Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Bleep Bleep Bloop: Music and Video Games

Originally broadcast in February 2011 on BBC Radio 4, and brought to the attention of Moon Witch Cartridge by a recent Steven Poole column in EDGE, Bleep Bleep Bloop: Music and Video Games is an illuminating 30 minute examination of the current state of videogame music. Its central focus is the commercial explosion of videogaming, the subsequent rise in mega-budget videogame development and how these two factors have led to a growth in Hollywood-aping orchestral scores.

Opening with the reminisces brought about by hearing the Game Boy Tetris music posits an angle that is never really explored by the documentary, that of today’s lavish videogame soundtracks lacking the evocative powers of the work musicians used to create when faced with the limited technology of 80s/90s computing. As presenter Paul Bennun says, these early videogame themes were the “nursery rhymes of the modern age”, built on catchy tunes and repetition as a necessity of design.

Perhaps I’m showing my age, but it’s difficult to see the majority of today’s technically brilliant, albeit largely character-less orchestral productions, ever getting lodged in my brain in the same way as the videogame music, from the early-80s to the present day, that has tended to embrace idiosyncrasy and uniquely ‘videogame’ textures (recent examples would include Space Invaders Extreme and the soundtrack to Katamari Damacy). There are of course notable exceptions (the Zelda games, for one example), but in general I find the auditory language* of these 'Hollywood' scores too close to the emotional cues of cinema to have any lasting resonance. But then, that’s not really their point. As Paul Bennun notes, the purpose of the big-budget contemporary soundtrack is to give you the feelings of “awe and excitement”, to immerse you in an experience as sensory (and fleeting) as a Summer blockbuster, and in that they tend to succeed. In all fairness to Bleep Bleep Bloop though, the documentary’s emphasis is on the development of videogaming music, and not the gulf in nostalgic potential between two highly contrasting styles.

The issue of cinema is inevitably raised often, most pointedly by emphasising the obvious differences between a form that doesn’t give direct control to the viewer, and one that is all about the interaction on offer, and the dynamic potential that this affords contemporary videogame composers. The game on which one of the programme’s main interviewees Joris De Man worked on, Killzone 3, may be a prime example of the dull, bombastic audio beloved of this generation's triple-A titles, but he has some interesting takes on the challenges today’s composers face.

The feeling you get from hearing Joris speak is that the type of videogame music discussed here is stuck between two conflicting sides; the in-game music needs to be dynamic, reacting to the on-screen action, and can therefore never really settle into a rhythm or recognisable melody, whilst the more conventional linear pieces tend to be used for cut-scenes, where the visual language is already largely inherited from the editing and camerawork of cinema. There are of course some exceptional contemporary examples of videogame music, but these tend to appear in videogames somewhat removed from the cinema-influenced examples that are Bleep Bleep Bloom’s primary focus (the likes of the traditional beauty of the music in Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Bit.Trip Runner’s deliberate retro charm come to mind).

The programme ends by attempting to align the nature of gaming music with the manner in which we all now, to varying degrees, have an interactive relationship with the way we consume, listen to and use music in our everyday lives. As the conclusion suggests, videogaming’s relationship with music is still developing, far beyond the remit of a thirty minute radio programme. But there’s already quite a history there to explore, and Bleep Bleep Bloom isn’t a bad place to start at all.

- Listen to Bleep Bleep Bloom: Music and Video Games here.

- On a related note, Moon Witch Cartridge will be attending this event, Ear Candy: Video Game Music, at the Barbican in the middle of May, which should be the perfect extension to the themes already discussed in the Radio 4 programme.

* I don't know if this is an actual term, but it sounds a bit clever.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Moon Diver

Those gamers old enough to remember the Strider series of side-scrolling action platformers will be heartened to learn that Moon Diver isn’t merely an affectionate tribute to Capcom’s half-forgotten classics, but is actually the work of Koichi Yotsui himself, the creator of Strider. Which is just as well, because Moon Diver does more than just liberally borrow some of its predecessor’s more notable elements; Moon Diver is, as the game’s producer has said, very much the “21st century version” of Strider. This is no bad thing.

Much like its forebear, Moon Diver is a 2D platformer where the emphasis is on nimble acrobatics, speedy combat and an almost unrestrained engagement with the environment. Most surfaces can be climbed upon, as well as hung under and jumped over. Once you’ve got used to these properties many playthroughs become delightful demonstrations of momentum, as you elegantly swing and slide through the linear levels whilst despatching enemies with time-honoured furious button-mashing.

The controls, much like the rest of Moon Diver, are ostensibly very simple. One button is jump, the other is your basic sword attack, with the two shoulder triggers enabling your character to duck or slide (we found the former was hardly used, our more common method of evading projectiles being the athletic double-jump). But beneath these minimal commands is a system of upgrades that transforms the game into a gratifying experience.

Firstly, each kill will gain you experience points – gain enough EXP and your character (there are a choice of four, each with minor differences) will move up a level. Each time you gain a level you receive a customize point, which can then be used to enhance one of three variables: your health, magic capacity or power. There’s little here that’s even remotely radical, but the masterstroke is in ensuring that this structure of levelling-up is persistent, regardless of whether you complete the stage or not. It’s also the sensible option, given the game’s old-school method of making you start a stage from the beginning, regardless of how many of its chapters you may have completed before dying. As a result you always feel like the trickier sections can eventually be tamed, the game constantly rewarding your efforts in a manner that doesn’t seem overly generous, but is instead fair and measured.

