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Why it’s time for a video game music Renaissance

Hum a melody from a video game that came out in the past 10 years.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Chances are, you can’t, unless you cheat and use melodies from a Mario remake or the Halo anniversary edition. But why is that?

Well, let’s give a brief history of video game music (again [again {again}]). You had bleeps and blips with pacman, then someone came along and invented MIDI (woohoo!). Gameboy and Nintendo had 3 wavetable oscillators (pronounced “instruments”) and a noise machine for percussion. Then you get 16-bit stuff, samples, FM synths and some pretty rad stuff with Super Nintendo, Sega, etc. etc. Playstation comes around and supports digital audio! Woohoo again! Then from PS2/Xbox/Gamecube onward, you get mostly high-quality crystal-clear audio with amazing processing, either recorded by a live orchestra or painstakingly crafted from magnificent music libraries (like the main theme of Game of Thrones. You thought it was live, didn’t you? Nope, libraries). With the most modern consoles, adaptive music has come into play that defies the very idea of a soundtrack and offers a smooth blend of music from one place to another.

Whew, that was a crash course if I’ve ever seen one. Point being, the blinders have been removed, the constraints are nonexistent, and the audio processing capabilities of the newest consoles/PCs are so powerful that it’s the compositional equivalent of a kid in a candy store. It really is that good. And therein lies the problem.

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The New Fairytale

I’m sorry for not writing before now! Two reasons: first, my computer is kaput. Not your problem, I know, but it did kind of put a damper on my blogging abilities. Second (related to first as well), I’m playing through the game FEZ, and I’m working on kind of a big post about it. However, I realized that I was not nearly deep enough into the game to do it justice, and my save file had just been erased. So, the past week has been comprised of relearning and redoing everything I already did, and finishing up that game. Look for the awesome post Monday! It’s going to be magnificent. Anyway!

With the recent release of GTA V I thought it’d be a good time to discuss the positive impact video games have on our children.

No, really.

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The Birth and Death of the J-RPG

Sorry for not posting on Friday! This idea has been rolling around my head for a while, and it took me a lot longer than expected to get it down!

Kind of a dramatic title, but Japan has dominated the video game market for about as long as it has existed. That’s started to change in recent times, but certainly every big title in the early days came from Japan, from Tekken to Mario to Zelda to Final Fantasy to Bomberman to Street Fighter to Pacman to Poke’mon to… well, you get it! One in particular piques my interest more than the others: Final Fantasy. It is the epitome of the J-RPG (that is, the Japanese Role-Playing Game), and in a large sense has defined the genre of RPGs as a whole. Not much more I can say to make that clearer. You’ve probably heard of them even if you don’t play any video games at all. If you’ve played video games for a long time, you’ve probably worked your way through three or four of these games at some point, and even if you hate RPGs you probably at least had a soft spot for one of them.

They’re a big deal. One of the biggest deals in the whole industry, actually. Moving on.

This crappy montage courtesy of yours truly...

This crappy montage courtesy of yours truly…

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Adaptive Music and Video Games: A Love Story <3

Hey folks! I’m starting this on Friday (a little late, to be honest), but it may not be done till tomorrow. Sorry in advance!

So. Adaptive music. It sounds like something you’d hear at a Borg nightclub. But seriously, what IS adaptive music??
It’s music that adapts.

Yep.

Well, that was a short blog post. See you next week!…

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I’m baaaaack!

Hello, ladies and germs! Actually, I should say “guten Tag!” because I’m in GERMANY.

Whoa. Guys, I’m in Germany.

For the new folks here at the blogoblag, let me fill you in: I’m studying electronic music at the Hochschule Trossingen. Unbelievably rad! My studies begin in about 4 weeks, but right now I’m taking a 6-week long INTENSE German language learning course. Every day, 6 hours a day, just German. I haven’t been speaking a lot of English lately, so forgive me if I occasionally use a German word now and then. Actually, that won’t happen, as these blogs are rigorously edited for spelling and grammatical errors.

Not.

