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 rev­e­la­tions 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.

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