Thursday, March 24, 2011

Art Games (IGES Part 5)

These "essays" are becoming less and less essay like as a result of me filtering my thought process. Less text + Same message = More successful blog post, in my opinion. Fuck fluff.


If you're familiar with the indie scene, you've most likely heard of an "art game." Popular reference points for me, Braid and Limbo, are generally considered "art games."

That begs the question, "what is an art game?"

An art game is not Halo. An art game is not League of Legends. An art game is not World of Warcraft.

What separates Braid from these games?

--As a side note, I think it's disturbing that the term "art games" even exists. WoW and Braid are both games, but we only consider Braid an "art game." Justin Beiber and Incubus are both artists, but we call both "music" as opposed to "music" and "art music" respectively. We don't call Da Vinci "art art."
Art Art

It is the interpretive potential of a game that persuades us to call it an art game. By it's nature, World of Warcraft doesn't beg much interpretation. Kill monster -- receive reward -- repeat.

Art games do not treat players like mindless drones. They treat players like they are people capable of critical thinking.

Art games lie as far left on the "Art/Business" spectrum as possible and aren't in it for the cash flow.

Art games teach you something about the human condition. They aren't passive experiences, but rather they engage the player to take with them a message or a thought.

It is interesting to note that my regular definition for "art" is essentially "anything with human intention behind it." Video games are inherently intended to be something as they cannot just occur. Thus a distinction must be made between games and art games. Art games have artistic intention -- something that makes you think.

The idea that the visuals of a game allow you to apply the "art" prefix is nonsense. An art game is not pretty. Graphics are superficial (unless being used to express the authors intention). Yes, Braid is an art game, not because of it's beautiful visuals, but because of the backbone of the game.

SPOILER: You do know Braid's about an atomic bomb, right?

Monday, March 21, 2011


There's a spectacular internet movement going about called Blog4NZ (Blog For New Zealand). They recently had a devastating earthquake -- something that deters travelers and tourism, which is a really important segment of their economy.

One of the most inspiring bloggers on the map, Colin Wright over at, threw up a blog post about his experiences in New Zealand. These quotes stuck out to me...
It’s one of those countries that sticks with you, and the people that I met while there, the things that I did and the compositions that I saw (every horizon line in the whole country deserves to be called a composition, not just a geographic formation) left an indelible impression.
This has a hugely negative impact on the area because after a disaster is when they need those funds the most, and as the money dries up, the locals have a harder time putting the pieces back together. They’re then faced with difficult long-term ramifications (in the case of New Zealand, they’re able to avoid most drilling, mining and deforestation because of the tourism industry…if that goes away, so could their beautiful landscape).

Although I may not be a traveler, I do wish to preserve any sort of artistic integrity whenever there is the chance to do so. In this case, the land itself is in peril.

If what Colin says is true, then I beg that we do not deny them tourism during the aftershock of this mess. The last thing this drained world needs is another ecosystem sapped of its essence by the influence of the most infamous of vampires - money.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Art =/= Business (IGES Part 4)

At PAX East I was lucky enough to catch a speech by Scott Macmillian entitled "Death of an Indie Studio." This presentation was easily the most memorable one, spoken from the heart of an indie veteran recounting his experiences of a war-torn battle between his creative drive and the omnipotent pressure of finance.

During his slide-show, he made one very interesting point.

True Art is not Business.

This point, albeit not a very obvious one, is a powerful idea that I wholeheartedly agree with. In his presentation he had a line segment, with Art on one end of the spectrum, and Business at the other end.


To have a piece of true art, of complete artistic expression, is to expel all notions of profit, of revenue, of financial restraints and limitations.

The example of "true art" that Scott used in his presentation is that of a man named Henry Darger. In short, during a posthumous inspection of his Chicago-based studio apartment, a myriad of artwork (including novels and crafted images) were discovered, something he never revealed to the outside world.

He did this for himself. He created true art.

He was a janitor.

This is relevant to the presentation because Scott had a vision of an indie game he wanted to do and he started an indie studio to do so. The start of a studio though, is turning the key in the ignition for business.

I do not want to rehash his speech on here, so I will  post a link to his slides once they are available.

To create art, is to lie as far left on the spectrum as possible, if not completely left. Only begin sacrificing Art for Business when it is completely necessary to continue the production of your art. Do not fall into a catch 22 of sacrificing Art for Business only to find yourself lying face first in a pile of bureaucratic waste.

