Tag: video games

Games Played: FRACT OSC

For better or worse, rhythm games that require you to synchronize your actions with a beat are by far the most common form of music-themed video games these days. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to integrate music into gameplay, and a few interesting game-like things have been taking other approaches recently, like the meditative SoundSelf or the hybrid synthesizer/game console Ming Mecca. This kind of music game isn’t common enough yet to constitute a movement or even a trend, but maybe it’s the germ of one.

FRACT OSC's world

The synesthetic world of FRACT OSC

FRACT OSC is the latest and one of the most exciting additions to this fledgling genre. It describes itself as a “musical exploration game inspired by synthesizers,” and that’s pretty accurate. The game places you in an abstract neon landscape somewhere between Myst and Tron, and the environment is peppered with various kinds of music-making machinery. The gameplay is divided about half and half into puzzles that require manipulation of the environment, and music sequencer puzzles where you’re arranging melodic patterns. The first kind of puzzle, where you’re moving around boxes and redirecting lasers and such, will be familiar to anyone who’s played this sort of game before. But it’s admirable how smoothly the environment will audibly respond to your efforts, adding a layer or two to the ambient soundtrack as you get closer to a solution. This adds to the sensation that you’re in a world literally made of sound, that music is woven into the fabric of its reality.

Sequencer puzzle

One of FRACT OSC’s many music sequencer puzzles

But it’s the music sequencer puzzles that intrigued me the most. These puzzles present you with a piano roll-style display that lets you compose simple melodic and harmonic patterns which get more intricate as the game progresses. Without spoiling the game too much, what I admired most about these sections was how they guide the player to create certain kinds of musical structures, but without dictating specific solutions. For example, I might need a dotted, syncopated rhythm to progress, but the exact timing of that pattern might be open to interpretation. Most impressively, the game manages to convey all of this wordlessly, through carefully constructed audio and visual cues. Another nice touch is that the patterns you’ve created then later appear on other surfaces in the game, underlining the fact that you’re not just an observer in this world, you’re a maker.

As a music teacher (and perpetual student of sorts), I was inspired by the sense of balance in gently guiding the player, which is the same kind of balance I strive for in lessons and classes. Teaching composition is especially tightrope-y in this way. Saying “this is the way things need to be” doesn’t help a student think for themselves, but providing no direction is, of course, no help at all. It’s not unlike the dilemma that a game designer faces—you want to give the player some agency, but you also don’t want them to miss all the wonderful set pieces you’ve created for them.

I couldn’t help but think to myself as I was playing: could this kind of music puzzle be used as an educational tool to help students navigate their own creative processes? So much of composition is already about balancing possibilities and limitations. While it certainly might pique someone’s curiosity to learn more about music, I would stop short of saying that FRACT OSC is educational in its current form. But I can imagine similar strategies that could potentially illuminate ordinarily challenging musical concepts. We could see puzzles based on a visual rendering of the harmonic series, or a synesthetic representation of functional harmony.


Even the edges of FRACT OSC’s world are populated with discoveries

While the puzzles are the real meat of the game, the world they are situated in is much larger geographically, and you can find yourself wandering fruitlessly from time to time, searching for the next thing to solve. At first I was put off by this, until it suddenly took on metaphorical resonance. Creativity, too, is full of wandering, full of countless, often frustrating detours into cul-de-sacs and dead ends that you thought were highways. To be successful creatively, you have to be okay with this often-circuitous journey. You have to accept getting lost—and this is what the game was seeming to say to me, too. It helps that FRACT OSC’s meanderings take place in such a scenic and animated environment—while searching you might stumble across a breathtaking, surreal vista, or glowing pink crystals and green geodesic domes that emanate reverberant tones, or a fairy circle of levitating oscillators. The game is full of discoveries like this.

