genre and appropriateness for videogames upon which he expresses his desire for game music to do more than emulate the successes of the past.

Ben: So I want to ask you about multiplayer, and the fact that there’s no music. Was that decision purely because it would get boring, or get in the way, or is it a reflection on the way you think about the role of music in a game – is it different when you’re telling a story in the campaign to, in multiplayer, where it’s almost like an electronic sport, rather than a story?

Marty: Yeah, so here’s my philosophy about that, and it’s not necessarily what we’re always going to do, as a matter of fact even as we speak I’m thinking about certain multiplayer modes where music might have a place. I’m a little bit suspicious that it’s ever going to be all that effective because I still believe strongly that music essentially tells basically linear stories, that music has a beginning, a middle and an end, and music creates emotional enhancements that work best when you have reasons for music to exist.

If people just want to say, hey when I’m playing Halo I just want to be really revved up, I’m like ‘sure, go ahead, put some Metallica on while you play, I don’t care, that’s great. You have every right to put on any kind of piece of music that just gets you in a mood want. There’s not enough hooks in a multiplayer game to make me feel like music will do anything but probably get annoying or boring or repetitive.

Sort of like, every time you win you get the big winning music. Well that’s going to be annoying because when you’re losing you’re probably annoyed because you hear the losing music. Or you’re winning and it’s like, well here I am hearing that same winning music again. Even if you have lots of variations it just doesn’t seem like… I never thought it was a huge payoff.

B: You could end up playing 300 or so games…

M: Well you play it so much, right… And the other thing is that I think there’s a difference in the player’s attitude about why they’re playing. When you’re playing the campaign…you are becoming the hero in this story that’s not you, or you’re becoming this other hero and so music has a role in that storytelling. But when you’re playing multi-player it’s a little bit like watching football on television. I want to hear music when I’m watching a TV show that’s dramatic, but I don’t want to hear the football game scored – I just want to watch the football game. So if you watch a football game on television and it’s four hours long, you don’t hear music during it, and you don’t miss it... and it’s still really exciting [with just] the sound effects… you get a real visceral feeling.

You’re not expecting to have the football game to be scored. I think it would make you feel weird if as soon as the other team were about to score, some band started playing that indicated ‘Hey, somebody is about to score’. That’s not the expectation and I don’t think it enhances the experience. It seems sort of out of place. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some kinds of multiplayer, social gaming modes that might not be enhanced by music, and we’re investigating that right now. I’m actually excited about some of the ideas that might happen here. I’m not convinced yet, we’ll see.

B: What would it take to convince you?

M: You know what it’d take? As we experiment with it I’ll be experiencing it myself and I’ll be playing and then seeing how the music actually affects me as I’m playing and how the music responds to what’s happening and if I say ‘hey this is really cool, but now that I’ve played 10 of these in a row, it’s stopped being cool’, it won’t happen. But if there’s enough interest even after repetition, or there’s enough variation or randomness in what happens, I think it could be something we do.

B: So MMO’s seem to be looking to that kind of randomly generated or procedurally generated music because people spend 100’s and 100’s of hours in them. There was a presentation at Austin GDC just the other week where they presented their way of recombining sounds that never kinda gets boring – and I guess I saw parallels in the ambient and room sounds in Halo – but it also looked to me like that sort of thing could be adapted for Halo’s multiplayer.

M: Yep, I think that would be interesting and I am definitely open to exploring those areas. This is what’s fun about game development is that there is a ton of stuff we just haven’t figured out. I know that there’s stuff around the corner that’s going to be better than what we’re doing now and I look forward to either seeing somebody else do it or if we contribute to it, that’d be great.

B: In another presentation from the 08 Austin GDC, Jason Page from Sony Europe’s R&D group, said he’s like to hear more “Phillip Glass” sound tracks in games as opposed to John William.

