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by L.B. Jeffries

3 Feb 2009

Despite the progress being made with emergent changing narratives, player input, and creating vast open worlds to explore, there is still a lot of trial and error going on. Many people struggle with a story that is not inherently linear because it requires their active participation. Decades of film and centuries of books have created a pre-conditioned response to information exchanges: people listen, then respond. The problem is that games, on the other hand, rely on a concurrence of these two activities. Action and response are occurring simultaneously while the player interacts with a series of rules and sees how these rules respond to their conduct. Even creating a story that can function in concurrence of response and input requires epic amounts of writing and art to account for all the things the player might try to do. There’s another game design that handles this issue and some interesting insights can be learned from it. The player doesn’t change the narrative though, they change the music. Ben Abraham notes in an essay on interactive music that the visual elements of games have been coordinated with the music for years now. Starting as just a simple “change songs when the boss arrives” feature, the concept has been continuing to expand until the music is constantly responding to the player. Though we may still be figuring out how to generate a changing plot, games have long had the ability to generate personalized music in a believable manner.

It’s helpful when approaching music games to break them into two distinct groups. Games where the player is generating a song (emergent music) and games where the player is reproducing the song (linear music). With the booming success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero it’s easy to see the appeal of the latter. Player input is coordinated with the game via visual cues, failure results in the song being interrupted by invasive sounds. The indie gem Audiosurf puts an interesting spin by letting the player pick the song. This is then computed into a level that lets you play a variety of different game designs. It’s a greater degree of control than the pre-defined setlists of the other games so you don’t risk alienating your audience by music tastes. Both games typically jerk the player and interrupt the song when they screw up though, much like how a game’s narrative is broken by player death. Other games have combined the music with the game design and visuals so that they occur simultaneously.  The free to download Reset is synchronized with Trash80’s ‘Rest to Reset’ electronic music. The game is mostly a series of triangles and missiles chasing you, but each one flashes a different color in coordination with the beat. Since either game features minimal plot, the music itself becomes the player’s frame of reference for their input. Another linear music game that abandons the concept of player failure almost entirely is Reflexive Entertainment’s Music Catch, where the game challenges you to collect shapes and only requires you dodge the red kind. Grabbing a red shape results in a point deduction, but no intrusive sounds that break the music as in Audiosurf or Rock Band.

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are non-linear music games that feature emergent music. The player can generate a song through their actions. There are surprisingly very few games that do this despite the fact that it’s fairly manageable. Sega’s Rez is the principle example. The game creates a basic background track and then lets the player interact by having enemies cause a sound that coordinates in some way. A drum beat, an electronic beep, etc. It’s a little off to constantly shoehorn the music concept into narrative games but it does help; the background track is the backstory, the player’s actions generate sounds that fit into the backstory, and these all form in the player’s mind to generate a personal song. Procedurally, it is irrelevant what the player hits or misses, they are generating the experience they want from the song as well as playing a game. That’s the thing people are struggling with the most in emergent narratives today: not forcing the player to do or see something. Music games circumvent this entirely because the individual sounds are just a part of a whole. Another example that doesn’t rely on techno music is Jonathon Mak’s Everyday Shooter, which takes inspiration from Steve Reich. The game works in a very similar manner, skirting the interruption problem of death by having the death sound coordinate with the background as well. Every element of the player’s input produces a response sound that coincides with the music, from shifting around in the menu to collecting points. The lesson about emergent narrative here comes from the success these games have in creating a new kind of emergent experience. The design empowers the player because they never have to be restricted into behaving outside a certain set of parameters. What if you were to cut down on the shooter elements of these games and focus more on generating the song itself? Another example is the recent web game Auditorium or Electroplankton. By getting a grasp of the mechanics of producing a song through enormous player options, you can start to get a better understanding of how a story could be generated from the same situation.

 

There are also games that simply rely on music as a reward for player activity. The WiiWare Art Style series of games features interesting takes on using music in response to player input. In Orbient, collecting an extra moon adds a layer of music to the background, making the song more rich and pleasant while you beat the level. In Rotohex, every 6 combinations adds another layer of music so that you are not just building a score, you are building a song. And if you want to cut the game part out, the DS music software KORG DS-10 Synthesizer is a pretty damn impressive nuts and bolts demonstration of generating a song using a game’s interface. It’s interesting that amongst the complaints lodged at any of these games, none of them involve failing to create a believable song. None of them fail to deliver an emergent song or recreate a linear song through game design. Music is not an experience that the audience or author expects to control in a structured exchange. Sometimes you listen, sometimes you respond to a song by skipping around. Sometimes you want to hear the sad track on an album, sometimes you want to hear the fast, fun one. The key is that the artist’s vision doesn’t break down because the audience is fooling around with the order of events. A musical album stands both on its singles, the work as a whole, the songs played live, and even when the songs are played by other people. Marketwise, there should be more emergent music games purely because they are a blast to play. In terms of learning how to create an emergent narrative, we’ve only begun to learn from their versatility.

by Thomas Hauner

3 Feb 2009

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm demurely set up his Macbook Pro, keyboard, samplers, and bottle of Corona behind a façade of calm and excitement. He was eager to supplant the gastric bass and tweeting highs of Studio B’s house DJ with his own mix, but at the same time he wasn’t rubbing it in.