FRACT OSC advanced settings

Some of the studio’s “advanced settings”

FRACT OSC also has to walk a fine line between between being too trivial for musicians and too opaque for non-musicians, and this is most apparent in the game’s “studio,” which brings together all the oscillators and modulators that you unlock as you play the game into a reasonable facsimile of a digital audio workstation. You can make credible electronic music with this studio, and export the result as a WAV file or YouTube video, but the interface has some obvious limitations. For instance, the piano roll is pentatonic, there’s no automation to speak of, and you’re stuck with a few preset drum patterns. Still, the synths themselves sound great and are satisfyingly tweakable, especially after unlocking the “advanced” settings, which include a variety of options for filters, LFOs, waveshaping, and envelope shaping. For expert knob twiddlers, you can even get pretty noisy and experimental if you’re so inclined. It made me wish that the synths were available as a VST or AU plugin that could be incorporated into the context of professional audio editing software.

In the meantime, FRACT OSC is something of curiosity that is likely to delight musically inclined video game fans and perplex others. I only hope that it gains enough traction to inspire similar efforts from other game designers.

Games Played: Proteus

Proteus is a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga in which you wander around an island and stuff happens. Its minimal resemblance to a typical game has caused some to brand it an “antigame,” or not a game at all. This ongoing turf war in the gamer community over what is and isn’t afforded that status is a curious echo of old 20th-century arguments about music and art. In fact, Proteus could just as easily be called an interactive audiovisual artwork, raising the question: What is the difference, anyway? Does it even matter?

Despite what the semantic warriors insist, Proteus does have a very effectively game-like progression, with mysteries to solve, discoveries to make, and yes, an unmistakable ending. Because this progression is so essential, still images of Proteus really don’t do it justice. While the pixelated aesthetic Key creates is appealing in a way that invokes early Atari games, playing the game is another experience entirely. As the title suggests, Proteus is all about change and transformation. Without giving too much away, encountering these transformations is where the game really takes off. (The sunrises and sunsets, in particular, are mesmerizing.)
But Key’s visual design only tells half the story. Kanaga’s sound design—or “music design” as he calls it—is incredibly dynamic and layered, with samples culled from an overwhelming number of sources. The game makes use of over 350 audio files, from short blips to longer textures. Making your way across the island, these sounds are constantly intermixed and juxtaposed according to where you are, when it is, and what’s around you. The countless, ever-shifting combinations that result make it hard, at times, to even revisit a particular sound palette.

Kanaga’s musical aesthetic mirrors Key’s visuals in certain ways. Like the jagged pixel edges, the music also has visible (audible?) seams. Paradoxically, these quirks become part of the immersive experience, as you explore a world with qualities slightly orthogonal to our own. When a texture loops, there’s no particular effort to disguise or smooth out the endpoints, and it can be jarring to hear pure synth tones mingle freely with field recordings and fleeting orchestral fragments. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe is most prominently featured, though an astute classical music fan may detect many more references. On the other hand, maybe not, since they’ve likely been chopped up, sped up, slowed down, pitch shifted, reversed, or otherwise obscured.

While Kanaga says he has forgotten the origin of many samples, an hour-long mix created last year as a prelude to a live set reveals some of his influences and inspirations, including Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Brian Eno, Erik Satie, the Beach Boys, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Gesualdo, Satie, Bach, and Ravel. In this mix, too, Kanaga allows these disparate musics to overlap in unexpected and poignant ways.

Proteus: Timeline

click image to enlarge

Kanaga views his overlapping textures as a kind of counterpoint, and draws a connection between theories of polyphony and the discourse of free improvisation. Both traditions look at “multiplicities as unities… [placing] an almost ethical weight on the idea of the independence of parts… collective freedom, sort of an Enlightenment idea.” He credits his experiences with improvisation as essential to the development of his musical aesthetic, explaining, “Improvisation is very important to me. Many of the most profound musical experiences I’ve had have been non-performance improvisations with friends that probably wouldn’t have sounded very good, or maybe even interesting, to an outside listener.” This led him to conclude that the interactive and tactile aspects of music making were just as important as the music itself. To illustrate this, Kanaga invokes one of Theodor Adorno’s maxims: “To interpret language means: to understand language. To interpret music means: to make music.” Kanaga translates this as: “Play is FUNDAMENTAL to musical experience.”

