My gamedev/musician college BARCHboi recently finished his game, Deidia. It had one of the better soundtracks of any 2D game to come out in 2016 (or ever, really), and so I wanted to jot down a few notes about why I found that to be the case. BARCHboi is part of an interesting (small) trend of solo game designers who also have a large background music production, and thus, their solo musical work and musical work for games often overlaps.
You can watch some footage below:
The game starts with a shareware-like intro, reminiscent of the 90s, even featuring what sounds like general MIDI instruments (or synths and samples close to or complementing that aesthetic). Intros are an important thing within games – not necessarily from a narrative standpoint, but they do preview and and help prepare the player for playing the game, sort of like dimming the lights in a theatre before the movie – asking you to focus on the game.
In Part 1, around 1:30 the game fakes a loading screen, adding a lovely pad sound before the game action starts, reminding me a bit of short melodic line at the beginning of this character creation song from PSO 1/2.
The sound effect is important – it mimics the process of logging into early web services like AOL or even login noises for desktop computers, giving us some hints as to how to interpret the game ahead. In that vein, so far the sounds of Deidia have given a similar feel to ‘viewing the future’ from the perspective of the booming internet in the 1990s, though I would like to distinguish this from the sounds of vaporwave or 80s pop and the like.
And then… silence!
In the game
Mostly silence, at least. Silence can be as effective as music in games. It draws your attention to what you’re doing rather than as a background to what you’re doing. Eventually, though, you can forget about it (or it can be very awkward depending on the situation). Wind, a buzzing noise sound, water drops in a cave, the human grunt of the character jumping, and soon, the clicking of your deitycoin miners.
Deidia has what is called ‘dynamic game music’ – its music shifts and changes at a finer grain than that of normal games that only use single loops. Around 3:35 of Part 2, as I approach the cave, a pad synth fades in, as well as louder rain noises. Later around 4:45, up to three layers of rain (each with progressively more low end content) fades in, to simulate walking into a rainstorm. These techniques can emphasize the contrasts between different areas within games by changing their sounds. This idea, emphasizing contrasts, is fundamental to making game music, and traditional single-loop music can do it too (like if the interior and exterior of a building have different sounds). However when making a game with dynamic music it can be easier to do this on a finer-grained level.
Sound of deitycoin
The deitycoin miners – things I can buy through an in-game menu in order to gain more money – are an interesting design choice. Deitycoins are essentially useless outside of opening a few doors in the game, in that sense they seem like an underdeveloped game system. But their signature clicking, which fades in whenever you open the game menu, I would argue serves as reminding us that this game is intended as some sort of strange post-apocalypse – a game taking place in the decaying remains of some sort of online space. That is the sound effect signals back to the player that there’s some kind of strange programmed, internet architecture at play in the game’s world. The user interface of the game does this, as well – allowing you to glitch things – resizing the player, moving around collidable objects, changing colors.
But it’s this idea of a post-apocalypse that is interesting: Deidia’s post-apocalypse is not after the end of our physical Earth, but an abstraction of what would remain after the end of some kind of common internet social space, perhaps what an MMORPG looks and sounds like when everything has crashed and become corrupted, or a social network when everyone’s left. Endless, rainy, cloudy mountains, vast seas and networks of caves, little direction and forlorn music. While playing Deidia, we’re treated to what this may sound like.
Deidia does contain “normal” music. 6:20 features signature sounds of BARCHboi – some synth from the 80s (which I always ask about and forget the name of), using a brassy swelling pad. To me these often sound like music “leftover” in the world of Deidia – coincidentally appearing at places. As if, the coding scripts gluing together the world have been falling apart slowly.
There’s even a strange musical moment at 6:40 when I’m warped into some cloudy ambience zone – inexplicable movements through space which further reinforce the game’s aesthetic.
Another sound I like -appearing around 7:20 – is the fake animal noise. These synth squeals simulate some kind of lifeform, but we only ever see birds in the game and it’s not clear the birds are making the noise. It gives the sense that the world of Deidia is slowly repopulating with animals, alien life.
The sequence around 9:20 is one of the more brilliant points of the game, utilizing interesting camera work, sound design, visual aesthetics of a crashing shore, and the assumption of players to just run to the right in platforming games.
The drama of Deidia jumps all over the place. Music will cut out at random times, fade in suddenly. For minutes at a stretch you might be stuck hearing bird and rain noises, to be treated to a traditionally composed track by BARCHboi. I like this aspect of personality and depth to Deidia, and it’s been inspiring to me for learning to compose dynamic game music, much like some of the work of David Kanaga (like on Oikospiel – highly recommended).
Regular looping music has its place – and so does dynamic – and so why not explore both as a composer? Perhaps game composers can bring these ideas into the world of standalone music. Experimental and game composers have a lot of common ground to learn from each other, in writing for the spaces of clubs, homes, commutes, writing about systems of power and oppression, writing for the digital spaces of games, websites, videos, and so on.
Buy here: https://barch.itch.io/deiosiideidia
返校 [Detention] (RedCandleGames, 2017)
Last year, I was thrilled when I heard about a Taiwanese team of developers creating a game set in Taiwan’s martial law period (1940s-1980s). It has sold well, reaching wide English and Chinese-speaking audiences. Though not one of the bigger countries in a USA/Europe context, Taiwan has always had a presence within gaming history, from early RPGs to more recent titles also addressing Taiwan’s political history.