M: *laughs* Well you know what, when Jason says something like that, and I don’t disagree with him just so you know, but as soon as 20 games come out that all sound like Phillip Glass we’ll be pining for John Williams. The thing I would say is that…I want every creator of a game to not copy what’s successful. I think everybody who creates a game should try and re-imagine whatever it is they’re doing in their own creative image. And then there will be uniqueness even if something sorta reminds you, or it feels like a genre thing…

Sometimes I’ll sit there and go, you know what, I just want to put piano here, and it’s because I just haven’t heard piano in a while… but then if I suddenly hear a bunch of other stuff and “oh now they’re using Piano too”… I love piano, that was my major instrument, but if people are just using it because other people are using it…

For example, the cool aleatoric 20th century sounding music that my friend did for Bioshock, if everybody starts doing that they’re doing it because they think Bioshock was successful… But he did it because it was something that came from within him that he wanted to do because he thought it would be cool. But as soon as everybody starts copying it, it’s not unique.

If you’re creating something you should create it from something that’s within you and not because you are copying something else. That doesn’t mean that what you come up with isn’t influenced by whatever you’ve grown up being influenced by, but you should never parrot or copy or do something just because this niche hasn’t been mined yet…

And the thing is that, certainly a lot of people though, ‘well there’s nothing unique about Halo – Sci Fi story, FPS, hasn’t that been done a million times?’ Yeah it has been done a million times, however…we approached it and tried to do something that hadn’t been done before even though in a lot of ways it was something that had been done before. It’s the difference between something that’s iconic and something that’s stereotypical.

B: In the conclusion of my thesis, what I’m going to end up saying is that there’s potential in all these areas and what I’d like to see is not any one way of it dominating, but having a whole bunch of different way for whatever is appropriate. And I guess that’s what you were hinting at; if that’s right for the game then go ahead, use John Williams, if it’s more appropriate, do the granular thing.

M: Absolutely, totally. Although I would never say use John Williams. You probably know this, I used to be a commercial composer and I used to write jingles for a living. And even when I was writing jingles if somebody said “you need to sound like The Beatles” or “you need to sound like Mozart” that would always be a little bit depressing to me because I felt like now I have to satisfy my client by copying Mozart. But instead of copying Mozart…I had played enough and studied enough Mozart that I went, “Hmm, I wonder how Mozart would try to solve this musical problem for this commercial.” So to some extent I would channel Mozart… what was fun was I came up with pieces that I enjoyed and that, to me, feel ‘Mozarty’. And I didn’t actually go to a piece of Mozart and just flip a few notes around until it became original. If you say, John Williams has this big bombastic and wonderful orchestral style, okay fine, what would you do with the parameters of a big bombastic orchestral style. *With this, Marty illustrated a point by singing a slight variation of the Star Wars Darth Vader theme involving some slightly changed notes, to which he expressed disparagement.* Yeah great. There’s nothing original there, you just flipped the notes around.

Next time, I ask Marty about what areas of the sound and music he wasn’t happy with in Halo 2 and he talks about the inclusion of music from outside sources such as the rock band Incubus. We also talk about musical Leitmotif and whether or not Marty likes to use that particular technique.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The superfluity of sound in Gears of War 2

One of the things we like to do here at SLRC is play games: specifically, videogames. But we also like to listen to things that stimulate our aural senses in a pleasurable way and to have a bit of a think about how videogames do this. I was playing Gears of War 2 the other day and, I’ll be honest, enjoying more the conversations I was having over MSN and twitter. I also found myself getting more and more irritated and distracted by the sound and music of the game, so I did the sensible thing and turned it off.

Two things happened: firstly, Gears of War 2 metamorphosed into an ironic, satirical comedy game and secondly I realised how superfluous most of the sound was. Lets start with a review of the sound design aesthetic present in Gears of War 2.

Like so many other aspects, the sound design in Gears of War 2 is loud and proud. There’s nothing wrong with “loud”, and in fact many contemporary pop music albums stretch the limits of volume through the application of what is known as “compression”. A compressor acts a bit like a big squeeze on the music, making the quiets louder and the stopping the loud parts from going quite so high and including unwanted distortion. Don’t worry too much about that how it does it, just know that the effect is that the song or album becomes very loud, often so that it stands out from the crowd. The downside of compression and the inexorable drive to make pop music ‘loud’ however is the loss of dynamics, because the quiet parts are made as loud as the loud parts. According to the internet, Claude Debussy said famously that “Music is the space between the notes”. Gears of War 2 is all notes.