This sense of play is immediately apparent from the first moment of Proteus, and Kanaga hopes to find it in classical music, too. He suggests, “I think we’re at a point with classical music that to bring it back to life—not as an old man on life support but once again as a DANCING CHILD—perhaps we’ll need to destroy it with even greater vigor.” He points to John Cage and the avant-garde developments of the ’60s and ’70s as productive destructions in this vein, but laments their current legacy. “I think it’s a shame that sound should become amusical… Sound is dry, rational… music is irrational, playful. Many people these days are afraid of irrationality, but it’s exactly a kind of acceptance of the unknown in music that’s needed.”

Proteus is currently available for PC/Mac and downloadable through the game’s website or though Steam. Kanaga’s music can be found on Bandcamp and his writings at wombflashforest. He also releases solo and collaborative improvised music with Ilinx Group.

Toward a New Grammar of Game Music

In a recent article at Gamasutra, Andrew High asks the question, “Is game music all it can be?” While I agree with his general premise—that music in video games can do so much more than it’s currently doing—I found the article to be frustratingly incomplete, and I’d like to articulate why.

Most of High’s reference points originate from cinema, and on the surface this makes sense. Games and film both rely on visuals and sound complementing one another. Beyond that, however, the differences between the two art forms are vast. Even the most linear game still carries with it an element of choice. It’s telling that most of High’s examples come from cut scenes or set pieces, the most cinematic parts of a game, which are more or less identical for every player. But most gameplay is much more open-ended. Even the most basic aspects of the experience, like pacing, are at least partially in the player’s hands. One player may decide to linger in a certain area, while another may rush through. And as any filmmaker, storyteller, or musician is well aware, pacing is crucial to how your art is perceived.

Because of this, a great deal of music in games cannot be tailored for one specific situation. It must function for several different situations, or variations of the same situation. High hints at this when he mentions Bernard Herrmann’s classic score to the romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where the music initially seems at odds with what’s happening in the story. But this kind of dialogue between music and film, in which the music is allowed to be somewhat independent, is hard to come by these days. For this and a host of other reasons, I think it would be a huge missed opportunity if video game music simply replicated the grammar and tropes of contemporary film music. As a new and still developing art form, video games demand a new musical grammar.

Let me explain what I mean by that a little more specifically. For one thing, the way games tell stories is substantially different from the way movies tell stories. Even how audiences engage with the two art forms is different. Players interact with games through exploration and the branching paths that come along with that. Thus, the world itself that the player investigates has to convey much of the story. This kind of narrative through world-building is one of the things that makes video games special, and it’s something that the music can and should participate in. Some soundtracks accomplish this by creating a stylistic palette that is specific to the world of the game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those recent soundtracks that capture a distinctive aesthetic are among the most successful, like Bastion’s “acoustic frontier trip-hop” or Sword & Sworcery’s sweeping ambient soundscapes.

But I’ve still been talking in generalities, and I’d like to look at one scenario in detail to show how music can really bring a world to life. There’s no question that the music and sound design of Portal 2 is stellar all around—in particular the “Turret Opera” of the final cut scene seems to be an audience favorite—but there’s also a ton of smart stuff peppered throughout the game that’s not quite as obvious. It’s these small, subtle details that really give the game’s universe its distinctive feel.

In one room early on in the game, there are three laser beams that need to be redirected in a particular way. When a beam is correctly aligned, the target begins playing a short musical loop. When all three beams are aligned, the three corresponding loops create a complete harmonic texture. Rhythmically, the three loops are slightly out of phase with each other, keeping the limited materials interesting.