The gameplay is standard point and click horror with the occasional puzzle. The main character, a female student named Ray, has both a reality and a horror/dream-state world. The player guides her through both. The horror world has motifs of prison, otherworldly monsters drawing from Taoist and Buddhist culture. These motifs, as well as textual documents in the game, contribute towards a sense of unease and repression, partly intended to portray the martial law period. During this period, people were unable to create art freely (literature and film were often repressed in this period), unable to study freely, and people who broke with the status quo could find themselves imprisoned (or worse).
The game’s story is a little cryptic, but it turns out that Ray committed suicide during the martial law period, due to mental stress from a dysfunctional family, and pressure/jealousy from a failed relationship with her high school guidance counselor. Before her suicide, she ratted out an illegal reading group in her school, leading to the imprisonment of a classmate, the guidance counselor and a female teacher.
Since the main action of the game is controlling Ray, keeping her safe, and exploring her alternate reality, the game succeeds primarily as a horror game, and secondarily as historical exposition/exploration. The game shows events related to the martial law such as school propaganda, Ray ratting out a reading group, teachers being taken away by the police. Though these events make sense to use as background for a horror narrative, I would be more interested to see the issues explored in a more nuanced fashion – perhaps looking at why people went with the status quo (as either oppressor or oppressed), or went against it (and faced consequences) – rather than a sort of blanket horror atmosphere.
At the end of the game, it skips into the future, after martial law, where you briefly play as the newly-freed classmate of Ray, who was originally imprisoned due to Ray’s snitching. At this time, the weather is sunny and cheery, the environment, calm. There are no obstacles or monsters in the school. This historical transition comes off as a simplification of the end of martial law.
I don’t think the developers personally view it this way – they had done lots of research, grown up in Taiwan, etc. – but the ending conveys the sense that of Taiwan being in one of two states: martial law or no martial law – skipping over the intervening periods of transition – creating a gap. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is worth noting as an effect of jumps in time within narratives.
(See http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/tc31-int.pdf for a news brief from around the time of the martial law lifting).
Policies changed quickly after the martial law lifted – art collectors were eventually able to investigate Taiwan’s history of objects and propaganda. Scholars could study and research events of the war and the previous ruling system. Taiwan became a stable democracy, though favor for the Kuomintang (KMT) party is still relatively high. The KMT ruled during the martial law period, and falls in and out of power with each government election. The remnants of martial law still float amongst Taiwanese society and diaspora.
Despite my criticism I don’t mean to paint the game as ineffective in shedding light on the martial law period. I bring up the criticism as a point of inquiry into how such a setting could be used in other effective ways. According to the many Steam reviews and tweets about the game, non-Taiwanese players learned about a part of history for the first time, and some Taiwanese reflected on the progress of their society. It’s nice for non-Taiwanese to learn about the country, as Taiwan usually only comes up in the news when being talked about relative to US-China tensions, or its odd name in the Olympics. And according to developer interviews, it was their goal to help non-Taiwanese learn about Taiwanese culture in the same ways games from other countries have helped them do the same.
Incorporating ancestors’ experiences into games
In bringing up the issues with martial law as a backdrop, I want to think about how a historical event can be represented in a game by ancestors of those who lived through the event.
How should a person represent an aspect of their ancestor’s history in a game, what should be left in or out? How prominent within the game should the period be? Should it be a direct representation, abstracted, etc?
I think it’s important when doing a reading of a work, or creating your own, that you recognize the limitations of analysis/creation. From analsysis and criticism’s standpoint, a game cannot possibly represent every aspect and view of the causes, events and repercussions of something like martial law – or perhaps any event. As a creator, when trying to make work about a period of time, at some point you just have to focus in some way, rather than trying to cover all your bases.
My feeling of the time period being mostly a background for atmosphere in Detention seems mostly correct based on interviews with the developers, who picked it as it fit a preconceived narrative theme. I personally would have liked a little bit more investigation, characters, etc., but at the same time knowing the challenges inherent in making a game, I can’t fault the developers’ intentions, especially in light of their success at reaching players outside of Taiwan.
And there is a benefit to the ‘time gap’ I brought up earlier – though the game may sharply jump from the time period of martial law to the aftermath, that alone still conveys to a player, “How did Taiwan get from point A to point B?” Even though Detention does not investigate that point, it brings up the point for discussion. And so it makes me think that, we may leave gaps in history or analysis in the works we make, but if framed carefully, those gaps can become launchpads for players’ further research or interest. The gaps may simplify the process of social change, but gaps are better than no gaps, and I think Detention’s team knew this well. A gap in time does not necessarily imply that the historical transition was “easy”. The choice to end the game this way, I think, is much better than to just end it during martial law. Doing otherwise may have seemed more exploitative of the “Martial Law” aesthetic – purely used to make a horror game and mesh with the main character, Ray. Or, possibly unrepresentative of Taiwan, which was definitely not a goal of the development team.
Who has free reign over making work of a particular period? That is a sticky question whose answer can’t be easily generalized. I would like to say I welcome investigations by any person of something like the Taiwan martial law. I believe it is much more up to the skill of the game designer, than their ethnic background, to determine whether or not they will do an effective job in investigating the various vectors of history pointing to and from the period.
Guide to the game’s plot/endings: http://www.oneangrygamer.net/2017/01/detention-game-endings-explained/22848/
Buy Detention here.
