Friday, 22 May 2015

Themes in Video Game Music

Let me tell you a little story. In summer 2013, a friend of mine and me were driving from Heidelberg to Cologne, to follow our duty as conference associates at GDCE. During the trip, we listened through the whole No More Heroes soundtrack on three CDs. While at first, the vibe of the music enriched our travel, when disc 2 was running, the No More Heroes theme had already been burnt into our brains. And after disc 3, we desperately tried to get the theme out of our heads again, as it is built into almost all of the tracks.

I know that No More Heroes is not the only example than can be brought up here. Especially in Japanese video games, thematic music seems to be a more common practice. I remember a friend cirticising Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack for sewing the theme music into practically every piece of music in the game, so he couldn't get it out of his head again. (I haven't played any of the FF games myself, so I can't judge here.) However, with western video game music, I have the feeling, that the exact opposite is the case. Especially in the AAA-industry, atmospheric and often rhythm centered backgroud music with very little thematic connection seems to be the current standard. But also Indie games, even those which were praised for their music, like say Hotline Miami, have good music, but little to no thematical connection except maybe for the musical genre.

I don't want to say that this 'newer' wave of music, which is also prominent in film music has no aesthetic value. I just sometimes miss the days when video games' soundtracks had some recognizable theme that connected the piece as a whole, to also bring an acoustic recognition value to all the stages and phases of the game or even connect games through installment of a franchise. But wait! Didn't I just state above, that I am among those persons, who get fed up with a certain musical theme in a game, when it plays too often? Well, yes, I did. So, what does that mean? Simply put, there seem to be differences between how themes in game soundtracks can be used. I want to address a few and what I think makes good and not so good usage of themes.

Before we dig deeper into the understanding, let's clear up what's a theme anyway? The term "theme" in musical context describes a musical thought that is recognizable through its melody and/or rhythm. There were some differences what a theme is and where it appears throughout music history and how it differs from the much smaller motif, but we will stick with that definition for now, as it is perfectly enough for what I want to explain here.

Since I love bringing up my gaming experiences from my childhood, here - provided you can read music - is a theme that accompanied me for a long time and serves as a good example:

Theme to both Wario Land and Wario Land 2
Music by Ryoji Yoshitomi and Kozue Ishikawa

Mario games are very good examples for usage of themes and variation. Looking only at the GameBoy installments, what started with Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was continued in Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. I chose the Wario Land theme for never getting on my nerves despite being present in not one, but two follow up titles. In the very first stage of Wario Land, you will hear the most true form of the theme seen above (I simplified it even more). As seen, it has the most typical characteristics of a theme, i.e. consisting of eight bars, which can be split up into 4+4, and can then be further split up into (2+2)+(2+2) as motives being a-b-a'-c. The good thing about such a simplistic theme is, that there are many possibilities for variation in melody, harmony and rhythm. And that's exactly, what was done throughout the first two installments of the Wario Land series (not counting the Virtual Boy here).

Even though, I played both of the games to death and got 100% in both of them - yes, I had the planet in Wario Land and beaten the time attack level in Wario Land II - I don't remember the music as annoying. Quite the opposite! I dare to say, that Wario Lands' soundtracks influenced me in my work as a composer myself. Another thing which I find noteworthy is how well their music kept the connection of the games, while the graphical style didn't. When I picked up Wario Land II I found the graphics to look kind of odd, especially since I was used to the style of its predecessor. However, hearing the familiar theme through the speaker of my GameBoy Pocket, the graphical strangeness was soon overcome and I found myself back in the game universe I lover again. If you have some free time, I invite you to listen to some of the tracks of Wario Land or Wario Land II and appreciate their music.

Theme to No More Heroes by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda

Now, looking - and listening - to our negative example No More Heroes, the problem seems to be the theme, whenever it is played, having little to no variation in melody or rhythm. That way a specific sequence of notes will get burned into your ears until you don't want to hear it any longer. Or, visually speaking, the sheet music of the Wario Land theme up there looks vastly different through the game while No More Heroes's will not change much. Fortunately, in game the theme is not played in between passages where it is not present in the music at all. It even got carried over to No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle.

