Hamlet, Spaceships and Shiny Things

I haven’t had much time for gaming lately, but here are some notes on some of the games I have been playing.

To Be or Not To Be

My wife and I have both been playing this adorable little choose-your-own-Shakespeare-adventure mobile game by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics) and developed by Australian company Tin Man Games. It’s brilliant. I must admit that I’m a Dinosaur Comics fan (though I’ve been trying to read through to current day for several years now) and I’ve noticed that it reads enough like DC and has enough DC in-jokes that I suspect people who haven’t read DC might not get what’s going on half the time. But it’s a refreshing take on Shakespeare and I like how they’ve implemented the music: simply, but responsively enough for the kind of game it is, and it’s really quite pretty.

EVE Online

I’ve jumped back in to EVE recently after a disheartened absence following my corp losing our POS in wormhole space. And now that I’m back in highsec I’m really paranoid. In w-space you get used to spamming the scanner to make sure you’re not about to be killed, and it’s not a habit that’s easy to let slip — nor is really the kind of habit that you should let slip, because in EVE, as in Game of Thrones, everybody is going to die all of the time. Except that in EVE, “everybody” is you. The relatively chilled highsec music doesn’t really allay any of those fears, and I’m a bit surprised at that. I may have been subconsciously expecting highsec to be like a warm fuzzy blanket after the cold emptiness of w-space. I guess losing a ship full of stuff in your first trek back in the game shatters that expectation. Oh well.

I think, also, that knowing that the whole CODE. thing happened while I was away from highsec makes me expect a whole lot more ganking than before. So far, I haven’t seen any (except for the aforementioned gank I experienced that was unrelated to CODE.), but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

Maybe now that VR is a thing and we’re all wearing headsets we can figure out a way to read brain activity to determine emotional state and adjust music accordingly. This would almost certainly be terribly annoying (particularly if you’re multitasking) but if you’re fully immersed and expecting to be ganked it could enhance the heck out of that paranoia.

Skyrim

As mentioned very briefly in an earlier post, I’ve finally got through Skyrim‘s main quest. Such dragons! And it’s such a beautiful game world. I really enjoyed Blackreach just for its unexpected vastness and the prettiness of all the shiny things. So many shiny things.

But Skyrim, much like Oblivion before it, is easy. Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like making my character near-invincible just by existing. My sneaking skills are top shelf, which is sort of weird for a battleaxe-wielding, heavily-armoured Nord. But quite aside from the fact that my character is a sneaky beefcake, the missions just don’t challenge. Over Christmas I watched my bro-in-law play Bloodborne quite a lot, and played it a little myself. Learning enemy moves, jumping out of the way in the nick of time and spending hours trying to beat one boss are par for the course. Then I came home, jumped in to Skyrim and accidentally became Archmage of the Mages’ Guild. A few quests and then suddenly the Archmage dies, all the mages avenge him, and they tell me that I’m Archmage… because the guy with the battleaxe is clearly the best mage. Never mind that he can only cast Apprentice level spells. A mere technicality.

But the game is pretty and the music is nice, both of which Skyrim a lovely place to explore. And those dragons are really quite good dragons.

Published: Hard Boiled Music

My article “Hard Boiled Music: The Case of L.A. Noire” has been published in issue five of the online journal Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies. It’s related to a paper I gave at the MSA/NZMS conference 2013 and the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music in 2014. It was fun to write — I’m a pretty big fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels so drawing links back to his work and style was pretty great.

From the abstract:

Comparing L.A. Noire to notable examples from film, television and literature, this article discusses the game’s explicit attempt to be an authentic jeu noir and its musical accompaniment to crime and justice in 1940s Los Angeles. By exploring the origins of the game’s musical aesthetic, this article determines L.A. Noire’s relationship with the noir tradition. Although the game’s strong links to period noir film are unsurprising, L.A. Noire’s nexus of period style and open-form gameplay connects the player to film noir’s earliest influences, allowing exploration of both a constructed history and the notion of ‘noir’ itself. Accordingly, L.A. Noire should be considered as a progression, rather than a derivation, of the noir tradition.

Go have a read! Also, Screen Sound is open access and is one of the few journals to focus on screen media music studies in this part of the world, so check it out while you’re there.

Terminological Technicalities

I recently* asked my facebook friends the following:

1. Do you prefer to use the term ‘video game’, ‘video-game’, ‘videogame’ or ‘computer game’?
2. Do you think it’s an arbitrary choice?

This was inspired by having “video game” corrected to “video-game” in compound forms (such as “video-game music”) during a review process, a correction I found a little odd. While it seems to be a matter of grammar, it did get me thinking about how even the most fundamental terminology can be up for discussion.

My readings of video game theory etc. tend to indicate that there’s no single accepted form. A lengthy treatise on some aspect of video games will sometimes discuss the matter briefly, indicating (more or less) that the author thinks each term has these or those pros and cons but that they prefer the particular term they’ll use because reasons. Karen Collins often refers to “video games audio”, David Myers chooses “computer game”, and both “videogame” and “video game” are well represented in academic discourse and the press. Each has good points and bad points. I prefer “video game” because reasons. Well, because habit really. I know I thought about it for a while when I was writing my honours thesis, but I can’t remember the details of that inner dialogue — I just know it must have happened, because until then I used “computer game”.

Anyway, I asked my friends the question above. As expected, there was a fairly even representation between “video game” and “videogame”, with a slight preference towards “video game”, and a few preferences for “computer game” or “console game”. There was fairly wide consensus that “video-game” wasn’t an option. Two editor friends pointed out that a hyphenated form is sometimes used when a compound modifies a noun, but that since “video game” is an accepted form (a head word in the Macquarie Dictionary, also accepted by the OED) the hyphenated form probably shouldn’t be used. Aside from that, the difference between “video game” and “videogame” did seem to come down to personal preference and/or local conventions, i.e. US or UK or Australian English usage norms.

The more divisive question was whether “video*game” or “computer game” was more accurate. This tended to boil down to technological factors and preferences, but there also emerged a sense that “video*game” was a conventional term that has perhaps outlived its accuracy. My friend Darvids0n made this point:

Video game is what I say, but computer game is what I mean…. Any console, handheld, phone/tablet/phablet or personal computer is now classifiable as a ‘computer’ imo, and definitely not merely a ‘video’ device. Smart TVs are even computers.

My friend Kyle made this point:

computer game – noun – a game utilizing a computer
video game – noun – a computer game with moving images

which agrees with another point made by Darvids0n:

Whack-A-Mole is not a video game but it is a computer game (arcade if you want to be pedantic)

(which makes the assumption, I presume, that the arcade game has some electronic controls behind it – probably a safe assumption for later versions of the game). In favour of using different terms based on the device on which you’re playing, another friend, Toby, said:

I use “video game” when I’m talking about something played on the TV and “computer game” for one on my computer. In any other situation I’d probably just say “game”

while Evan said:

Computer game and console game. This differentiates primarily between keyboard/mouse and controller based input. Video game is too old and non-specific for me – it’s like ‘moving pictures’.

However, Kyle counter-argued in favour of a text-based rather than device-based classification:

Is minecraft a computer game one day and a console game the next depending on how you’re playing it? No. It is a video game, plain and simple.

I see merit in both these arguments — the device on which you play can greatly affect your experience of a game, and yet if you play the same game on different devices you’re likely to get a very similar experience. Personally I think there’s a good case to be made for sticking with a conventional term like “video game” for the medium as a whole, and using more specific terms as required.

Take Osmos (Hemisphere Games, 2009) for example. This game is available on nearly all platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android — and the player experience is quite similar on each aside from the user input aspect (I think the touch screens of mobile devices work best, but the mouse is just as usable). I’ve played it most on my phone so I kinda think of it as a mobile game. But on my computer it works as a computer game, with near identical visual and sonic experiences. If I were discussing the similarities between the phone and computer experiences, I could differentiate using the terms “mobile game” and “computer game”; likewise if I were discussing the differences in the haptic experiences. But if I’m just talking about Osmos as a text, the term “video game” works perfectly well.

And yet, the term “video game” does seem, in Evan’s words, “too old and non-specific” in a sense. Many computer games use moving images, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the moving images are all that sets them apart from other games (music, anyone?). Two friends called Paul contributed thoughts on this point — Paul 1 believed that the distinctions between the terms discussed were arbitrary because:

We misuse the word ‘game’ in ‘video game’ so much that being finicky about the word ‘video’ seems silly

While Paul 2 preferred the term “videogame” because:

While board games are games played on boards, you can argue that video.*games don’t require videos or games (in the traditional sense). They’re a new form of media so they ought to be given a single-word name.

Regardless of the terminology chosen, video games can differ markedly from other forms of games even to the point where the definition of “game” is a relevant discussion. It’s possible that the terms “digital game” or “electronic game” create a subset of “game” sufficiently different from other game forms and sufficiently encompassing of the diversity found in games on computers, consoles, mobiles and tamagotchis. Some do use these terms, and I have to admit the reasons seem compelling, but not quite compelling enough to overcome convention. It’s nice when people know what you’re talking about immediately, and “ludomusicology” is a term that tends to use up many of the explainings. Or, perhaps we could follow my friend Andy‘s advice:

People should start saying vig for [VI]deo [G]ame. Along the same lines as movie for moving picture. I’ll inform the President of Games about this.

All in all, it was an interesting discussion. And it relates to a number of different discussions I’ve come across through my studies — ludology versus narratology, “semiology” versus “semiotics”, the rise and significance of mobile gaming, etc.  If you have any further thoughts, let me know in the comments or on the socials.

 

*Because I started writing this post in 2014 it’s probably best to consider this term in the cosmological time scale

Re-Welcome!

Welcome to the new Eine Kleine Pwnmusik!

Along with a new site there’s a new platform and a redesign! Well, a new blog theme, but hey. It’s taken me about a year to get around to learning how to WordPress, which is part of the reason this blog has been silent. The other reasons are a) work, b) thesis, and c) I’m lazy.

“I’ve never been a particularly good blog updater type”
— Iain, July 2014

I’ve got a bunch of draft posts that haven’t reached publication yet, so I’ll get some of those pushed out soon. I’ll also get into some of my recent game experiences in Skyrim (finally finished the main quest), EVE Online, and a few indie games I’ve tried lately. Stay tuned!

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

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).

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

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.