Playing with music

Video game music is a big deal. It’s not all beeps and balalaikas anymore.

God of War wins Best Music and sweeps the board at Bafta Games Awards 2019
The Bafta Games Awards took place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London last night, hosted by Dara O’Briain. God of War was the big winner of the night, winning five awards including Best Game and the Performer award. The other games nominated for Best Music included Far Cry 5, Celeste and Florence, a puzzle game about two people falling in love – which went on to win the Mobile Game category.

Music for saving the world: Sarah Schachner and the soundtrack of video games
With experience throughout different entertainment mediums under her belt, Schachner has felt natural restrictions of composing music for film and television. Due to their inherent structure, the straightforward progression of storytelling doesn’t present the necessary room to experiment as much as a composer might desire. This is where the possibilities began to open up. In the fluid universe of a video game, there’s more space to grow. New galaxies to explore, aliens to encounter and reasons to spark an audience’s imagination beyond what they see every day. On a personal level, Schachner says, that’s what she has experienced in games.

Anthem Theme – Performed Live at TGA 2018

Meet the record label turning video game soundtracks into super-cool vinyl
It’s not often artists like Weezer and Courtney Love are mentioned in the same breath as Hollow Knight, Darkest Dungeon and Nuclear Throne. For Ghost Ramp, a boutique record label based in Southern California, representing video games soundtracks alongside traditional music is a typical day at the office.

James Hannigan on video game music: is it art?
And what of those games that are open-ended, allowing players to create their own stories or scenarios? Sims, strategy and open world games, for example. Somehow, composers working on those need to create music that emotionally engages but also remains flexible enough to feel as boundless in scope as the game itself. Music like this is rarely composed to picture or synched with visual events and, at times, there is a sense that it lingers in the air, belongs to locations or emanates from the environment. It can feel like part of the very fabric of a game’s reality.

Here, Mark Savage takes a deep dive into how it began 40 years ago and what’s behind the blockbuster game soundtracks of today.

Top scores
It’s a world away from the simplistic bleeps of 1980s arcade machines, but these epic, multi-layered, orchestral scores are fulfilling the same function as the chiptune sounds of 30-plus years ago. They’re there to guide, prompt and steer the player. Repeated themes help you organise and make sense of the game world. And psychologically, things like key and tempo can even affect the way the player perceives time. Done right, the marriage of music and gameplay can induce a level of immersion that’s impossible in other forms of entertainment.

Video game soundtracks are often compared to movie music, but they’re designed very differently.

Taken to its most complex extreme, horizontal resequencing takes a grab-bag of musical components and puts them together like Tetris blocks as you play, creating an entirely unpredictable, dynamic score. Glam-prog-ambient-techno genius Brian Eno took just that approach with The Shuffler – a piece of software that created a constantly mutating score for 2007’s ambitious-yet-flawed evolution adventure Spore.

A more recent application came in Hello Games’ space adventure, No Man’s Sky, which was released in 2016 for the PlayStation 4. An astounding technological feat, the on-screen game algorithmically generates everything that exists in its vast, freeform universe. Plants, planets, alien lifeforms and environments are all randomised, with a theoretical 18 quintillion worlds for the player to visit and, perhaps, conquer.

The music is no less ambitious. Created by Sheffield math-rock band 65daysofstatic, it’s a progressive, experimental suite of songs that changes every time it’s played… with almost infinite variations.

Meanwhile.

4 Levels of Mario Music: Noob to Elite

2018 in art and design

Another late December day, another round-up of what happened this year.

It’s Nice That’s Review of the Year 2018
Well, 2018 was a year, wasn’t it? Between us, we’re quite glad that it’s (nearly) all over. Now’s the perfect time to reflect on creativity flourished in yet another turbulent 12 months on a topsy-turvy planet.

A great collection of articles. I particularly enjoyed reading their summary of 2018’s news stories — as they say, it “might be the only round-up of 2018 that’s (mercifully) free of the twin terrors of Donald Trump and Brexit.”

