Let’s Hear It for Game Soundtracks!

The aphorism is that a picture tells a thousand words. I’d contend that a piece of music can do more than that. From tinny 2 bit bleeps to the present day the soundtrack has been an accompaniment to games for almost as long as games have been around. It’s taken considerably longer however, for them to gain much in the way of artistic credibility or recognition. Having more than a few years of classical piano by the time I turned 10, it’s safe to say I had a reasonable appreciation for music from a young age. While my keyboard has become qwerty rather than black and white, my enjoyment of music has only grown over the years.

It was years ago that I felt a queasy thrill of horror the first time I played Sensory Overload and heard the music pumping as enemies approached while I crept through the corridors. The synth laden techno coming out of the tinny little speakers on our old Apple PowerPC5500 helped to bring the creepy sci-fi setting to life that much more. I never managed to finish the game but the soundtrack stayed with me for a long time. I ended up digging through Tomb Raider 2’s program folder to find the files containing game’s soundtrack. All because one of the cheesy techno tracks that played through a snowmobile sequence grabbed me so much I just had to keep listening to it (a thought occurs that my later love of electronic music may have its’ beginnings here). Or the bombastic orchestral stylings of Warcraft 2, matched so perfectly with the equally cheesy high fantasy. In all of these games the experience of playing and the memories of fun I’d had became intimately tied to the music of the soundtrack. Continue reading

Sequels : Exceptions to the rule : Part 1 : Arma

We all know the partially unspoken rule of sequels in computer games, movies etc. Its basically the law of diminishing marginal returns. I’ll throw this accusatory pint glass directly at the Call of Duty franchise as a first point of call (I’d mention Mario but you know what, I regard that franchise more as a sick corporate experiment than anything else) but there’s plenty of examples out there. But I’ve realised that I’ve been somewhat hypocritical in my extroverted loathing of sequels. I’m actually looking forward to a few of them right now. So like all good hypocrites, I come before you to justify my position rather than to abandon it. Allow me to begin my justification by stating that these game series are either unique, constituting a genre in and of themselves, or games which began their own genre and are still the exemplar of quality in that genre. So without further ado let me start with the first game on my list, Arma3.

Looking Ahead

Arma3 looks to add substantial improvements to the immersion and scale of the series. Smells good too…

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You put ethics in my game?

The place of ethics in computer gaming is a topic I’ve been keen to cover for some time. While ‘moral panic’ has been a frequent occurrence in various attacks on the gaming industry and some high profile games in particular (Mass Effect sex scenes anyone?) ethics in gaming seem to have escaped much focus. This could be because morals invoke the religious right and FOX News while ethics require slightly more frontal lobe to process or engage with, but it feels like the time is ripe to examine gaming and the ethical experimentation it encourages. Computer games provide a fantastic psychological sandbox because unlike almost all other forms of entertainment media they are both participative and interactive. This allows and encourages some interesting psychological processes to be explored through them.

Some games provide a deeper ethical sandbox than others. In most first person shooters the player is forced along a path where they have little impact except to continue the story and you are simply killing or being killed. Roleplaying games (RPG’s) present a broader opportunity to observe human ethics unfettered by societal constraint, sanction or judgement. RPG’s have always offered the most obvious demonstration of ethics in gaming but only since they started embodying consequence has this gained much depth or interest. When your chaotic evil monk in Neverwinter Nights got the same ending as your lawful good paladin, choice in dealing with non player characters felt irrelevant except insofar as how you perceived your character. More recent games (Mass Effect leading the charge) have implemented lasting consequence making ethics in gaming deeper and more impactful. For the purposes of this article I’m focusing around the expression of ethics in single player gaming though multiplayer provides an interesting counterpart to be explored at a later date. Continue reading

DayZ : The apocalypse, but not as we know it…

We approached at night, the darkness cloaking our movements from any observer as we broke out of the tree line. The zombies wandered aimlessly, growling through bloodstained mouths as they stumbled across the fields in front of us. Further down the hill the city beckons, a mass of zombie lined streets and houses hopefully filled with loot for the taking…

There’s been no shortage of media attention on DayZ and it’s creator Dean ‘rocket’ Hall, since the alpha release broke cover some months ago. In this case it feels like the amount of coverage is justified. If you haven’t heard of DayZ, its a game mod which is best summed up as a persistent zombie apocalyptic shooter. No teams, no rules, just 50 human survivors thrown into a vast game world filled with zombies to co-operate or kill each other, survive or perish. It is brutally difficult, incredibly immersive and at times truly nerve-wracking in a way that no other game I’ve played has ever been. It’s been a long time since something this exciting and innovative happened in gaming.

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Get Real (the art of immersion in computer games)

Realism in computer gaming can be a touchy subject. I happen to prefer realism in my computer games. I’ll be the first to admit that not all the gaming community is with me on this one. One friend went so far as to tell me during a spirited debate on gaming that I don’t like games, I like simulations (it may have been swearier in real life). This isn’t really the case, I don’t play any true simulations and I like realism in a game but that doesn’t encompass all I look for. What I look for most is a gaming experience I can get immersed in without being pulled back to reality by the game itself. It’s de rigeur for games to promise immersive experience but most seem to fall short of that ultimate goal. Often the reason for this isn’t as shallow as graphics or as complex as physics but about the mechanics of the game defining how involved and immersed you feel. Why does this happen when so much effort is put into game design? To answer this you have to go to the dawn of gaming history.

As an entertainment medium games have changed significantly since their inception back in the days of Pong. Early game designers worked with mere kilobytes of ram and storage as well as limited processing capacity. They had to make tradeoffs in the graphics and gameplay but produced spectacular games for their time which laid the foundations for the games we have today. Any medium that changes over time has certain evolutionary hangovers left from previous eras. Currently game graphics (on the PC at least) are within a hairs breath of being photorealistic. Complex physics simulation is the norm and lighting engines are able to paint a world so realistically they can make a sunset to make any ancient greek poet mildly aroused. But there are still some remnants of game history left like a vestigial tail on modern gaming that make me realise I’m playing a game not staring at another world through my screen. I will admit to being a whore for good graphics. I do like games that look fantastic, but I’m not so shallow that this defines my level of interest. Even more than graphics its about the feeling of immersion in the game world, graphics help produce this but ultimately it takes more. You have to have gameplay that draws the player into their character and the feeling of being there in the game. The physicality of a game, if you will. In previous generations of gaming hardware limited the ability of game designers to implement this but today nothing stands in the way apart from convention and tradition.

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