Secondly, the sound design in Gears of War is a product of the design imperative that hungers for photorealism. Despite the fact that the humans look like gorillas and that the enemy locust look like nightmarish demons, the game attempts to make both images and sounds that, with an acceptance of the fiction of the story, appear to behave in a realistic manner. An article from the now sadly defunct 1UP said of the original Gears sound design that,

Almost all the sounds in Gears of War are organic and not synthesized. There was a pretty strict "no lasers" policy…

Comments made by CliffyB in a video on the sound design of the game lead me to believe that this policy was retained for the sequel, with him specifically mentioning that it’s “one of the reasons Gears feels so good, feels real and tangible”.

I can’t claim to know the production process back to front for certain, however I am making an informed guesstimate when I assume that what has most likely happened in the production of a sound is that it has been recorded, processed to get it sounding right and then finally it will probably be compressed extremely harshly so that it is as crisp, clear and loud as it can be. From Marty O’Donnell I’ve learned first hand however that good source material by itself does not make for great game audio! At the run-time stage, when the player is actually playing the game, all the sounds are thrown together and the mix of the sounds becomes incredibly important.

The ‘realism’ aesthetic, present in the sound material as mentioned above, is also applied to the ‘sound philosophy’ of the game. If an action would ‘naturally’ make a sound in Gears of War, like a boot stomp or a gunshot, then the sound engine wants you to hear it. And in an action packed videogame like Gears, there is a very good chance that you will not be hearing the sound by itself or in isolation and so the mix becomes very important. In the case of Gears of War, (to mix a metaphor) it goes for the auditory jugular and tries to get everything as loud as possible at the mix stage. The problem then is that there is no prioritisation of sounds as it becomes one big (exciting) jumble of “bangs”, “booms”, “kakakakas” and “ka-chunks”. The audio director on Crysis, Florian Füsslin, has said

Making game audio is often a balancing act between realism and “keep it readable for the player”. For example shooting two assault rifles might sound similar in reality, but in the game the player has to know precisely which weapon has fired. In this case the readability was more important and therefore given the priority.

And here’s the crux of the matter – the end result of the audio in Gears of War 2 does exactly what Cliff Bleszinski wanted from his sound: it is loud and exciting and visceral and ‘grounds’ the action. However what it has also done is made the sound superfluous. The sound, by being always on, and always punching you in the ear means that that is all it does – fulfil an aesthetic role. And if the aesthetic of GoW2 is already grating on your nerves, there’s no reason not to turn it off. Coming back to the inspiration for this short summary series, I turned the sound off for the last two-thirds of the game and didn’t notice any difference in how well I played. I put on some Metronomy, and the often absurd aspects of the game, as well as some serious camp undertones, in the game came to the fore.

In a future post, I hope to examine in a bit of the same detail the musical scoring done for Gears of War. Stick around, and until then tell me what music you like to play Gears2 with.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Gaming Soundtracks (and not the kind you’re thinking!)

The first album from the Emo rock band ‘Panic! At the Disco’ has been stamped into my brain to such a degree that, if I can’t quite remember all the words, I can certainly always sing the melody. Also, whenever it’s played, a strange phenomenon occurs in my brain as it stirs up memories of a place far, far away from anywhere I have actually ever been. For me the album ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’ will always remind me of the crimson shores of Bloodmyst Isle, and a young Warrior in his low teens named Davetwo.

Back in the day I was a pretty serious WoW player, spending as much as 10-12 hours a day playing if given the chance and while I was levelling up my third character towards the goal of level 70 I also fell head over heels for Panic! At The Disco. The album was on massive high repeat, not entirely unlike the act of ‘grinding’ for XP. As an indication of just how much I listened to that album at the time, for a period of about a month I would often lie in bed awake at night listening to the album just because it was so infectious. I am frequently go on what Dan Bruno has called ‘bingeing’ on media (he originally applied it to games, but I think it’s an idea that has wider applicability also).