On the most basic level, this is a reward for the player and a cue to let them know that they’re headed in the right direction. But on deeper level, it says something about the world that the player inhabits. It turns out that many of the other objects in the game—bridges, tractor beams, cubes—also make their own music. In contrast to the sterile chambers of the first Portal game, it shows that this mechanical world is perhaps more alive and harder to predict than we first thought. And it changes, bit by bit, how we think about GlaDOS, the artificial intelligence that controls this world, who is initially an antagonist but slowly becomes a more sympathetic figure. Is this music or sound design? Strictly speaking, it’s hard to say, but it’s driven directly by the actions of the player. The music accomplishes all this wordlessly and more effectively than a line of expository dialogue. There’s also no precedent for this that I know of in film (though I can think of a few analogues in interactive art).

To be fair, High mentions adaptive audio and the rise of indie games that “integrate music fully into the game” at the end of his article, though this feels more like an afterthought than a fully developed idea. How our opinions differ is probably more a matter of degree than outright opposition. But I do believe that the focus in video game music should be on devising and developing new ways for music to be used, rather than relying on well-worn, tried-and-true tropes. With all the innovation happening in games right now, why shouldn’t this extend to the music?

IndieCade: A Car Crash of Math and Feelings

This last weekend I was at IndieCade, a festival for independent video games held in Los Angeles (conveniently enough for me). I was specifically on the lookout for games that had an interesting approach toward music and sound, and I was not disappointed. I was also glad to find many people looking for deeper connections between music and games. On Saturday, during a talk about non-game inspirations, Naomi Clark described music as a “car crash of math and feelings.” I have a hard time coming up with a better description for music, games, or my experience at IndieCade this year.

The festival gives out awards to various games every year, and this year they also invited composers and musicians from several of the nominated games to perform. One highlight for me was the Czech duo DVA, which wrote the soundtrack to the lovely Botanicula and performed at the closing reception. It’s tough to know what to expect from a live show when a band is heavily electronic in nature, but DVA’s set was a delightful blend of beats and textures with warm and inviting acoustic sounds like clarinet, saxophone, guitar, and enthusiastic vocals. In “Russian Electro Song,” they even created an instantly infectious rhythm out of rubbing and tapping on two contact mics.

At the opening reception, I was excited to perform alongside two other soundtrack composers, David Leon (Contre Jour) and Casey Merhige (A Closed World). What was nice about this is the diversity in approach to live performance. Casey played a really fun chiptune-inflected DJ set while David played more intimate, atmospheric solo piano music. In performing music from Analogue: A Hate Story, I may have gone a little bit overboard in clinging to my chamber music roots, assembling a mini-orchestra of sorts consisting of Chris Votek (cello), John Graves (bass), Corey Fogel (drums), Hiza Yoo (kayageum), and myself on keyboards.

At Saturday’s Night Games, there were also a few featured acts that blurred the distinction between a game and a performance. Fernando Ramallo’s beautifully executed Panoramical allowed users to explore the audiovisual parameters of a projected landscape via a Korg NanoKontrol’s knobs and sliders. This was followed by Cosmic DJ, which had a few moving parts—a live DJ with a laptop running an Ableton Live session, and an iPad with a step sequencer that audience members could play with. This interface also displayed hilariously silly visuals that were simultaneously projected on the big screen. It appears that this will eventually be turned into an iOS app of some kind, but what was great about this performance is that it wasn’t an app, so you could engage with it on multiple levels. While the live DJ could control the performance to an extent (and hype up the crowd by yelling inspirational phrases like “feel the cosmic love!”), as an audience member you also had some agency. You could choose to have a creative role or spectator role by waiting in line to play with the app or simply enjoying the performance. (After this, I hear that Disasterpeace and Rekcahdam played a really raucous set, which I unfortunately missed.)

