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From Buttons to Beats

Will Warren | 15 Mar 2013 15:00
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The games that use dance music most effectively are those that share the themes which the music glorifies. As a genre, Techno was founded in the 80's as a dystopian futurist portrayal of the harsh city of Detroit. The unemployed, out of luck youth could in these clubs escape their troubles by dancing to the repetitive rhythms of this music of the future. Techno has its roots (etymologically and thematically) in technology - something I believe it shares with videogames, which after all could not exist without technology and those of us seeking escapism. Many games include these themes (including the previously mentioned Wipeout series) but I believe the best example is Q entertainment's Rez.

Rez took its name directly from a song by techno group Underworld. This game has closer links to electronic music than mere reference though. Every level of this on-rails shooter is an abstract journey through pounding techno-trance songs. The game utilizes the experience of synesthesia (experiencing one sense as another) by syncing the Kandinsky-inspired visuals (which mimic the lights of a club) to the musical voices with layer on layer being added as the player progresses deeper in the level. Clubbing is not only about sound of the music however, but the tactile feel of it as well. Bass is so exciting to us when dancing because we can literally feel the music. The London club Fabric actually has a "bodysonic" floor which will physically pulsate in time with the music, keeping the clubbers moving all night. Rez continues to deliver though by making vibration key to this experience using controller rumble to keep the player in time. There's even been controversy surrounding the game's optional trance vibrator peripheral, which was reported to have been misused by curious female gamers. That aside Rez still stands as one of the most powerful examples of what can happen when developers consider music and culture as a fundamental part of gameplay rather than an exciting bonus. Never before has the term trance so accurately described an experience as it does Rez.

For relatively modern games such as Wipeout and Rez the inclusion of electronic music was a design choice which gave those games a certain futurist character.

Child of Eden, the spiritual successor to Rez, would shy away from the high energy feel and become a far more ambient experience. Once again the style of the games matches the music focusing on escapism through tranquility and beauty rather than intense purging. The most recent Q entertainment game Lumines: Electronic Symphony has carried on this tradition by having its soundtrack composed entirely from electronic music artists. It's very encouraging to see studios that aren't afraid to focus their games entirely around less mainstream artists. These games simply wouldn't be the same without the music that they revolve around.

For relatively modern games such as Wipeout and Rez the inclusion of electronic music was a design choice which gave those games a certain futurist character. Yet in gaming's infancy electronic music was a necessary inclusion if the designers wanted to incorporate sound at all, due of the limits of the hardware. The bleeps we now affectionately refer to as chiptune music are now considered staples of the 8- and 16-bit consoles. Many of these tracks are masterpieces of electronic music in their own right. These themes, whilst certainly not dance music, were composed of simple synthesized melodies that would influence a generation of young dance music producers. The direct influence of chiptunes can be seen in such diverse artists as the decadent indie-electro duo Crystal Castles and the manic hardcore gabber musician DJ Scotch Egg.

Limitation often forces innovation and this fortunate historical connection between early games relying upon crude electronic chips to produce music and the rise of popular musicians taking advantage of similar (yet substantially more advanced equipment) cemented the worlds together. I believe, however, that the link between these two cultures is stronger than thematic similarities and the coincidence of the two cultures maturing together as siblings. The studio Gaijin Games provides many examples of this link with games that are neither forced into using electronic music through limitation nor use the techno futurist themes of the other games as central to their narrative.

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