Published!

Finally!

My article “Meaningful Play: Performativity, Interactivity and Semiotics in Video Game Music” has been published in Musicology Australia, the journal of the Musicological Society of Australia. It follows directly from a paper I gave at the Performative Voices conference at the University of South Australia in 2012, and which I also gave (slightly revised) at the Ludo 2013 and MaMI 2013 conferences.

From the abstract:

Through an understanding of interactivity as a performative act, we can treat the musical experience of gameplay as the text to be studied—a text the player has a non-trivial role in creating. The player’s unique series of actions during gameplay evolves into an interpretation of the designers’ complete, preconceived game experience. Similarly, although music is received in a series of unique contexts during gameplay, the player’s actions shape the music into an interpretation of the musical experience envisioned by the composer… Video game music exhibits a twofold semiosis, the analysis of which must contextualise both the music’s initial composition and the player’s interactivity in relation to the complete musical experience.

The article can be found online here. If you have institutional access, go have a read!

Satisfaction in abstraction

I’m increasingly aware of a preference I have for the study of abstractions. In its current form, this is manifesting as an enjoyment of musical semiotics, which I’ve been studying for thesis and prospective article purposes. This isn’t a new thing for me, I think. When I started to find undergraduate physics too hard because I’d forgotten how to do integral calculus in the year between school and uni, I majored in pure mathematics instead. I’ve always found the application of mathematical models to real-life situations a bit challenging; on the other hand, algebra for algebra’s sake is satisfying, pure geometry or topology fascinates me, and set theory permeates my thinking about anything quantifiable.

Musical semiotics is a little controversial. On the surface of it, music doesn’t seem able to convey meaning; you can’t say, for instance, that middle C signifies a tree, or love, or the number 231. On the other hand, you could say that music can convey meaning within the external framework of a shared musical pedagogy. In that instance, a perfect cadence could convey a sense of satisfaction if there’s a socially-acknowledged precedent of perfect cadences representing satisfaction. But if this is the case in the Western tradition, there’s nothing to say it must hold in other musical traditions. Furthermore, some have argued that it’s possible to distinguish between a ‘meaning’ and a ‘significance’; that is, what a thing means in and of itself, and what significance external factors can give it in people’s minds. It’s fairly broadly accepted that music can connote — it can be made to signify something within its immediate context — but can it denote, or refer to something outside itself? Some say “yes” and some say “no” (and it sometimes seems that each answer is also followed by “of course, that should be obvious”).

This is barely scratching the surface of the question of musical meaning, let alone how (and if) music in games is meaningful. I know it is meaningful, at very least through its context within the audiovisual text, and I’m pretty sure there are even multiple ways in which it can bear meaning. But proving this in my thesis is shaping up to be a significant (and hopefully quite satisfying) challenge. I’m part way there with my current work, but every new text I read seems to open up further avenues for investigation. I guess I’m just glad that I can include some abstract theorising in my studies. Being able to look beyond the texts I study to the bigger issues, the things that inform, shape and permeate all such texts, and even beyond those things to the small glimpses one gets of how humans work through what they create; this is what, for me, makes this study worthwhile.

Spreadsheet simulation for the planet-bound

I think he’s shooting at an enemy pivot table. (Press kit image of DUST 514 from CCP hf)

DUST 514 should be boring.

I’ve finally managed to borrow a PS3 and get stuck into DUST for a while. As an EVE Online nut, I’ve been hoping to do this for quite some time. And also as an EVE Online nut, I’ve heard plenty about how it’s not really all that great a game.

It appears to have come a significant way since its release in terms of having bugs removed. I’ve still found a few glitches where the game can’t decide on your exact location, but they’re usually resolved once someone forcefully respawns you. There are also a few glitches with using a keyboard and mouse instead of the typical controller setup — sometimes the keys it tells you to use just don’t work, and sometimes it tells you to use a controller button instead. I’m using a keyboard-mouse because I’ve not been able to get used to aiming with the PS3 controller (the sensitivity always feels wrong to my XBOX-trained hands).

