"... Or Other Visual Media"

Curator's Note

A tantalizing clause dangles at the end of the name of three of the lesser categories of Grammy Awards. The clause tantalizes because these particular awards--and, by extension, the Awards--have never delivered on its promise.

Here's the name of one of those categories: "Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media." The clause, "or Other Visual Media," contains an acknowledgement that movies and television are subsets of a broader realm--one we might term "visual media."

Perhaps the awkward construction is intentional, keeping the phrase just past the periphery of the reader's patience. For key among the media stuffed under the rug that is "or Other Visual Media" is an unspeakable behemoth that long ago surpassed sales of music (Grammy's reason for being).

Patience eventually wears thin. A decade has passed since the clause "or Other Visual Media" was appended to the soundtrack category's name. In that time, exactly one non-movie (HBO's Angels in America mini-series) has been nominated for the award. If television got one mention in a decade, there's no reason for surprise that not a single "or Other Visual Media" has ever received a nod.

The unspeakable media, of course, is video games. Of this year's 109 Grammy categories, not one names video games. Nonetheless, 2010 will be remembered as the first year a game received a nomination, in the category "Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)." The song is "Baba Yetu," choir-packed world-music composed by Christopher Tin for the game Civilization IV. It's pretty saccharine. Perhaps a spoonful of artificial sweetener was necessary to help Grammy get the medicine down.

I include the "Official Music Video" here with no intention that you actually watch it. The video poorly represents Civilization IV. It doesn't evidence how music in games is fluid, dynamic, integral. The video serves as a totem of the Grammys' shortsighted focus on "singles" and "albums," exposing how its governing body prioritizes "recording" as fixed artifact, versus recording as process or recording as system. The "Official Music Video" is a faded postcard mailed back to Flatland by its Video Game World ambassador, hinting at the pleasures to be had.



Sure thing. I'll divide "video game music" into two categories, pre- and post- this milestone issue of fixed cultural artifacts.

The "fixed" examples are albums and single-song servings of music from games.

The other examples I will term "indeterminate," because it is precisely defined in opposition to "fixed" (and because of its association with John Cage). This would be music from games in which the music shifts and changes as a result of the exigencies of gameplay.

In the "fixed" category, I'd recommend for starters:

1. Amon Tobin's Chaos Theory: The Soundtrack to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. There's quite a story to all the musicians he brought in to work on it.

2. The BioShock score by Garry Schyman, from 2007. It was unusual because it was orchestral, and because those orchestrations absorbed real-world sounds (not as richly as, say, John Luther Adams or Ingram Marshall have, but effectively).

3. Danny Baranowsky's songs in Canabalt, a Flash browser-based game ported this past year to iOS to much acclaim. They sit comfortably between chiptune arcade fun and intense techno, and were well-defined to frame and work within the sounds of the game, and to fit the game's pacing.

In the "indeterminate" category, I'd recommend for starters:

1. Thicket by Morgan Packard, for the iOS app by that name he developed with Joshue Ott last year. Hyper-minimal techno divided up into sections that alternate depending on how you hold the device, and affected by how you touch the screen.

2. Chime was released in 2010 by Zoë Mode. It's a fast-paced grid puzzle game. How you play determines what you hear (which elements, how they're looped). Music by Moby, Philip Glass, and Orbital's Paul Hartnoll.

3. Inception: a specialized edition of the iOS app RjDj, made largely due to the enthusiasm of composer Hans Zimmer (nominated twice this year, for Inception and Sherlock Holmes). It exemplifies "reactive audio": the music you hear in your headphones is built from artfully transformed sounds picked up by your device's microphone, mixed with score cues, including the one Johnny Marr's on.

My favorite way to play games is to mute the game sound and play music off my iTunes through the computer speakers. It's a wonderful way to grow familiar with new music because your conscious mind is preoccupied with pointing & clicking. I find the combo of muted gameplay plus music very conducive to flow. As a result, I've studiously ignored most of the game music composed over the last few decades, including this nominated piece I've never heard for Civ IV, a game I've spent many hours playing and many pages writing about.

I find that the slick new games with recorded dialogue that demands unmuting - Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, all the big hitters - don't draw me in nearly as fully as text-based classics like the old Gabriel Knight & Police Quest series. In attempting to surround the senses, the new games don't give me the space to play.The new games that I do prefer are minimalist classics like Canabalt and sound toys like Inception, which doesn't pretend to be about anything but sound.

There's one recent game in particular that I feel is demonstratively better without its music on: Angry Birds.

In Angry Birds, the music fills in gaps that are, simply, better without music. Without music, you play at your pace, not the pace that's set for you. But it's more than that. The game is especially great without music in the period after that final pig explodes but before your last bird does. Against that arid landscape, it resembles nothing so much as the best pauses in the Road Runner cartoons, that slapstick pause between, say, when the Coyote hits the ground half a mile down and when the cloud of dust rises, or when the anvil lands on the Coyote and its tail droops in resignation.

I agree with you about how in the attempt at immersion, most (and I feel comfortable saying most) set goals so seemingly high they leave nothing to the imagination, and yet are unimaginative themselves. They forget how immersive a play, a movie, a novel can be. (Then again, their target audience is often not unlike the audience that sees a Transformers movie the weekend it is released.)

A lot of the music in the immersive shooters simply isn't up my alley, and I find it as hard to play to as I have found it hard to watch sitcoms with laughtracks: I don't appreciate being told what emotion to feel. That said, some scores have done a good job of being immersive without being, I suppose, pedantic. BioShock is good at first because the score is a surprise, but as it goes on because there's just so much of it, and it varies. As for Amon Tobin's, the music is so great, I like being immersed in it even when I'm not playing. I listed it as one of my ten favorite albums the year it was released.

Glad you're digging sound/music apps. I've been dedicating a lot of time to interviewing their developers lately.

Speaking of which, this is recommended reading (it isn't by me, though). It's an overview of how the sound and music in Canabalt were developed:


A few scattered thoughts here:

Music in games has a lot of added difficulties that are not present in film or television which mostly revolve around pacing. Music in film and TV emphasizes and aids the pace set by the other elements of the medium, but the viewer is always engaging these in a set time frame. In a game, the music has to be dynamic enough to respond to the pacing as set by the player. So, for exampe, in a horror game, if a player is inching their way through a creepy hallway, the music has to sustain the tension regardless of how long the player takes to make their way to the end. In other games, the player may be doing a repetitive action over and over again for hours, meaning either a huge amount of music is needed, or music that is still interesting over a long amount of time. Finally, there's also the issue of early technological limitations for games music (which has now inspired the Bit music scene).

In general, I feel like game music is very underappreciated, but we're getting more crossover with other media these days (such as Clint Mansell doing the score for the next Mass Effect game). I'd also suggest that games have given us a number of really iconic pieces of music (think Super Mario Bros.) that are as evocative in many people's memories as, say, the Star Wars theme.

Ted: I'm not sure about the PS3, but on the Xbox 360 you can use a feature called "custom soundtracks" where, after ripping your CDs to the harddrive or connecting an iPod/Mp3 player, you can play the music through the system in place of in-game music. This retains all of the sound effects and dialogue, but plays your music throughout. It works to varying degrees based on the individual game, with some pausing your music whenever important dialogue happens and others just laying it behind, but it's an interesting feature. I use it a lot with games where the music is not integral to the experience but where it is still helpful to hear sound effects (such as in a racing game).

As a side note, The Brainy Gamer podcast recently had an episode on music that includes discussions of a number of new and old pieces for anyone interested.

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