So, the transition from American culture to German culture has been a little bit difficult. I had my trusty DS with me, and I’ve been playing a lot of Poke’mon: White to pass the time. I’m staying with a host family that didn’t have internet (UNTIL TODAY thank Jobs), and so I was woefully without games that require the internet to play (like Diablo and Starcraft and often Minecraft and a lot of Steam games) and games that require the internet to DOWNLOAD (like the new Android Humble Bundle 3. I hope you bought it!). But now, German DSL is screaming along, giving me access to you, my dear readers, and to a wonderful cornucopia of other things like Facebook and Reddit. Actually, those things aren’t wonderful. They’re just excuses not to go outside and see this totally different, beautiful country that I’m in. So, perhaps I’ll slack off on keeping up with my American friends or the newest cat pictures.

But this blog! It must not be forgotten.

This particular post isn’t actually going to have anything of real substance (deep, well thought-out opinions about the true nature of video games will come later. Pinky swear). However, it’s going to let you know that all is not lost! There might be a brief hiccup when I move from my current location to Trossingen, because, well… new living location, lots of stuff to do, no internet, yadda yadda. Everyone who’s ever moved out of their parents’ basement knows what I’m talking about: that brief couple of days (or weeks) that you realize there is NO WAY for you to know what anyone else on the planet is doing. Interesting feeling.

So! The rest is bookkeeping. It is rather late here, and I almost said “the rest is beekeeping.” Perhaps a more interesting hobby, but I don’t think the analogy works here.

I’ve been nominated for the “One Lovely Blog” award by two separate people: cary, a longtime follower (really, one of the first) and a damn good game blogger in her own right, and Brendan, a blogger I wasn’t familiar with until, well, he sent me his nomination. Mea culpa.

As I tend to Google things, I have discovered that a ton of people have been “nominated,” and that there’s actually no one who really AWARDS these things. However, it’s totally nice and cool and it was the impetus for me to get my butt onto the computer and do some serious writing about video games! So, thank you both for the nominations… I found it very sweet.

About my day job (you know, this whole “music” thing I’ve flown halfway across the world and abandoned my family and friends to pursue). Before I left I spoke with a friend who has been in the film and video game industry for a long time, often as a certain type of artist, but as of late more as a representative for other creative types. I won’t be too specific, but she’s pretty awesome and knows EVERYONE. Anyway, we got to talking about how I would absolutely love more than anything to write music for games. It’s been a pipe dream that I’ve never considered to be a real possibility, but she was very supportive (which is a big thing, considering she KNOWS the industry and how difficult it is to enter). She mentioned something about lending her support in a more tangible way (which I also won’t mention here), but would perhaps be my “foot in the door,” so to speak. It’s not a free ride. I’d have to work hard. I’d have to start at the bottom, getting coffee for people like Hans Zimmer or Nobuo Uematsu (truthfully, getting coffee for the people who GET COFFEE for these composers). I jest, a little bit, but the important thing is, that I’d be working in that industry. Here’s the caveat: if I did take her up, I’d probably be working for a LARGER game company (think EA or Blizzard or Bethesda or something). They employ a lot of people, and as you may have read, I’m not always on their side. I think my goals and my ideals align more with an indie game group, but alas, it’s pretty much impossible to “apply” for a job in that world. It’s a great deal more about knowing the lead programmer (for example).

So what do you think? It’s a complicated decision, to be sure. Fortunately, I don’t have to make it for a year yet, and by then, everything could change. But I’m interested to know what everyone thinks.

That’s all for today! Sorry about not having any unrelated analogies or funny pictures. More will come. I just wanted everyone to know that I haven’t died or fallen off the face of the earth. I’m just on the OPPOSITE face of the earth. Completely different thing.

~Another Gamer

P.S. Here are some games. I think they’re awesome, but a couple of them will be relevant to my next post. SO PLAY THEM! Don’t slack off, you have gaming to do.

Dibbles: A puzzle game with a rather morbid (and awesome) twist.

Zombotron… 2! (even more fun than the original.)

Glean: I love these types of games. Perhaps not a “blatant” ripoff of MotherLode, but similar. This one, however, is complex, rather beautiful, and extraordinarily well-written. As far as flash games go, I recommend it very highly. Play it, be completely engrossed, leave a comment when you remember that there exists an internet outside of finding the next treasure chest.

P.P.S. I’m glad to be back. I don’t know if you could tell. I’ve missed writing about video games so much. I haven’t stopped being passionate about them, so not being able to write is a rough business. I’m glad to be back.