But chief among possible grievances is that the game types seem extremely limited. (I should say at the outset that I’ve not joined a major player-owned corporation, so there might be things I’m missing here.) There are three game types for regular matches: “Ambush”, which is your standard kill-everyone mode with a time limit and a ‘clone limit’ of 50; “Domination”, which is a standard King of the Hill mode and which has a ‘clone limit’ of 150; and “Skirmish”, which is a multiple hill variant of “Domination”. That’s it. The ‘clone limit’ mechanic (each time you respawn you start in a new clone of yourself — a technological link back to EVE that’s fictionalised in the novel EVE: Templar One if you’re interested) and the abstracted victory conditions add unpredictability to the end point of the match; the match ends either when your team’s out of clones or when you destroy the opposition’s Mobile Command Centre by maintaining control of an auto-firing cannon for longer than the other guys. And despite taking place on differing planets throughout the EVE game world, there are a fairly limited number of maps. Perhaps humans in the distant future take the term “parallel Earth” a little too literally and just terraform planets to look identical.

What soon becomes apparent is that DUST 514 relies not on variety but on unpredictability, setup, strategy and cooperation in equal parts to make gameplay interesting. In hindsight, and being an EVE Online nut, I should have expected this from CCP (who develop both DUST and EVE) because it’s rather similar to the EVE philosophy. Setting up a dropsuit fit is almost absurdly similar to fitting out a ship in EVE, even to the point of using many of the same fictional technologies. As an EVE nut it’s sort of comfortingly familiar, but I’m certain that non-EVE players would find the translation of EVE‘s steep technical learning curve into the FPS genre a bit odd.

As for cooperation, it apparently happens sometimes. There are up to 16 players per side, which is enough to pull off some expert manoeuvres if you’re more coordinated than the other guys. This happens, though most games seem to have one or two organised squads and a much larger crew of lone rangers. I’ve never heard any comms on the chat channel for the entire team, so I’m guessing the squads use their own comms channel. Good one, guys. While this makes strategising fairly challenging, there are enough support roles built into the game to make tacking yourself on to someone else’s strategy a moderately rewarding play style. You can be a medic if you want, reviving your incapacitated team mates to prevent using up valuable clones. If you’ve got the skills, you can be a heavy gunner, or drive or fly a vehicle. Haven’t played around with those myself, don’t have the skills. What I have been mucking around with is being a sniper.

I think the way DUST does sniping is the biggest surprise I’ve had from this game. I’m actually better at sniping in this game than at regular soldiering (at which I’m fairly woeful). But I couldn’t possibly attribute this to my own skill. DUST‘s small collection of maps and game types hides the fact that the maps are far larger than would normally be required. When you’re a regular soldier, you find the space between your initial spawn point and where all the action happens quite annoying. But when you’re a sniper, the exceedingly generous amount of land surrounding the battle arena provides you with a plethora of tiny hiding places. Judging by the number of gullies, small mounds and structures along the ranges of hills at the periphery of these maps, I’d say the maps were designed partially with snipers in mind. You’re never safe anywhere, of course, but many of these hiding places are sufficiently far from where anyone would normally be looking that you can get a few kills in before you’re noticed. And when you are noticed, it’s usually by another sniper. Although sniper rifles seem underpowered, they’re still useful enough to provide support to your team mates closer to the action.

What’s more, in typical EVE-like fashion your setup plays a significant part in your sniping effectiveness. You could choose to buy-to-win through microtransactions, but who’s that much of a schmuck? It’s all about the slow grind. Skilling up, buying new gear, modifying your dropsuit to be less scan-able and boost your damage, and all the while honing your actual skills of aiming and finding good hiding spots. I dare say that to most FPS players this would be tedious, but to anyone familiar with EVE it’ll feel fairly natural.

But then, I suppose that’s one reason why DUST hasn’t really worked. It’s an FPS that appeals more to the players of a relatively small and infamously slow MMORPG than to regular FPS players. That DUST doesn’t bore me is probably more of a testament to how engaging a game EVE can be than to any particular qualities of DUST itself. DUST ostensibly builds a playable game from very few conventional FPS elements by adding a few RPG-like elements to the mix, along with its much-touted ‘orbital strike’ mechanic (which, by the way, I’m yet to see — I’ve seen “warbarge strikes” but they’re apparently weaker than a proper orbital strike by an EVE player, and I’d honestly be surprised if anyone in EVE was bothering). But underpinning those RPG-like elements is the RPG they were borrowed from. Take away that RPG, its world, its technologies, its story, and DUST would be nothing.