Here's an activity: Take the time to produce a piece of music, a drawing, a rendering, or a short story that you are proud of. Put it away. Do not show this to anyone.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nostalgia is Blinding (IGES Part 3)

Was it just me, or was Diddy Kong Racing impossible?

Let's define nostalgia. Nostalgia, from Google definitions, is defined as "longing for something past." It is the feeling you get when you think about the first sweet moment you had with the opposite sex, or a time you and your buddies won a trophy for a competition. These moments of grandeur present us with memories of "good ole' times." Nostalgia, from my perspective, only applies to positive events.

The problem with nostalgia is that it skews our perceptions of past games. You will favor older games than newer ones primarily because they are older. You will enjoy songs from your childhood regardless of how crappy they were (Ricky Martin anyone...just kidding, he's amazing).

To find out how nostalgia skews our perception of games, one needs to look no further than the game awarded the largest amount of "best game" awards -- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Legend of Zelda: OoT was a fantastic game. It chronicled Links first polygonal adventure through the lands of Hyrule. It gave us Epona, Links fearless horse companion who had a fetish for carrots. It gave us Ganondorf, the human-esque form of Links arch rival. Ganondorf's malevolence is more palpable, even more fearsome than his beast-like true nature, something I attribute to his human form -- it is more realistic and relatable to us as players.

So yea, this game rocks.

What about Twilight Princess, Links exploits on the Wii. The game has a more mature story, darker tones and atmosphere, and deals with arguably more human issues. The game play is improved (let's assume Gamecube controller) and dungeons are difficult, but not frustrating (hello water temple).

I argue, from an objective standpoint, that Twilight Princess is just as good if not better than Ocarina of Time. So why does Ocarina of Time get all the love?


One could argue timing (as it was the first 3D Zelda), but I file that under Nostalgia regardless.

What if Twilight Princess was released as the first 3D Zelda title for the N64, with Ocarina of Time coming out on the Wii years later? In my opinion, our consent would be flipped. Twilight Princess would be topping lists.

I think a further reason we, gamers, vote up Ocarina of Time is because we've settled on it as a standard of gaming excellence. To differ from that statement is to deny being a gamer in some context (like social pressure), but that idea is for a different post.

Is it a bad thing that we view older games in a positive, nostalgic light? I don't think so. The point of this post is to become conscious that you, as a gamer, do this. You do it for the food you eat, the places you travel to, and the people you meet.

Nostalgia places a holy light on things past, and you must be sure not to let it blind you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Gamer Entitlement Issue (IGES Part 2)

Side-note: Last weekend, Jake and I attended the Penny Arcade Expo up in Boston.

While there, I attended many interesting panels and discussions on video games, yet one struck me as incredibly interesting -- the one titled "It's not the Length, it's the Mirth (Game Length Versus Value)." This was exactly what I had covered in the first part of the Indie Gaming Essay Series.

During this interview the panel discussed many things that I will bleed into my later essays. One thing they mentioned was an event called the "Size Doesn't Matter Day," a day where many indie bloggers took to their text editors to argue for or against whether the size of a game is valuable. Here is a link to Chris Hecker's (an indie influence of mine, who happened to be at the panel -- an unexpected but welcomed surprise!) blogpost on the subject: Size Doesn't Matter (Chris Hecker). There are links to other blog posts on the subject towards the bottom of Chris's post, and I implore you to indulge in them fervently.


Let's take a look at a recent incident within the League of Legends community...

Riot Games, the developers of LoL, provided absentee registered users to return to LoL with the gift a free character that the majority of people had to pay for (or get free with time). What happened?

A humongous backlash of fury from the community came forth. They accosted Riot, exclaiming how unjust it was that disloyal subjects of their kingdom were being rewarded while the loyal players who contributed to the game were being left in the digital dust.

The strongest amount of negative attention Braid received was about its length. Consumer's felt the price was unjust for the "short" length of the game.

One of the problems here is price standardization.

Take a look at other mediums to see how price standardization works.
  1. Music CD's - $12-$16
  2. Digital Music CD's - $10 on iTunes
  3. Individual tracks - 99Cents - $1.29
When a consumer spends $10 on a CD, he/she has length expectations. These expectations are usually delivered upon by the producer (30 minutes to an hour of music) and no one comes out irritated. If a producer provided only fifteen minutes of music for $10 the consumer would question it, and be irritated. A certain + or - area is allowed, but when it goes obviously beyond the boundaries set by standardization, the consumer raises an eyebrow curiously and furiously.

How do these price-points come about? I'm not really sure (probably some sort of supply/demand situation), but I DO know that the industry is stalwart about they're price points. They do not bend them. The music industry sets the price points, and then the public gets familiar with the cost/content relationship.