This is a pretty incomplete list… I will keep better track in 2017. Anyways. Here are four songs I really liked. These songs all do great jobs of evoking interesting digital spaces.
Bryant Canelo – all this water you cannot drink
The song develops in the way you might peel back the world surrounding us to uncover, slowly, more about it. I would call it ‘realistic’ in the sense it sort of jumps out at you and asks you to recontextualize your surroundings.
The skittering trill throughout the whole song always has an unsteady feeling, both from the mechanical nature of trills in general, as well as its pitch changing (or a filter envelope moving around, not sure). Further contributing to this are occasional one-off percussion giving the impression of ‘did I hear that or not?, ‘dissonant’ midi-guitar-like plucks, and further percussive and choral layers.
ella guro / Liz Ryerson – (untitled sitting in the rain track)
I heard this song without knowing it also was in Robert Yang’s game, No Stars, Only Constellations. I’m particularly fond of the gently delayed, overlapping guitar sounds, especially around 1:19 when a single sequence of notes is played in different rhythms. I enjoy the layering of vinyl-ish static sounds in the song as well to give an impression of ‘recollecting’ a memory.
Liz’s music is important, especially in the context of games, where it is actively contributing and help push existing boundaries on what music for games (and music in general) can be.
emamouse – STP
See this song in a different context, with emamouse’s visual work: (6:20) http://psalm.us/mousewasher.html
emamouse puts out a lot of music, I was glad to be able to meet her at a show in Tokyo last August. A lot of emamouse’s songs have a lot of motion going on a lot – I think everywhere in this song, some synth, somewhere, maybe more subdued at times, is always doing some sort of scale-like run up and down. It’s something I’d like to do more of but is pretty hard to pull off! It’s interesting to zoom in on parts of the song and uncover new layers. Passively listening sort of gives you this kind of murky and dark flavor for the song, but like exploring an area in a game, you understand more of it and see new things over time.
That, and the hook at the start is really catchy, using a vocal sample which is characteristic to some of her other work.
Gazelle Twin – Outer Body
I heard this some point last year – and it’s really catchy. It’s has this repeating percussive bit reminiscient of times in AAA games where you’re approaching or waiting for action to happen. To that end it would be neat to see Gazelle’s music within the context of a game!
The vocal samples partway through the song add another interesting layer to the mix. The “ambient” aspects of music are fun when the artist drops in different parts, creating a panorama of sorts of a musical space. In this song, bass clips pop in, reversed percussion samples, processed vocals, etc. Looking forward to more music by Gazelle Twin.
This past fall, I taught undergrads and a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as the lecturer for the Experimental Game Lab class. There was a lot of luck in being able to get this opportunity (thanks William Chyr). I am teaching there for the near future and am in talks for developing a game music composition and critique class for the fall.
It was a studio-style class, meeting at nights twice a week for three hours. I could see this being nice during the summer, but teaching 6-9 PM is kind of drab once day light savings time kicks in.
I decided to make the first half a discussion/lecture, then the second half ‘studio’ time, or time for students to work on their projects/troubleshoot.
The class structure and content were up to me to design. I decided it would be a mix of introductory game design with Twine/Unity and critique and critical play of games (to try and increase the variety of games students were exposed to.)
One issue with the class was that it took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays – so I had to figure out what games I wanted to assign by Thursday to have them ready for the next week. In practice I was really busy with releasing Even the Ocean (please buy it) till November so I ended up having to assign 3-4 games over the weekend and a few games on Monday/Tuesday. As you might expect most students had trouble playing the games assigned on Monday/Tuesday for the Thursday class.
Part of why this was the case was that students seemed overworked – most taking 4-5 classes a semester, requiring many hours per week in-class and with projects to work on. I wasn’t really able to assign as much work as I’d like to, but perhaps this was also to blame on assigning too many game projects (more on that later.)
Luckily for next semester it’s a once-a-week 6 hour class, so it’ll be easier to structure – just assign once a week and discuss all of them for half of the next class.
Overall I managed to assign around 50 games, which was about my goal. Including student critiques that brought the total number of games discussed to around 100.
For each game I assigned, I gave some readings (often reviews or other criticisms), and then I wrote up some questions, which were usually short essay questions but I only required a few sentences. I tried to focus on questions requiring students to deconstruct how a game worked, or how effective a design decision was, or occasionally asking to think about the game’s presence (or lack of) sociopolitical themes.
Some students consistently gave good responses, others half-assed them. If anything I need to be clearer on the expectation and then enforce that in grading.
Yume Nikki: Did the presence of the ‘effects’ change how you perceived and made your way through the game’s world? How would the game have changed if there were no effects to find?
Lacuna III (An visually ‘spooky’ game): The NPC dialogue in Lacuna III is an interesting choice – although some NPCs may speak cryptically, a few speak in friendly, almost cute ways. What’s the effect of this on the player’s experience and perception of the game?
LSD Dream Emulator: In the dream-like games we’ve played so far, you transition from one place to another through doors, waking up, dying, or portals. LSD Dream Emulator adds a new way to the mix. What is the overall effect of colliding with any object functioning as a trigger to the next dream-world?
Now that I’ve generated around 50 games and written questions for them, that should buy me some extra time this semester to polish up questions, readings, and find new games to replace my weaker choices. I would like to include more short writings of my own on the games – I managed to do this for a few games, but for most I only had time to write summaries. I think it’s important to introduce why I’m picking a particular work. The past few weeks I’ve played ~80 or so games so I’ve found a handful I think are worth assigning.