Review of the Year 2018: Top 25 News
From Burberry getting a new logo courtesy of Peter Saville to Marina Abramović promising to electrify herself with one million volts in the name of art, via Taylor Swift butting heads with Spike Jonze over allegations of copy-catting, and the release of a new typeface that claims to be able to boost your memory, a lot has happened in the creative world since we said hello to January back in, well, January.

Some real gems there. Remember that Damien Hirst exhibition? And the great KFC chicken shortage back in February?

And how about this review of what’s been happening in the colourful, noisy, fast-paced world of video game design.

The best in video game concept art for 2018
My favourite feature here at Kotaku is Fine Art, a daily look at the concept art that goes into our favourite games. With the end of the year fast approaching, I thought it was time to look at some of the best work we’ve been able to showcase this year from some of the biggest games.

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Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet – don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

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Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Mark Knopfler (possibly).

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

The game is on

Breathing new life into old games.

“Ew,” “yowza,” and “OK” are now fair to play in Scrabble
“Ew,” for instance, is a newly added word and an example of what lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, calls “transcribed speech.” This refers to expressions, such as “mm-hmm” (not playable) that are colloquial and used frequently online. Sokolowski told the Associated Press: “Traditionally, they were not in the dictionary but because so much of our communication is texting and social media that is written language, we are finding more transcribed speech and getting a new group of spellings for the dictionary.”

Tower Block Game, playful take on a not so playful architecture
This game I’ve made is a playful tribute to a not so playful reality of monotonous and bleak cityscapes built out of same prefabricated concrete blocks. Very specific for Eastern-Europe but evident everywhere else too. These relic tower blocks usually mark failed social programmes and neighbourhoods planned as clumsy as some failed building block game…

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After finding those, I trawled through my bookmarks on the hunt for more games-related stories. These few caught my eye, about Magic: The Gathering. My son plays this and has tried to explain it to me a number of times — I remain clueless.

Why Magic: The Gathering beats Poker or Chess any day
The strategy paid off, helping to foster a group of professional Magic players like Jon Finkel and David Williams who grew up in the spotlight and were accustomed to high-stakes card games. Having mastered the fiendishly complex rules of Magic, they found it relatively easy to compete in a much simpler game like poker.

The twenty-five-year journey of Magic: The Gathering
To change more rules, you needed to buy more cards. Many of the most powerful cards were rarely printed, which drove fans to crack open even more packs. By November of 1993, under the headline “Professor’s Game Casts Magic Spell on Players,” the Seattle Times reported that ten million cards had been sold in a few months. “I’ve wasted—no not wasted—I’ve used all my money just buying Magic cards,” an eleven-year-old boy named Jake told the Washington Post. He carried his deck around with him everywhere he went in case a game broke out. By 1997, Magic: The Gathering was so successful that Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons. Newsweek noted that Wizards had sold two billion cards. A game like Magic, Garfield told the reporter, could “take over your personal operating system, like a virus.”

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Whoops, it’s 2016 and I just got obsessed with Magic: The Gathering
It’s one in the morning, and things aren’t going well. I’ve lost my first few matches; my virtual card decks have fallen apart. I think I have an idea, though. I frantically sort my cards, switching one color in my deck for another, the air caught in my lungs. With over 16,000 different cards available, Magic: the Gathering‘s greatest barrier to entry is its sheer breadth. The number of strategic options potentially available to any player at any time is massive. If other games are a lake, Magic is an ocean.

As intriguing as it is, I still don’t really get MTG. Is it like D&D, with all the dice?

Critical Hit D20 waffle maker
Certain foods just fall into alignments. Pancakes and waffles? Good, obviously. But while waffles are Lawful Good, pancakes are Chaotic Good. The syrup goes all over the place and there’s the dreaded butter well. Waffles follow rules. Pancakes break ’em.