"AAA" video game companies have used the $50 or $60 price point for consoles, and $30-$40 price points for mobile games.

The problem I see with video games is not centrally standardization, but cross-platform or continuous standardization. The fact that indie games on the PC, XBOX, and the iPhone all cost varied amounts of money is confusing to a consumer. The consumer doesn't really know what he's getting into and can become increasingly frustrated as he tries to create a pattern for himself.

Solution? The industry needs to set standards. XBOX Live is already on this track, with polished indie games recieving a 15 dollar tag, but that's about as good as it gets. The iPhone price market is all over the place and steam sales continually mess up a consumers thoughts on buying games and the inherent value of a game.

I think depreciating value of games over short periods of time lends to this confusion. If steam can cut the price of a game in half for a day, how do I interpret the value of the product?

This argument is a little loose, so here's some glue: gamers are confused. The prices of other mediums are pretty static and provide us with a mental foothold for the value of those mediums, and video games fall short here.

So back to entitlement. From what I see, gamers tend to under-value games. Unlike a physical thing you can hold or touch, video games lack the image of "work" behind them. Consumers don't grasp how long it took for your team to code one feature of your game, and they definitely don't understand how much time and effort it took to make the product. This then leads them to believe that they deserve more than what they are getting.

Remember the League of Legends thing I stated earlier? People were outraged by Riot's behavior. Are you aware that League of Legends is completely free to play? I have personally never spent a dollar on it and probably spent more time on it than any individual wants to admit.

My argument, then, is that gamers are confused about the value of games. Failure to have standardized pricing (which leads to understood value) and failure on the consumers part to understand how much work goes into video game production are the reasons that gamers feel so entitled to content.

Edit: I would like to add this to the argument...

The pirate culture skews digital value even further. I know a few people who never dare spend a dollar on a song, album, or film because they can just download them for free. When people start getting these things for free, they become desensitized to the value of digital products. To some of my friends, one dollar is too much (something I find completely ridiculous).

What about people who simply like the product, regardless of anything else? Take a look at how Radiohead sold their album "In Rainbows." You could download it for free (or maybe a penny) or pay as much as you wanted. Up to you as the consumer, to assign value to the product you were about to purchase. What was the result of this? They averaged slightly above average sales.

If a consumer likes your product, they'll buy it regardless. It's the iffy-ones that need to be convinced of value.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A new author approaches!

This whole "blog" thing is a new concept for me. I've never considered myself someone who takes repeated interest in writing... Sure, I've written countless school essays, critiques, short stories, lyrics, poems, reviews, summaries, and other walls of text.

But alas, introductions are due.

I'm Jake. I, like Zac, am an aspiring musician; My current prolonged-conquest is an epic journey consisting of composing music for the game we both work on, and maybe some extra bits of sound design, dialogue recording, and making cool sounds that resemble half way between a wookie's battle cry and a plethora of lemmings on a death march. Ok.. Maybe not that peculiar, but I'll rant about that more later.

I'm close to halfway through my Music Engineering degree at the University of Miami. It's a cool thing, I get to learn all about (perhaps more than necessary) Electronic hardware design, Software and programming languages, Live sound mixing and studio recording, and everything music in between.

I asked myself the same question you may have just thought yourself: "Where the hell do I start?". Long story short, this blog is a part of my (semi) structured but largely chaotic and crazy effort to pursue what I think is now my prime interest in anything music: video game audio.

In an effort to put me on a slightly more organized track with my work, I asked Sir Citronious if I could update on this blog as well. While I'm sure more posts will come, for now I think my main focus is going to be chronicling the steps and processes of my music writing... One new experience to complement another, if you will.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

What is Music?

Music is a difficult thing to define. Music falls in an abstract realm of understanding. Music is ultimately undefinable.

There are multitudes of "agreed upon" definitions for music, and with that said, I will take my subjective stab at defining music.

My stubby golf-shorts wearing professor of Rock and Roll History defined music as such:
Music -- The Organization of Sound and Silence
Fairly agreeable definitions of music upon first glance. I had been using this as my go-to definition for a few years.

Recently though, my World Music teacher asked our class to define music. I responded with my reserved definition which I presumed would satiate her curiosity.

Well, she actually peaked mine by telling me "Yes, but no."

She then introduced the class to the idea of a Soundscape. If a landscape is your "visual surroundings" then a soundscape is your "auditory surroundings." It is everything you hear around you at all times.

