Some of history’s greatest pop albums are video games
We speak to the creators of Tetris Effect and Sayonara Wild Hearts about what happens when music takes the lead in game design.
We call them “video games” but they’d be nothing without their audio. To reflect on 40 years of game development is to call to mind thousands of tunes and sound effects, from the baying of air raid sirens in horror game Silent Hill, to the buzzing of your energy shield in Halo. Many of these compositions and effects serve a practical role: in the original Super Mario games, for instance, the soundtrack speeds up as the level timer ticks down, nudging the tardy player to get their skates on. Others play a part in the unfolding of a drama: in BioWare’s galaxy-straddling Mass Effect games, key discoveries about the universe’s origins coincide with a poignant reprisal of the wistful main theme.
For all this, sound and music get short shrift in discussions around games. This reflects the over-emphasis on visual fidelity in marketing, which has given rise to a cottage industry of enthusiasts who comb screenshots and trailers for the slightest blemish. But it’s also simply because audio in general eludes conscious evaluation, tapping directly into your bodily chemistry. You may not notice what it’s doing to you till you stop listening. “So much of the feel of a game in your hands comes from sound,” says Simon Flesser, co-founder of Malmö, Sweden-based studio Simogo. “It’s so sad when people turn it off.”
“Just generally, I find it very inspiring to look at other types of media or experiences for inspiration, for both vibes and how they’re structured,” he continues. “But music has always been very specifically related to our games. I think almost all of them have been born out of a vibe from a single song, even if [those songs] don’t specifically end up being an influence on the actual music. The initial idea of Sayonara Wild Hearts was really born from hearing Lord Huron’s World Ender, which is a song about an undead motorcycle-riding avenger.”
Sayonara Wild Hearts is one of a growing cadre of video games in which the music comes first, giving purpose and life to everything else. Styled as a pop album, it follows a masked woman, the Joker, as she bikes around a neon wireframe kingdom, battling rogue members of the Tarot’s major arcana. The basics are easy to pick up – you switch lanes to gobble up lines of glowing hearts, and tap inputs on cue to unleash flips and kicks. Coursing through everything is the score, an ecstatic blend of pop and electronica whose influences include Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Phoebe Ryan.
Unlike in a rhythm-matching game such as the venerable Guitar Hero, you don’t actually play the music. Rather, you play with it, savouring the loose bond between each track, the movement of the camera, the fusillade of props and the fizzling colour palette. Reset after smashing into an obstacle and the soundtrack will slow and fog, as though struggling back to its feet. “The levels mostly flow with the songs and reflect their energy while not being strictly tied to their rhythm,” Flesser explains.
Wild Hearts is like an album, he goes on, because “an album is sort of like a journey”. It encompasses 20 vocal and instrumental tracks, each tied to a level yet mostly written long before work on those levels began. “Sometimes I’d have specific requests for Daniel Olsén [who wrote all the instrumentals and arranged and produced the pop tracks] and Jonathan Eng [who wrote all the pop tracks] like ‘I need a slow ballad-type thing for this type of level’. The instrumental tracks have been a little more flexible, and Daniel has tweaked and changed those songs as I designed the levels.”
Wild Hearts doesn’t borrow directly from any game, but the idea of a “video game album” has plenty of precedents. One of them is iPad adventure Superbrothers EP: Sword & Sworcery, a homage to Nintendo’s Zelda fantasy series in which the formal constraints of a music record shape the very geography and mythology. A phonograph disc spins in the sky, allowing you to scrub the theme song back and forth with a finger. Flip the disc during your travels, and you’ll discover a “B‑side” alternate dimension where the game’s composer, Jim Guthrie, is hosting a concert.
Elsewhere there’s the turbulent and terrifying Thumper, one part Kafka’s Metamorphosis to one part noise rock marathon. A collaboration between Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson and programmer Marc Flury, it sees you flying a silver beetle through a cosmic abyss, screeching along curves and smashing pockets of energy as the percussion dictates.
If the curious subgenre of the video game album has a patron saint it’s surely Tetsuya Mizuguchi, CEO of Enhance, Inc and creator of 2001’s Rez – a shoot ‘em up in which to shoot is also to add to a shifting electronic score. Inspired by the concept of synaesthesia, the game turns following the tune into a question of evolution, your avatar assuming human form (providing you evade damage) as the score swells in complexity. “Sound and music are such big elements of the chemistry in gameplay for us,” Mizuguchi observes. “Each moment, each action, every time you do or add something, you should be able to feel it as sound. That continuing process of making the music, makes the story.”
Mizuguchi’s most recent project is Tetris Effect, a remake of the classic block-sliding puzzler which invokes the phenomenon of the same name. As with shooting in Rez, shifting, rotating or dropping blocks in Tetris Effect alters both the score and the accompanying visual effects. A “Zone” feature allows you to freeze time and queue up several lines of blocks for demolition at once, jolting the track into overdrive as though wiping a palm across a mixing deck. In the process, handfuls of stardust coalesce into whales, flowers pulse like snare drums and hieroglyphs burst into flame.
The game’s music has a bearing on difficulty: its 30-track “Journey” mode doesn’t merely increase the challenge as it goes, but varies the intensity along with the music. All of which is the result of day-to-day testing and open discussion between designers, programmers and Hydelic, the game’s BAFTA-winning composers (find an interview with them here). “It was very important to keep tuning,” Mizuguchi adds. “If we change the sounds even a little bit, you’ll get a different feeling. All elements add to the chemistry. It’s a very hard process.”
Sometimes disparaged as shallow puzzlers, Mizuguchi’s games are outliers in an industry that prioritises realist simulations and fantasies of combat and military adventure. He admits to a certain frustration with the label “video game”, commenting that “it’s hard to define myself as a game creator or a game designer.” But Mizuguchi also feels that the concept of the video game is expanding, entering a broader framework of appreciation, thanks not least to developers who borrow openly from other artforms. If every album is a journey, as Simon Flesser puts it, then the video game album is a journey beyond the videogame itself.