I’d like to more strongly theme the games together. E.g. “newsgames”, “political”, “architecture”, “dreamscape 2d”, etc. I did attempt to do this for some weeks, but other weeks I had to do some ‘easy’ weeks like assigning some 3D games that weren’t Great but that I thought would be easy for students to emulate in their work, or even assigning my own games (which I’m still feeling okay about doing – though it does feel a little weird at times.)
We had four crits over the semester. I think this was too many. The first three required entire classes (of which I only had 28 classes in total), the last final crit took the last two days of class.
The idea was: Twine game, 2D Unity game, 3D unity game, Final project. It was an easy way for me to get a decent syllabus done, but it’s clear in retrospect that expecting four finished projects with the expectation of a crit was too much.
Instead what I’m shifting to for the spring semester will be a few shorter assignments focused on literacy with tools and design exercises, and then just a midterm and final project critique.
In the future I’d like to incorporate more interesting design exercises – perhaps when I get more confident with teaching. Robert Yang, Jake Elliott and Paolo Pedercini’s teaching work have been good reference points in this regard.
I was initially nervous about these at first, but then I realized it was basically a feedback session and it got a lot easier. It helped I had taken a few art classes in undergrad. One problem is that it got a little awkward when it was unstatedly obvious the student wasn’t satisfied with their work or, maybe, knew they turned in something of poor quality. But I never really brought this up and insisted on investigating the work anyways, and that seemed to have been fine and perhaps contribute to class goodwill.
I made sure to take notes for each student… which helped the discussion get going when the student had trouble talking about their work.
Because we are dealing with games and not traditional artworks, students must play the games ahead of time. Which is fine but this ends up having to shave a few days off of each student’s development time for a given project. This should be less of an issue since next semester will only have two crits.
General lessons on teaching
I didn’t anticipate how much of a distraction electronics would be. It feels a bit absurd to do this, but I’m planning on banning all electronics during class discussions, unless a student specifically requests to use something for note taking. Which I would then grant permission for (under the threat of a grade reduction if they take advantage of the policy). I’m not really the most confident when it comes to punishments but it seems like a necessary thing for discussions to be productive. Some students were producing music, chatting, etc.
Additionally, I’m implementing a no late work policy. I had a few students who couldn’t keep up with the work and ended up missing many assignments. I think this will help to prevent work from piling up for those students. In terms of projects the no late work thing sure sounds stricter – but I think it is also necessary. I had students turning in things a few days late or even on crit day and it really fucked up the crits sometimes since only I and a few others would have anything to say about the work.
If anything I want to emphasize that it’s okay to turn in unfinished work/WIPs. But it’s hard, and I assume it’s something students don’t feel as proud of doing.
As for discussions in class, I only did this a few times but taking notes during the discussion is really helpful over a 90-180 minute discussion, in order to reference back things people said. Should have done this more often. Might have been anecdotal, but I felt like discussions were livelier when I sat at the same big table as students, rather than project the game onto the screen during discussion. I’m still for live play, but it seems better to have another student play the game – I think students may see it as easier/more ok to be distracted if I’m up at the front of the class.
For 3D, Vanilla Unity is a hard thing to teach to non-coding students. It’s an extremely powerful tool and as you might expect if you’re not used to coding it can be hard to track down problems.
From the students, I mostly ended up with little/no-interaction first-person games. I tried to teach coding for a few days but this was pretty much a failure. I think teaching coding would be too difficult alongside the other goals of the course – I’d probably have to axe game assignments – so I’m focusing on looking into scripting tools this semester.
This semester, I’m requiring (non-programming background) students to use Playmaker if they want to use Unity 3D, hopefully that will result in better games as it (I hope) helps abstract away some of the coding and get them more into design, rather than worrying about randomly downloaded libraries not having namespace collisions or figuring out C# syntax.
Unity 2D wasn’t much better. For getting student to just make a simple game, there are so many caveats that make this a nightmare… objects disappearing because their Z coordinates change for whatever reason, it’s hard to get pixel-perfect set-up, the sprite animation system in Unity can quickly become tedious.
So I’m using Stencyl instead. Game Maker feels a lot more ideal and documented, but I’ve managed to figure out enough with Stencyl that I feel comfortable teaching it. It also has drag and drop coding, which, while tedious, is less error prone.
And, it works natively on Macs, which is necessary because my students are only guaranteed to have Macs.
Despite shortcomings with the course the students seemed to all be satisfied. On a few accounts I heard that it was one of their more well-organized classes. Evaluations will come out soon so I can see some more feedback, hopefully. Using different tools should help – I would rather leave the students in a place where they can go further with the tools rather than being stuck at a coding roadblock.
Teaching is pretty fun, especially when getting a good discussion going or when a student produces interesting work. It’s nice to stay up to date on aspects of youth culture.
I was pretty lenient with grading this time around – not sure how much I should change that. I think for the most part, students did put in good effort and their projects will be improved by structuring the class slightly differently, and changing up what tools we use.
If you see this game on the shelf, don’t touch it, don’t even look at it. You would have much more fun spending your money on a dentist appointment.
I implore you to avoid this game at all costs, and play just about anything else on the market with the joy in your heart that you aren’t playing Time and Eternity.