She then proposed a construction site. Imagine that there was metallic clanking and machines roaring, but in rhythm. I've certainly heard this in my life. I had not considered it music until that moment though, but it absolutely is music.

The construction workers most likely did not organize their equipment to clank in rhythm, but if we consider that music, then my definition has lost its viability.

"But Zac, the metal orchestra is technically organized sound and silence regardless!" True. The organization definition implies human intention it behind it though -- as if it was actively organized by someone. Which leads to the question, "how do we tailor our definition to match hap-haphazardly spawned music?"

To understand my definition, I'll first need to explain the five fundamentals of music.
  1. Pitch - This is the frequency of the sound wave. When you think a note is "high" or "low" you are thinking about pitch.
  2. Timbre - Pronounced TAM-bur, this is the specific sound of what you are hearing. Timbre is what makes a trumpet sound like a trumpet, and a piano sound like a piano. If we consider pitch "tone" then timbre is "tone color."
  3. Tempo - Tempo is the speed of music. If we call a song "fast-paced" or a "slow-dance" we are referring to tempo. Tempo does not have to be consistent throughout a piece.
  4. Rhythm - This is the cyclical occurrence of sound. Rhythm is the pattern at which sounds occur over time. 
  5. Meter - the structural foundation of a piece. Western music has "four beats every measure" and we call this 4/4 meter, or quadruple meter. Meter, like tempo, does not have to be consistent throughout a piece.
With any given sound, any specific aural instance, there exists a frequency of the sound wave heard (Pitch) and the kind of sound heard (Timbre). This is completely unavoidable (even percussion instruments have pitch).

Given the other constraints (rhythm, meter, and tempo), it occurs to me that only one of these really turns "sound" into "music."


Tempo and Meter are, in my opinion, consequences of rhythm. They are just a manner of describing qualities of rhythm.

With any one instance of auditory sensation, we have pitch and timbre. Once pitch and timbre start recurring (rhythm) we now have music.

Music - The cyclical occurrence of patterned Pitch and Timbre over a period of time.

Musicologists, please enter the arena. Gladiators, equip your spear and shield. Organize your phalanx and defeat my definition.

I dare you.

Music, Memory, and Mood Continued

In the previous post on Music, Memory, and Mood I introduced the logical order of how music affects us individually:
1. Hear song.
2. Remember instance of song (memory).
3. Recall emotions related to instance.
4. Experience emotions (mood).

I also stated that the brain's association between music and memory is tight-knit.


It's a bit ridiculous to talk about any art form in an objective manner. Paintings are ultimately what the subjective consumer makes of it. Music is no different.

There is a degree of objectivity available though. Any form of art has an intended mood, regardless of what the consumer ultimately makes of it. This is what the artist sees in it. Through this intention we can take an objective look at music (and furthermore, any artform).

"But Zac, doesn't intention imply subjectivity on the artists behalf?" Right you are! The intended mood of a piece is a subjective affair, but the how of it isn't.

To further clarify, there are objective "tools" that an artist uses to get his subjective "point" across. There are tools to write a sad song contrary to those for a happy song.

To double-further clarify, these tools are actually a product of Enculturation. Specifically, in western music, sad music has a specific sound because we have always used that specific sound for sad music. In another culture, their version of sad music could use different tools than ours (this is a very rudimentary explanation of the concept, as I am not completely familiar with it. I will do some research and post more in-depth on this phenomenon in the future).

"But Zac, that means our "tools" are subjective as well!" You are on the ball today. Yes, the western idea of a "sad" song is subjective relative to other cultures, but for the sake of my argument today, I will be making the assumption I am speaking to someone familiar with western tools.

So, I am going to stop typing this introduction, and go make some music....

....And I'm back. Here are two songs. One is "happy" the other is "sad." Can you figure out which is which?

Mood Music 1 by Project Panda Music

Mood Music 2 by Project Panda Music

I won't spoil which one is which, but I'd bet money you figured it out (not really, I'm in college).

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Taste of House (Part 1)

Edit: I have taken down this song temporarily. 

Nature is my go-to muse.

Last summer, all I wanted was for it to rain outside. Whenever it's a nice day outside I feel terrible about spending it inside on my computer doing whatever. When it rains, I have deny-ability -- I can't go outside because it's raining!

It also seems to be when I create the best. I tune in with the spirit of a rainy day much more than any other natural occurrence.

To cut a story short, after about two months of me wishing it would start raining, the downpour finally began one afternoon.

That is when I composed and produced "Raindrops." Creative title, right?