Medieval fantasy city generator
This application generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city. Maybe in the future I’ll use its code as a basis for some game or maybe not.

Who the f**k is my #DND character?

Not a clue. I have fond memories of these games, however.

Dare YOU face the orcs? 80s game books Fighting Fantasy return
Ian Livingstone calls it the “five-fingered bookmark”: that grip known to children of the 80s and 90s. You’d insert a finger into various sections of your Fighting Fantasy adventure game book in order to be able to return if, say, your choice to drink the “sparkling red liquid” and turn to section 98 turned out to be a bad one, or if attacking the Mirror Demon “from another dimensional plane” proved fatal.

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These maps reveal the hidden structures of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books
There are also structures that loop readers through the story in unique ways. Mystery of the Maya, for example, has time travel, and keeps sending the reader back to the same page and place in time. (“Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum,” as Doc Brown would say. If you think that’s what it is, click here. If you decide it’s just an “amazing coincidence,” click here.)

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Sometimes the old board and card games are the best.

How checkers was solved: The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence
“Checkers is a deep, simple, elegant game,” he once said. Playing another human great was “like two artists collaborating on a work of art,” Tinsley said another time. And then there is his most quotable line: “Chess is like looking out over a vast open ocean; checkers is like looking into a bottomless well.”

Solitaire as symbol and synecdoche
Solitaire, a game mixing skill and chance, also provides what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement.” Every time a card is revealed, there is, for the player, the possibility of a reward. The suspense, and the yearning, is what makes the game so compelling, even addictive. “Basically,” wrote Griffiths, “people keep playing in the absence of a reward hoping that another reward is just around the corner.” Turning over an ace in solitaire is really no different from getting a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. We crave such symbolic tokens of accomplishment, such sweet nothings.

But even these games are being brought up-to-date.

Donald Rumsfeld releases solitaire app
Rumsfeld presents himself as in over his head when it came to actually creating the game, which was made in partnership with WSC Solitaire. “I’ve reviewed wire frames and branding guides. I’ve spent countless hours on beta releases. I’ve signed off on something they call ‘UX’.”

Video games looked very different in my day, of course.

Some very entertaining plastic, emulated at the Archive
Introducing the Handheld History Collection. This collection of emulated handheld games, tabletop machines, and even board games stretch from the 1970s well into the 1990s. They are attempts to make portable, digital versions of the LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.

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The legend of Nintendo
Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play.

Play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy video game free online, designed by Douglas Adams in 1984
Back in 1985, Douglas Adams teamed up with Infocom’s Steve Meretzky to create an interactive fiction video game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Designed before graphic-intensive video games really hit their stride, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide game was played with text commands on the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64, CP/M, DOS, Amiga, Atari 8-bit and Atari ST platforms. And it found instant success.

The cyberspace we forgot – Neuromancer
As a game, Neuromancer is dated and unforgiving, with progress mostly coming from clunky and tedious trial and error. Its story is borderline fanfiction, as you name a character who just happens to resemble the novel’s down on his luck hacker anti-hero, and unravel a mystery that leads you to confront the titular AI. But in its portrayal of cyberspace—shortly before the world wide web was invented, and long before it became a household service—it remains intriguing. It’s a window into an era when the impact of computers on the world had not yet been fully realised, and when their potential seemed infinite. The Amigas, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s that ran Neuromancer wouldn’t have been able to read this. But the game showed their owners a world where computers could do so much more.

Behind a pizza-slice smile: the dark side of Pac-Man
“He is the pure consumer,” wrote Poole in Trigger Happy. “With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly only wants one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, in other words buys enough industrially produced goods – he will attain … perfect roundness. But it can never happen.”

The thrill of cleaning in video games
“In a way, what I’m doing is cleaning. It’s the same urge that makes one suddenly decide to organize, to vacuum, as if gaining control over the space around you will offer some psychic relief, or will constitute, to you, some sense of progress. The pleasure in many games comes from putting things in order”

As well as looking very different nowadays, video games are being used very differently too.

