British comedian Marcus Brigstock once quipped, “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids; we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” As insightful as Brigstock was, I doubt anyone would have imagined that the most recent iteration of the series (Pac-Man Championship Edition DX) would have contained such a dance floor ready sound track of soulful tech-house remixes as it did.
The hedonistic world of clubbing and the geeky world of videogames may seem at first glance to be two diametrically opposed sources of entertainment, but videogames and club culture have always had a close relationship with one another. There are a substantial number of games that use electronic dance music as an integral part of their mechanics; the experience of the vibrant nightlife can now just as easily be felt with controller in hand in front of your television. This relationship works two ways though. Big DJ’s from all the spectrums of electronic music reference and sample videogames within their music. Mainstream artists such as Deadmau5 and Skrillex will drop glitched up versions of the Tetris theme into their performances. More experimental artists such as the critically acclaimed Burial have included Metal Gear Solid codec conversations as ethereal vocal samples to match his beautifully cloudy 2-step.
The hedonistic world of clubbing and the geeky world of videogames may seem at first glance to be two diametrically opposed sources of entertainment, but videogames and club culture have always had a close relationship with one another.
Dance music and videogames both came into maturity around about the same time. Dance music and club culture had firmly entered the mainstream by the mid 90’s yet still paradoxically maintained an underground sub culture which championed location based hyper specific music scenes. At around the same time the launch of the original Sony PlayStation marked a new era for console videogames in the west. Sony recognised that although some mature games did exist, videogames were still being marketed as virtual toys for children. Now they were using video artists such as Chris Cunningham (known for his work with several electronic musicians like Bjork and Aphex Twin) to produce advertisements showing off what the PlayStation was capable of. These adverts were trendy and compelling. Their abstraction wasn’t a mere coincidence. They were, for lack of a better word, “cool” and appealed directly to the clubbers of the 90’s because they flirted with the same bizarre imagery and themes of futurism that flourished in the underground clubs. They treated the advertisements like the electronica music videos produced by very same people involved in the production of the advertising.
Games such as Wipeout would play to Sony’s new mature and edgy audience by combining fast-paced futuristic racing with popular “ravey” electronica artists of the time. The first Wipeout title featured music from popular underground electronic artists of the time including Leftfield, Chemical Brothers and Orbital. Partiers would hike back to post club after parties and carry on the experience with the neon lights and repetitive rhythms of Wipeout. This was the first time that dance music had been recognised directly by the games industry. A soundtrack was even released with other electronica acts that weren’t actually featured in the game. It’s spectacular to look back at the Wipeout series’ collection of soundtracks through the years with the power of hindsight. The series predicted the rise of many growing genres and gave a platform to underground artists who would go on to mainstream success and critical appeal such as The Prodigy. It’s a bittersweet experience for those of us who grew up with the series to see it progress from acid house to breaks and later turn to electro house and finally onto dubstep, because the innovation-obsessed musicians in dance music prefer to progress their sound rather than preserve it. In a way that other series simply can’t, the Wipeout games are necessarily tied to whichever period of dance music they were released in. They used the most cutting edge dance music of the time and the music was central to the aesthetic of the game. The games are incredibly nostalgic and, for me at least, the songs conjure up memories of clubs long since closed down just as the games as a whole conjure up memories of forgotten consoles. Replaying the earlier games while being familiar with dance music’s many overwhelming micro-genres provides not only an accurate retelling of videogame history but a timeline of the progression of dance music and culture also.
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.
Gaijin Games’ Lilt Line has combined a minimal racing style game with rhythm action elements. These interesting mechanics are all held together by a brutal jump-up dubstep soundtrack from the appropriately named DJ’s 16-bit. The game works especially well by reinforcing the challenging fast-paced action with the level design centered entirely around the music. The line will flow along to the bpm (beats per minute) of the song and when new musical elements are added the track will move up and down accordingly. Perhaps the most enjoyment comes out of the signature dubstep bass drops in the music which you will nervously anticipate as you frantically try to control the line and keep in rhythm. The Bit Trip series also by Gaijin Games has the same focus on electronic music as a core part of the mechanics and takes a diverse range of genres spanning its six games. Like Lilt Line, it adds to the basic rhythm action idea by adding in different old-school style games into mix.
These games are perfect examples of the intimate relationship between cultures because the designers recognized the link between retro games and their use of electronic music and produced the games in an era when the inclusion of that music was no longer a necessity. What makes them notably brilliant though is that whilst playing the games it really feels as though you are composing the music. Certain actions will produce certain noises that, as the levels progress, will combine into a glorious electronic score. They appeal to both groups because they are essentially interactive albums as they blur the lines between games and music.
These games are perfect examples of the intimate relationship between cultures because the designers recognized the link between retro games and their use of electronic music and produced the games in an era when the inclusion of that music was no longer a necessity.
It is not only games that blur this line; The process of DJing, composing and performing electronic music has been deeply influenced by the advances of videogame hardware. Products such as the midi fighter use arcade buttons for DJs to remix music on the fly and contain special super combo effects when certain notes are pressed in order. More and more Dj’s are experimenting with game equipment such as Wii remote and Kinect hacks to spice up the often bland methods of performance. These techniques aren’t mere gimmicks however, as they provide a thrill to even audience members who don’t identify as gamers by using what makes games unique to enhance the experience: interactivity. It is not just performances that have been influenced, as in the music itself many Dj’s will reference gaming vast history or release game like interactive EPs over traditional music.
Unfortunately, the most obvious example of these two worlds colliding failed to live up to expectations. DJ Hero by Harmonix didn’t succeed – in my opinion – to capture the joyous experience of DJing by restricting the amount of musical freedom the player has. Only designated songs are allowed to be mixed and that mixing is even less faithful to the actual process of DJing than banging buttons on Guitar Hero. Ironically, Harmonix’s earlier, more abstract attempts – Frequency and Amplitude – which don’t rely on peripherals create a much more engaging experience by allowing players to remix songs and have an enjoyable amount of control over which elements of music they want to bring into play. The games that successfully merge the two cultures together are those that do not try and imitate the process of performing electronic music, but those that glorify the abstract nature of combining buttons presses to translate into electronic beats.
This niche of dance music focused games and the huge libraries of game inspired songs may not appeal to all gamers. The games require a real insight from developers to intimately understand the ins and outs of electronic music and regrettably many of these games have underperformed. The future isn’t entirely bleak, though, as with the rise of indie and downloadable titles there will hopefully be many more of these unique artistically rich games that will excite those of us who can’t stop dancing with controllers in our hands.
William Warren is a part time DJ and radio show host performing weekly on University Radio Nottingham. He spends his time turning a Techno into a Techyes and spends his free time gaming and making awful puns.