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A developer of the IGF-nominated game Pugs Luv Beats explains how music technology and theory was married to cute and colorful gameplay to create a surprising blend of avant-garde musicianship and accessible fun.
People often ask me how I got into making games. This still comes as a surprise to me, since I don't really see myself as making games -- my background is as a musician and performer -- but since founding Lucky Frame four years ago after achieving a small degree of fame (or notoriety) with my Wii remote music controlling software I have found myself and my company identifying more and more with the indie game scene, which is absolutely great.
It's brilliant, because as a musician I see an enormous amount of groundbreaking work and exciting potential in the world of interactive audio and music in games. As a musician friend of mine once pointed out to me, in many ways the most innovative things happening right now in the music world are not happening in music at all, but in music software. I have no doubt that if Bach or Coltrane or Nancarrow were alive today they would be designing generative music systems or programming new Monome patches.
This isn't a new or revolutionary thing to say -- I would argue that this shift towards technology as a creative musical tool began years ago, with composers like the Russolo brothers (pictured) who built their own insane instruments because they wanted to make cacophonous noises, and continued with Daphne Oram and her incredible Oramics machine, which enabled her to draw her compositions on film.
Conlon Nancarrow, who I just mentioned, is another really interesting example of a composer who became interested in using technology. When his compositions proved too complex for musicians to play, he began manually punching holes in piano rolls and running them through player pianos, allowing him to create enormously complex music that would otherwise have never been heard (and also making him perhaps the first person to program music).
This trend has perhaps been accelerated in recent times due to the incredible explosion of media technology in the past 20 years. Whilst super-high-end recording and production remains expensive, it is now possible for a huge population of people to record, mix, compose, and produce high quality sound at an extremely low price.
You want a synthesizer in 1980? Well, you pay $1300 for an ARP. Now, you are ridiculously spoilt for choice for free software synths (and parts are far cheaper if you want to build a hardware one!) The consequence of this is that every sound you can ever possibly imagine can be created quickly and easily and probably with free software.
Another huge revolution from a composition point of view, as Matthew Herbert often points out, is that whilst in the past composers would be forced to imitate something (Beethoven writing a flute part to emulate a nightingale, Cootie Williams' talking trumpet), nowadays a composer can go out and record a bird for his piece, or use a recording of someone talking.
This presents a huge conundrum for composers and musicians -- if everything can be done, it sort of takes some of the fun out of it. I think that's why many composers and musicians, particularly of the electronic/digital variety, are becoming more and more interested in interface and process. How is the music made, and how does that affect the end result? That has been the philosophical focus of most of my work over the past few years, resulting in ridiculous appearances on UK reality show Dragons' Den and more recently with my experiments using live mushrooms to control electromechanical instruments.
It was of course only a matter of time before I became interested in using games for music, since video games are perhaps the most powerful interactive interfaces around right now. Why not try and use the power of game interaction to generate music?
These are exciting times for audio and music people in the game world. The trend of Guitar Hero-style games has perhaps faded, which I see as a very good thing. While they certainly have their place (and I'm sure they will come back), those types of games revolve around players trying to recreate existing music with as much accuracy as possible (often mediated through the interface of a strange plastic representation of an instrument).
This creates what is of course a brilliantly compelling game design, but is not very exciting from an audio or music design and development standpoint. As a side note, I see an interesting parallel between this type of gaming and the old-fashioned music conservatory style of teaching music, in terms of focusing on accuracy rather than fun, musicality, or creativity.
That was our starting point for making Pugs Luv Beats, our recent release for iOS, which was (ahem) nominated for an IGF Excellence in Audio award. We wanted to make a music game that was focused on music creation, and which was powered by the generation of audio, rather than forcing the user to see music as a challenge.
Our first stab at this was with a space shooter drum machine that Jon Brodsky, the Lucky Frame coder/designer, prototyped a while back. Codenamed Space Hero, it was a system for setting up a series of enemies, which you then had to destroy with your spaceship. When the enemies arrived on screen they would trigger a drum sound, and when they were destroyed they would make a bass sound -- so it was basically an editable and playable drum machine. AWESOME PROTOTYPE VIDEO ALERT!
This prototype proved to us that game design -- or at least interacting with a game -- could in many ways be seen as analogous to music performance and composition. Both are essentially based around a series of choices, and both in many cases involve some sort of start, end, and cycle.
As a counterpoint teacher once explained to me, once you have written a note of music, you only ever have four choices. You can play that note again, you can play that note again differently, you can change the note, or you can not play any note. Similar sets of choices inhabit the world of game design -- and similar techniques for simplifying the process as well. One particularly good example is the technique used in the writing of a fugue, which involves taking one melody and overlapping it in varying ways. Check out this video to see a visualization of a Bach fugue.
You can clearly see that the first melodic line played through once, and once it starts to develop, the same melodic line is played underneath the variations. This happens several more times throughout the piece.
I always like thinking of the four fugal melodies as being like four different characters exploring the same space, perhaps finding different power-ups that change their speed, double their power, and so on. There are many other comparisons that could be made -- for one thing, that Bach visualization would make a pretty cool level builder for a platform game (file under: Future Game Ideas...)
Pugs Luv Beats is the first in a series of music games that we are making that explores this philosophy. We are trying to make music games where both the music and the game aspects are on equal footing -- playing one will generate the other, and vice versa. In other words, our aim is to use compositional techniques to make games, and games to make music.