So when I put it on again just the other day it felt like being back there grinding on Blood Elves for XP. The sensation of being in that place was just below the surface, like having a word on the tip of your tongue but for a feeling of place. My response was almost one of synaesthesia in that the music becomes the sensation of ‘being there’ again. Of course, this album is by no means the only example, there was another in particular that also reminded me of Un’Goro Crater (another World of Warcraft zone) which I can’t recall right now but will probably recognise instantly the next time I hear it. And if this sort of thing is purely the result of the confluence of music and game levels then Metronomy’sNights Out’ album will remind me of my GoW2 marathon of the other night…

But I suspect Metronomy will be saved from that rather unfortunate fate for the time being. For starters, GoW2 wasn’t memorable enough (more on that a bit later), and there probably wasn’t enough repetition to ingrain the ‘location’ with the music into my brain. And in that sense, WoW is perhaps a stellar candidate for this kind of musical/locational imprinting because a player often spends long periods of time in one particular location doing highly repetitive tasks.

Another album that reminds me of a game level is ‘Lost in the sound of separation’ by Underoath (possibly the best album to Audiosurf to ever). There is a particular part in the 4th track of the album, where the cacophony cuts back to primarily the sound of the hi-hat beating out a straight rhythm. After having been barrelling along at 100mph the track comes to a period of relative calm (a flat area in the track) and it undulates up and down beneath you in time to the hi-hat. It’s quite memorable to the point that now whenever I hear that part of the song I see the track hopping up and down madly in time to the hi-hat in my mind, even if I’m not playing Audiosurf. However, Audiosurf is probably unique in that it renders levels unique for each song in a way that is generally representative of the song itself. Whether this improves the chances of imprinting the level/music combo, I have no idea, but the game also encourages replaying songs over with its scoring system.

I’m sure if I took the time I could think of a bunch more examples of non-game music reminding me of a place in a game, but the important fact is that the phenomenon happens at all. Videogame ‘levels’ are as real to my brain as ‘physical’ places.

Care to share a similar occurrence of game bingeing mixed with music bingeing? I’d love to hear about your own extra-game musical experiences if you have any. Let’s see if we can’t find some patterns about when and how they occur and whether it really is just as simple as plenty of repetition.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 4

In this, probably the longest single post of the series, Marty explains the relationship between music and location as well as how much of the music he composes in response to the level. Then, in perhaps my favourite part of the interview, Marty answers my question about why he didn’t (and still doesn’t) allow players to change the volume of the music and sound in the Halo games, resulting in a passionate response about the issue of player control vs. designer control.

Ben: So, the way Halo has used music… it seems like music is triggered based on location or events. So you crest the top of a hill and that particular string piece plays or something like that. I’m interested to know, how much of the level did you know was going to be there when you started writing and when you started recording?

Marty: I’m not sure if I could say what the percentage is… but the majority of the music is written because of what’s happening in the levels. Sometimes I’ve already made what we call music tags, tags that work a certain way or have certain variations within them or certain intensities, I know I can go from here to here. I have these music pieces that are built that will respond in certain ways and I’m building them while I’m watching what the level designers are doing.

But then before I actually implement the music or finish even recording the music, the levels are pretty much done and scripted. So we have what we call trigger volumes. Events will be triggered based on what the player’s doing, or the location of the player, or how much time the players spent. You can pick a trigger and we can trigger something off of it. Pick some event that can happen in real time and we can anticipate it and put in a condition that will be aware of that thing.

So any of those triggers I can decide, this would be a perfect point to start a piece of music, stop a piece of music, change a piece of music, overlay some other piece of music, you name it.

And because I’m sitting and working with the designers all the time, basically, I sit with them and say ‘what are you intending to do in this level, what is the emotional journey you want the payer to have from here to her to here, [etc]’ and then we just keep working that out and that’s when the music is finalized, sometimes it’s composed from scratch from those discussions, sometimes it’s music that I’ve already sort of already anticipated would be useful and I try using it in certain situations. It’s probably half & half in terms of how much music is composed prior to the level being completed and how much is composed after the level is completed and designed.