The Indie Game Conundrum

So indie games are cool. It’s true! They’re easily distributed, they often pursue pretty lofty artistic goals, they’re fun to play and cheap to buy. And there are literally THOUSANDS of them. Hooray for the indie gaming world!

Now that I’ve effectively summed up my opinion on that particular subject (and there is ample evidence in previous posts of mine that this is really, really true), let’s talk about what makes them so problematic. Because there are problems. I think that indie games are a godsend for game developers everywhere, but boy, they have their downsides.

The main reason for this post is because Notch (the near-god-status creator of MineCraft) did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit recently, and said some things that are very profound in terms of indie game development. Now, Mojang really only has ONE game. They may have some in the works, they may have put out a couple silly little projects before MineCraft, but MC is their big one. So, I guess we can’t call Notch “experienced” in the art of making indie games. But, actually we can! He’s had the chance to meet with, work with, fraternize with, play Halo and drink beer with every big name in the indie gaming industry, and some who are even bigger than indie games as a whole! He knows EVERYBODY, and thus knows a lot about the world of indie games and how they are made.

The big thing that totally struck me is the hype surrounding MineCraft and Mojang. EVERYONE who plays it loves it. There are a ton of people who are just completely apey over it, and I’m one of them. It’s a brilliant game, it keeps getting better, and every time I play it I look up and like 5 hours have gone by. (I’m not proud of that… okay, maybe a little, but in a very nerdy, self-loathing kind of way.) So what’s next for Mojang? What is going to capture our lives and our attention NEXT? It’s gotta be GREAT! It’s gotta be BETTER than MineCraft! WAY BETTER! CAPSLOCK! But the reality of the situation is that it won’t be. It can’t be.

And why not? Well, because it’s MineCraft, Notch says. He explained that MineCraft’s popularity was a fluke, a one in a million chance that he happened to get lucky on. It wasn’t intentional. And certainly, if we play MC ourselves, we can understand how this can be said to be true. The limits of the game are not imposed upon the player, they are imposed BY the player. Therefore, if players find it too difficult to embrace their creative desire, or an elite few hadn’t decided to make scale models of the Arc De Triomph, Neuschwanstein castle, and the FRICKIN’ U.S.S. ENTERPRISE, then perhaps others wouldn’t have picked it up and tried their hands at it. It really WAS a fluke. And the next game they put out won’t be. The reputation of Mojang is not enough to make a game that isn’t %100 awesome succeed.

Also, we must consider some other things. A different artistic goal must be in mind for their next game. To make a game quite a bit like MineCraft would make their fans jaded and let them down. In the indie game industry, novelty is a strongly attractive attribute for a game to have. The reason people like Haydn or Mozart were able to write so many symphonies and concertos is because they had a formulaic approach to composition. The same cannot be said for indie games. So, while Mojang may do sandbox games really well, they have no choice but to abandon that genre if they wish to make another game.

Finally, we must consider the people themselves. The gamedevs for indie games almost never number more than 12 or 15. There might be some indie studios with more than 20 people, but it’s very rare. When you have a close group of people like that, creativity is very hard to come by in large amounts. To produce awesome (and different) games consecutively is a very challenging thing for all game developers, but when you have such a small group of people, it becomes nearly impossible. Not every game can be utter genius. Not every game can be the most brilliant child a game company brings into the world. That’s not how it works.

To be an indie game company presents a very interesting set of challenges, and they’re ones that big game companies don’t have to face. They have the ability to create franchises out of their games that allow for a somewhat formulaic approach to how they do business, even if the artistic aspect is changed a bit (Final Fantasy or Tekken, anyone?). They have a lot more manpower, which, while it doesn’t create something completely mindblowingly brilliant very often, there is a base level of artistry in every aspect of the game (writing, 3d modeling, gameplay, programming, environments, music, etc.) that provides a quality product a lot more often than any indie company can hope for. And there’s the advertising. Big game companies throw around a lot more money, and can expect to make a lot more money from their investment. It’s the nature of the beast.