Of course, many of the games themselves had plenty to offer musically. Dyad, the winner of this year’s Audio award, was also a crowd favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. The experience of playing Dyad is hard to describe concretely, but it superficially resembles flying through a tunnel at extremely high speeds. (Hey, does anyone else remember S.T.U.N. Runner?) What makes it special is its attention to synesthetic detail—everything that happens in the game is accompanied by a simultaneous change in both visuals and music. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and completely dependent on the sound design. It simply would not work without the audio.

Other games were more subtly innovative—Beat Sneak Bandit, a rhythm game in which the player infiltrates a mad scientist’s lair, presents a clever take on a well-worn genre. Each obstacle in a level is on its own timer of sorts, requiring the player to integrate their movements into increasingly complex rhythmic patterns as the game progresses. Sonically, the closest comparison I can think of for the resulting panoply of music and sound effects is this work song from the University of Ghana post office.

Some games stood out in the audio department despite not being specifically sound-focused. In Gorogoa, a visually stunning game with an intriguing comic book-inspired mechanic, players progress by manipulating the arrangement of panels in a 2×2 grid. As new panels introduce new parts of the game world, the ambient sounds subtly change to reflect this. Especially when several panels are in play, the effect is impressively seamless.

On Saturday, the sound panel featured developers of three other audio-centric games: Aaron Rasmussen (Blindside), Richard Hoagland (Open Source), and Robert Lach (POP: Methodology Experiment One). POP boasts a novel process of creation, with a series of mini-games designed to accompany musical tracks, rather than the other way around. Open Source is a kind of live-action audio Pong, where players must discern the location of the ball from audio cues, and move accordingly. Similarly, Blindside is an “escape from zombies” game with no graphics at all, where players must rely purely on sound to survive. (Apparently Blindside originally included up to 40 simultaneous channels of audio, which they had to scale back to 14 due to iOS hardware limitations.)

Berklee professor Michael Sweet, the moderator of the sound panel, mentioned the John Cage and Stravinsky centennials in his introduction, and challenged the panel members to answer the question, “What would John Cage be doing if he were alive today?” Despite the slight absurdity of the question, it brings out some interesting parallels. Independent/experimental video games are in a position of similar social relevance to experimental music in the early-to-middle 20th century, the era when a ballet could start a riot and an avant-garde composer could appear on network television. Like the cries of “that’s not music!” leveled against Cage and friends back in the day, these days you hear a lot of “that’s not a game!”—particularly when a game has a political narrative that is outside the norm.

What’s heartening is that, at least at IndieCade, there seems to be interaction between the experimental and the mainstream, and while there is tension at times, there is also a great deal of mutual inspiration and respect. I may be reaching a bit here, but I thought I detected a deliberately contrarian bent in the awards given out—giving the technology award to a book, or the story award to a wordless game, or the impact award to a student game confined to a single campus. I hope that this trend continues, and that we won’t see an increasingly artificial divide between the experimental and the mainstream, like music in the late 20th century.

I also heard consistently from others that, in comparison to other game conferences, IndieCade is remarkably queer-friendly and diverse in terms of gender and race. I certainly found it to be more welcoming, in a general sense, than any music conference I’ve been to, and I can’t help but think that the two are related. Mattie Brice (@xMattieBrice), Patricia Hernandez (@patriciaxh), Anna Anthropy (@auntiepixelante), Daphny (@daphaknee), Kris Ligman (@KrisLigman), and Christine Love (@christinelove) have all discussed this in the context of the games community, and it’s led me to question many of my assumptions about the role of politics in art. It’s made me increasingly frustrated with new music’s often calculated distance with anything remotely politically relevant, except in the context of the occasional craven marketing push. We all know that composers are still overwhelmingly white and male, yet despite the odd “lol dead white guys” joke, the issue is still rarely discussed with much depth or nuance outside of the (somewhat marginalized) “new musicology” movement. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

It’s possible that I’m conflating a few things here, but I can’t help but think that inclusiveness, collaboration, and creativity are intrinsically linked, and that the true hallmark of a healthy, functional art scene is somewhere in the combination of all three. I don’t think we have this in the new music world right now, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to get there.