There’s no need to talk about why the game is bad – look at any reviews. If we idealize any popular JRPG form, TE doesn’t stand up to it. I had thought that the game may have been more popular for the original audience in Japan, but a cursory glance at the reviews shows that Japanese-speakers didn’t like it, either. One review title reads something to the extent of “it’s impossible for something to be this shitty”, its first line asking if the 5-star reviews were written by the game’s developers.
A few reviews mention the positives – which I agree with – there are some absurd story beats which end up seeming like pasted-over stories from some writer’s life, cut and past into the fantasy of TE’s world. In the game’s first main arc, you have to defeat the Assassin’s Guild, but you end up running into the Assassin’s Guild Fan Club, which has monthly magazines about the true guild. Some point later on a side quest, you have to remind a journalist walking around a field as to what his job is. As it turns out, he completely forgot his purpose for being there, the main male protagonist even questioning how he can do his job when all he does is walk in small circles.
But what’s more fun, at least for a few hours, about TE, is how the ways in which it is broken point to ideas about JRPGs/games in general.
I get a small sense of “Why on earth do I exist?” from many of the NPCs. Why does any NPC exist? It’s a well-treaded subject, and as I played TE I found myself being able to see the writers behind the game. Because the writing was so flat, the characters so predictable and shallow, it’s almost as if I could see the spreadsheet and outline of plot points and story beats to hit laid bare before me, the game’s mismanagement, tangible.
It makes me question long, 20+ hour games. The game sends you back in time – to fix something – only to have a time paradox erupt and require you to go slightly less far back in time. I quit at the beginning of the second arc. Perhaps this would work in the right hands, but there was no way the game was going to get better, and I didn’t want to play the same thing for another arc, so why bother?
Most long games suffer from repetition wearing thin over way-too-long playthroughs. In this sense, TE made a great choice to have fighting be (a flawed) 1 on 1 system, but made a poor choice to spawn battles every 20 seconds and have most battles require killing 3-4 enemies in a row.
The same wearing thin can occur by separating any of the story beats by hours of fighting, or some other repetitive task. Take Persona 5, which was harmed by dungeons that always went on for an hour or two too long – thus wearing thin its difficult balance between seeing the benefits of the dating-sim aspects of the game influencing your stats in the game’s dungeons. Unfortunately P5 worked just well enough that it didn’t bother most people enough, so I’d assume that for Persona 6, the dev team will probably try to make it even longer!
This points to the popularity of Undertale. Undertale eliminates the long-playtime inaccessibility of JRPGs, and combines and simplifies popular aspects of the genre such as character development, NPC dialogue and battle systems into a 3-5 hour package with enough variance from playthrough to playthrough. Its most interesting setpiece being that its game world, abstractly, is a character with its own development and reactions that you can influence through the battle system.
For the record, I enjoyed both P5 and Undertale but didn’t encounter much new territory from a thematic standpoint, though some of P5’s arcs (and its characters in general) were very fun. TE was terrible across the board, though playing it makes apparent that in many JRPGs I’m going through the motions of the battle so I can just see the next bit of a story. Repetitive area after repetitive area, fighting recolors of 6 enemy types, with a few sidequests and treasures to find before advancing the plot. How many JRPGs are like this, but slightly better and with these mechanical cores harder to see?
As far as shorter playtimes go, from a development standpoint there’s less to worry about in terms of player pacing, and a higher chance players will “See Everything”, or at least get into a position where they can dive deeper into repeated or alternate playthroughs. There’s a lower chance that you’ll wear your story themes or characters thin through repetition or a grating, endless battle system, a higher chance you end up presenting the more interesting ideas by trying to work within a smaller playtime. Does a game really need 40-80 hours to cook and say something interesting? I don’t think so!
Next time: A review of Deidia’s soundtrack, maybe some post-release thoughts on Even the Ocean and intuited limits on the narrative possibilities of games?
This is a review of the OST from the game 🐹 by carpetbones. Also written as “u1f439”, or for this review, HAMSTER. (The game name is officially just the emoji but sometimes it doesn’t render, so.)
Listen along and support the composer here – https://rio8.bandcamp.com/album/u1f439-ost
No commentary playthrough of the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw_uswPTai8
This game comes from a lineage of 2D, top-down dreamscape exploration games where the places you explore and inhabit are often of a surreal nature. Thus the music often doesn’t follow traditional structures.
Music for these settings can draw from a range of influences, the least interesting way to discuss them is writing them off as ambient, it is more interesting to create descriptions of textures, materials, atmospheres – that the music draws upon.
The sort of style for many of these types of games, Hamster included, is a short ambient loop – which is constructed as a combination of moods, textures, ‘shapes’. It’s not so much the notes that matter in particular here (you can often just slap on random notes and it will work for this style of composition) but the sorts of textures of the sounds.
Objectively the most cheery piece in the album – perhaps the simplest as well, with some added complexity in the quieter harmony notes of the rhodes-like lead, which add a nice layer of depth to help accentuate the cuteness of the piece.
What sticks out to me, in context of this album, is just how cheery this piece is. It’s here I need to bring up the context of the game – and that it seems to stake a divide between dream and reality, as the music does, too. As we’ll see in later tracks, the music seems to suggest particular connotations about dreams.
For the unfamiliar, this song falls has the locational context (not a genre!) of”Title Screen”, as in it joins a group of diverse music that plays on the Title Screens of video games.
It’s music that plays when you open a video game up to play it, but before the game itself starts. Sort of like a title card or intro credits to a movie.
