Should we take video game music seriously?

The New Statesmen has just put up an article by Caroline Crampton on why classical purists should start taking video game music seriously. One gets the impressiom that more composition graduates write film and video game scores than concert music. The first name that comes to mind is Bear McCreary. He has written the soundtracks for two of my favourite shows — Battlestar Galactica and Outlander — and was student at USC Thornton School of Music in a film department that, believe it or not, choral composer Morten Lauridsen helped set up. McCreary is reaching a far larger audience than he otherwise would. This track from the Outlander soundtrack has 2.7 million views:

Film and TV soundtracks are doing extraordinarily well commercially and benefit from modern production values. But I wonder whether artistic standards have declined. Recently I watched the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack is more impressive than what I’ve heard from Bear McCreary. (Though apparently McCreary actually studied under Bernstein.) Don’t get me wrong, McCreary’s soundtracks aren’t bad, but separated from the shows the music loses its effect. The repetitive, glossy style becomes irritating — the somewhat cliched use of percussion to stir the listener, how it all sounds so digitized… In her article Crampton nearly reveals this disparity between old and new:

Just as Hollywood film studio executives turned to established composers like Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in the early twentieth century, today’s games designers are using the best composition talent to augment the experience of playing their titles.

Where are today’s Coplands and Shostakovichs? (Hint: they’re not writing for video games.) Anyway, here’s The Ten Commandments overture:

The video game composer Crampton most discusses is Jessica Curry, who is returning to ClassicFM, a UK classical music radio station, for another programme on video game composers. I am somewhat familiar with Curry’s music. Some years ago the game Dear Esther was released with many people praising it as the future of interactive storytelling and an example of ‘games as art’. I don’t recall being persuaded by the media brouhaha, but the premise was indeed alluring: you, the player, get to walk around a gorgeous virtual Hebridean island. Sadly, the novelty wore off quickly. Walking along a forced path by holding down a key on your keyboard — while listening to some rambling narrator — is a terribly boring experience.

(As a quick aside, by sheer chance I just today bought a copy of Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and so far it provides a far better tour of the Hebrides than Dear Esther. Fine writing arouses one’s imagination in a way that makes CGI seem surprisingly dull.)

The Dear Esther soundtrack is alright, I guess. The best way I can describe it is crossover minimalism for piano and strings with some eerie sound effects splashed on top. Einaudi-level tedium is prevented thanks to an attractive violin part. The trailer will give you a sample, as well as some footage from the game, which I must say still looks impressive years later:

Should we take this seriously? Not really — there’s not much of substance to discuss. It is spare, relying heavily on sound effects, doused in reverb, and based around two repetitive, unchanging chords. The violin melody is welcome, but I’m not bowled over. I’m much more impressed by the Tetris theme. Writing a clever little tune is much harder than writing a soporific, ‘atmospheric’ soundtrack.

Crompton also links to an article about the Baroque music influences in the video game Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings. The article is nonsense. We are told that the game ‘takes place in revolution-era France, and its developers wanted a soundtrack that reflected the period.’ Do you see the problem yet? According to the article, his influences are Bach (d. 1750), Vivaldi (d. 1741), Handel (d. 1759) and Telemann (d. 1767). How is one supposed to take video game music seriously when its composers and advocates don’t seem to know that the Baroque era ended decades before the revolutionary era? The composer should have been listening to Haydn, not Handel. What’s worse, he attempts to make the soundtrack sound Baroque in the laziest and most useless of ways. Rather than assimilating Baroque style, he simply writes the same music but with some Baroque instrumentation. If one plays Beethoven on a harpsichord it doesn’t make it Baroque, and if one plays Bach on piano it still remains Baroque. Here’s the soundtrack:

Considering that she’s writing for a left-wing journal, it is amusing how Crompton justifies video game music in a drearily capitalist way: ‘Above all, [video game composers] have a vast global audience listening to their music. An art form that is so widely consumed deserves to be taken seriously.’ Notice the use of market language like ‘consumed’. You could say this about any product. What does extent and volume of consumption have to do with aesthetic value?