I should be bored. I’m not sure I should even be professionally interested — the four instances of music I’ve found in the game are basic loops that seem unrelated to the music in EVE. But, just like in EVE, I’ve kept returning just to see what will happen next, and whether the latest tweaks to my setup will give me the advantage against strangers in far-flung corners of the galaxy.

Catching up

Wow. Busy semester. I’ve never been a particularly good blog updater type, but my tardiness has been quite annoying this time around. Here are a few things I’ve been meaning to write about.

Skype
I’ve recently had the opportunity to give the same paper in two very different contexts. Once via Skype to the Ludo 2014 conference in the UK, and once in person to an in-house symposium for students at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The excellent folks at the Ludo 2014 conference set up a Google Hangout for a few of us long-distance “attendees”, in addition to Skype link-ups for presenting conferences. Really nice of them to do both, as it allowed me to sidestep that pesky other-side-of-the-world thing, and not just to say my piece and then leave. I could engage with the conference and the other speakers despite being at home in Sydney, which I found quite rewarding.

Presenting a paper via Skype is actually quite challenging. With the audience on the other side of the world, the Skype window small enough on my screen that it doesn’t obstruct my paper, and the low-fi sound quality of Skype, there’s remarkably little feedback to be received. No turning pages of notebooks to be heard, no amused grins or muted chuckles at jokes, not even a bored expression to let you know how you’re going. You’ve just got to forge ahead, trusting that your microphone isn’t broken and that Skype hasn’t dropped out and left you with a frozen image or something. And you notice all this in your first ten seconds, and by twenty seconds in you realise it’s going to be like this for the next twenty minutes. But then they clap politely at the end, you realise it all went fine, and you answer some questions while breathing deeply and pondering a walk to the kitchen for a large glass of wine. Giving the paper in person at the Con felt substantially easier, but I’m grateful for the chance to be able to present to Ludo 2014. I think being able to telecommute is a pretty important skill for someone conducting research in such an isolated country.

The Wolf Among Us
This game (well, the first four episodes of it at least) is superb, almost to the point of being annoying. Having recently spent a considerable amount of time analysing L.A. Noire and a considerable amount of effort trying to place it within the noir tradition, it grates to see a game that fits the tradition so easily. But it only grates a little, because it’s awesome.

And something I’ve noticed about this game is how surprisingly well the music works considering it’s the second least noir thing about the game (after the fairytales). It’s very synthy, and more “artificial” than “gritty”, but to my mind it fits the game rather well. I’ll try to figure out why when the fifth episode comes out 

The Walking Dead
Never shed a tear in a video game before. That’s something new. I’ve recently bought Season 2 in the Steam Summer Sales so no spoilers.

EVE Online
My corp and I have moved out into wormhole space (as of a few months ago). EVE feels and sounds quite different out there. It’s got a brooding, ominous soundtrack – at least for the first little while, then the distinct lack of variance becomes the crushing loneliness of empty space. I’ve been listening to New Eden Radio a lot, put it that way. I know that nullsec has an adaptive soundtrack that gets “darker” according to the number of ships killed in the last 24 hours, but I’m yet to see whether wormhole space has a similar mechanic because there’s nobody there. And, to be fair, when there is someone there it’s usually me that’s on the dying side.

Skyrim
I’ve never gotten into Skyrim as deeply as I got into Oblivion, but I’ve been playing it sporadically lately and am yet again impressed by how beautiful a world it is. Top marks.

On the Writing of Words etc.

I’ve just finished up an intense period of writing and revising (potential) articles. It’s a bit of an intense process that mixes analysis, written creativity, formatting precision, and the uncomfortability of putting yourself out there to be judged. I generally like each of the first three when experienced separately, and I do admit that the combination can be engrossing when I’m getting into it. It’s the latter that gives writing its pain.

It’s a completely different kind of writing to what I’ve done previously at uni/school or on my own time. When you write for an assignment, you submit yourself to the judgement of your teacher, tutor or lecturer, but their judgement is usually final. Your only recourse is to do better next time. Conversely, the writing I’ve done on my own time has either remained unpublished (and thus not judged), or been published informally on a blog. And we all know that caring about how people respond to a blog post misses the point.