The other notable part to Moon Diver’s system of combat is the range of MoonSault Combinations, special powers that are slowly accumulated as you progress through the game. You can hold up to four at a time, with their effects ranging from health replenishment to invisibility. They can sometimes make the difference in single-player, but these MS powers really come into their own when used within the game’s frantic multiplayer. Playable in co-op with up to three other people, it alters the Moon Diver experience: what has the tendency to become repetitive and a little tedious when played solo becomes enjoyably manic, despite the essentially limited nature of the gameplay. You can revive your fellow battlers, as well as combining with them to unleash more powerful attacks.

By invoking the spirit of Strider, albeit with some careful considerations for contemporary values Moon Diver is generally a success. Its biggest accomplishment is not the good use of online, but perhaps its use of those parameters – compact structures, delineated mechanics - that downloadable games are assumed to work best within. It’s a game whose RPG-stylings will lend themselves well to super-powered speed runs many months from now, whose light touch and hidden depths could well create something of a cult following. Much like Strider, in fact.

- Strider II (otherwise known as Strider Returns) was one of my favourite games on Master System, but chances are I remember it far more fondly than it's probably worth. It was only while researching this review that I found out it was in fact a US-developed sequel under license from Capcom, and that the true Strider sequel - Strider 2, as opposed to, er, Strider Returns - was released in 2000 for the Playstation in Capcom. For the latter there's eBay; here's a reminder - if only to myself - of the box art for the 1990 'imposter':

- You can also read this Moon Diver review over at D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

MotorStorm: Apocalypse

The first MotorStorm was the best Playstation 3 launch title by a muddy dirt track mile; the physicality of the experience, the sense of chaos – which would be as prevalent on the first corner of the first lap as it would be near the end of a race – was the ideal demonstration of the new hardware’s technical muscle. Winning a race by a nanosecond with a perfectly-timed nitrous boost, leaving the detritus of multiple write-offs behind you, was a moment of elation that almost singularly justified the console’s high price (not to mention the cost of a new HD television). MotorStorm’s sensory experience firmly left you in no doubt that the fabled next-generation had arrived.

Some four years later what’s most surprising is that, with a few exceptions, MotorStorm’s emphasis on barely-controlled disorder within an arcade racing structure wasn’t picked up by more games. There was the excellent MotorStorm sequel Pacific Rift, and more recently the unforgettable Split/Second: Velocity (more on which later), but in general the tendency has been, when presented with consoles of such capability, to understandably pursue the agendas of simulation, photo-realism and auto-porn boredom. Of the current crop perhaps Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit has struck the perfect balance between the two extremes of messy arcade thrills and studious detail, but it’s no surprise to report that Apocalypse is firmly entrenched in the former camp.

Although on the surface both Apocalypse and Split/Second share the same love for the screen-filling destruction and Hollywood-friendly explosions much beloved of messers Bay and Emmerich, the implementation of these pyrotechnics in both games is fundamentally different. Whereas Black Rock allowed the player to trigger the events manually, bringing into play such factors as timing and risk, Evolution Studios have the scenes of devastation play out in the background of each course. Although you don’t have direct control over the actions, the shared connection is that in both games the track will be reshaped on an almost lap-by-lap basis as a result of these disasters – such genre conventions as familiar racing lines and the ability to master courses still exist, just not in the familiar way. These constant dynamic shifts also ensure that Apocalypse remains close in spirit to the first two MotorStorm games, which were masterclasses in restless, unpredictable racing.

The subtitle is explained by MotorStorm’s superb single-player mode, which has the festival take place in a city in the midst of a natural disaster of epic proportions (Sony’s decision to postpone the game’s release following the tragedy in Japan was completely justified, and even now playing the game so close to the event often carries an unfortunate aftertaste). The difficulty levels are each represented by three different participants, who have their own personal story and path through the game. Because their campaigns take place across the same two days, the characters – The Rookie, The Pro and The Veteran – witness different views of the same events, with the level of devastation dependant on the difficulty chosen.

It’s a rewarding system that encourages replays on Pro and Veteran levels not just as a test of skills, but also one that creates a compulsion to see all the awe-inspiring, undeniably spectacular (not to mention visually stunning) attacks being wrought on this unfortunate city.

The campaign races cover a range of pre-selected vehicle types, the widest such selection in any MotorStorm game. It’s this diversity that has always been one of the series’ strengths, with each vehicle noticeably different in its handling. Racers new to the game, including the speedy Supercar, nestle in nicely alongside such classics as the Dirt Bike and Big Rig. Their implementation follows the MotorStorm philosophy: no two races feel the same, whether it be because of the track-side carnage, or because courses play out differently depending on which of the many vehicles you are using.

Apocalypse’s online mode is the gem at the heart of this crazy mangled-steel milieu. Built around a structure of experience points, perks and betting, it’s extensively customizable, but as with so many familiar systems of persistence (usually found in first-person shooters), there’s an initial sense of grinding through the early levels to get to the enhancing rewards beyond. This isn’t helped by the matchmaking system, which rarely presents novices with an even field of competitors. However get past these first stages and you’re left with one of the more accomplished Playstation 3 online racers, a streamlined set-up that is extremely addictive (and the part of the game that gets the biggest blame for this review being so late).

Admittedly detractors of the MotorStorm series will find little in Apocalypse to sway them towards the franchise. Collisions can feel unfair, while the tendency for races to collapse into Mario Kart-esque bouts of randomness will test the patience of purists. But these are very rare occurrences, and easily forgiven when compared to Evolution Studio’s wider achievements. For underneath the rage of Mother Nature at the heart of Apocalypse lies a racing game whose visceral impact is almost unlike anything in the modern genre, an anarchic experience built on both arcade simplicity and technical complexity.

- When I win lots of money I will buy a 3D TV and review MotorStorm: Apocalypse's 3D effect. Until then I'll just assume that it's brilliant.

- This review was originally written for D+PAD Magazine.