What if you could live in the world of a song?
It might be a little like playing through Sound Shapes, the long-awaited game from local studio Queasy, released last week to critical acclaim. In Sound Shapes, nearly everything contributes to the production of a song, from missiles that stutter along to guitar riffs to the slurping of coffee by office drones, bringing a Stomp-esque touch to a pale bureaucratic purgatory. Players collect notes suspended in mid-air along the level, slowly layering and building up a song: the game smartly examines the relationship between sound and space, and as players progress through each track, they are asked to make the connection between form and function.
The intersection between music and videogames has been slowly crescendoing since the latter were created nearly four decades ago. Music has always played a pivotal role in videogames, says Jeriaska, the editor and founder of Nubuwo, a site devoted to the music in games, noting the ubiquitous recognition of the theme music of Tetris and Super Mario Brothers.
At the same time, music in games haven’t always been given its full due: within games culture, music can be seen as an afterthought compared to graphics, mechanics, or plot; outside of games culture, the stigma of games as juvenile shades the perception of music made for games as lesser than, say, the attention paid to soundtracks for film.
This is rapidly changing, says Jeriaska. For example, Christopher Tin’s composition BabaYetu for Civilization IV recently won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s),” setting what Jeriaska calls a “historical precendent” as the first piece made for a videogame to nab the award.
Jeriaska also notes that “a lot of people are paying attention to music in the independent games scene.” This is surprising to him in a way, since independent games tend to be made by smaller teams, and one would suspect that being stretched thinner than a larger company would mean lower, rather than higher, quality of music. However, he thinks the focus on music is partially one way independent game makers are distinguishing themselves from mainstream companies and showing a willingness to take risks and be experimental with the format of games.
Queasy’s Sound Shapes, then, seems to fit the trend, as an independent game that brings something fresh to the industry by reinterpreting the role of sound and music in games in an innovative manner. Jeriaska has nothing but praise for Jon Mak, the creative force behind Queasy.
“Jonathan Mak in his own right is a very interesting musician,” he says. “The musical environment that he created for [his first game] Everyday Shooter was worthy of being called a professional musical performance, and it’s a very interdisciplinary accomplishment, because music, sound effects, and gameplay are interwoven into the same experience.” Sound Shapes navigates, in deeper detail, the same interests Mak had for Everyday.
Mak isn’t the first nor only artist to look at the interplay between music and games. Harmonix, based out of Boston, has built an empire out of well-known games such as Rock Band and Dance Central. The score by Jim Guthrie builds the atmosphere for the hit iOS game Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, almost becoming a character in itself.
Jim Guthrie appears as part of Sound Shapes, and, alongside other artists such as Beck and Deadmau5, has helped bring heightened awareness of Sound Shapes, giving the game crossover appeal to music lovers who don’t regularly play games. In a post on Stereogum, the site used Sound Shapes footage as a preview of Beck’s upcoming tracks off Song Reader. Of course, the awareness runs bi-directionally, with Sound Shapes players being exposed to the artists as well.
The experience in Sound Shapes of being able to play a song in two senses, to start the music and to interact in levels that create the music, is notable. In many ways, we are seeing the evolution of the music video. Just as the 1980s saw music incorporating short film to broaden its exposure, we are now seeing music incorporate the videogame. Passion Pit, for example, teamed up with Australian studio Pachinko Pictures for a music game around its single Take A Walk, as part of a new Pitchfork initiative combining music and videogames called Soundplay.
Sound Shapes includes an accessible and intuitive level editor and already players have created nearly 10,000 levels for others to try. Undoubtedly, clever level creators will use the tool to craft homages to their favourite songs–I can already imagine a take on Calvin Harris’s Feel So Close, using an “ahhhh” sample from the Beck songs–in addition to making their own compositions. I’ve never used a synthesizer before and it took me only a few hours to craft the first draft of a level. (You can find the completed version, about ten hours of work, here.)
In the end, that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of Sound Shapes: not only does it guide you through a world of song, but, afterwards, it gently, but confidently nudges you to take part and create a piece of that world.
Jaime Woo is a Toronto writer and the author of the upcoming book Gaming Grindr. Follow him on Twitter at @jaimewoo.