What New Music Can Learn from Video Games

I’m always interested in how various artistic communities deal with the looming specter of experimentalism. With any art form, there’s almost inevitably some resistance to the experimental, leading to a reactionary defensiveness on the part of the experimenters. (“You can’t fire me, I quit!”) From my mostly-on-the-sidelines, grass-is-greener vantage point, the indie video game community seems refreshingly free of these trappings. Lately I’ve been wondering why this is, and what the new music community might learn from this.

One immediately striking thing about indie video games is that the line between experimentalism and commercialism is often fuzzy at best. If you look at it as a spectrum, it can be hard to figure out where the poles are even located. Lots of game developers—Stephen Lavelle, Andrew Plotkin, Anna Anthropy, and Terry Cavanagh, just to name a few—seem to dabble in both worlds, and even they can’t always predict which side of the fence a particular project will land on. Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, an iOS game with a minimalist visual aesthetic and punishing difficulty, seemed like a niche  effort even to its creator until it became a surprise hit.

Part of this is certainly due to a different sort of market. At least right now, people seem more willing to pay for games than to pay for music, which allows for a little more leeway in what developers choose to work on. At the same time, these developers deserve at least a little bit of credit for creating this environment and inspiring such devotion. In particular, I’ve been impressed so far by the openness of this community, not just in the diversity of the things they make but also in their encouragement of others. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that anyone should be able to make games, regardless of what kind of background they have in the field.

This is quite a contrast to the world of concert music, where performance and composition are regarded as elite professions that demand decades of highly specialized training. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this, but I do wonder what it would be like if we were a little more welcoming to others outside of the profession, not just as audience members but as potential creators. I sense that there is a fear among some that this would be like opening the flood gates—the derision that greets any new tool that makes it easier to make music is a pretty clear indicator here. But what if, instead of regarding them with suspicion, we viewed them as stepping stones to other kinds of musicianship? How could we help bridge those gaps? Instead of diluting the craft and rigor of concert music, new perspectives would enrich the field, and a more musically literate population would mean more fans who appreciate the effort and talent that goes into the act of making music.

As far as what this radical audience participation might look like, I’m not sure yet. But I’d like to find out.

Games Played: Dyad

Released July 17, 2012 on the PlayStation Network
Developer: Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket Inc.
Game Designer: Shawn McGrath
Music Composer: David Kanaga

Today, Dyad was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to administer heroic doses of ultimate sensory overload. It is absorbed directly into gamers’ cerebral cortex via their eyes, ears and thumbs… Research on Dyad began in 2008 at CERN by Shawn McGrath. After CERN officials observed test subjects wholly absorbed in euphoric trances and reviewed testimonies of transcendental interactive experiences, CERN halted development of Dyad and expelled Shawn. Determined to finish his research and enlighten gamers worldwide, Shawn partnered with composer David Kanaga and continued developing Dyad in secret. The misnomer “the god particle” has been the headline of choice for journalists since CERN’s recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. This dialectic dereliction prompted Dyad’s immediate release to stimulate gamers’ sense of discovery and aid in the search for their own “god particle.”

Besides being one of the most entertaining press releases I’ve encountered, the above is a pretty good introduction to the strange and striking world of Dyad, which resembles nothing so much as a particle’s-eye-view from the Large Hadron Collider—that is, if the inside of the LHC resembled a non-stop techno/rave party with an all-night laser light show. Dyad uses the trappings of a tunnel racer along with a reactive musical score that sounds more mind-blowing the better—and faster—the player is able to sling and hook other passing particles, catapulting the whole experience into audio-visual overdrive that emphasizes the thrill of virtuosity.