Still, it is an interesting question as to why soundtracks are popular. I would suggest they are enjoyed mostly for the memory it evokes — playing the video game. While I remember a great deal of soundtracks — film, games, TV, or more general soundtracks to life — I remember them because of their context, whereas I remember Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony almost totally for the musical content. Music is increasingly auxiliary to life; we celebrate it as a memory aid, a mood-setter, and video game music is a continuation of that. I take interest in the music that is essential — loved for its own sake.

So video game music doesn’t belong alongside classical music. Crompton has a little dig at BBC Radio 3 for not being ‘broadminded enough’ to play video game soundtracks. I doubt Radio 1 or Capital FM will be broadminded enough to have a classical programme. Tolerance and open-mindedness are usually one-way streets. I’m no ‘purist’ but I do fear that the few remaining havens of classical music will be forced to capitulate to the dominant culture and will get nothing in return. There’s no evidence that soundtracks and crossover music expand the reach of classical music.

Okay, so I don’t seem like a total curmudgeon, here’s a video game theme I like. It’s a pleasant enough tune, slightly stirring, cheesy and dated, but I only really like it for the memory of my younger self playing it on a decrepit old laptop; the laptop was so awful that, though it was the late 2000s, I couldn’t play anything made after about 1998. This game was made in 1995. Charm and nostalgia are invariably for things that were quite imperfect. Flat screen televisions will never seem charming in the way boxy old monochrome CRT televisions are. But anyway, here’s the theme — synthesised strings, heavy reverb and all:

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Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch! Wagner and Video Games?

If there’s one thing the human race loves to guiltily watch, it is figurative car crashes, those ill-fated attempts to do something that should probably have never been attempted in the first place. Well, you would think when computer games take on the subject of classical music the smell of tarmac wouldn’t be far behind. In actual fact, I could only find one such game — and yes, it is spectacularly bad. But the rest were… tolerable, even clever.

Although I’m a few years into adulthood now, I have yet to put away all childish things. A long-standing hobby is playing adventure games, a largely extinct genre in which the player progresses through the story by solving puzzles. In the evolution of adventure games there are two main types. Text adventures originated in the late 1970s and were games in which the player could type basic commands into the parser, e.g. >go north or >pick up the key, and the game would react in prose. (And on a 1980s machine, the computational effort required would mean the player might have to wait several seconds or more, as the computer wheezed and groaned, for the text to splurt out.) Text adventures virtually died out in the late 1980s, but a thriving underground community resurrected the genre and is still to this day creating brilliant games.

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Screenshot of Infocom’s 1987 title Bureaucracy, a game as frustrating and miserably funny as the title would suggest

In the transition from mainstream to underground, the slightly-pretentious term ‘interactive fiction’ (IF) replaced ‘text adventure’. Among these works of IF, there have indeed been a few based on classical music. One game, The Art of the Fugue, rather ingeniously takes the idea of a fugue and turns it into a logic game where your commands are performed by four actors, but each one delayed a turn. So if you type >press button, the first actor will press the button in turn one, the second actor will press the button in turn two, and so on. The point is to synchronise harmoniously the entrance of all these delayed commands — hence its subtitle, Interactive Studies in Counterpoint. The other game is titled Augmented Fourth, referring to the particularly dissonant interval sometimes known as the ‘devil’s note’. You can imagine, then, the kind of bumbling adventure it is, with one reviewer describing it as ‘a light fantasy romp about a luckless (and talentless) musician who ends up chucked in an oubliette after offending the King.’