It’s a wonderful path in life to take if you love creating games. I would get up every morning and love my job if I could make indie games or write their music. But… everything that makes it so wonderful can also give these creative individuals a lot of problems and obstacles to their success. How does one continue being successful after one STARTS being successful? Notch says it’s not possible. Perhaps he’s right? Well, given the profits of MineCraft, he can AFFORD to be right! Frickin’ millionaire. For the rest of us, however, let’s hope he isn’t!

~Another Gamer

Out of town, out of mind.

Hello, loyal readers. I will be taking a vacation, and as such I will miss Monday’s blog post. I hope you don’t mind (haha, that was a joke, I know you don’t actually care). While I may SEEM bitter about my lack of a following, I’m going to reward you for putting up with it by giving you a delightful couple of games for you to play! Enjoy!

THE TREADMILLASAURUS REX!!!!!

BULLET HEAVEN!!! It’s the opposite of a bullet hell game, BUT IT’S STILL A BULLET HELL GAME!!!!

~Another Gamer

P.S. The exclamation points are for added emphasis.

The Path of LEAST Resistance?

There’s a wonderful Robert Frost poem, something about the road less traveled by. It’s a heartfelt and florid plea for you to live your life exceptionally, and not to just be the next lemming off the cliff of doing what’s popular. There are probably about four people reading my blog who actually know what the heck I’m talking about, but then again, there are only four people who read my blog. 100% Success! Anyway. This idea is applicable, of course, to more than vague, non-specific life choices! And unless you think this is a blog about poetry for which composer Eric Whitacre was sued for, then I guess we’re talking about video games.

See, Robert Frost likes the one on the left.

 

So what about video games? Am I being philosophical, and saying that video game developers should “take the road less traveled by”? They should be novel and new instead of creating another first-person shooter? Not at all, go for it! What I’m talking about is for the GAMER. No game is EVER perfectly linear. The very idea of gaming implies a choice between different options, whether it is to try to get the cherry in Pac-Man, or to go down the pipe in Mario, or to merely reflect the ball vs. trying to spin it on the tip of the paddle in Pong. That’s the wonderful thing about video games! They are full of choices. Of course, as video games have progressed, so have the choices. What began as “do I want to go down the pipe?” progressed to “do I want the feather outfit or the fire flower outfit?” progressed to “do I want the frog, fire flower, feather, raccoon, giant boot, pink evening dress or yellow spandex outfit?” in Mario (guess how many of those are actual outfits you can wear). But also, you get choices for endings. You could save the animals in Super Metroid. You could get married (or not) in Harvest Moon. You began to see tons of different options for loyalty, gameplay, relationships, storyline, endings, allies/enemies, and sidequests. It’s magnificent and (if you play games by BioWare) you can see the effects of that change today.

While that’s all wonderful and I’m pleased as punch that games have taken a turn toward the customizable, I really just want to talk about the gameplay aspect of these choices. And really, what is there besides gameplay in a game? Everything that happens in the game is caused by a choice you make (which, in lame-and-mundande World, we call those choices “playin’ the frickin’ game”). But, even more specifically, how your gameplay choices affect the rewards you receive! We have been conditioned as gamers to understand the golden rule of gaming: the more difficult it is to achieve, the better the rewards are. Hence, true to the title of this post: The path of least resistance is for wussies.

 

Moving on. Resistance is a funny term. We use the phrase “path of least resistance” without actually thinking about what the word means. Resistance is a measure of the difficulty of the obstacles the gamedevs put in the way of some goal that the player is trying to achieve. In Mario, it’s Goombas, Koopas and bottomless pits of death and agony. In Metroid, it’s Space Pirates, indigenous flora and fauna, and the occasional bloodsucking Metroid (it IS the name of the game, I suppose). In Final Fantasy, it is puzzles and battles, both random and scripted. But the gamedevs put these things there to present a challenge. However! They serve another purpose.

They tell us where to go. (Ka-blam! That was the sound of your mind being blown.) In the game Diablo (which I love to reference a lot), enemies do not respawn. So, logic quickly follows that enemies = someplace I haven’t been yet. It’s the simplest explanation for what I’m trying to illustrate, but it works. The resistance that the developers of these games put in place for us is a SIGNAL to us that this is a direction we should progress in. The LEVEL of that resistance is another signal to us. Is it higher or lower than what we have previously encountered? Is it easily avoidable or placed squarely in your main means of progression? These are subconscious clues to us as gamers that give us an idea as to where we MUST go, where we WANT to go, and where we want to really, really stay away from. They are wordless bits of information that the game developers place in the game to nudge us in the direction of advancing through the game.