If ever a game deserved its standard epilepsy disclaimer, Dyad is it; certain kinds of players will absolutely love immersing themselves in the harmonious synaesthesia of music, color, and touch, while others will likely find the game over-stimulating, even headache-inducing. When the speed is upped to warp drive, the scintillating, kaleidoscopic imagery becomes a visual expression of the music, as well as the source of musical change—almost as if we’re zooming along so quickly that it’s no longer clear whether the music is reacting to gameplay, or if the shifting game environment is influencing the music. This ability to blur the senses is one of Dyad’s most unique achievements.

Each of the game’s 27 levels introduces a completely fresh gameplay mechanic, which lends the relatively short game a plenty-challenging learning curve. Just when you’ve gotten the hang of things and are really sailing along, the game tosses in a new concept or means of locomotion that forces you to slow down and reevaluate. Dyad is not a dumb, accelerate-to-the-finish-line kind of game, but neither is it a ponderous puzzler, and this tension between the joy of speed and the need for on-the-spot decision making provides just enough resistance for mastery to provide a real sense of accomplishment.

Dyad is that rare musical game that owes nothing to the stagnant glut of Guitar Hero and Rock Band knock-offs—a new and decidedly high-octane way to interact with our senses, both high-tech and deeply expressive of the user experience.

Games Played: ToneCraft


Released for Google Chrome browser only: ToneCraft
Developer: DinahMoe

Human beings only come to grasp new concepts by relating them to something they already know; our predominant way of understanding the world—and expressing ourselves—is via metaphor. Our reliance on metaphor makes possible the absorption and mastery of many new things, but there is always a point at which the metaphor breaks down and the new idea must emerge in its own right.

ToneCraft—a musical toolkit that takes advantage of Web Audio API as a workspace for free composition—provides a fantastic metaphor for introducing unwitting normal people to the zany world of composing, albeit one that is far too limited for anything beyond some rudimentary dabbling. Professional musicians can expect very little from ToneCraft other than a few moments of amusement; but for people who have never tried composing and possibly cannot read traditional music notation, ToneCraft becomes more than an entertaining plaything: it set up one of the most effective metaphors for exploring various types of aural experiences through spatial and visual relationships.

Swedish developer DinahMoe created a three-dimensional grid environment ripped straight from an earlier Swedish game called MineCraft, with various elements corresponding to musical tones. Colors suggest different instruments or timbres; the X- and Y-axes represent pitch and duration, respectively; and the vertical Z-axis allows users to layer sounds to create rich contrapuntal textures. This is a lot of fun and a great way to get budding composers—especially kids—thinking about the actual parameters of sound rather than the frequently unhelpful stylistic dictates that too often serve as the entry point into music composition.

Beyond this fresh, sandbox-style approach to toying with sound, unfortunately, ToneCraft offers little to sustain attention; greenhorn composers who have gotten bit by the bug will likely move on to another type of technology—be it sequencer, microphone, or one of those endangered notation programs—for any real in-depth explorations. It’s fun to make random objects, then “play” them back to hear what they sound like—but it’s exactly here where the metaphor breaks down as the user progresses, because as the “compositions” get more sophisticated, the results become gray and jumbled, the software failing to produce distinct expressions of more complex visual input.


Still, ToneCraft is a remarkable experiment (or “lab” as the developer’s site indicates), not intended for long-term use but created to provoke an immediate spark: here are the most basic elements of sound design, made as intelligible and accessible as a set of childhood building blocks. For this achievement alone, ToneCraft is one of the very few musical games with any appeal for those folk who are intimidated by the idea of music’s conceptual side—and unlike the mainstream console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, this one is largely user-directed: a very small sandbox that for a few brief hours makes the very hyped and mystified process of composing seem like child’s play.