Writing for publication, though, requires you to submit yourself not to a judge you know, nor a public you ultimately disregard, but to a process. Strangers read your work, presumably think about it for a little while, then apply their own expertise to the task of correcting you. Publication (or the aiming theretowards) requires a great deal of faith in this process, which is only a rational faith if every scholar involved the process is equally dedicated to the maintenance of its integrity. In this corner of the world at least, the increasing responsibilities placed on scholars of administration, teaching and publication quotas in addition to their research is providing a fast-firming basis of doubt that the process can maintain itself. Who, after all, has time to read other people’s work carefully when their own institution is breathing down their necks? I am speculating here, of course, but it does seem logical that since humans and their attention spans are finite, increased responsibility in one area lessens the ability to meet responsibilities in others.

The safeguard is, then, to write as accurately and clearly as possible. But that’s complicated in a new field. I’m doing my best to write in a way that can be understood by someone who’s never studied (nor even played) video games, but it’s challenging. There’s a great study I found recently by Berger & McDougall (2013) that examined the use of L.A. Noire as part of English classes in the UK. It found (among other things) that although teachers could grapple with video games as texts, their students were both more willing and more able to consider these texts on an equal footing to films and novels. This appeared to go beyond what could be explained by familiarity alone, to that which I suppose is more akin to fluency. I do worry that I’m failing to articulate the nuances of the medium that I know to people who may not be as fluent in video games and their music as I am. I guess I’m not in the best position to know, but still, it’s kind of doing my head in.

Nevertheless! I’ve had a good couple of weeks of family things and working on my car, and now I’m back into research with a bit of teaching on the side. I’m looking at EVE Online with a bit more of an academic eye, which is coinciding with my corporation’s move into wormhole space — helpful for getting to know all of EVE‘s music. If there’s one thing studying L.A. Noire taught me, it’s to play all of a game before you write about it.

Reflections on the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music

At the time of writing* I’m sitting in Pittsburgh International Airport, looking out on the snow-covered concrete while I wait for my flight home. I’ve just attended the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music at Youngstown State University. I’m a bit of a nervous traveller sometimes so I’ve given myself a 6hr wait, which is about half way through. But Pittsburgh Airport is large and near-empty; the classical music playing over the PA and the solitude (relative to Sydney or Los Angeles) is calming. And I’ve had a good weekend, and I’m heading home, so I’m feeling pretty good.

The conference—the first of its kind in North America—was full of interesting and varied papers from academics across the US, together with a few from Canada and myself. As I did after the Ludo2013 conference last year in Liverpool, I’m coming away inspired, intimidated, encouraged, daunted and (perhaps least surprisingly) keen to play more games. Among the papers, only a few games were discussed by more than one presenter, which speaks to the diversity of the work going on in this field at the moment. Enoch Jacobus’ and Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey’s papers on BioShock Infinite made me even more keen to get through the first two BioShock games so I can play it. I’ve added the quirky game Catherine to my list of games to buy a PS3 for after Will Gibbons’ paper on its dualities reminded me of its unique weirdness. And the fact that I haven’t played any Zelda or Final Fantasy games is really starting to feel like a hindrance. I think I’ll have to get some kind of AV switch box thing so I can plug my PlayStation and N64 into my HDMI-only monitor. I don’t often miss having a TV, but for things like this it would be rather useful.

The first two papers, by Dana Plank-Blasko and William Ayers, discussed alterations of Bach and Chopin pieces respectively; Dana demonstrating a mistranscription of Bach’s BWV 565 in the NES version of Captain Comic was an excellent way to start the conference. I enjoyed Steven Reale’s paper on Portal and William O’Hara’s paper on Proteus, both games that give exceptional musical experiences and that I’ve a lot of respect for. Nick Exler gave a paper in which he used a Schenkerian analysis of a Zelda melody, and Elizabeth Medina-Gray constructed a method for analysing smoothness in game music transitions, leaving me convinced I need to bulk up my analytical muscles. Matthew Thompson’s paper on his experiences teaching a music appreciation course using video game music was very warmly received, with many welcoming his pedagogical approach and applauding his successes. And I resonated with Peter Shultz’s paper that challenged the adaptive-is-always-better approach to game scores (perhaps unsurprisingly, as I’m an Elder Scrolls fan).

