Playing With Headphones

Where gaming and music collide.

By Sasha Geffen

The first thing you hear when you stray from the path is a woman’s voice, distant and serene, repeating a simple melodic phrase. You’re alone in the woods, and eventually the path dissolves behind you, stranding you in a forest that loops back on itself forever. The music changes depending on the direction you take, the flowers you pick, the discarded objects you collect. Soon, you realize you’re not alone in the woods at all. You hear a growl, and, if you choose, you can follow it. A single low piano note blares as you approach your wolf.

The Path.

The Path, the 2009 game from art-house production company Tale of Tales, retells the fable of Little Red Riding Hood with six different Reds, all sisters. The youngest is nine years old and the oldest is 19, and you can steer all of them straight down the path to grandmother’s house if you want. But the  fun comes when you disobey the game’s only explicit direction. Leave the path behind you, and you’ll encounter a wealth of enigmatic visuals, cryptic poetry, and stark, eerie music.

Tale of Tales commissioned The Path’s soundtrack from Kris Force and Jarboe, the latter of whom is known for her work with Swans in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and later on the experimental band’s 2012 album The Seer. Jarboe was no stranger to the intersection of music and visceral horror when she began work on The Path’s score — Swans’ music hits a similar crosshatch of fear and sublimity — but the project enabled her to fill out the corners of a different kind of world, one that thrives on mystery. The Path does not explain itself; its meaning as a work of art comes primarily from the experience of each player.  

Jarboe’s approach to soundtracks differs from her personal music process. “It is a method of stepping inside the different characters and creating with their voices,” she wrote. “I brought experience in creating and performing music that specifically sets out to explore the nature of personas and worlds.”

Jarboe and Force laced The Path‘s soundtrack with animal growls, clanking chains, and footsteps, but its most anxious moments come in the form of repeating, unresolved chords. There is dread in the inevitability of each character’s encounter with her wolf, a feeling of claustrophobia in the boundless forest.  

“Once we got a few of the final music tracks we could tell that this was not going to be in any way a lightweight game,” wrote Tale of Tales’ Auriea Harvey in a postmortem for the game. “The music Jarboe and Kris Force made for the game had such an enormous effect that it changed our thinking about the game design. And this, we feel, is as it should be. A videogame should not be seen as its individual parts.”

Like film, games are a medium where auditory cues can be just as powerful as visual ones. Music not only provokes emotion, but suggests space; a faint, echoed sound comes from far away, while an immediate blast of noise can alert you to someone or something directly behind you. While casual gaming on smartphones and social media has recently experienced an unprecedented surge, the past decade has also seen developers forge a new space in games where storytelling, communication, and social disruption take priority over uncomplicated “fun” — and the way their games sound weighs on their affect just as much as the way they look.

“The ability to bond with a character and a story and beyond into an exploration of self is in my view at the core of vignettes and art games that are exploring conceptual territory in gaming,” said Jarboe. “With the advent of virtual reality fields in gaming, the construction of identity is radically ever expanding.”

“Game as biography or game as more of a personalized, intimate storytelling device has become a lot more popular,” noted Rich Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace, over the phone from his home in Berkley, California. “The internet has allowed a much higher level of connectedness for developers and people who play games. There’s more of a realization now that games are for everybody, that games aren’t just for teenage boys.”

While casual gaming on smartphones and social media has recently experienced an unprecedented surge, the past decade has also seen developers forge a new space in games where storytelling, communication, and social disruption take priority over uncomplicated ‘fun’.

Fez.
What Now?

Vreeland recently scored the breakout horror film It Follows, but first, he earned acclaim for his soundtrack to FEZ, a 2012 puzzle game about “a two-dimensional character from a two-dimensional village discovering that there’s another dimension,” in his own words. Like The Path, FEZ tells its story largely through imagery and subtle, oblique dialogue. It’s not a script-heavy game, and with hardly any words for the player to grasp, it leaves plenty of space for visuals, mechanics, and music to do the work of storytelling.  

That’s not a new dynamic in games — older works now considered to be classics, like Super Mario Bros or the Legend of Zelda, included scores that rounded out their worlds where words and pictures fell short. They told their stories via simple visuals and specific mechanics. You knew an antagonist by the harm done to your avatar, while your allies filled up your health bar. Despite their relative simplicity, the soundtracks to those games linger in collective memory as artifacts from worlds people could escape to in childhood.