Games Played: Journey

Released March 13 for download on the PlayStation Network
For one player of any age
Developer: Thatgamecompany
Presented by SCEA Santa Monica Studio
Game Director – Jenova Chen
President – Kellee Santiago
Lead Designer – Nicholas Clark
Art Director & Lead Artist – Matt Nava
Music Composer – Austin Wintory

Last week I had a welcome chance to discuss the current state of electronic gaming at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum of American Art, as part of a concert presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s current exhibit about the past and future of video games. It was great to see so many young, new faces in the audience for a concert of new music—including many young people who are choosing to play games that reward creativity, exploration, and kindness rather than games in which the solution to every problem is more violence.

There are far too many video games that indulge exactly this kind of near-pornographic violence. And sharing the panel with me at the Smithsonian were other colleagues whose similar disgust had rendered them highly skeptical of the genre’s potential for quality interactive experiences, much less the potential of video games to ever approach “true art.” Knowing how the nascent genre of film was likewise derided at its outset as incapable of reaching the heights of the theatre, I’m more optimistic about the evolution of video games; after all, film had completely emerged as a valid and expressive genre before the middle of last century, and the fact that there are a lot of movies like Transformers doesn’t in any way impinge on the greatness of Citizen Kane.

For a distillation of all that is promising, unique, and breathtaking in the video game experience—an experience in which gameplay, art, and music weave together on an almost operatic level—the most hardened skeptic might do well to spend an hour or two with Journey (a new game released March 13 by upstart developer Thatgamecompany and available for download, frustratingly, only on the PlayStation Network).



According to the game’s own website, “Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with others.” The game uses no speech or text to tell its story, which begins as the player assumes control over a cloaked avatar, adrift in a vast and shifting desert with only one visible landmark—a looming mountain—that hangs over Journey’s frequently empty, forlorn spaces; this mountain exercises an incredible magnetic pull on your experience (though the game never explicitly instructs the player to head there). As the player traverses a vast terrain tinged with lonely, alien beauty, they will interact with a narrative that is ambiguous and abstract, but at the same time surprisingly accessible and emotional.

Even without a literal storyline, it’s difficult not to experience a plethora of emotions while playing Journey, including joy, amazement, fear, shame, and sadness. Composer Austin Wintory deserves much of the credit, having created the haunting, mystical score that perfectly compliments the game’s baren, minimalistic spaces. The music reacts to the player’s actions, and it’s also possible to “sing” a note of the game’s main theme—the only way to interact with the rarely encountered other player, who may relish the companionship or ignore other travelers at will. Given that Journey’s actual gameplay challenges are slight and obstacles rare (lending the entire experience an inexorable sense of flow), it might be more accurate to consider Journey as a musical composition with interactive video element, rather than as a barely challenging game with a fantastic and lovingly created underscore. The consistent inventiveness and emotional import of Wintory’s score helps create an immersive experience that, amazingly, holds appeal for the curious child and grandparent alike. (Pity that there is no local multiplayer mode, and further curses that the indie developer’s contract with mega software giant Sony restricted the game to release on a single gaming console; a PC/Mac release would have certainly helped Journey reach curious non-gamer adults who are unlikely to own a video gaming console).

Journey is about making you feel small in relationship to the world around you,” says Kellee Santiago, co-founder of the game’s developer. “We’re about how a game makes you feel: the opposite of what the mainstream is focusing on,” says co-founder Jenova Chen, whose previous releases fl0w and Flower were thumbnail sketches for the immensely more satisfying Journey.



In an age marked by the desire to manipulate and control almost everything (and an absolute disdain for aspects of the world that we cannot control), the gift of feeling small again—the feeling of being in the presence of something mysterious that beckons from outside of ourselves, something that commands awe and eludes our understanding—is worth plugging into. The harmonious blend of music, art, and gameplay in Journey (while a bit light on the head scratching puzzles preferred by veteran gamers) is definitely one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve had in many months, informed by the joy of movement and the curiosity of discovery. A game like Journey excites my musical imagination and makes me think we are headed for a new kind of interactive experience worth pursuing.