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August 16, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Composing with Electroplankton, part one

I started a one-man rock band for four reasons.

  1. I find the idea of one person onstage creating a lot of great noise on the fly to be very personally appealing. It has a kind of bizarre audacity.
  2. My old band became a bad experience, for legal, monetary, and personal reasons. Besides, being in a band with other people requires a lot of bookkeeping, coordination of schedules, and possible drama. A solo project means I practice whenever I want, play wherever and whatever I want (or don't), and there's a lot less load-in required.
  3. Conceptually, the process of building and playing fairly traditional music (rock, blues, and funk) using the limitations of the Line 6 DL-4 for looping (30-second maximum, overdubs but no undo, only one unsaveable loop, no midi control) is a great challenge as a musician. I think I'm learning a lot, not only as a bassist (albeit a fairly weird one) but also as a composer, figuring out how to create and fit together different pieces of the sonic space.
  4. I am a self-centered narcissist, and I wanted the audience's attention all to myself.
The key word to making this project work has been simplicity. The looper I use may be fairly straightforward and stupid (especially compared to the recently released Digitech JamMan), but it doubles as a delay/chorus and the interface is pretty foolproof. Likewise, my effects setup is restricted to two pedals, prioritizing a few golden tones (and manual control) over variety. This doesn't mean I haven't been looking at other options, like a drum machine or mp3-based sampling, but it has to be simple. I don't want to be worried about battery life, software crashes, or a clumsy interface. The less I can screw up during a performance, the better.

Now, some of the DS's best software, oddly enough, is audio-focused--and I'm not talking about shrapnel like Meteos, even though the sound design for that is brilliant. In Japan, two games have been developed expressly for music/audio: Band Brothers (soon to be released here as Jam with the Band) and Electroplankton. I'm still waiting anxiously for Jam with the Band to show up stateside, because it comes with a fully-functional MIDI sequencer built-in, and that sounds just about perfect for my purposes. Electroplankton, on the other hand, is not anticipated to show up in the US, so I imported it a couple months back (my impressions are here). The purchase was largely inspired after I saw Toshio Iwai and his daughter perform an Electroplankton-violin duet at a developer's conference (that video and links to other creative uses can be found at the Electroplankton Wikipedia entry). Go watch it, because it really is amazing.

I'm considering something along the same lines. I tried a little bit last night, and I'll continue to write up my experience as I learn my way around it. Here are my first few thoughts:

  • Marine-Snow, Volvoice, Rec-rec, Sun-Animalcule, and Lumiloop are probably not functionally worth using on stage. Nanocarp may be worthwhile for chime sounds, although I'm not sure when I would need those. Tracy may be useful for ambient noise ("Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads comes to mind) but is otherwise too discordant and difficult to play live. This leaves Hanenbow, Luminaria, and Beatnes as viable instruments.
  • The note-grid where the Luminaria live is tuned to the key of Bb. If I remember correctly, that's the cross harp key of Eb. Harmonica players and blues enthusiasts, take note. Also note that the time signature for Luminaria sometimes shifts depending on which you use as the dominant note (the yellow and green plankton stand out more for me) and how you use the pattern shift function.
  • Beatnes is the most straightforward of the three, bearing the most similarity to a sequencer with a canned drumline. Beatnes has a psuedo-feedback function: the synth loops don't fade away, but they do eventually decay and disappear. The plankton also have a very short "memory" and will knock old notes out of the loop when new ones are introduced. Between these two "features," I might be able to expand my range of covers.
  • Hanenbow is probably best suited as a jam tool. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've used it for creative inspiration before, and it does build great freeform grooves, but it is less controllable in terms of tone, pitch, and rhythm. On the other hand, it is the one plankton that will spit out explicit parameters in the form of leaf angles, so that music can be precisely reproduced. This could be useful.
None of this will be useful right away, but adding Electroplankton to my shows will not only give the audience a change from my usual schtick, it will also up the spectacle factor. Someone playing a solo bass is fairly interesting. Someone playing a solo bass against a video game is much more so.

July 6, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»religion

God Mode

So they are making a Left Behind game. They are making a Left Behind game. They are making a Left Behind game.

No matter how I say that, it still reaches my ears like great Cthulhu ripping his way through the subcontinental shelf. The End is Near.

They Are Making A Left Behind Game.

of course, the usual suspects are thrilled. I think we all know how I feel about it. But you know, I'm a good Liberal and I support the right to to make crazed religious games based on fundamentalist misconceptions. Just don't expect me to leave it unmocked. We should note, first of all, that as much as Left Behind Games wants it to be the case, this is not the first "god game." That honor would have to go to Populous, followed by a long line of great sacreligious entertainment. There's also tongue-in-cheek variants on the theme--I remember enjoying 3DO's buggy FPS "Requiem: Avenging Angel" in high school, which featured abilities like "turn enemies into pillars of salt" and "summon plague of locusts." Every time it crashed to the desktop, you could blame Satan--or DirectX, which at version 6 was just starting to act like an actual API and not a hideous collection of error messages ("I am Legion, General Protection Fault at 0x000800A3.").

