Last week we remembered with nostalgia the optimistic stargazing of the engineers of the Voyage probe, which went rambling down stellar valleys & nebulous moors in 1977. Its hope of establishing contact with a pan-galactic federation was encoded in the wonderful golden disc we celebrated in that post.
It was also about that time that the video games industry propelled its own black probe – the Atari Video Computer System – into the living rooms of Western households. Video games embodied another mode of exploration, users acting as envoys into the digital universe discovered by Turing and Von Neumann.
As was with the Voyager’s golden disc, this journey had its own music: instructions for the manipulation of basic soundwaves executed by dedicated soundchips. The mode in which the music was synthesised – following instructions on run time rather than playing samples – was dictated by practical considerations (efficiency in the use of storage space), but had a poetic outcome: the robots played a song for the user live, as she searched for a glimpse of thee artificial intelligence being birthed at the end of a strangely looped corridor.
Another technological limitation we have told you about previously – in the number of channels that were available for synthesis – meant that chords had to be played in sequence to leave some space for drums, bass and so forth. Hence the frantic arpeggios that have become the inevitable musical expression of the epic, single-minded progression of our pixelated agents in that digital world on the other side of the mirror.
With subsequent generations of technology, we have seen the video games industry shift its focus from the exploration of worlds that are unashamedly digital and imaginative, to the recreation (and devastation) of worlds which are replicas of the one we live in.
Massive investments have been made on graphics engines and graphics processing units. Jagged lines and 2D are anathema. The trade-off is that fewer resources are available for working on the artificial intelligence of the routines disguised (and blown up) as sinorusoiraqistani terrorists, anthropomorphic aliens & leering zombies. Developers seek to hide the simplistic and immersion-breaking behaviours that ensue with linear modes of gameplay where little space is left for player agency, discovery or creativity. If you want to see what we are talking about, we advice you to ignore the constant exhortations of any of the many buddies rushing you through a Call of Duty level, and stop for a moment to look at your enemies through the scope of your mega-kills rifle, watch them, poor slaves locked in the sad loop of an animatronic ballet. Alternatively, developers make zombie games where the routines of your enemies are dumb by definition.
Thankfully, the M&M (Moore & Metcalfe) dictated technological trajectory of game-making tools and digital distribution and collaboration platforms has resulted in the renaissance of an indie games development scene offering an alternative to this blockbusting, violent, bro-dominated gaming mainstream. As is the case with music and film, the smaller teams and budgets involved allow developers to retain creative control, and express their vision unfettered by corporate executives who are often only able to exercise their imagination by thinking of ways in which a brand new, untested idea could go wrong. This new scene has reconnected with older art styles proud in their pixilation, minimalistic gameplay, randomisation and terse, trebly, bare music.
In doing so, they could be accused of luddism and retromania because some of those tropes were a response to technological limitations in previous generations of hardware that have now been overcome.
Alternatively, one could argue that this approach helps indie developers save time and expense by drawing/building on an existing tradition that makes an efficient, no-nonsense use of computing resources and technologies (and storage space, still a consideration for online distribution), allowing them to focus on innovation, expression and subversion instead. In other words, they are prioritising.
Moreover, pixels, two-dimensional and isometric perspectives, procedurally generated scenarios, and music combinations of basic sound geometries are all beautiful and logical things that feel at home in The Machine. They liberate the algorithms and programs we are interacting with from the disguises they are so often forced to wear, so that we can see their faces, and hear their voices, as we re-establish contact.
Just three examples of how great this is from indie video games we have enjoyed recently.
FTL is a Kickstarter-funded spaceship design and battle simulator where the user pushes across randomly generated regions of the galaxy, escaping from supremacist rebels to deliver a message at the headquarters of the Federation.
Each of the tracks in the soundtrack by Ben Prunty has an ‘explore’ and a ‘battle’ version.
The former, which play while you comb the planets in your way for resources to upgrade your spaceship, is comprised of delicate poems written with skeins of light, stretching like gossamer as you accelerate past them, or the music that would soundtrack the serene ballet of the wreck of a space hulk orbiting in the void, if the void wasn’t so damn quiet.
While the Battle tracks add the rhythm and tension one would expect from a deadly confrontation against vicious rebels, aggressive Mantis-like aliens, pirates, mercenaries and slave traders, they retain the beauty and wonder of such a confrontation as witnessed by an external spectator, a visitor to a museum whose exhibits are black tableaux overlaid with the geometries of high powered lasers, the ellipses and sinous trajectories of homing misiles and weaponised drones, and the blinding detonation with which one of the contenders joins the confederation of stars for a second, before vanishing in the darkness forever.
In it, the user has to manage the supplies – food, petrol, spare parts and ammunition – her party will need to make it to the West coast. This involves foraging the wastelands, and signing up for jobs in the human settlements on the way.
It is as lean & mean as it gets, as befits its fidelity to the 1971 original, and it is exactly this that makes it more immersive that many modern games with a similar theme. The events that take place as you travel through the hinterland of post-apocalyptic America are again randomly generated, and this is a source of constant dread and tension, only intensified by the fact that this game has ‘permadeath’ – dying means starting from the beginning again, a feature which is also present in FTL. The car can break down, or be surrounded by zombies, at any point. But also, someone may crack a joke that lightens the mood.
The mini-games where you forage for resources in zones full of zombies are bastard hard, partly as a consequence of the user-unfriendly gun aiming. We wouldn’t have it any other way: The feeling of panic as hordes of living dead (and, from time to time, zombie bears) surround you beats even 20JFG’s favourite Left 4 Dead. If you want to recreate what being overrun by zombies is like – and who doesn’t? – this is the place to go.
Ben Crossbones’ soundtrack fits the game perfectly, mixing chilling synth stabs in the tradition of Goblin & Fulci, instrumental rock jams that sound as if John Carpenter had made a soundtrack for a video game based on the good bits of ‘Vampires’ (they exist btw), and the odd meditation on the bleak beauty of the world now that humankind has mostly shuffled off its mortal coil, and nature has regained its former dominion over it.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP concerns the adventures of the Scythian, a slacker barbarian who roams breathtaking pixel-art woods and their dreamscape version picking & gobbling mushrooms, seeking golden trigons, getting into fights with skeletons she has herself awoken by retrieving a powerful grimoire, the Megatome, from the mountain of Mingy Taw, and exploring the effect of changes in the moon phases in the world around her.
Sword and Sworcery is an incredible and beautiful and super-trippy thing which cannot be easily described in words, so we advice you to pick it up and see for yourself.
But given that we are a music blog, we will say something about the music: Sword & Sworcery was developed from the beginning as a games/music project. These two aspects of it are so well integrated it makes sense to think of it as a song you are performing as much as as a game (cf. our post on Proteus re: game-playing as music-making.), using the lovely tools provided by composer Jim Guthrie (who used to be in Islands btw).
Its ‘soundtrack, ‘The Ballad of The Space Babies’, is the ‘fixed’ version of the songs that you would hear in a much more fluid form if you were playing the game. ‘Under a Tree’ below captures perfectly the merrily placid introspection with which the Scythian reveller trots down harmonic mountains one morning, in the wake of a psychedelic night spent under a blanket of quadrilateral stars. The rest is as good.
More information about the game here. Go and buy the soundtrack at Jim Guthrie’s bandcamp.