B: I also read in an interview with you, that you deliberately decided not to let the player fiddle with the volume of the music and the mix. I thought that was a really interesting choice.

M: That goes all the way back to Halo 1, you’re right.

B: And I didn’t even know as well, I’d never gone to look for it until I had started my analysis for it, and tried to turn it up so I could hear it over the noise of a tank. Is that choice related to you want to have that composer control?

M: *laughs* Probably, I think my genetic makeup is ‘I’m a composer’ but I like technology, I love games and I play games and I help design games, but… yeah, my DNA is as a composer and composers are primarily control guys. Even more than that is that I want people to have a really great experience. It’s as though I was a chef and, look, I’m making a really great meal and if the first thing somebody does when I serve them is they pour ketchup all over it or salt all over it, I’m like ‘wait a minute! You’re not tasting what I prepared. Now, if someone tastes it and goes ‘wow this tastes like crap, I need ketchup’ then fine. What I didn’t like was people, especially game players, have gotten into a habit that they should have control over all these things and basically I’m saying, you know what, no – you shouldn’t. What you should do is, play my game and if you hate it you should return it. *laughs* You should stop playing it. But I don’t want you to return it because you poured ketchup on it right away.

“If the very first thing people do, and which I’ve seen people do, is they change the mix before they even play through the game… my suggestion was, hey I have no problem giving people control over the entire mix of the game, that’s fine, I want to give you control of the entire mix of the game, however I’d like you to earn that right *laughs* and I would like the technology to be… play the game my way once, and then you unlock the mixing console and now you can go back and play the game again… but at least I know at least one time you heard it and experienced it the way I like it… I’m not even saying it’s the right way, I’m just saying this is what my vision was. So, what I don’t want-- people go ‘hey you know I had a really crappy audio experience’ and then I say ‘really?’ And they go ‘Yeah, well of course I turned the sound effects all the way up and I couldn’t hear the music’. It’s sorta like, well that’s not the experience I gave you so… On none of the games I’ve been able to convince the technologists at Bungie that we have to have a mixing console for the fans that is only implemented after they have completed the game. I would love to have that, in all honesty I think that would be ideal because then at least I know they would be experiencing the game the way I like it, and I hope they like it, and then they can play around with it to their hearts content.

But it’s sorta like going to a movie theatre and saying “I always like dialogue louder, so even before I watch this movie I want the projectionist to turn the dialogue up”, and that’s just not the way we see movies. And here’s the problem, as a passive audience member in a movie you’re just are expecting that you’re going to hear the mix that people wanted you to hear, and most of the time you say, wow either I loved that movie and I love the mix or I didn’t, but you don’t have this expectation that you’re gonna be able to control that. I don’t think it’s necessarily think it’s a good thing for game-players to think that they should have control over every parameter of a game.

You might as well say ‘hey, if you want to, change everything that’s red to green – because you prefer green. …And no one says the artists are control freaks, even though, trust me, artists are way more control freaks than composers, but that’s just my opinion. *laughs* But no ones expecting that you should be able to choose your own colour palette, unless you’re doing something like Little Big Planet which is a game which is all about the sand box, which is all about you creating your own characters and lighting and fog and textures and you name it. But basically you’re still giving players a controlled palette that designers have already decided… here’s the sandbox, and here’s the parameters we believe are fun to play in, go play.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to your question but that’s why I did that thing about the mix. Very, very few people have complained to me about not being able to mix Halo games their way. I have had some people complain and I apologise I say well that just wasn’t my intent and if you didn’t enjoy it then you didn’t enjoy my mix, and I understand that but…

B: Wow, that’s hard to believe that anyone would complain.

M: Well no I’ve had it don’t worry. *laughs* And I apologised, but at least I know they are complaining about… they don’t like my vision of the audio. They’re not just having a bad experience because they happened to set a fader badly. To most players they don’t know the difference between ‘I intended them to have this experience’ or ‘they inadvertently caused the experience to the bad’ all they remember is the bad experience.

