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Emergent Music Games

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Tuesday, Feb 3, 2009
Emergent music games and their potential insights in other areas of gaming.

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.

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