The same went for his throbbing but playfully cool set. Lindstrøm (his DJ-ing nom de guerre) crafted ethereal polyphonies, enveloping listeners and the room in a gradually pulsating haze. While the side stage’s speakers perfectly blended weaving choruses of electronic whistles, buzzes, and washes, an unsuspecting bass would penetrate the mix, however coyly. It was only after the crowd was fully immersed in a pounding yet diffused disco beat that a song’s climax was ever evident.

And that was the beauty of the scruffy Norwegian’s set. Lindstrøm took the music in a direction where all eventually wanted to be, but without the obvious cues and countdowns—only after teasing and toying a beat so much that once it finely arrived you almost forgot you were craving it to begin with. 

He did it with “Where You Go I Go Too”, the epic title track of his most recent release, taunting jittery marimba sounds and guitar with other whimsical accents. As these sounds coalesced with a spectrum of synths and frenetic high-hats, an underlying bass became self-evident. But ever so gradually. Only the heroic entrance of bright ascending synthesizer lines finally confirmed the beat’s summit. After a euphoric acme was firmly in place the beat sublimated back into more atmospheric tinkering, and the next subtly towering track was underway.

That Lindstrøm submerges his beats, only for them to resurface at pinnacle moments, is a reflection of his personal MO. “The melody is the backbone of a track. The beat is just a wrapping” he told an interviewer once.

The strangest aspect of his set was that the crowd seemed more interested in staring at him crouch behind his setup than in dancing to the perfect mixes coming from it. Getting down to his powerfully delicate blend of Culture Club synths, boogie disco horns, and trance beats seemed to escape half the club. It didn’t matter: Lindstrøm out danced them all onstage himself.

by tjmHolden

2 Feb 2009



In bringing a close to my coverage of the “Super Bowl”, one of America’s major cultural events of the year, I wanted to follow up on the topic that wove in and out of yesterdays live-blogging narrative: the ads. Actually, there will be two entries on this topic, the first of which was: “what did you think?”

What was your opinion of the ads overall, and in particular?: likes, dislikes, things that struck you—if anything. Or was it all just a big come-on, a major waste of time (and money and neural activity)?

 


 

by Sean Murphy

2 Feb 2009

From the New York Times, this week, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano.

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003…and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

While it is beyond dispute that critics (and fans) have their own reasons—occasionally unavoidable, often selfish—for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. There will always be the posers who are not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure to already established fabricating entire autobiographies based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie.

And this certainly warrants considerable examination at a time when the ostensible line between fiction and non-fiction is rapidly blurring, in novels, memoirs and even journalism. But as it relates to the marketing imperatives inherent in the tortured artiste facade, it’s usually a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura a writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest, for future books). The blame game, so typically American—like the enterprise itself—only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey, or Stephen Glass) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or opportunists like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader taken hook, line and sinker by the outrageous exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box rebuker overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped; some are simply disingenuous, finding that their otherwise infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up. Let’s acknowledge an immutable fact: these prurient tell-all tomes would not continue to be written if they did not consistently sell. So the onus is…on us. Seriously. The collective “we” are increasingly more familiar with the lives of the writers than the words they wrote. Lest that sound too much like tilting at the inexorable windmills of commerce, I recognize it and try not to worry about it. It’s not as if America has suddenly retarded its collective ability (or desire) to think and read and engage. Or, if we have, it’s a protracted erosion, since each generation tends to lament the idiocy of the age it currently suffers through.

by Bill Gibron

2 Feb 2009

It was all about the action. Action, ACTION, ACTION!!!  Yep, action with THREE entertainment exclamation points. After a self-imposed moratorium which saw limited Hollywood participation in the previous broadcasts of America’s annual anthem, Tinsel Town tore up Sunday’s Super Bowl with a record eleven trailers. And as usual, many substituted smoke and mirrors for substance. Some were just teasers. Others unveiled their full blown first firefight salvos in the proposed battle for box office supremacy.

In between the endless ads for beer and beefed up vehicles, we got our initial glimpses at the return of the Decepticons, GI Joe, and Will Ferrell’s take on a classic ‘70s kiddie series. Curiously absent? A new Watchmen preview (only five weeks and counting…).  Same with the Wolverine X Men Origins film. Nothing about Public Enemies, the return of Harry Potter, Terminator: Salvation, or Alex Proyas’ Knowing. Apparently, unless it was approved by Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, the marketing teams didn’t bother…with one or two exceptions.

So, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here are reviews of the pictures pimped during last night’s game, beginning with:

Angels and Demons (Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor - directed by Ron Howard)

If the key to winning back audiences burned by the dull and dopey Da Vinci Code is keeping major plot points and characters a secret, then the ad for this prequel sequel to the 2006 hit has a good shot at being successful. While star Hanks is featured in several scenes of pseudo thrills, it’s the arrival of McGregor in full priest garb that’s the most shocking. The main narrative thread? Who knows? Does Dan Brown still have the juice he commanded two years ago? That’s probably the biggest mystery of all.

