Videogame music: stuck in a rut?

Last week, I was invited to speak at Buma Music in Motion in Amsterdam, an event centered around music within the different forms of visual arts: film, TV, and video games. The sole gaming panel featured writer, filmmaker, and Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the Games Institute Karen Collins; Senior Music Supervisor at Sony Computer Entertainment Duncan James; and yours truly representing my music label Brave Wave Productions. Titled ”Video Games Music: Stuck in a Rut?,” the one-hour panel focused on the usage of music in video games and its evolution throughout the years.

It’s been said that artists work best under constraint, so does the absolute freedom offered in our modern times hinder the progress, or perhaps the inventiveness, of contemporary composers? This is a point of contention amongst game music enthusiasts, especially with the prolific employment of the orchestral Hollywood sound in triple-A games often cited by the community as a sign of the homogeneity of modern game soundtracks. In his book I AM ERROR (MIT Press, 2015), writer and musician Nathan Altice chronicles the NES and Famicom both as game machines and as cultural artifacts, and in the seventh chapter we get a rigorous dissection of the console’s audio processing unit and the arduous task of creating music for it. “[It’s] not like composing on a piano. It cannot be played with a keyboard; it has no inherent understanding of notes, scales, or tempo. Instead, composing [for the Famicom] is identical to programming: audio data is encoded, stored, and interpreted in the same format as code, byte by byte in hexadecimal numerals.” Altice argues that these technical restrictions, archaic in nature and seemingly counterproductive, are the underlying catalyst for that era’s best sounds.

This is a regular discussion that I have with the pioneering Famicom-era composers that I work with at Brave Wave. Composers such as Keiji Yamagishi (of Ninja Gaiden) and Manami Matsumae (of Mega Man) had to experiment with technique in relentless pursuit of great sound, often under unrealistic deadlines. Their experiments were the kindling for ideas that became standard practice, such as emulating percussions with the pesky noise channel, and the recording of drum sounds with the 1-bit sampling channel. The complex nature of the Famicom’s audio processing unit forced the composers to go above and beyond in order to produce sounds and melodies that complimented the visuals and were pleasing to the ear. They were not only in charge of composing the music, but also of arranging it themselves for the incredibly limited hardware. The imagination of the cornered musicians gave birth to some of the best and most effective works of video game music, from the jazzy sounds heard on Super Mario Bros. to the drama-heavy tunes of Mega Man and its sequels. In recent times, a new wave of acolytes have risen high thanks to those limitations, embracing the medium and keeping it alive by driving it to new limits — from the Gameboy-composed bangers of Chipzel and Danimal Cannon to Shovel Knight’s enthralling VRC6 soundtrack by Jake Kaufman.

While I firmly believe that the limitations of the NES era played a pivotal role in emphasizing the importance of the video game composer, I see modern trends as a natural progression for game soundtracks. It’s easy to think that the contemporary composer has such a number of tools at his disposal making it easy to follow Hollywood trends, and is no longer tempted to challenge the status quo. But at the same time, new and modern types of games and forms of play are merging to include diverse experiences, thanks in part to the rising importance of independent designers and composers. In the soundtrack to Fez, where one would expect chiptune music in accordance with the game’s looks and style, Disasterpeace laid down an intriguing juxtaposition with a score that is rich in ambient soundscapes and electronic fizz. Instead of drawing solely from the pixelated visuals, he worked to create music that matches the feeling of the game and its art direction rather than just its design. Eirik Suhrke followed suit with his quirky soundtrack to Spelunky, where the music for each world would play randomly in a rotation of world-specific tracks, embracing the roguelike design of the game. Another example is Kozilek’s shifting score to Luftrausers, a game that plays its music depending on the player’s custom design of the plane, where changing the front or rear design alters the music produced.

Such applications are found in both the independent and triple-A spaces, but we’ve come to expect more innovation from the former due to the overwhelming freedom allowed by indie game designers. Where the goal with Famicom-era music was to create catchy melodies within strict technical constraints, many modern composers choose to focus on genres that previously were difficult to implement (e.g. minimal and ambient music) and the different forms of play that require a new way of approaching the music.

There’s a simple answer to the question imposed by the Buma panel, which was in turn proclaimed by Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and that is to look beyond the triple-A games for the thought provoking and exciting scores. There’s no argument to be made for the superiority of any given era’s music, as it all boils down to each era’s designs and limitations requiring different methods and applications. Acknowledging this and embracing it allows us to advance the medium in ways that go beyond singling out substances as style and melody.

Some tips on making stuff with others

I’ve been running Brave Wave for the past 18 months and I get questions from people all the time, friends and strangers. I can’t tell you how I get things done because it feels obvious to me, but I understand it’s not really obvious for outsiders trying to sneak a peek.

I compiled the following points in the past few months, and they’re mostly vague tips about doing work. I don’t know how to guide you, but I can share what I usually practice day-to-day with the artists I work with.

Be yourself. When I made World 1-2, I told the participating artists that it was a small EP I’m doing for my now-defunct Arabic gaming blog with the same name. I didn’t twist the facts and say it’s something huge and big and extraordinary. I honestly felt it was just that: a compact EP, and that’s how I wanted the people I work with to perceive it. Other people will tell you to work hard on selling yourself, on shaping your image, on perfecting your pitch…and all that is important. But I’m still honest and straightforward, and that’s how I’m getting work done on personal projects and with clients.