‘We give access to a lost world’: Assassin’s Creed’s new life as a virtual museum
The Discovery update, as it’s called, removes all combat, missions and story from Assassin’s Creed Origins, leaving you free to explore its detailed recreation of ancient Egypt at leisure. It also adds in 75 interactive tours, written in collaboration with Egyptologists from around Europe, which teach you about everything from mummification to the city of Alexandria. It’s like one of those audio guides that you can pick up at museums. The difference between Assassin’s Creed Origins and a museum, though, is that you are immersed, walking the streets of a village as an Egyptian child or riding a horse in the shadow of the great pyramids.

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The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

That sounds terrible. Step away from the computer!

Pencil and Paper Games
Pencil and Paper Games is devoted to games you can play with nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper. These games are ideal for entertaining children and adults on rainy days or dark evenings, at home or on holiday.

Ah, that’s better.

Screen time questions

It’s long been understood that all these screens are changing how we’re interacting with each other. But are parents over-reacting a little?

The touch-screen generation
By their pinched reactions, these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. … On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Are we just biased, wanting to go back to the good old pre-screen days?

“The war is over. The natives won.” So says Marc Prensky, the education and technology writer, who has the most extreme parenting philosophy of anyone I encountered in my reporting. Prensky’s 7-year-old son has access to books, TV, Legos, Wii—and Prensky treats them all the same. … “We live in a screen age, and to say to a kid, ‘I’d love for you to look at a book but I hate it when you look at the screen’ is just bizarre. It reflects our own prejudices and comfort zone. It’s nothing but fear of change, of being left out.”

Or are we, in fact, the problem?

Parents’ screen time is hurting kids
Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning.

But if our children enjoy playing video games, that’s not a problem, right?

WHO classifies ‘gaming disorder’ as mental health condition
“I’m not creating a precedent,” said Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which proposed the new diagnosis to WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. Instead, he said, WHO has followed “the trends, the developments, which have taken place in populations and in the professional field.”

So it is a problem, then?

Screen time harm to children is unproven, say experts
Researchers say World Health Organisation’s warnings over ‘gaming disorder’ are premature and say other factors affect child wellbeing.

I’m glad that’s cleared up. It’s not like this is a formative time in our children’s lives or anything.

How our teenage years shape our personalities
The mood swings and stress you experience as you go through puberty can shape your brain to determine the person you will become.

Where did this all start, I wonder. What was it that first tricked us into staring at screens all day?

tamagotchi

My Tamagotchi is everything that went wrong with our future
My smartphone, I’ve realized, is also a Tamagotchi. My laptop is a Tamagotchi. My tablet is a Tamagotchi. These new Tamagotchis have nicer screens and more than three buttons, but more importantly, they’re hooked into much more elaborate guilt trips. Now it‘s not just a virtual pet at stake; it’s my friends, my family, and my work being held hostage in order to keep me pressing these stupid buttons.

Mii, myself and I

Our kids are getting a little older now, and are happy to let the Wii gather dust, so we don’t hear this catchy little tune half as much as we used to.

Mii Channel Music but it’s played by a saxophone quartet
My arrangement of the Mii Channel Music for a saxophone quartet. Uses one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one bari. Video was compiled in Premiere Pro and audio was compiled in Audition.

Compare that with this, something that can generate random variations on the original Mii theme. Not quite Elgar, but fun nonetheless.

Mii Channel Theme Markov
Made with Band.js and my own markov generator, Markov.js. All transcribing of the original music was done by hand, with help from Pianoletternotes. Not completed yet.

And here’s how it sounds with a fuller orchestra.

Mii Channel Theme Band Prank
The Liberty University Wind Symphony decided to prank our band director by playing the Mii Channel Theme instead of a Bach Chorale.