Games

Some Comments on Video Game Commentary Tracks

The commentary offers no insight into the development process and no talk of inspirations behind the story. For a game that was in development as long as Alan Wake, one would think there’d be at least a couple of interesting "behind the scenes" stories to tell.

Commentary tracks are considered a standard special feature for any DVD, some even offer multiple tracks. For games, this kind of look behind the scenes is still treated as something rare, usually reserved only for “special editions.” Yet, they’re slowly becoming more common, so perhaps it’s time to point out some of the successes and failures, looking at two cases in particular: Alan Wake, and The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition.

The commentary in Alan Wake does everything wrong from the start. It’s only available in the Special Edition of the game, which essentially means that it’s locked behind a pay wall. This naturally results in fewer people hearing it and talking about it, and it’s certainly worth talking about.

To play the commentary track, you have to first install it from the Bonus Content disc to a hard drive, then go to the Options menu in the main game and turn it on. At certain points in the game, a little video of the developer will automatically pop up in the corner of the screen, and the game’s sound is turned down so that you can hear what he’s saying. While playing with the sound like that is a nice touch (since this video plays automatically, there’s no way to reactivate it once it stops), if I want to hear it again I have to restart from a checkpoint. This is a frustrating omission, since even on a DVD I can rewind or pause the movie if I miss something in the commentary.

However, missing part of the commentary is only a problem if the developers are saying something interesting, and this is Alan Wake’s biggest flaw. The commentary itself is the worst that I’ve ever heard across all forms of media.

At the very beginning, the man in the pop up video suggests you beat the game first since he’ll be spoiling the plot, and he’s not joking. Nearly every piece of commentary throughout the entire game is just a rehashing of plot points and character motivations that the game already makes clear (since it actually is a well written game). The commentary offers no insight into the development process and no talk of inspirations behind the story. For a game that was in development as long as Alan Wake, one would think there’d be at least a couple of interesting "behind the scenes" stories to tell. But if there are, it seems like Remedy doesn’t want to talk about them.

One factor contributing to this awfulness is the fact that, for the most part, the videos just show one person talking about the game. Any commentary works best with multiple people since they play off of each other, reminding each other of stories to tell. With just one person talking at a time, the entire commentary sounds forced, like all of it was written ahead of time. It sounds more like a kind of PR speak than an actual discussion of the game.

Compare Wake's commentary to that of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition. Again, the commentary is reserved for the Special Edition, but in this case, every edition of the game is a special edition since the “special” just relates to the fact that this is an update of an older game. As part of the normal game, the commentary was a major selling point and was actually mentioned in some reviews. The commentary track was reviewed along with the game itself, so before I even started playing I knew it would be an entertaining listen. As a standard feature in the game. it was discussed about openly, so other developers could easily learn from its strengths.

Again, the commentary is activated from the Options menu. As you travel the islands, a prompt will occasionally appear in the corner of the screen. Hitting that button activates the commentary track, which keeps playing until it ends or until you leave the screen. By putting the commentary behind the button prompt, I can activate it whenever I want, as many times as I want. If I miss something in the conversation, I can even skip to the end and immediately replay it. Also, the commentary for that screen stays active for the entire game. So I can listen to it as soon as I see the prompt or wait several hours; as long as I can visit that screen, I can listen to the commentary.

And this commentary track is worth listening to. It brings together the three creators of Monkey Island to talk and reminisce about their game. Since there are three people included in each piece of commentary they constantly play off each other, joking with one another, arguing, and the like, so at times it feels like I’m listening in on the conversation of friends. It’s engaging and personable and makes me want to hear more.

The group also offers interesting insights into the development, addressing things like why Guybrush’s pants fall down in the graveyard and who is responsible for the spitting contest. They talk about what they liked and disliked about the game, and we get to hear Tim Schafer worry about the scope of the puzzles and how the game was purposefully designed to make you visit all three islands.

The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition has a great commentary track, and hopefully more games will follow its lead. Unfortunately, Halo: Reach also hid its commentary track behind a pay wall, only including it with the Legendary Edition of the game, and -- being the high-profile game that it is -- if future developers/publishers decide to include commentary, they’ll likely follow Bungie’s lead. Thankfully, there are at least two developers willing to make such special features free: Valve and Starbreeze. You can download a free commentary mode for The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (the version on Assault on Dark Athena) from Xbox LIVE and PSN, and Valve has included a commentary mode in all of its games since Half Life 2. I haven’t heard these tracks yet, but if they’re anything like the one in Monkey Island 2, then perhaps there’s hope yet for the future of in-game commentary.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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