Duplicity (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts - directed by Tony Gilroy)

On the down side, this new film features an aging Julia Roberts trying to capture some post-millennial buzz. On the up side, we get the always watchable Clive Owen. And somewhere in the middle sits Tony Gilroy, freshly minted to the mainstream from Oscar nom glory and ready to follow up Michael Clayton with this calculated corporate spy game. With all the cutesy RomCom contrivances in the trailer, the moments of meaningful drama seem lost. And a mid-March opening is never a good sign.

Fast and Furious (Paul Walker, Vin Diesel - directed by Justin Lin)

Oh what a difference a few bombs will make - and we’re not talking about the pyrotechnic kind. After the first F&F made megabucks, both Walker and Diesel were destined (PR style) to become the new post-modern action heroes. A few Babylon AD/Running Scareds later, and both leads are back licking their lame box office wounds. With Tokyo Drift‘s Lin still in charge (apparently series originator Rob Cohen couldn’t be bothered) this will be stylish and empty - perfect for the early April lull before the real popcorn season begins.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum - directed by Stephen Sommers)

It’s a film based on a cartoon originally based on a toy. Now that sounds promising, especially if you’re a full blown ‘anything ‘80s’ geek. And depending on what you think of Stephen “Yes to Any Excess” Sommers, this is either the sleeper blockbuster of 2009 (it doesn’t hit theaters until August) or Van Helsing with toy soldiers instead of baby vampires, werewolves and lots of stuff going “boom”. The trailer did deliver a classic ID4 money shot, though. Who didn’t smile when the Eiffel Tower disintegrated and fell, huh?

Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell, Danny McBride - directed by Brad Silberling)

Believe it or not, Sid and Marty Kroffts’ Saturday Morning trip back in time was proposed and presented as serious science fiction. Even with the grade-Z effects, the storylines were written by some of the genre’s greats. So the snarky, borderline silly preview for the Farrell update appears prepared to crap all over that concept. In some ways, this looks like a Night in the Prehistoric Theme Park, with CG dino damage taking the place of actual ideas. Yikes.

Monsters vs. Aliens (Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie - directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)

Something about the premise seems a bit…off. The outer space angle looks lifted directly from Mars Attacks! But the creature feature element appears all fudged up. Are a 50 foot teenager and a giant gerbil really ‘monsters’? And does the notion of pitting a “ragtag” group of quasi-fiends against technologically advanced enemies really play? Finally, can we trust co-directors Letterman and Conrad? They were, after all, responsible for Shark Tale and Shrek 2 respectively. Well, at least the 3D gimmick seemed sort of interesting.

Race to Witch Mountain (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb - directed by Andy Fickman)

The original Disney film is not one of the House of Mouse’s shinier moments. For those of us who experience Uncle Walt’s awkward years (read: the ‘70s) first hand, this was sloppy speculative drek at best. Now, the man who made Johnson a massive family friendly hit (he helmed the genial if generic The Game Plan) puts the former WWE star and a pair of precocious tweens in car chase jeopardy, and let’s the stunt work speak for itself. Oddly enough, this is one revamp that shows some promise.

Star Trek 2009 (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto - directed by J.J. Abrams)

For those counting, this is number eleven in the cinematic series. For those beholden to the notion that ‘evens rule’ and ‘odds suck’, this could cause a problem. Still, Mr. Lost seems to be hitting all the right notes here - reinventing the origin story of the original Trek posse to put their later in life antics into perspective. Messing with mythology is never easy, and Shatner-ites have been whining about their favorite gas bag’s lack of a cameo, but the visuals make this a must-see…at least, until the sneak preview reviews start pouring in.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox - directed by Michael Bay)

In typical Bay style, this is all slam-bang bombast and very little clarity. We get no perspective on the plot, lots of over-energized eye candy, and one too many hyper hero shots. The new machines look very impressive indeed, and how can you not like a sequence where Master Mutt Jones gets his booty kicked by a giant, pissed off robot? Slam the first film all you want, but it was a joyous junk box of super steroided fun. Hopefully, this will be just as pangloriously goofy. 

Up (Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer - directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Pixar has this problem, especially in the early stages of marketing their movies. If you remember, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and especially WALL-E looked less than promising in their preview form - probably because, unlike the standard Robert Zemeckis school of trailering, every single plot twist isn’t given away in the two minute overview. But so far, the latest from these CGenuises is rather underwhelming. The images, as always, look stunning. We’ll have to wait a while to see if the studio continues batting 1000, or finally finds a project that stumbles, if only a little.

The Year One (Jack Black, Michael Cera - directed by Harold Ramis)

Black and Cera in a comedy designed by one of the genre’s greats (SCTV‘s Harold Ramis) - how could it fail? Well, the dry as a desert wit displayed in the less than impressive trailer might be an indication of such a suspicion. Sure, there are some clever jokes and a few inspired cameos, but the last time someone tried something like this, we got Caveman (or go back even further for the Dudley Moore flop Wholly Moses). The talent involved gets the initial offering a tentative pass, but things better improve come follow-up time, or all bets are off.


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