B: Yeah that’s interesting. I had a funny experience with Bioshock at the end of last year, I put it in and I started playing and I went “The music is too loud!” because I couldn’t hear anything else, so I was really glad I could turn it down. So I guess that’s the trade-off, you’ve got to be confidents that you’ve set it all right.

M: Yeah… I mean it’s like… I make the trailers and so forth too for Halo games and no one thinks twice about… we work forever on a the final mix, right. If you’re seeing a linear trailer you’re seeing the mix… no one has the expectation that you’re going to watch a trailer and turn the music up or the dialogue down or turn the effects up or whatever and change the mix… I don’t think it’s necessarily the right expectation to have in a game. Certainly if they have that expectation it’s because they’ve been forced to use it too many times which means that’s a failure of the audio designers because they haven’t done good mixes.

Now, the caveat to that is, I believe the tradition started especially on the PC because, back in the day when you played games on PC’s everybody had different sound cards, and the audio designers could not know what the persons final experience would be, they had no clue. So they had to give all those faders and switches and sliders to people because they knew everybody’s experience was going to automatically be different. So, for me, I understand why it started, I think it’s just a bad habit. And to some extent I think it’s gotten game designers and audio designer people for games a little sloppy because they just feel like, ‘we can just throw a pile of music in there and not have to think about mixing it in, and they can throw a bunch of sound effects in and have all the sound effects normalized and unnaturally loud because they figure ‘well, people will just turn it up and down according to their preference.’ And I think that’s just not how you mix anything.

I would rather actually spend the time trying to do as good a mix as I possibly can, and then having the fans say ‘I love the game, I loved the audio’ or ‘I loved the game but the music was too soft, or the music was too loud.’ And I learn from that, most people didn’t like the mix or whatever. So far I’ve been OK.

But you see what I’m saying? What happens with gamers is they tend to think, well this is an interactive medium and that means that as the player I should have control over everything… and to me I’m thinking, you know what, no, not really… the game designer is making a game and trying to make a cool experience for you and there are going to be a lot of interactive parts to the game but it’s still… I don’t know if you’re religious at all… but it’s like Calvinism, the idea that there is a sovereign God, or there’s man’s free will, right. Well, in the game universe, the game designer is basically like God, but we want the player to believe they have free will, believe they are truly making choices but really we’re sort of God in the background saying ‘yeah you’re gonna have this illusion of free will but we know where you are, we know what you’re doing and you’re never going to get through that door no matter what you do *laughs* but here’s 5 other doors that you can choose any order you want to.”

B: Yeah, I guess the skill is in… well its sorta negative connotations to it, but manipulating the player.

M: No, no, we manipulate, no doubt about it. And frankly think about it, well you can think about it however you want, let me put it this way. You have a tribe of people. No technology at all. And everyone sits around the campfire and everyone can tell a story. Well, after a couple weeks, that tribe of people is gonna say, hey lets have Fred tell the story tonight because he always tells good stories. Just because we all have the ability or we all have the right to tell our own story… some of us are just not that good at telling stories. So certain people in the tribe become the storytellers and become the shamans, and that’s just the way people are.

Just because we say ‘hey, here’s a game and you can tell your own story’, well guess what – people don’t really want that because… probably most people tell kinda boring stories… they still want to be entertained, and to be entertained you have to have someone who’s entertaining behind it.”

Yeah that’s my philosophy, trust me I’m not necessarily right, it’s just what I think. *laughs*

In the next part, I ask Marty about musical scoring in multiplayer and why he doesn’t think it’s currently necessary, and what it would take to convince him otherwise.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 3

Between the last post and this one, Marty suggested that I go to GDC (which I would love to do one day) before we return to talking about music. This time, Marty mentions 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 rather than orchestral, and Marty talks about Rez and the potential for more ‘synaesthesia’ in games.

M: We were talking about granular synthesis or granular approaches to generating music… I would say this: I have come closer with each one because technology has been getting better, technology being that I can have more simultaneous voices and more synchronization under my control.