I find it helpful to ask, how does the title screen music in a game frame the game or foreshadow it, how does it sound once I’ve played the game?
This song is one instrument as well (though with three separate voice lines), similar but warmer to the one in Credits. It is a short, straightforwardly positive loop – each voice working in the same key and accentuating the same mood, with that a sort of ‘yearning’ or nostalgic nature brought upon by the chosen chord structures, most apparent when the middle voice holds a sustain note on a chord.
In some ways it reminds me of noodling on a Casio in my college dorm room – sort of a sheltered, quiet and friendly place.
It sets an interesting tone for the rest of the album – this occupies a completely different mind-space than anything else, that of a cheery garden or nostalgic place. And fittingly, it is set in such a place in-game – the outdoors garden of the protagonist hamster, in the hamster’s waking world.
This is the most violent rupture in mood continuity in the album (and game) – immediately I get some calls back to Yume Nikki’s OST and very likely other games and spin-offs related to it which I’ve never listened to the music from.
In this case we only have two: a droning, downsampled buzzy synth with a sine-LFO on its amplitude. The LFO is important in not wearing out the listener’s ear, it also helps with accentuating a feeling of uncertainty and anticipation (though those feelings would exist WITHOUT the LFO, I’d argue). We also hear the volume of the drone voice being automated with its volume to grow and recede in intensity, further accentuating this feeling.
The second important element to break up the pace of the drone is the delayed synth which seems to have the same or similar timbre as the drone, just it’s not sustained, but bounces around the song.
Overall I’d say this serves as a good transition to the rest of the album – where moods continue to vary but stick to the same format of a more textural music.
For me, sometimes it can help – either while composing or listening to music that does not follow the structure of popular music – to imagine it as a progression through a particular landscape, where in place of a landmark passing your vision, the song brings in particular elements.
This is one of the longest songs on the album. The background of the entire song is the delayed bell synths, secondarily, the more melodic ones that come in at a lower register.
The most interesting ‘sight’ here would be the traditionally dissonant sound that comes in around 0:50 – contributing even further to the clipping of the music, transitioning from a simple sound to a wobbly one by means of an extreme sine-LFO on the pitch of the sound.
Composing something like this is fun – one fun thing is to change up what the most melodic element of the song is, which happens throughout. (I like 1:44, though it fades into the mix rather quickly, it provides an interesting point of contrast that departs from the general ‘uncertainty ambience’ of this piece.
As for the game context, this takes place in a rainy tennis court. Interesting to read the delayed bells as ‘rain’ and the misty/cloudy-like optimism of the song as being used to color in an ambiguous, yet slightly positive and cloudy day.
Highway is interesting – the scene in the game it is from is a highway, and I think takes influence from one of my games, Anodyne. Dark road, yellow lane markings and skid marks.
The song itself conjures a demonic, bumpy car ride through a dark underpass. The clipping, water-wet-sounding blips that surround the ‘engine growl’ synth add a nice widening to the song.
This kind of textural music tends to create an unsettling feeling – letting you tap into darker places or ideas in your mind.
This is one of the trickier songs to critique off the album – listening to it now, outside of the game, it strikes me as a bit annoyingly random and weak, the bassline randomly meandering at a constant pace.
It makes a lot more sense, within the context of the game, though, where you navigate a series of small, square-shaped office rooms. With the game, the song is complete – calling upon a tone of disorientation and confusion that’s conjured by the strangeness of uniform office spaces across the world. Office spaces – confined, orderly rooms with water coolers and cubicles.
Alone, this is one of the weaker songs on the album.
The volume LFO around 0:40 is a nice twist on the constant timbre of the synth, as well as the steam-y breathing synth that plays in parallel with the more pronounced wobbly bass synth. These two ideas seem like they could have led to more, but instead this song choose to randomly jump around with the pitch of its main synth. Things become a bit more interesting near the end of the song, but never enough to really cohere into a more interesting atmosphere or image – the song comes off as a little rushed or noodled into the keyboard.
Taken a little further, in some way – more layers, effects, or compositional changes, I think this could work for some kind of empty and sprawling space, or a quieter confined and subdued space.
For some reason this song plays in a later part of the game than it does in the album. It plays in a realistic-ish looking city where you can walk over train tracks and watch trains going by. In this context the song makes more sense, the meandering synth serving more as a point of creating tension within the game’s atmosphere.
I can kind of understand this track – but I think some mixing might have helped with reducing the bass frequencies, which seem to overpower the pleasant bubbling mid-range synth that pops up now and then.
Still, I like the song at a more abstract level – this barely audible rumbling contrasting against a louder bubbling.
It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think this fits the area it plays in particularly well, where you walk through a black field filled with sugar cubes and a spoon. I imagine more of some kind of place where you are in transit.
I almost want the meandering bassline here to be a little less random – or more consistently confined to one range, maybe interspersed with silence or gaps. The repetition here sounds more grating – like putting a randomizer on the pitch for a donky xylophone synth and calling it a day. To some extent, this does seem to describe the dial tones of a phone, which I would chalk up as a positive for the song. The area in-game also features scissors and telephones in its landscape.
This takes a similar approach to previous songs – building up the sound with meandering notes, except each note is sustained longer and has a longer attack. In this way, the effect of the random notes is more bearable to the listener, because the randomness of the notes is not as apparent, thanks to the timbre of the notes being sort of a growing drone.