Be yourself. Yes, again, in case it didn’t stick with you up there. My emails — even to first-timers — don’t have any business sense to them; always brutally honest and mostly fun. If I want to work with someone, I tell them straight up why I want to do that, what work I enjoyed the most from them, why I appreciate their art. It’s never a business opportunity to work with someone, so everything needs to come from the heart. Write like you’re in front of them. Write normally, personally, from the heart. I’ve gotten comments, directly and indirectly, about my fanboyish approach to working with people, and it’s funny to me because I got to work with every single musician this way, including Tim McCord, the bassist of Grammy-winners Evanescence which happen to be my all-time favorite band. Both Manami Matsumae and Keiji Yamagishi joined the label (well before forming it as a real company) because they saw passion, not business sense. Showing heart goes a long way because you’re dealing with humans, and you yourself are a human. Show that. Learn from others, but don’t let “industry experts” get into your head. You’re independent for a reason.

Pay people. I regret the few times I accepted to work people for free, because they busted their ass off and it’s never good to abuse a relationship like this. Yes, you can be good friends with the people you work with, and I mean honest-to-heart good — but don’t abuse them. They’re kind and generous, and you should be too. Always offer to pay; they deserve it.

Pay people on time. This is self-explanatory but important. These are your friends and you don’t want to leave your friends hanging dry. They’re shy to remind you — put up a reminder for that.

No one owes you anything. Ever. You might be the greatest artist on the planet and no one would owe you anything still. Yes, it’s sad to make something amazing and have the press turn you away for it because it doesn’t bring them any hits. Yes, that’s shitty journalism. No, you can’t do anything about it. Keep working, that’s the only way to get recognition and respect. The Verge wrote about World 1-2because Andrew Webster thought it was an interesting project and he felt he wanted to write about it. When people show genuine interest in your things, cherish that. It’s easy to lose yourself in the game, obsessing about being written up on your favorite websites, but don’t forget why you’re doing this, why you’re chasing your dream. No one said it was easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it. Seriously: you’re amazing, even if your art doesn’t make it to headlines. You’re showing up and doing real work. You’re running while most people are sitting. That’s enough of a good reason to keep on pushing on.

Strive to be pleasant to work with. I disagree with my colleagues from time to time; it doesn’t have to be a bloody battle. Design is making decisions, and everyone got an opinion. Listen.

Don’t strive to be comfortable to work with. You’re not a shoe.

Work with people smarter than you. How did we decide to change the name Koopa Soundworks to Brave Wave? It’s because Alex confronted me about it while I was in Japan. I absolutely hated it at first — I didn’t even want to discuss it with him, and the rest is history. Who came up with the name Brave WaveMarco Guardia, after a whole month of daily struggles. What about bringing Saori Kobayashi to work on In Flux, and ultimately signing to release two albums with us? Alex. Choosing the photography theme for In Flux? Marco. See, Brave Wave isn’t just me; it’s the whole team stepping up whenever they have something to share. I love them because they make me look good.

If you can afford it, hire people to do your D-rated tasks so you can focus on your A-rated skills. It’s always worth it.

Share the love. Tell someone on your team that you love them and appreciate their existence. Life is tough; let’s make it a little bit easier with love. Sounds corny, but it does wonders. Really.

Perfection is tiring and boring. I know. But the world is filled up with crap and you really, really don’t want to raise the stock of mediocrity. Between releasing something okay-ish and releasing nothing, I prefer the latter. Many others will tell you to release stuff periodically, but I’m against this. Experiment your heart out! Just don’t release anything you’re not proud of. Now I understand why my favorite band takes 5 years between each album (though you don’t have to be this extreme).

To perfect is to change often. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

I hope something from this list sticks with you. Write some of your own and share it with me.

Some thoughts

In a few days, IN FLUX will be released. It’s an album I’ve been working on for more than a year, simultaneously while finalizing my first album World 1-2. Ever since I started Brave Wave (then Koopa Soundworks) I haven’t had a day of rest. I’m not complaining—I just want to say something, so bear with me. I haven’t had a day of rest and had always worked on the label, in one way or another. Daily emails, daily translations (to the Japanese musicians), generally just doing my job as a director and the guy who runs the label.

So it’s easy to lose perspective and just be totally consumed with this. But now I look back at how this little thing grew, and is growing, and I’m really thankful for everyone who lend a hand and pushed us to where we are now. The musicians who pour their hearts and souls into their creations, the kind friends who buy our music and support us, the writers who find what we do interesting enough to write about. Family, friends, everyone. I will still have a lot of work after IN FLUX (a bunch of albums I’m working on) but nothing that needs my immediate, day-to-day attention the way IN FLUX was, and I’m going to appreciate that. I will try to not initiate any new albums and just develop the few I have slowly. I will try to appreciate everything we do here and the fact that I’m making good stuff with good people for the benefit of good friends. Ain’t that the best feeling in the world? Seriously. I also have a game idea that may need to be taken to the next level. And of course, most importantly, learn Japanese.

If you ever supported the work I do, thank you. It’s really hard to not lose focus, and so easy to succumb to depression, but I have high hopes in Brave Wave. I hope I can realize them all.

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