I’ve had ambient tracks that have had lots of different random looping elements in them that I can overlap which causes entirely different pieces to play… when I write it and dissemble it and put it in the game engine, I call it glue because I know I can glue more traditionally linear pieces together on either end with some of this more ‘gluey’ kinds of pieces that tend to be less rhythmic and stuff like that…

So in Halo 3 I was calling it “micro glue”, just for myself. And these were just individual pitches, just individual sustained notes on strings, or just an individual string note, in all sorts of different pitches so I could just generate individual notes to overlay or connect or do what I needed to and it could come in based on what people were doing…

So it would change what the piece was doing. I could essentially compose on the fly by knowing “well I know this piece is in Dm, so I could use a high E string note or a high D or an F or something and it wouldn’t clash, and I could bring that in here if this event happens… and that could sustain and then a new piece could start that’s maybe in F. So I could modulate from Dm to F because I’m also connecting it using just a single sustain or something. There’s a lot of fun just playing around with that stuff, knowing I could overlap all sorts of stuff and have it actually qued to actions that either the player does or things that we know are scripted in the game – ‘If this happens or the player gets here, this event will happened, and simultaneous to that even being triggered we trigger this new piece of music. And the new piece of music might be something as simple as just a sustained string note. But you’ll never hear that by itself, cause there will already be something going along with it…

B: It sounds like you’re actually getting quite a high level of control over instruments and notes, if you can sequenece just a single instrument and sustained notes and things, it sounds like it’s getting quite close to that granular approach.

M: It is. I’m starting to get around to around to more granular approaches. I don’t want to go completely granular… it’s one thing to record a live violin section playing a nice high F sustained note and making sure that the loop itself, that the sample has a good attack and a good release and really good loops in between so I can have it sustain as long as I want – that’s a good sample on a sampler, right? But that’s just one note. I can’t play a really good string melody using just samples. We’re getting better at it, but it still doesn’t compare to actually having the string section play that melody. The difference between what I hear when I have a string section play the melody and what I have when I’m playing samples on the keyboard playing a string melody is still really, really [large]. When I use midi performances I have to use all sorts of parameter controls just to get it even close to what a live group sounds like when they play, or just even a live soloist play. At this point I don’t have that kind of processing power to have that great of a midi playback engine inside a game engine. It could happen eventually, I’m not saying it couldn’t and I’d love to be there when it starts happening, but I still think we’re a ways off on that one. It’s not the number one priority for game engines. *laughs*

B: I was going to ask in relation to the performance aspect, a lot of the covenant and alien sounds use a lot of synths and electronic sounds. Can you get away with a more random, more granular approach with synths if you’re after that sort of alien approach?

M: Yeah, actually I think there would be nothing… you could have an entire game sorta like, have you played Rez?

B: No I’ve seen it, but never played it. I really want to play it.

M: Yeah it’s a wonderful game, it’s essentially a shooter game with all vector and Tron like graphics – like the old Tron movie. What’s really cool is that all the sound effects and everything you do is all synchronized… basically it’s all trance music that’s being played. It’s trance music that only has certain elements that play back and every more that you make is in sync with the basic beat of whatever is happening, and all the effects that you hear are musical pitches. And because they’re always in synch, while you’re playing you’re creating a piece of music on the fly that is completely in sync with what you are doing. It’s very, very effective. And because it’s this otherworldly Tron-like universe that you’re in, it works great.

B: That whole synaesthesia game genre is really interesting, and I think a lot of the ideas from that inspired my own thinking in my thesis, like what would it take to get that relationship between the music and the visuals in an FPS.

M: Yeah actually I think that’s a great place to explore… what I find is that… it works great for electronica and that sort of genre. It’s like its just tailor made for that kind of thing, but as soon as you’re doing something, like ‘this needs to have a more orchestrally scored, epic feel to it’, you struggle with that. And as soon as you say, hey you know what I love trance or I love electronica, this is perfect, but if you want to move away from that then you find it’s a lot harder to implement things that way and move into a different sort of genre of music. At least that’s my experience.

Next, Marty explains the relationship between music and location as well as how much of the music he composes in response to the level. Then, in perhaps my favourite part of the interview, Marty answers my question about why he didn’t (and still doesn’t) allow players to change the volume of the music and sound in the Halo games.