It’s interesting – on its own this song feels hot, warm. Kind of a gritty/fire texture to it, but in-game it’s used in an underwater area where you walk very slowly! Works well as an example in where an environment and the song may have some contrast to them that creates something interesting together.
This song goes alongside one of the more surreal spaces inside of Hamster, a black space with doors scattered around with blue skies and white clouds showing through them, reminding me a bit of the painter Magritte’s Surrealist work.
The form of doors may be a reference to Yume Nikki or other sorts of games (LSD Dream Emulator). Which feature doors prominently as passageways between spaces.
How should the passageways between one room and another be delineated in an abstract setting?
Well… you can use the most literal choice, of doors. Which has an interesting effect.
I think this song uses silence well. Silence is a tool that is easy to forget we have, as musicians. Creating anticipation for the next note, confusion as why music cut out, contemplation of what’s to come…
In some way this song points more to anxiety, I think due to the dial-tone like synth that pervades the song in between staticy synth that appears from time to time.
This is a ‘sad’ song – fitting into the locational context of a ‘game over’ song, or ‘sad cutscene’ song. A more melodic song in the middle of a bunch of more textural work always hints at some narrative meaning. The area in the game this song takes place in features toybox-like shapes, clown heads, fried eggs, childrens’ blocks. Even without the game, the word “Kid” gives us some connections to sadder or nostalgic moments of someone’s childhood.
I find this song nice, but since it covers well-treaded musical ground I find it less interesting than others. I do like it as it kind of calls back some of more melodic songs on the album (like #2 Garden).
The breathy ambience here seems a little too quiet relative to the rest of the OST. Reminds me of times at night when walking alone through the city – hearing air conditioners echo through streets surrounded by tall buildings.
These kinds of textures summon images and ideas related to vast, mechanical and oppressive spaces, devoid of any living creatures.
In the game it’s put to use in a sort of ruined, grey cobblestone city with unlit candles.
Goopy, bubbling black textures make up the lower end of this song’s frequency range. This part establishes the general mood of the song, the higher notes are used to create the feeling of walking through a dark place, and quickly darting your head at what seemed to be a passing light or sound.
In a more taste way, I thought the higher notes may have been too much, at least at ~0:40. Perhaps a better way could have been to reduce the delay feedback, or just lower the volume of those sounds? I was hoping for something that made those moments of sounds darting around to be much quicker. The lower-frequency sound at ~1:30 works a lot better for this kind of goal since it doesn’t separate itself too far from the general sound palette of the song.
I like this song a lot – especially in game, as you traverse a dark space, only able to see in a small circle around yourself. As you walk around you reveal the red glowing tips of radio towers, eventually leading you to the exit of the area.
15) In Death
A far stronger ‘ending’ track than #16 Stars, the notes here call back to the feeling of #2 Garden – almost as if the song is trying to recall or wake up to the atmosphere created through Garden. I like this sort of intra-album linkage, as well as how it works in-game, as you travel through a cemetery/forest-like place. It creates some nostalgia for the beginning of the game.
Sort of like #12 Kid, I found the musical territory this treads to not be particularly new. It’s an oddly sad way to end the album – I liked the tonal change in #15 In Death and thought it would have worked well as a replacement for this song.
Worse, it felt out of place in the game – a short walk on clouds through a starry background, back home to end the game.
Whereas many of the tracks sound neutrally or sometimes ‘negatively’ ominous, this song goes for a more sad, piano lullaby vibe, which struck me as a bit off considering the progression of the narrative as a whole didn’t point towards this kind of ending, nor was this describing a particularly sad/lullaby sort of space/scene.
That covers my thoughts – I liked this album! Again, you can purchase it and support the composer here.
I hope to write more reviews later and figure out more interesting ways of writing about music. This review got a little formal at times, but I think it’s useful to break music down to figure out why it gives us the feelings it does. “Disassembly” work also makes it easier to incorporate aspects of a song into work as a composer.
Feel free to leave comments below!
A note on music found in Games… maybe I’ll expand on this later.
The value I find for this sort of short-textural music, or more generally music in games – or More Generally experimental music, as a composer, is how it expands my vocabulary for describing spaces (hospital, driveway, store, etc). I can see how a composer envisioned a particular place sounding – or, I can ignore the game context entirely, and see what images the music conjures. This format of music makes it easy to incorporate elements of all genres of music, for various effects.
A game plants the seeds for a composer to envision new sounds, likewise, a song can plant the seeds for a game designer to envision new spaces and systems and interactions.
As a listener, this sort of music is interesting in its effect to transport one to unknown and new places – places you can stand still and observe in.
As a critic, this music is important to talk about and signal boost, as a part of the wide variety of experimental music that can be listened and used as-is, or as a base for creating more music, as part of political statements in albums, games, or other media. This kind of music is easily overlooked and ignored from the critical sphere.
Music in games can often be a sort of experimental music. By way of being for games, its roots can sometimes be hard to trace back culturally, at least not in the clear paths often defined in popular musics. But, it’s wrong to say that creators of music in games are not influenced by other music, nor does their music fail to influence future composers (just look at all the popular composers who love 90s game music!).
Further, since there’s not really popular game music (except for some obvious nintendo/final fantasy etc stuff), it can be hard to categorize many game composers into easily-defined movements or buckets.
Spoilers for FF15.
The best part of FF15 is in the second playthrough or a spoiled first playthrough – it’s a part that you can only experience once given the knowledge of the game’s final arc and what happens to the world (before you save it, of course…!)