That is to say, themes can help the acoustic appearance of video games a lot and shape it into a coherent experience. However it should not be overdone and enough variation should be integrated into the recurring themes. I am a huge fan of the leitmotif especially, where a musical theme or thought is connected to a certain person or place, especially if done over the course of many games, like the King Dedede Battle theme in the Kirby franchise, or Frank Klepacki's No Mercy, which represented Kane (until Tiberium Wars messed the music up). We are beings that easily attach emotions to music or any acoustic stimuli, so, dear developers, use this knowledge wisely. Did I mention, that I almost cried in nostalgasm when I heard the music of Yuga Ganon in A Link Between Worlds?

However, the more and more themeless music composition, while having their justification, prevents development such an emotional connection throughout a game series. While I am a huge fan of the totally underrated Darksiders series, I couldn't connect these games musically at all. Not that Jesper Kyd wouldn't know how to compose game music, I claim it was practically impossible to tie musical connections to the first Darksiders. So maybe we shouldn't abandon the art of themes in our video game music compositions yet. As I wrote about adaptive music two weeks ago, maybe one could combine the concept of a leitmotif and adaptive soundtrack in an RPG? Imagine fighting with a party and while you switch characters, melody and/or instrumentation of the background music shifts into different, recognizable parts that belong to each character.

Fortunately, especially in the indie world, thematic composition is still a thing. This is why next time, I will take a look at one of the, in my humble opinion, most outstanding indie game soundtracks of the past years. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

I Am the Only Person in the World Who Holds the Controller This Way

Now, this post is a funny one but I want to express my wonders why nobody else does this. Let's have a look at this:

I'm the bloke to the left, chilling on the bed.

The - horrendously nerdy - photograph above was taken in March 2010, when I met some online friends to have a good time and play video games. We were all in our late teens or early 20s. While my hair and sense for clothing has changed quite a bit by now, one thing remained the same: The way I hold the controller.

Just look at my excited expression!

Now, why would I dedicate a blog entry to this matter? One of the most obvious reasons is: Because I haven't met anybody else - except for one person - who holds their controller like that. This wouldn't surprise me at all, if it were a very uncomfortable way. Yet, I honestly see more good than bad in it. It's like everybody assumes, you hold the controller the exact same way as them and as such you can complain about controls, which might feel uncomfortable for this, standardized holding. Like here: that there were more than two different kinds of monster per realm and if It didn't have to hold down the left trigger to target things and press the left shoulder button to cast magic because trying to press both those buttons at the same time is a manoeuvre not terribly considerate of the average number of fingers on a hand. So you can either leave yourself at the mercy of a camera system that would have you eternally menace the area slightly to the left of the guy you're trying to hit or you staple a chipolata to your index finger. (Croshaw 2012)

You do realize, that you have a middle finger, Yahtzee, don't you? Well, I didn't have that problem when playing Darksiders 2.

Having been a Nintendoboy in my youth, I started using this "technique", when I got a Gamecube. This was my first console, where the controller had more than one shoulder button. On one side at least. And yes, my left index finger didn't even rest on a button, as I held it symmetrical. This wasn't at all a conscious decision, it just kind of happened and felt natural to me. One possible explanation I can come up with is that I got lazy, switching the finger over from R to Z all the time and hence decided to just rest fingers on both buttons permanently. This carried over to the Nunchuck controller of the Wii, and eventual other, non-Nintendo controllers.

Until now, I didn't encounter a single problem deriving from this habit. Quite the opposite! My right index finger is now in reach for some occasional usage I have for it, like when my thumb is using the right stick for the camera, but I need to press a face button. This is, in fact, a technique I ironically learned while playing Darksiders. I simply let my index finger slide down and use it to press the required button. Feels a bit strange at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Or, my thumb has to hold down one of the face buttons, but I want to adjust the camera without stopping to walk. In this case, the right index finger comes down again, crosses the thumb and moves the right stick. Feels very strange at first, but eventually I got used to this, as well.