The way I see it, there are two end goals in mind when the level of resistance changes in a game. The first kind uses difficult fights and tasks to serve as a benchmark to your progress through the game. Think “boss fights,” people. To get to the end of the level (and progress to the next one), you have to beat the King Slime! You have a choice to go through the main path and fight the King Slime, or you can go down this other path full of mini-slimes. In these games, what does going down the side path usually yield? (All together now!) TREASURE! Goodies, equipment upgrades, gold, potions, things that help you to die less in the inevitable altercation with the boss. For example, try this delightful little gem: Epic Battle Fantasy 3. It’s quite like Final Fantasy (which certainly provides a lot of the kind of resistance I’m talking about here), but it’s free and you can play it on your computer. At least get through the first boss! You’ll see what I mean.

The three animesque (it’s a word!) protagonists. And a star thing.

The other kind of resistance occurs in games where the main goal is simply to progress through a level. Think Metroid, or even Megaman (minus the bosses). The level is set up with pretty manageable challenges of dexterity, battle prowess, and puzzle-solving abilities. But then, there are areas of EXTREME puzzling, impossible feats of jumping and dashing, or incredibly tough baddies, stuck in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. But there IS an apparent reason! TREASURE! (It’s always about treasure, isn’t it?) This seems exactly the same as what I said before, only in this instance, the easier path is the MAIN path, and the only time you encounter any true survival difficulty is when you go for that missile tank or that extra armor. The main path requires you to freeze some enemies and jump on top of them, whereas the energy tank upgrade requires arduous wall-jumping and crazy Samus backflips that would make my yoga instructor jealous. The big difference in these games is that your “treasure” is permanent. That upgrade stays with you for the rest of the game, so the gamedevs nudge you to AVOID getting it, as opposed to nudging you TOWARDS it to prepare you for some other altercation. A perfect game to show this is called Endeavor. It is a platform RPG, and that’s all I’ll really tell you. Notice how hard you’ll have to try to get some of the upgrades you seek.

It’s about a dwarf. Don’t ask me.

 

So there are many kinds of resistance, it’s true. Some lead you to explore new areas of the game, some discourage all but the most dedicated gamers from venturing near. But resistance, in itself, is an awesome tool that game developers use to guide the user through the game, and encourage a certain course of action (while perhaps rewarding the gamer if their encouragement is ignored). You see? As if we needed more proof that the Borg are a little off in the head: they keep saying, “Resistance is futile.”

 

~Another Gamer

 

A Gamedev You’ll Love: Flipline Studios!

In the deepest ruminations of my complicated and entirely illogical mind, I have been throwing around the idea of doing game developer profiles. Lost in the annals of time, I did a blog on the creative group “2DArray,” because they’re generally awesome and have put out some of the best flash games ever (yadda yadda, so on and so forth). But NOW, I have decided to make a catchy title that will be present in all of my Gamedev profiles. It’s not an instant classic, like “Two-Minute Tuesday” or “Sado-Masochism Saturday,” but it’ll do! So, whenever you see “A Gamedev You’ll Love,” you’ll know that it means there are plenty of games and examples here for you to play (and hopefully you won’t have to pay any money for them! Hooray internet!).

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HERO Week Continues (and ends, really) with music!

Now, if you’ll recall the last post’s heroic exploits and explanations, you’ll remember that we talked about how video game heroes, with a few notable exceptions, are just a little more hero-y than the protagonists of most other storytelling genres (I realize “heroic” is actually a REAL word, but “hero-y” just sounded better in my head. Critics, I swear). We have lots of strong, silent types. People who get the job done. People who, let’s face it, just DON’T die, no matter how much they really ought to. The world of video gaming is a bright and magical place, full of wonder and people with ridiculous amounts of survivability and tenacity. That’s the first time I’ve ever used “tenacity” or any of its conjugations in a way that didn’t refer to Jack Black. And, coincidentally, that makes the perfect transition into the suitably epic topic for today’s post: the music of heroes.

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