There's been an issue bothering me since I read the New Gamer's review of God of War. It points out that GoW is a dark game about an anti-hero, and as such contains atrocities committed by the main character. Movies and books are filled with that kind of theme, but in games, where you control the hero... well, that makes me think. At what point would I be unwilling to do what a game asks me to do? I couldn't bring myself to watch Kill Bill 2 after the first one nearly made me sick--would it be possible for me to reach a point in a game where I would be unable to advance because of my own ethical concerns? The Garth Ennis-scripted Punisher game comes to mind, with its graphic torture mini-games. I just don't know if I could play that, personally, and I'm a heathen commie who hates freedom.

Imagine the difficulties facing an ultraconservative Christian who sits down to play Left Behind. First, don't make it run on a Mac. They use that "Darwin" kernel, and we all know how sinful evolution is. Then, to fulfill your "family values" the game can't contain violence or sex. It can't ask you to make choices that would lead away from dogma--after all, surely the designers shouldn't be placing temptation in your path. In fact, given the behavior of Christians like James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, we might ask what kind of difficulty curve the game should have. Is it possible to fail in a game based on immutable prophesy? Does that imply the fallibility of God?

If you play from a typical RTS view, are you taking the role of God? How do you think He feels about that, kids?

I am assuming, asking these questions, that the intended audience will even think for a moment about the implications of their faith, and of course they won't. Part of the fundamentalist faith is a belief that questions themselves are bad. The unexamined life is thereby made worth living--indeed, it's exalted.

May 22, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»art

Electroplankton

There are some games where we want to look at them as art. For example, I just finished Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, which has an utterly charming narrative and set of characters. The story is not only powerful, it's used as a creative device to wrap the entire game into the tradition of Scheherazade. Another that springs to mind is Ikaruga, which is the perfect shooter--you could not add any elements to Ikaruga that would make the gameplay better without either changing its genre or unbalancing the rest. These are games as art as games.

To people who confine themselves to that type of experience, Electroplankton seems a lot more revolutionary than it really is, which explains the mixed reviews. Most of the articles I've read about it are confused about the lack of replay value, the total absence of goals or unlockable content, where is the game here? And the secret, of course, is that there is no game here. This, unlike POP or Ikaruga is not art as a game. It's art as art. Although many journalists are trying to position it as a "gateway game," part of Nintendo's initiative to hook non-gamers, clearly it's not going to sell DS units. It is too odd, and people are unprepared to buy a game that's not a game. Most people will poke at the screen for a few seconds and move on.

Think of the cartridge as a gallery holding a collection by creator Toshio Iwai. Within that gallery are ten pieces of art with a common theme, both visually and musically centered around aquatic animals dubbed plankton. I'm not going to try to describe all of them, because this is not a review, but suffice to say that they range from the straightforward to the chaotic. All of them are highly interactive, through the touchscreen and the physical buttons. Some of them manipulate sounds from the DS microphone, and some of them react to that input to change their own arrangement. Depending on the plankton and the user, the results of any given piece might be music, ambient sounds, or just random noise.

If you google Iwai, you find that this is not his first electronic piece. In fact, he's a fairly well-known media artist who works in interactive electronic displays combining visuals and sound. At least one of the plankton, Luminaria, is very similar to a table installation he created in the past. He's also done similar work for the Exploratorium in California.

So what? Why am I explaining all this?

I think it's because I find myself fascinated by Electroplankton. There are a lot of lines blurred here. It's not a game, but it runs on game hardware. Does that change the meaning of the individual pieces? Does it alter how we think of art, when the pieces are digital artifacts, capable of being passed from place to place? Is the art just in the exhibits, or is it how we interact with the exhibits? Toshio Iwai's name is prominently--and deservedly--featured on the packaging and the titles, but does the user deserve any credit? What does it mean that you are a "user" or "participant," not a "viewer?" Some of the plankton are self-sufficient, but some of them seem pointless until you remember that Iwai's installations were cooperative--do I need someone else to get the most out of it?

These are not, admittedly, very deep questions, and I'm sure most of them have been contested about deeper subjects by better-informed critics. Yet I really like the way that I'm forced to think about them when I try to elaborate my impressions of this software. There aren't any goals in Electroplankton and you've seen everything in the package after a few tries, but I still find myself going back for more. I don't want all gaming to move in this direction--by all means, let's have more involving stories and clever systems like Prince of Persia and Ikaruga. On the other hand, my hope is that this experiment will cause other new programmers to ask questions about what the medium can do, and how they want to work. I'd like to see this kind of art gain more ground with the public.

Future - Present - Past