Anyway, it was a terribly produced track (it was only my third song ever), yet it actually received the most attention out of anything I made. Some of my friends actually spun it during shows, but I wasn't around to hear its garbage quality on nice speakers (hopefully it wasn't terrible).

Regardless, I really liked the spirit of the song. The mood I intended to convey came out perfectly.

I took the liberty of remixing it, making it faster, more danceable, a wider sound, and with better production. It's not as trance-like or moody as the original but I think this remix stands on its own merit.

Offbeat Raindrops by Mannigan Music

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Music, Memory, and Mood

Music has an interesting ability.

On a rainy day, you wake up with a kink in your neck. You find out you did poorly on your Economics midterm and you realize you have to walk to the nearest store to pick up toothpaste (you just ran out). Inside the store, a familiar song comes on, one that you used to dance to many years ago. You smile, buy your toothpaste, and walk out of the store with a little kick in your step.

You're at the gym. You're a bit jealous of your buddy Nick who is always pumping out higher reps than you on the same weights. As he finishes his seventh rep on the bench, he grunts loudly and puts the weights back on the rack. You feel a twinge of jealousy as you've only been able to do six of these. As you sit down, an intense song comes on in the gym. You feel empowered, possessed but an unknown but welcomed strength. Thrusting the bar up, you manage to hit the seventh repetition, and with a loud grunt, you pump out an eighth

Music effects us. The general idea is that "happy" music makes you feel happy -- just as "sad" music makes you feel sad.

I think it's a little more complicated than that. The consequences of music on us as an individual are first and foremost determined by our memory of the song and then the mood.

Songs have an innate ability to leech onto memories. When I hear Joshua Radin's song "Winter" I can't help but think of a certain night...

I was watching scrubs. Anyone who's familiar with the show knows this episode. The stoic Dr. Cox ends up being a bit delusional and emotional at his best friend Ben's funeral. Winter plays during this scene. I was living with my parents at the time and I wanted them to hear the song too. They had just entered the house downstairs as I headed down the steps from my room on the second floor. I felt an uncomfortable, melancholic approach in their footsteps and mannerisms as they put their keys down and walked into the master bedroom. I followed suit, proclaiming I had a song I wanted to show my mom. She turned at me, with a face riddled with a myriad of emotions that one can only experience at certain monumental moments of ones life.

"Grandma passed away," she stated aloofly, perhaps trying to appear less affected by the recent events. Her detached, matter-of-fact proclamation of my grandmothers death is etched in my mind to this day.

And that's what happens when I hear the first two seconds of Winter. It still gives me chills as I listen to it now (this story happened roughly four years ago).

The effect of music on memory recall is profound. My previous point though, about memory vs. mood is simple: Some people might hear Winter and be happy. They may have heard the song with a significant other on a cold night by a fire (that's like a hyper-cliche, but you get the point).

So it's a logical process.
  1. Hear song.
  2. Remember instance of song (memory).
  3. Recall emotions related to instance.
  4. Experience emotions (mood).
What's interesting, is that the degree of emotional regression is pretty close, if not exactly the same as the original event. I know people who cry whenever they hear specific songs, regardless of how long ago the instance they are reminded of took place. This leads me to believe that the brains relation of music and memory is close-knit and cannot tell when they two are isolated from one-another.

To my mechanical brain, every time I hear Winter my grandma dies. My logical mind knows better though. To put in laments terms -- that's some deep shit.

That is just one powerful example of musical memory that I have experienced. I could provide a memory for most of the music I've ever heard. Here's another that stands out...

During last semester, I wasn't feeling to hot about the direction my life was going. I wasn't attending my college classes and I wasn't doing my homework. I was down, depressed, and stressed. I was amazingly bored with everything. I complained all the time to my parents that I wasn't doing anything constructive in school. I wanted to make music, I'd tell them, but then I'd be taking Micro Economics. It didn't make sense to me.

One night, behind the effervescent glow of my laptop, I stumbled upon a website. There's a program in San Francisco where they teach music production and I spent a good deal of time looking into it. I wasn't sure if this is where I wanted my life to go.

Skip ahead a few days. There's a radiantly beautiful sunset outside (not unlike the picture in the Jaded video) and my iPod shuffled to Jaded. The ambient, hopeful tune combined with the heavenly gradient outside my window provided a moment of clarity unlike any I had experienced previously. I laughed out loud to myself. That program is exactly what I needed. That moment I called my parents and told them I wanted to attend (which I am, hopefully, in September).

I'd be interested in hearing other peoples musical memories as well.