Of course, these are exceptional cases but it got me thinking: "Are our current controllers the end of the evolution of controllers?" Not being in total control of all the available buttons in any combination you could wish to make doesn't sound like absolutely flawless to me. In fact, game developers even have to adapt to game controller holding habits just so players don't have to bend their fingers awkwardly in their game. And don't get me started on disabled players, who lost a finger or more or were born with deformed hands! Maybe we got stuck into this design for a way too long time. I mean, it hasn't changed very much since the original DualShock. A d-pad left, a control stick on each side, four face buttons right, two shoulder buttons, whereas the one behind is analogue. I am not a designer, but I assume this design can be optimized in a lot of ways we haven't even thought about yet. The closest thing to a current generation revamp attempt resembles the Steam controller, but that has was changed back to a more conventional design last year. According to the photographs, I should be able to continue my holding habit there without any trouble though.

In the end, the only disadvantage I see, is that it feels even less authentic to pull a trigger of a virtual gun with the controller, whereas I always use keyboard and mouse for fps controls anyway. Otherwise, I feel more comfortable to have more control over the controller (as you should have, because it's called a controller) which might derive from my existence as an instrumentalist. I mean, flutists for example use almost all of their fingers for buttons and they don't complain, right?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Music Games and the Future of Adaptive Soundtracks
Bonus: 140 Giveaway

Video game soundtracks aren't what they used to be. Oh, you have heard this before? Probably not the way I mean it. Which is - mostly - in a good way. What I am referring to are the technical advances that have come up and that are going to keep coming. They have been used in very unique and creative ways so far, when I think of what is probably going to come, I get pretty excited.

I don't want to go too deeply into game studies here, but I have to explain a few things to clarify which properties make a good game soundtrack to me. Just awesome music isn't enough. Due to the ergodic nature of video games, their music must be produced with way different parameters in mind than, say, a movie soundtrack. The game ultimately doesn't happen on the screen, but in the consciousness of the player. As such, the music plays a crucial role, adjusting and enhancing, sometimes even complementing the experience. Game music should not just support what is on screen, but also tell the player what is not (yet) on the screen.

For example,  in Super Mario World's soundtrack by Koji Kondo, there exists this athletic theme. I played this game a lot as a kid, together with my older sister, and I remember, quite clearly, whenever we entered a new level and I heard this tune in the background, I immediately knew "Oh no, this is going to have a lot of precise jumping and I will probably die a lot." I didn't realize at the time, that my brain had connected the tune with actual, well, athletic stages. SMW is actually a good example for what I am going to be talking about here, as it is also the earliest game I remember, that had an adaptive soundtrack. While very rudimentary, whenever you rode Yoshi, the music seamlessly switched to a version, that had bongos in it (you can hear them come in at about 1:13 in the youtube video, I linked above). I am under the impression, that Nintendo in general has been one of the most important innovators regarding adaptive soundtracks. For further information about, what exactly adaptive (or sometimes interactive) soundtrack means, you can check out this video by Mark Brown, it does a great summary.

Adaptive soundtracks are common practice now, and I think that's a good thing. While it makes the tracks harder to listen to outside of the game, the overall game experience is greatly supported. It also brings new challenges for composers to solve creatively. One set of games constantly tries to bring new music mechanics into their gameplay, and these are obviously music games. First of all, what is a music game? Very vaguely, it is a game that uses music as some kind of mechanic in its gameplay. (I have a steam curator page up, where I recommend such games, both good and bad.) My own categories will differ a bit from the wikipedia page. Very roughly, many games are autoscrollers of some sorts, where certain movements have to be placed on certain beats. These include games like Audiosurf, where you import your own mp3s, Bit.Trip Runner or even rhythm games, like Dance Dance Revolution. Even the music levels in Rayman Legends can be sorted into this category.

Then, there's different games, where your movements aren't restricted by the music, but you are part of a much larger, acoustic world and have a direct influence on the sound. Games like this include the very experimental and minimalistic Proteus or the first person puzzler Fract OSC. There's a lot of games "in between", but this quick overview should be enough for where I'm going here. In preparation for this post, I played some Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians and Crypt of the Necrodancer, which I both hadn't really tried until now - shame on me. Both of these games fall in-between, whereas Necrodancer is more of an autoscroller, as it is bound to the length of the tracks. Beatbuddy however, feels more like a normal exploration puzzler, where the background music is an essential part of the level mechanics.