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Déjà Vu (1984), one ofthe first point and click adventure games

As text adventures lost their commercial standing in the late 1980s, graphical adventure games took over. The most common method of interaction was using your mouse to perform actions — examine, pick up, move etc — from which the rather plain nickname ‘point and click’ adventures is derived. They were, at the time, among the most commercially successful computer games, a fact today’s gamers, brought up on manic violence and quick-trigger reflexes, would struggle to understand. They were slow games in which you could well spend more time thinking than playing, and almost never dealt in grotesque violence. When Doom and other first-person shooters came along in the mid-1990s, gamers lost the taste for mental challenge and stories (however simple) and decided they’d rather just kick space aliens to death.

One of the first graphical adventure games to include music in its premise was LucasArt’s 1990 game Loom. In Loom, playing certain little motifs on your wooden distaff will cast a spell. For example, the ‘open’ spell is ECED. More notes are unlocked as you play, and you have to use your puzzle-solving skills to uncover new motifs. It seems slightly primitive now, but it was really quite innovative for 1990, back when games didn’t even have voice-overs and you’d be lucky to have a computer that had even one megabyte of RAM.

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Screenshot of Loom

Adventure games could be very ambitious, and quite often overambitious — especially, funnily enough, just before they went extinct. An incredible plot idea attempted in two different games was to make use of Wagner’s operas. One tried to present his Ring cycle in video game format, and the other invented a whole mythology based on a fictional, long-lost Wagner opera.

Point and click adventure games have a reputation for being abstruse and unnecessarily long. So whatever smart aleck came up with the 1999 point and click game Ring: The Legend of the Nibelungen may have discovered the perfect meeting of subject and medium, a sort of perverse Gesamtkunstwerk — a Wagner opera depicted not only through music and visuals but also through player interaction. I doubt, however, anyone would enjoy this game unless they delight in the debasement of Wagner’s work.

Here’s the spectacularly fantastical and ambitious intro video:

This was not someone simply cribbing Wagner. It was a labour of love, and all the more tragic for it. The IGN review concluded thus: ‘Cryo’s latest point-and-stare adventure game will want to make you cry — oh, and how!’

The game looks pretty good for its time — though the graphics begin to fall apart when the players moves, admittedly somewhat of a problem for a video game — and it’s hard to fault a Wagner soundtrack, compressed though it is. But it’s a chopped up version of the story, and the gameplay is nearly non-existent. Expect mostly to be watching lengthy computer animations and wishing you were at the opera instead. Actually, don’t expect anything: don’t bother playing it, not even out of morbid curiosity.

The most surprising thing about the game is that they actually made a sequel.

Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time Wagner was incorporated into a video game. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within is a game I really, really like. Sure, a lot of the acting is hammy, the CGI hasn’t aged well, and much of the story is ludicrous. But goddammit, it’s kitsch at its best!

The game is set in contemporary Bavaria, once the land of Wagner’s patron ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II. Author and schattenjager (supernatural hunter) Gabriel Knight is investigating a werewolf murder there. The game is quite unlike any other: in one chapter you spend almost the entire time visiting Neuschwanstein castle (which was in fact built partly as a homage to Wagner) and reading a slightly-altered history of King Ludwig II and Bavaria laid out in quite some detail. (If that wasn’t enough, you also get to visit the Wagner museum in Bayreuth.)

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Neuschwanstein castle as seen in the game

It isn’t spoiling much to say that the game ends up centred around the mysterious madness of King Ludwig II and a long-lost but now recovered (fictional) Wagner opera, Der Fluch des Engelhart (The Curse of Engelhart), which has its premiere in the game. (How werewolfism fits in you’ll have to find out yourself.) The game uses Full-Motion Video, which means it features real actors, so the actual opera scene is visually quite impressive, especially for 1995. The music is not. Not at all. But the whole scene is wonderfully ballsy, and I love it for that (spoiler warning: absolutely do not watch the second half in the unlikely event that you intend to play the game):

Gabriel Knight 3 came along four years later in 1999, and is widely (and unfairly) blamed for adventure gaming’s demise. In many ways it was a great game, but mention the cat-moustache, or in its long form, the cat-hair-tape-syrup-moustache puzzle to any adventure game fan and the look of dejection they’ll give you will be unbearable.