The keynote address came from Karen Collins, who is among the most prolific and inspiring researchers in the field. Her address did raise a lot of questions among those present, both about the future of the field and the nature of what we’re doing. Collins’ response to a question from Steven Reale about the term “ludomusicology” provoked a great deal of discussion for the remainder of the conference. Many agreed with Collins in thinking that the term was virtually indecipherable to most people and was therefore unhelpful. Others believed that the term is useful because it lends legitimacy to the field. A few made the good point that both “ludomusicology” and “video game music studies” can be useful according to who you’re talking to. I think I agree with this last idea. There were three things that convinced undergraduate me it was possible to study video game music:

  1. There were books published on game music (most notably Collins’ Game Sound)
  2. There was an organised group of researchers studying game music (shout out to the Ludomusicology Research Group), and
  3. People had bothered to give a name to the field.

These things indicated that people studying video game music took their research seriously, and that they considered their research field to be a field in its own right, rather than a sub-field or a side project. That kind of thing is invaluable to a young researcher about to invest their future in a field. It gives such a student courage in the face of almost certain opposition and/or apathy (from institutions and fellow students alike). At least, it did for me. And as I watch the term be understood and even used by a growing number of academics at my institution, I’m convinced it’s helping contextualise my work within the respected body of knowledge. That said, it’s still just a Greek word play, and it’s not the hill I’m going to die on.

All told, it was another engaging and inspiring conference—which, for a young academic field, is a huge success. I’m very glad to have been able to attend, and I’m looking forward to the next stages of ludomusicological research in North America and throughout the world. And I’m all the more inspired to start a ludomusicological research group on this side of the world, if only so I can make everyone else spend 20 hours on a plane to get to a conference.

Press coverage of the conference:
Vindy: http://www.vindy.com/news/2014/jan/19/ysu-forum-explores-music-in-video-games/
Wired: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/01/game-music/
YSU YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRsLZjIHDmE

*Though not at the time of publication — I’ve been back in Australia for about five days. I’m a slow blogger.
 

Guest post at Ludomusicology.org

Just a quick post to direct you over to Ludomusicology.org, where I’ve recently contributed a guest post! Quite exciting. The guys at the Ludomusicology Research Group are fantastic, and are leading the advancement of the video game music field through their research and through their annual conferences in the UK. Head on over to read my post, to read the other posts on the site, and to find out more about what’s happening in ludomusicology.

Unheard Valve melodies

I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been not-noticing something, and it surprised me quite a lot. I’ve been not-noticing the music in Valve games — in Half-Life 2 and Portal 2 specifically.

This surprised me, because these games are excellent. Perhaps excellent enough to make me concentrate on the gameplay and forget about the music. The theory on film music is that when it’s doing its job you shouldn’t notice it much. Its job is to make you feel what’s on the screen, so if it draws attention to itself, it’s doing it wrong (massive generalisation, but fairly accurate for mainstream cinema). I understand Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1987) discusses this, and the concept has passed into common film music parlance. I guess we assume this is also the case for video game music, though that might just be another left-over assumption from film music studies (should look into this… thesis chapter potential?). Whatever was going on, I’d certainly overlooked the music in these games—perhaps I was too busy being entertained by a talking potato.

My moment of realisation came when, as I do about once a year, I loaded up my second play-through of Half-Life 2. For some reason I decided to play through the game again before attempting the Episodes, and I still haven’t got through it. Anyway, I was fanging the hovercraft around a bend and the music started up and I thought “Wow, how on earth haven’t I noticed that music before?” It’s incredibly subtle, electronically precise like most of the Half-Life sound experience, and rather emotive. The Half-Life game world is one of the more sparse and ambient worlds in gaming I feel, and the music suited it exactly, giving its usual emotional direction without hindering the player’s ability to usefully employ their sense of hearing.