Games have been a cultural cornerstone for decades, but it took until 2012 for a game soundtrack to be recognized with a Grammy nomination. Journey’s OST didn’t win, but it did reach number 116 on the Billboard sales charts and ranked among iTunes’ top 10 soundtracks. The orchestral score, written by Austin Wintory, accompanied another game devoid of language, reliant exclusively on imagery as the player pilots a character through desert ruins in a spiritual quest to the top of a snowy mountain.  

Journey, FEZ, and The Path all leave negative space open for the player; in contrast to mainstream shooter franchises like Call of Duty or Battlefield, which crowd the playing space with spoken dialogue and loud violence, these wordless, atmospheric games rely on music to strengthen their narratives. They allow for a nuanced and personal experience, a kind of meditation.

Certain games encourage players to seek out complex emotional challenges, privileging subtle internal reactions over flat aggression or mechanical puzzles. Arielle Grimes, an independent developer who also goes by SlimeKat, makes games that explicitly grapple with lived experiences of mental illness and queer identity. She also writes their soundtracks, a component which she considers inextricable from the rest of her work.

One of her most affecting games, called What Now?, is subtitled as “an adventure in sensory overload and emotional breakdown.” You play a woman alone in her apartment after a breakup, wading through static and fending off angry, depressive thoughts. Your steps generate machine pips, while breathy synthesizer chords rotate in the background like a faraway, inaccessible comfort. Walk enough steps in a row, and your environment breaks down around you. The frame of the environment shrinks until your character suffocates.

“When working on What Now?, what I kept referring to while creating audio were concepts of cyclical thought, intensity, the building of pressure,” explains Grimes. “To fill the game world with these concepts I created a short background loop of ‘machine beeps,’ rough gritty sounds for thoughts and movement, and a long noisy audio soundscape to represent confusion and loss. These all come together and blend with the graphic assets and mechanics to communicate ideas to the player.”

The internet has allowed a much higher level of connectedness for developers and people who play games. There’s more of a realization now that games are for everybody, that games aren’t just for teenage boys.

Another of Grimes’ games, Bleeding, asks the player to command an avatar who drips blood and apologizes to every person they come in contact with until they die. Each apology triggers a tone, and each time you apologize a wall springs up between you and the stranger you’re bleeding on. The tones are harmonically disconnected, and the game conjures a sense of deep isolation even as you wander through a crowd. In a newer game called BrokenFolx, sounds representing speech and mobile notifications merge with synth bells and airy pads as four marginalized people navigate the emotional dangers of their everyday lives.  

“Games can be very healing, and very helpful especially with processing difficult life aspects,” says Grimes. “Games are able to let a player influence the world of the game, and in that moment pull them in and tie them to that world. I think those moments in games, especially when dealing with hard issues, can be much more cathartic and/or emotional for the player than listening to an album.”

The responsibility a player feels for their choices inside a game bonds them affectively to the game’s reality, even in the smallest games: click one word instead of another word, and the outcome of a story bears on you. You feel guilt at your failures and pride at your victories because you’re the one who navigated your way to either outcome. It’s a simple emotional mechanic, but it draws a line between authoritative fiction, like novels or films, and flexible, inhabitable game experiences.

That distinction might help to explain the recent appeal of games made with Twine, an accessible, open-source tool for building hypertext structures. Unlike text-based adventures like the 1980 dungeon-crawler Zork, Twine games often situate action in the text itself, not just the story it tells. They work  more like language poetry than short fiction: words flicker and change with the click of a mouse, ASCII landscapes appear and disappear, and game mechanics glitch out to oblivion.

One of Twine’s better known developers is Porpentine, an Oakland-based designer whose titles include Howling Dogs and Ultra Business Tycoon III. Most of her games articulate the internal experience of surviving as a trans woman, and many also grapple with violence and abuse. Some, like Crystal Kesha Warrior, intersect directly with music, while others use soundtracking to emphasize emotional beats within the narrative. On more recent games, she’s collaborated with composer Brenda Neotenomie, who scored With Those We Love Alive and a remastered version of Their Angelical Understanding included in Porpentine’s new Twine compilation, Eczema Angel Orifice.

With Those We Love Alive follows the daily ritual of a craftsperson employed by a mutant empress in a decaying land; while much of the game passes in idle repetition, Neotenomie’s music works to signal when something is happening inside the world, when something moves forward. Their Angelical Understanding, meanwhile, is a quest for either revenge or forgiveness, depending on how it’s played, and the soundtrack breaks up the discrete physical and mental spaces through which its player passes. 

Though she’s scoring textual experiences rather than strictly visual ones, Neotenomie still sees Porpentine’s games as having spatial properties. “Whether I’m working from language or imagery, I focus on the physical setting as colored by its mood,” she explains. “In With Those We Love Alive, the music that plays when you sculpt for the Empress is meant to sound slinky and viscous, like the chemical that melts your raw materials into place. Porpentine and I have a new game coming out called Neon Haze where a character uses a video mask to disguise themselves in static, and that plays into the texture of the surrounding pieces.”

Games can be very healing, and very helpful especially with processing difficult life aspects. Games are able to let a player influence the world of the game, and in that moment pull them in and tie them to that world. I think those moments in games, especially when dealing with hard issues, can be much more cathartic and/or emotional for the player than listening to an album.

Now Playing.

Neotenomie also makes synthesizer music that she releases separately from other media, though she still feels that it occupies a related kind of space. “When I’m working on standalone music, I start off either thinking about a particular scene or a place, or throwing stuff around until one comes into focus,” she says. “Texture is so important to me. I used to close my eyes and listen to albums from start to finish, thinking about the worlds they made. I’m already thinking about set design with the music I listen to and make, so working on a soundtrack is easier in some ways, because it takes care of that first step. I also find that having someone else’s vision to work from pushes me to step outside my comfort zone.”

Historically, game-making has been relegated to the field of programming, an institution tightly guarded by financial and cultural barriers and therefore primarily populated by cis white men. But much in the way that the tools necessary to make electronic music have been recently democratized, the tools required to put together games have proliferated. Many, like Twine, are free. “I was plonking around on my aunt’s Casio before I could talk, but the idea of making video games seemed so remote and arcane in comparison,” says Neotenomie. “What tools I found growing up were either buggy or inaccessible to me. It’s nice to think kids are having an easier time with that. It’s great both to see text-based games garner more respect and 3D game development become more accessible.”

In the realm of short-form narrative experiments, there are even a number of games that simulate the experience of participating in music culture or attending a live music event. Some, like Increpare‘s Slave of God, use exaggerated music and visual distortion to mimic the feeling of being on drugs. The game’s music shifts and bends depending on where you wander in its small, enclosed world; you can crawl up on the DJ’s platform or hear the thuds of what he’s spinning from the bathroom.

One 3D game called Now Playing sends the player down a street full of virtual music clubs, all populated with individual bands, like Austin’s 6th Street during SXSW. Each band’s music is procedurally generated, and the movements of the players and audience members also derive from the math. “I never thought I’d get into mosh pits, but after being in one I was hooked,” said the game’s creator Nathan Ray in an email interview. “Trying to recreate the feeling of being in a tiny room bouncing around other people was a large goal while making the game – the feelings of excitement and disconnect from myself, where I no longer saw myself as an individual but a part of a larger, sticky, sweaty force of nature. I don’t really go to shows much anymore because of financial and time constraints, so Now Playing was a way for me to try to recreate and capture those feelings.”

If the New York City clubs where Swans played in the ‘80s once offered cultural shelter from oppressive mainstream norms, maybe a similar kind of shelter can now be accessed through LCD screens and wi-fi connections. Maybe that’s one of the few places it can still be accessed, now that young people gather there more easily than they can in gentrified urban spaces. Widespread internet access has engendered a kind of hyperpublic space where individuals can collapse into shared experiences regardless of the temporal or geographic distances between them. As an art form unique to computer space, games have gathered life outside of the expensive, exclusive sphere of corporate consoles and big budget sequels, just as rock music started breeding its own underground soon after it had radiated across the world on the dollar of powerful record companies.

“A lot of photons have been spent trying to articulate what games are or should be relative to other popular media, and it’s complicated by how many game formats incorporate those same media,” said Neotenomie. “But if the question is, ‘Can the holistic experience of playing a game evoke a similar range of emotion or communicate a similar range of messages as focusing on a piece of music?’ Yeah. I feel pretty good about that. I hope the games I design and score can be proof of it.”

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