Why not end with some real Wagner, the Lohengrin prelude. The picture is, of course, the Neuschwanstein castle.

The Gostak Distims the Doshes

‘The gostak distims the doshes’. I have no idea what it refers to — but some idea what it means.

To start with, you’ll notice each word also has a certain feel. One commentator in 1939 wrote that

sometimes I like to think of the gostak as being a big bully, even a sort of Frankenstein monster … the doshes I look upon as being silly, possibly because they haven’t been able to avoid being distimmed, and if this is the case, it serves them jolly well right.

Anything can come to mind. For me, the gostak is a timid reptilian creature slavishly performing some menial task. But he (or she or it) could easily be a big formidable creature violently distimming the doshes, whatever they may be.

Putting aside imagination for a moment, the logic of the sentence is very obvious. Even a four year old would be able to work out some obvious meanings of the phrase. The author of the 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning, from which the phrase is taken, explains:

… if we assume it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.

Most readers will find it likely that the gostak is a sentient being, that distimming is an action, and that the doshes are an object. It’s remarkable how much imagination one is able to inject into an empty sentence.

It is particularly interesting is that the phrase — though utterly vague — nevertheless has a ring to it. It is an insight, perhaps, into how political phrases work. They are sentences that are structured attractively, but whose references are totally irrelevant. ‘The gostak distims the dishes’ will be forever stuck on your mind, yet you will never understand to what it refers. It’s as vacuous as ‘Yes We Can’, the trite slogan of Obama’s 2008 campaign. These phrases have a clear feeling without having a clear meaning.

Someone rather clever once made a game out of the gostak sentence. Made in 2001, it’s a work of interactive fiction — that is, an all-text game — and is a blast to play for puzzle lovers. I’ve never finished it myself, though got some way along a few years back. It begins as such:

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave. But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud will vorl them from you.

Delcot
This is the delcot of tondam, where gitches frike and duscats glake. Across from a tophthed curple, a gomway deaves to kiloff and kirf, gombing a samilen to its hoff.

Crenned in the loff lutt are five glauds.

You then have to enter verb-noun commands and gradually decipher the odd language. For example, I first typed ‘kirf’, assuming that ‘kiloff’ and ‘kirf’ were cardinal directions. ‘Kirf’ took me to the gomway, as predicted. Here are the first few commands I tried afterwards:

Gomway
You’re on a gomway deaving hoff, with gropples on the fosk. There’s a stike across the gomway here, and the delcot is to jirf.

>look at gropples
That’s not a dape I recognise.

>jirf

Delcot
This is the delcot of tondam, where gitches frike and duscats glake. Across from a tophthed curple, a gomway deaves to kiloff and kirf, gombing a samilen to its hoff.

Crenned in the loff lutt are five glauds.
A warb degombs the brangy.

>hoff
You can’t pell at that lutt.
A gitch frikes from the hoggam to zank and leil the warb.

>zank glaud
Which do you mean, the raskable glaud, the poltive glaud, the glaud-with-roggler, the glaud of jenth or the Cobbic glaud?

>raskable glaud
You can’t zank what isn’t poltive.

>leil raskable glaud
(first rasking the raskable glaud)
That’s unleilable.

>frike glaud
You can’t reb any such thing.

>glake glaud
Which do you mean, the poltive glaud, the glaud-with-roggler, the glaud of jenth, the Cobbic glaud or the raskable glaud?

>poltive glaud
You zank it durly. It smibs into the brangy.

You’ll notice that even with those handful of commands the nonsense words seem less and less nonsensical. Play the game here if you’re interested.

In the maen tmie, I’ll levae you wtih Three Chants by Ruth Crawford Seeger. She cereatd her own lagaugne for the pceie, hvaing been ublane to fnid an Egnslih tirnaotslan for the Iidann religious txet the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Tihs is the fsirt mevmneot: