Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Games & Music - Changing The Yardstick

By Kirk Hamilton
Art Detail - "Tipping Through The Grass" by Benny Andrews

Edge Online recently posted a piece about games, music, and film by one of their resident columnists, Chris Dahlen, a writer and blogger whose stuff I really dig. In the column, Chris argued that despite all the talk from mainstream developers about making their games more like movies, games as an art form share more with music than with cinema. I gotta hand it to him - that is one gorilla of a topic to tackle in 800 words or less.

The column raised all sorts of thoughts and questions for me, so I figured that now was as good a time as any to write some of them down and join the conversation. But beyond my own thoughts on the matter, I believe that Chris's larger point about re-thinking how we measure the artistic qualities of games is a very important one.

To start with, I am all for cross-medium artistic analysis. As a lifelong student, writer, performer, and teacher of music, I've spent my entire adult life thinking and talking about all the ways that music is like movies, literature, painting... but also grocery shopping, long distance running, girls, parties, mowing the lawn, wallet organization, riding the bus, web design... in short, how music is like everything.

It is, to my mind, the most fluid of the established artistic mediums - that is to say, it's the one with the fewest boundaries, the form that can most easily hop divides, be they cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, or generational. I think that is in part because music travels light (hit your drum, be heard four villages away), and in part because, constrained as it is to the aural plane, it engages the mind's eye with a purity and directness unmatched by any visual art form.

But hey, I'm not here to try to describe music to you. We'd be here all week. Instead, I want to take a look at music as it relates to games, and maybe offer some of my thoughts, scattered though they may be.

To start with, it's important to decide whether we're talking about playing music or listening to music. Those are two entirely different conversations. For example, I love the way that Chris describes a round of Left 4 Dead 2 as being like a jazz quartet playing through a standard - everyone knows the head and the changes, but what happens in between is what makes it exciting.

Playing games and performing music have other things in common, as well - just as with ensemble music, multiplayer games require participants to demonstrate fluid, rehearsed, and unspoken understandings of their framework and systems. Games and music also both offer emergent variations on established themes. And just like music, all games require mechanical mastery through repetition, i.e. "learn it so you can forget it." I'm rubbish at most multiplayer shooters, but I'm no stranger to that feeling you get when your fingers memorize their way around the controller - it is quite a lot like mastering a piece of music. Busting a perfect active reload in Gears of War eventually becomes a rhythm that feels very similar to nailing a drum fill, and it gets stronger and more in the pocket the more you do it.

But the comparison between playing games and listening to music is much weaker. Take it from someone who has played "All The Things You Are" approximately seventy-five billion times - if I were to play that tune four times for the same crowd, by the fourth go-round, we players might still be having fun, but the crowd would probably be about as into it your average gamer's S.O. is into watching him attempt another playthrough of The Parish on survival mode.

In fact, I'd say that when it comes to passive consumption (as opposed to active creation), games have an equal amount in common with both music and movies. And really, with just about any other art form, too.

For example, it's true for both music and games that performance is a vital part of the experience. That is to say, a game requires that you play it in order to experience it, and reading sheet music isn't the same as listening to it performed. But that's also true for films, paintings, or any other art form. I know no one who would say that reading a screenplay is the same as watching a film, or that reading a description of a Picasso is comparable to standing before one.

And while songs and games do indeed have high replayability, so too do films. Actually, a song has far more replay value than either a game or a movie - but in fairness, the playing field simply isn't level. I've listened to Mrs. Robinson many more times than I've watched The Graduate; it's just not a fair comparison.

To start with, one is four minutes long, the other two hours. What's more, I can listen to a song while running, riding the bus, having a drink with friends, writing a blog post... but a movie requires that I sit still and give it my full attention.  I've also listened to Mrs. Robinson more times than I've played through Grim Fandango or even the relatively brief Portal. That's because I can't play those games while having dinner with my sister, or in the background while I work, or while I jog. Purely in terms of the amount of baseline mental engagement they require, games are much more like movies than music.

But I don't want to belabor my point and in doing so miss the bigger, more important thing that I think Chris was getting at. In the Edge comments section, he replied to one commenter that really, he just wanted to point out that many critics and designers seem overly focused on describing and contextualizing games in terms of cinema, and that perhaps we should "change the yardstick and see what results we get." I couldn't agree more.

When addressing a medium as immature and constantly fluctuating as games, we would be foolish to focus on any single yardstick. We need a multitude! Music, literature, design, architecture, storytelling, dramatic performance, and yes, cinema - all of those forms have been in existence for far longer than what we now think of as "games." We simply can't view games in terms of any one pre-existing form, nor can we pretend that gaming is mature enough to be criticized entirely on its own terms.

So yes, let's change the yardstick. And then let's change it again. And again.

And then let's talk about how, come to think of it, all that changing of the yardstick was kind of like a game, too.


Tim Mackie said...

Great article as always.

I agree with pretty much everything you and Chris said, but I think perhaps one of the reasons why film and games are so frequently compared (rather than music and games, or poetry and games, or we could go on and on forever) is accessibility. As you said here, performing music and listening to music are two very different things, and listening to music isn't much like playing a game at all. While performing music and playing a game may be a very apt comparison (and I believe it is), many fewer people perform music than watch movies, so that comparison will resonate with a much smaller number of people than the 'cinematic' comparison. Also, cinema seems to have had more adversity to overcome before it could be considered a 'real art form' than many of the other arts, and it's certainly the most recently invented and fresh in our minds. Games seem to be going through a similar process.

By the way, you've earned 1000 Jesse Schell Universe Points for those last few sentences.

Jay said...

The rhythm of gaming mechanics as music is inherent, especially in older games (Galaga plays like Bach on the old arcade cabinets). Great topic! But I have to admit, what feels most similar to nailing a drum fill for me is, well, nailing a drum fill. How do you feel about rhythm games? Where (if at all) do you think they fit in here?

The Tetchy Snail said...

As mentioned, it's not really the specifics of the comparisons that are important but the varying relief into which they throw the games. The mere fact that games can be looked at through this multitude of lenses is either a demonstration of their potential or their utter mundanity. I'm hoping fervently that it's the former.

The other (deeply unoriginal) comparison that occurs to me is sport, which ties right in to the jazz quartet / L4D2 example. As a casual basketball player, a 2 on 2 game has similar building blocks: baseline rules that are unchanging, the real joy being in the huge amount of improvisation possible within that structure. There's that mastery through repetition thing going on as well, and again the differences between performance and passive observation.

Also, I completely agree that we're just beginning to calibrate our yardsticks. It's kind of great to think that these comparisons and discussions are really forming the base of the pyramid when it comes to our understanding of games, their meaning and methods, and their place in the cultural pantheon.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Tim - Thanks! I'm happy to have the Schell points. Hopefully they will earn me higher place in the breadlines in the coming world order. =P

You're right that fewer people perform music than listen to it, but at the same time, I personally hesitate to go with one comparison over the other simply because more people can relate to it. Since games can really feel like playing music, I'm pretty interested in trying to communicate that in a way that people who play games but don't play music can understand.

Jay - True, of course. A drum fill is a drum fill, and an active reload isn't. But all the same, it's interesting how they really do the same - I've been playing a lot of drums lately, and the mechanical repetition required to master that instrument is really notable. It truly does have the same feeling of physical follow-through that an active reload (or plenty of other game mechanics) can have.

Something that Chris pointed out that I really liked was that games have their own rhythm, their own groove, just like songs do. It's actually one way that playing games really is like listening to music.

As for rhythm games - I personally don't think the artistic comparison is as interesting when the two forms cross paths... but don't get me wrong, there is a lot to say about rhythm games. Hell, about a year ago I wrote good deal about them. I'm very interested to see where they go next.

Snail- I believe that there is no question - it's the former. Even the most mundane thing contains profundity, and games are certainly not mundane. Usually. :)

I like the sports metaphor, very apt. Funny how sports metaphors can really carry to so many things. And Left 4 Dead is such a team game, and the rules were so expertly implemented by Valve... what a great game. Hey, I'm always down for some zombie slaying, too, and can always use another team player to kill 'em with. If you're on XBL, hit me up - I'm Maliondorphl.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hmm, link got weird there. My previous (fairly in-depth) thoughts about music games are here.

Jay said...

Nice, thanks for the link. I'm not sure I was looking for an artistic comparison of rhythm games so much as your thoughts on the emergence and popularity of rhythm games in the context of changing that yardstick (sorry, I could have been clearer on that). I mean, there's a reason they're called "rhythm" games and not "music" games, right? Frankly, I think playing a plastic guitar feels a lot more like playing a version of the drums than an actual guitar. So yes, all games have their own rhythm, regardless of genre, but these games in particular shine a spotlight on that aspect and put it center stage. To me, it seems like Harmonix is a great example of a studio who has already helped change that yardstick from what it was 5 years ago.
Viva la evolution!

sidenote: I thought about this topic while playing the MLB2k demo yesterday and if you're looking for a marriage of sports, games, and rhythm- look no further than the pitching mechanic (probably of any baseball game in the last 5-10 years). This game specifically tho, takes it to a whole 'nother level.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I guess I'm not quite as interested in the yardstick conversation with music games because the more explicit the connection, the less there is to say? Not sure if that makes sense - like, the drums in rock band pretty much are real-life drums, so talking about them isn't really that different than just talking about the drums.

(Incidentally, that is how I started playing drums. Now I practice for a few hours a day and am getting pretty good. Video games! Teaching real-life skills!)

I agree about the RB/GH guitars not quite being "guitar-y" enough yet. But that might change - a fellow graduate of the jazz program I where I studied works at Harmonix, and I'm hoping to get to ask him a bit about what they're doing over there, what with the just-launched Rock Band Network and their talk of how the next rock band game will actually teach players to play an instrument for real.

We shall see!

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...

Games teaching real life skills, talk about changing the yardstick! Coincidentally, RB is also how I started playing drums and it's been a long but rewarding journey on the road from medium to expert. I'm counting on you and this inside source of yours for some sweet previews of the next iteration. Sounds DOPE.

In the meantime, feel free to hit me up if you get the urge to play online (RB2 is one of the few multiplayer games I play, but rarely online). Like you and Dan the Man, my wife and I regularly rock the mic and skins respectively (she's crazy good).
xbl: BruzeWayne

The Tetchy Snail said...

All this talk of music games is making me jealous. The only noise I've ever tortured out of a guitar sounded like someone walking over hot coals while on laughing gas (though, now I think about it, that may just have been the neighbours). My entire musical talent is likely outclassed by Kirk's nail clippings, and the notion that music games might become more like actually playing music is, frankly, terrifying.

That said, this rock band network and all its possibilities if they implement it well sounds like it could be absolutely mighty. I'm a bit sceptical of user generated content in general because, well, you can put a chimp in a cockpit but that don't make him a pilot. However, even a fraction of the power available in something like fruity loops or pro tools could have fascinating results and, dare I say it, require a new yardstick. (This should have been on one of the other excellent posts but man, there were crickets chirping)

Would love to join in some zombie biffing but I'm on pc, and it has been decreed by our gaming overlords that ne'er the twain shall meet. *shakes fist in general direction of gaming overlords*

Chris Dahlen said...

Hey Kirk, thanks for checking out the article - really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. You're right, in a lot of ways the comparison doesn't fit, but I enjoy the discussion.

For one thing, I agree - as a passive experience, music and movies are pretty much the same. But one thing the music industry could use more of is a larger base of listeners who enjoy making music as much as listening to it. There are fewer casual and amateur musicians before, and an enormous gap between the amateurs and professionals - while in games, everybody has to participate.

In any case, this was worth at least 5,000 Jesse Schell universe points to me!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Thanks, Chris! I'm glad you liked the post.

That's very true that when it comes to games, everyone has to participate - it's this huge thing about games that is unique to the medium. Which gets me thinking - gamers are so well trained, and gaming has this extremely high bar for entry, since "observers" must actually participate in the process. It's really just so much like music in that way, too.

And so in gaming, there has been this move towards accessibility, and that word means different things to different people. To some, it means making games more like movies - making it so that you can sit still and watch the game go by without having to deal with complex controls. Which is sort of be the gaming equivalent of giving students easier tunes to play - smoothing the rough edges off of bebop, focusing on simple chords, easy melodies, not a lot of challenge (or reward).

But really, it's also just throwing a bone to newcomers, slowing down the metronome for those who haven't been in the shed for the last ten to twenty years. It can open the door to more rich experiences, as long as its framed and developed properly.

So, beyond the performance aspect, there really is this strong parallel between learning to play music and learning to play games, and hardcore gamers are very much like well-practiced musicians. We even each have strengths and weaknesses - one person is good at Halo and another at Starcraft, just like one musician is great at funk and another at bebop.

And it goes deep in gaming culture - all the way back to when we all first started playing. Gamers didn't think of it as "training" at the time, but look at the difference in gaming skills between, say, me and my mom. Giving her a controller and sitting her down in a match of Left 4 Dead 2 would yield about the same result as giving her a tenor sax and sitting her down with a jazz quartet.

That is to say: unmitigated disaster.

(I love you, mom.)


Kirk Hamilton said..., Tetchy Snail, that brings me to your point (though I believe you may be both underestimating your guitar playing and greatly overestimating the musical prowess of my nail clippings. :) What's interesting is that regardless of your guitar playing ability, you have still spent a lot of time learning something equally complex and demanding - games.

So then we get to Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and that musical convergence I've gotten so het up about in the past, and shit gets real. Suddenly the explicit crossover has gotten quite interesting. I'm really excited to talk more with my musical amigo who works at Harmonix (probably will run that next week) - hopefully he can shed some light on their plans for the future.

Because really, if over the next 20 years, Harmonix (or whoever) can find a way to get people to learn music in the same way that so many of us learned gaming during the last 20, we could be entering a new golden age of massively multiplayer music mania... or something.

Oh, hell, I always get so hilariously optimistic when it comes to this stuff. One of the many reasons that Schell's speech so depressed me.

Because come on, Jesse - if designers do it right, people won't learn music because game designers assigned them points for it - they'll learn because game designers showed them how to play music.

That's all it will take.