I really enjoy, that more concepts are being tried out, but I have the feeling, that we are not quite there yet. Not for a long time. Look at Beatbuddy for a moment. The games mechanics are fun and interesting, but the whole game feels like it is supposed to only serve this purpose and just so happens to be an exploration game at the same time. The character, enemies and surroundings are designed to represent music in some way or another, which makes it a bit too much for my taste. I don't need to be constantly reminded, that I am playing a game with an interesting music mechanic here. In the addicting Necrodancer and most auto scroller games, it feels the other way round. While I really like the feeling of performing dance moves with a partner (I took many dancing lessons back in the day... good times), the problem remains, that the game can technically be played without sound. The levels of Rayman or Bit.Trip Runner, even worse, while pretending to be music driven and probably developed with the best intentions following this claim, feel more like coincidentally going along the music track. While movement is sort of synced with the music, you can perfectly play these games without sound. Blindfolded, however, is next to impossible, which it shouldn't be.

The game 140 marks the closest thing to a milestone in this regard, in my opinion. If you haven't heard of this game yet, you should quickly watch the official trailer or - if you really want to - this video I made for the 2013 /v/GAs. This game is very dear to me and undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, inspiring music games I played so far. How does it achieve that? Firstly, it hasn't written "MUSIC" or "RHYTHM" all over its content, all the music mechanics are 'just there'. The title only vaguely hints at music with 140 beats per minute as the core element of this game and the surroundings - except for the background, which vaguely resembles a loudness meter - aren't inspired by sinewaves or clefs, but rather abstract geometric shapes. With the almost complete absence of sound effects, the music alone is totally sufficient in setting the right tone. The game is described as creating synesthesia during gameplay and as a synesthetic myself I can confirm, it does a pretty damn good job. Secondly, it is a shining example of a completely textless game. No tutorials, no explanations (except for the unity launcher), just you and the experience. The only criticism I can find is, that the idea and execution bears so much potential, I'm certain, a lot more than just its three levels could have been developed, if money and time had been at hand.

I wonder how long it will take until 140's mechanics will find their place in different games. Don't let the music just react to what's on the screen - let the screen react to what's in the music. Give hints to the player about their surroundings not just through visuals, but auditory clues. It appears to me, music games don't know yet, where their true potential lies (metaphorically speaking) and a few more breakthroughs will have to be achieved. I am convinced, the way will inevitably lead to a mix of current music game mechanics and adaptive soundtracks of 'normal' games. In other words, the music mechanics should be 'just there' and 'just work', not distract from but rather support the gameplay experience. Beatbuddy will play certain patterns in the music and relate them to enemies. But why limit mechanics like this to music games only? A certain instrument indicating the presence of a certain enemy or gameplay situation is a great example for music hinting at what can not be seen yet.

If I ever make a larger video game project, it'd probably be a textless metroidvania with a fully developed audio engine. The music would not only adapt to your location but also to the enemies in your surroundings, hinting at what to expect in your current room. However, I am aware of the amount of work you need to put into and the troubles you encounter while developing games, so this idea will not happen anytime soon.

140 giveaway:

I lately (01.05.2015) got the world record in speedrunning 140 (hurray) and Jeppe Carlsen, the developer was so generous to give me five Steam keys of the game to give away for it. Since it is free code friday, I decided to give it to anyone curious about this game and open for new mechanics in music games. If you're interested in getting a copy, post a comment where you tell me what your favourite music game or minigame is and why, and that you would like a copy. The first five to do so by the end of the month will get their key sent to them. But please don't let this game rot in your backlog, it is way too worth playing and not very long, too.

Update: I wasn't aware there is no possibility of contacting the user who commented directly. If I don't know how to reach you, you can send me a quick message on my Twitter or my Google+. If any living soul is still interested that is.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Steam Backlog: A New Year's High Resolution

The first month of the new year is over. How has your 2015 been so far? Did you already break three of your five New Year's resolutions and the other two are dangerously close? Or are you the kind of person, who doesn't give a damn about New Year's resolutions? As for me, I am probably such a person. But this year, I decided to try some anyway.