FF 15’s main plot consists of 14 chapters.
The first time you play FF15, you spend Ch. 1-8 driving around the open world of Lucis, playing as Prince Noctis, advancing the plot, fighting monsters, character-developing the main cast.
Your time in Lucis, is colored and contextualized by mystery of what will happen to the world and the characters.
Eventually you progress onto Chapter 9. The game becomes linear – taking place not in Lucis, but on a long train trip through the Evil Empire’s country. By the end of the train ride, daytime has vanished, and the Darkness has taken over the world (oh no!).
NPCs and characters worry about this in an unproductive way, not taking action, because of course, it’s a Final Fantasy world and there’s no way a normal person has any ability to affect change – only you, Prince Noctis, do!
What this all leads up to is a huge ‘whoa’ in Chapter 14 – where you end up, 10 years later after separating from your 3 friends, at an early area in the game, alone as Noctis. This area was a pleasant beach resort but is now overrun by a ton of demons. You’ll probably decide to run past them. You end up in a car driven by a character who you encountered as a kid in the first arc. You head back to the first area of the game, surveying the countryside and watching demons run around everywhere, as you talk to this driver about what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Your friends are still alive. The gas station, Hammerhead, where you started the game, is now more or less an outpost for demon hunters.
For all its flaws, I think this progression is pretty brilliant – a logical conclusion to the slow insertion of hopelessness and (on average) reduced sense of power in the player throughout the game’s 2nd arc.
Anyways, you sacrifice yourself and save the world. Hooray.
OKAY SEAN WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF FINAL FANTASY 15??
Now we’re ready to talk about that!
The best part of FF15 is the emotion of inhabiting Lucis’s landscape in your second playthrough, knowing what tragedy will befall it. Viewing its visual spectacles, going on fun hunts with your band of buddies, and still having that colored by knowledge of the world’s future.
It’s the feeling of know that every anxious NPC and person you are talking to, is doing too little, too late. Whether anyone likes it, eventually once you’re on that train, daylight will wane away, demons will grow, people will die. You know things will end up linearly, on a slow train ride through deserts, as the world turns to dark.
As an NPC in the Train Arc says on the radio – the shifts happened so slowly that no one noticed it until the effects were extreme.
Hmm… that sounds familiar…
And I say emotion, because once you drill into it, you realize this is a pretty dumb game overall and the reason that emotion exists is because of a silly fantasy narrative where almost every non-hero is literally Pointless.
The social system the game creates is one in which NPCs have zero power to do anything collectively, except maybe give you money which helps you save the world (oh wait, did I just make an argument for the existence of collective action by NPCs in JRPGs? Hm).
But still, it’s a powerful feeling. You grow to hate the night while playing FF15 – you can’t fast travel, overpowered enemies spawn. And this feeling is accentuated because the entire world and everything positive about it will be lost to that night.
Maybe this parallels our world now – talks of organization against fascism. Of course, our world is different. If people band together, they can do something! We don’t have to wait for a Prince Noctis. Still, those emotions of oh, shit about the future, that perpetually color our air, are worth noting.
It’s worth bringing up a game, Even the Ocean, which has a similar feeling on its second playthrough.
Spoilers for Even the Ocean
Even the Ocean is carefully colored by a silent tone of growing dread, culminating in the ending, where everyone dies. You can completely miss this by playing through quickly or skimming dialogue.
On a second playthrough, things are toned similarly to FF15 – you know the world will end, except in ETO, the world ending is permanent. So you get this sense of dread thinking about how people are idly sitting by or misinterpreting the situation, rather than, it’s a crazy fantasy plot and Prince Noctis and the Gods will swoop in and save it all!
It’s a hopeful, maybe realistic ending, once you drill down – one in which it’s acknowledged that there could have been change, a way to avoid the events of ETO’s ending – had people known to act together earlier.
Thanks to this piece by @eatthepen on jrpgsaredead whose observation about a weird feeling hearing a song play while driving, spurred me on to write this short piece.
If you liked this piece, consider buying Even the Ocean and telling friends about it!
A note on this blog coming back
Decided to re-consolidate things here… Medium was kind of annoying and weird to manage. Website works, but it’s nice to have this stuff working here and it looks like wordpress has decent backup exporting. Plus there’s old stuff here already.
On the blog name, not sure. It’s a term I use to describe my music, and I kind of like the juxtaposition it makes in your head. Blogs need a name, I guess.
Some essays from the time in between: http://seancom.nfshost.com/writing.html
It’s been 3 years since posting on here! Other than that writing, well, Joni and I finished Even the Ocean. Funny that the last post here was “goals of Even the Ocean”. I think we did a good job overall, the best we could. It’s not selling great. Oh well. Bad time to release and everyone wants to write about Hot Dogs 2 and Dishonorable the Second, and soon, This Game Again 15 and etc. (oops i just wrote about it too). We might get more coverage in coming months?
I kind of wish the press or Youtube or Twitch people, would do less talking about spreading diversity and then, uh, stamping it entirely out by never reporting or talking about minority work. I understand the economic issues behind why this isn’t always possible… but still!
A lot of other things happened, but are of less concern to this blog. I guess one main thing is that I now teach at SAIC for the Experimental Game Lab class, in which I taught a bunch of minority work and had students make their own games. I hope to write about that in a few weeks once it wraps up, as well as release course materials (I’ll be teaching it in the spring, too.)