Perhaps as a result of my Half-Life 2 revelation, I began to pay more attention while playing Portal 2 and was similarly surprised. The obvious points of musical interest in the game are finding “Exile Vilify” by The National playing in a side room and the game’s credits song (which could only disappoint after “Still Alive” in Portal, but is still pretty good). But the score is both eerie and crisp, often showing a similar precision to Half-Life 2 but haunted and a little disturbed. I think it matches the game’s myriad tensions: Aperture’s past(s) and post-apocalyptic present, an awe of discovery (testing!!) muted by nervousness, two antagonistic and psychotic artificial intelligences, and of course the interplay between intelligence and movement upon which gameplay relies. Even the multiplayer has a more light-hearted, sociable treatment of the same musical mentality. But all of this is very subtle, and more so given that the score is juxtaposed with un-subtle music—”Exile Vilify” is a prime example, as is the jazz version of “Still Alive” that plays over the radios, but even the “sound effects” for using Gels and Aerial Faith Plates (and probably other things) are actually musical cues that actively modulate to match the current background music (even mid-cue!). All in all, its an intensely musical game, but it’s just rather quiet about it.

I’m a little ashamed I didn’t pay attention to these excellent scores on my first play-throughs. Both Half-Life 2 and Portal 2 have a multitude of innovative or just plain excellent elements that usurp players’ attentions, so it’s not my fault; and besides, who isn’t distracted by the surprise of a good sequel?  But maybe Valve has silently found the formula for that holy grail of video games — music that works so well and so subtly that it never gets boring, and thus avoids being indelibly stamped upon your consciousness in a bad way.

Reflections on the MSA/NZMS 2013 conference and my own place in the world

I’m in Brisbane at the moment, having attended the joint annual conference of the Musicological Society of Australia together with the New Zealand Musicological Society this week. It’s been an intellectually stimulating week of papers from a truly diverse range of disciplines. As I usually do after a conference, I’m coming away with a head full of ideas and an inexplicable desire to start composing again. But that will definitely have to remain a hobby (at best) for the time being since, as I might mention a bit further down, things been hella busy.

I mentioned a diverse range of disciplines, and I wasn’t kidding. Highlights included a set of papers suggesting that certain composers should be considered as modernists, a paper on “the cup game” and its role in high school musical culture, a paper on the metal scene and underground sub-scene of Adelaide, a paper on remodernism in the work of a Georgian composer, a paper denouncing the labelling of Reich’s “Different Trains” as documentary, a paper on the inaccuracies (and otherwise) of an amateur scribe, a paper on child soldier musicians in Australia and England, and another set of papers on creativity in the recording/producing processes. My favourite thing about conferences like this is that your mind is stretched in so many different directions. Quite beyond just being interesting, it helps me think about my own work in new ways.

Also thought-provoking was the discussion around music and musicology’s place in Australian university culture and the nation’s culture at large. What I heard, and what resonated with me, was that there’s a certain sense of entitlement among musical practitioners, educators and theorists regarding access to the public purse which stands in direct opposition to the uniquely anti-intellectual, anti-academic rhetoric and mentality found in Australia. The call was to be responsible and to be able to justify your place—this is something I struggle with frequently, and I suspect that’s because I don’t fully expect people would accept my justification, even if I had a good argument prepared. I think I can justify my research to someone who’s sold on the notion that the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is beneficial to society, but people (and even universities) these days don’t seem to buy that without significant discounts. But quite apart from my puny little PhD, I find it disturbing that music itself is falling under the same ire. I guess when Spotify etc. let you access music ad nauseum, musical practitioners seem as abstract and irrelevant as a cow does to a supermarket-bought scotch fillet. Super sad.

The presentation of my own paper on L.A. Noire‘s place in the noir tradition went well. I had a chance in the week leading up to the conference to re-do some of the video examples, and I think it paid off. Removing the part where I crash a car into a power pole certainly made me look more professional. The questions I received afterwards were helpful, as always—I often feel as though I learn more from the questions than I impart in the presentation. But it’s particularly good to have had another chance to discuss ludomusicology on the national stage. I’m slowly getting more of an idea of who’s interested in this field in Australia, and while numbers are small I’m hopeful that talking and presenting can help change that.

My big stack of work at the moment is finishing off the article version of this paper and sending that off for publication (hopefully). I aim to get that finished ASAP so I can start working on EVE Online and its multiple musical experiences, which I’m quite excited to do. Things are busy, but they’re moving forward.