Actually, it's quite a coincidence that this came up after New Year's Eve. It was much more the combination of both a cold realisation and New Year's Eve. The reason I am sharing this with you is, I believe, I am by far not alone with this kind of "problem". And that problem is called...

The Steam Backlog...

Remember all those sales? There were games, you saw for -75% that were on your wishlist, even though you had no idea when exactly you added them, but just buying them now would erase them from your wishlist and you would feel good about it. And, all of a sudden, your Steam library has grown to an  uncontrollable beast, while you ask yourself where it all went wrong.

Don't bother telling me, this is far less than it would take you!
Source: Steamleft

For me, the realisation came, when I saw my Steam library passing the 400 games mark. (yeah, I know, for many of you, that's less than half of what you own on Steam!) However, the number of games, I finished last year, was considerably small. Furthermore, I had read an article of a developer, I don't want to mention here (except, they wish for it), who wrote about the customer getting worthless to the developer, because of sales. They buy games for a dollar, but never play them and when they do, they will complain about stuff, they are not able to fix themselves.

Suddenly, it all felt wrong. "I am different! I have a good taste in games and don't buy every little thing I see and find interesting!" These were the thoughts, I calmed myself with, when I was buying yet another indie, classic or relatively new AAA-title in a Steam Sale. In reality, however, I didn't seem to be any different than those other people. And then there was this one experience two years ago, I'd like to share with you: My purchase of Thomas Was Alone.

That game had been on my wishlist for some time already, when I saw it was -50% during a sale. "Well, I can wait, maybe I'll get it for -75%! I'll just wait until the last day of the sale, and if it's still just -50%, I'll buy it then!" So the next days, I watched some Let's Plays (which I normally never do) of the first levels, reviews, quicklooks and read articles. In the end, I got pretty excited at finally playing the game myself. Heck, I even dreamed about it. Finally, the last day of the sale came and I wanted to check, if maybe today, the magical -75% might be on and... the sale was over all along. It seemed that I had missed the deadline by a day and Thomas was back at its regular price. My world broke apart. I was so eager to play it and the sale brought the opportunity to me right there and all of a sudden I had to wait for another sale? Why?

"Or, maybe", I thought,"I can just buy it full price...?" And that is what I did. For the first time in... I dare to say ever, I bought a game in the Steam store for its full price. And it felt good. I installed it right away and after that, I played through it the same evening. Maybe the game, quality wise, wasn't worth my personal mini-hype, but the feeling of suddenly playing a game, that seemed to have value was fascinating. I still don't regret that purchase.

Now, all of the above led me to think of a little system that would bring back some value into my backlog. The problem with sales, in my opinion, is that you buy a lot of games, you potentially like, but probably never play, because you don't value them enough. Even though, (some of) these games might be great, or another "favourite game" might even be hidden away there from you, there is no practical reason to lay a finger on those. Except maybe, a lucky steamroulette roll.

Here is a very short version of how my system is supposed to work:
  • Beating a game will get me one Steam Token
  • Buying a new game requires five Steam Tokens
That way, both the games in my library as well as the new ones, I am going to buy, increase in value. There are exceptions, however, which include:
  • A game that I have been looking forward to for a very long time is coming out
  • I find out about an already released game, that catches my attention too much to be ignored 
If I buy a game under these circumstances, no token will be taken away from me. However, I must buy those at their release date, for the full price, or both to not have it affect my tokens. That way, value is pretty much guaranteed. Also, purchases from the Humble Store or any other way to get Steam keys is included in that system.

So far so good. I'm still at the very beginning of this system and I have beaten two games since. (Only games, that were finished after introducing this system count as tokens!) Those were NaissanceE and Hotline Miami. Now I am going for Cave Story+. I get the feeling of finally "allowing" myself to enjoy the games I have, again, and this is a good thing. I expect to find more loopholes in this system as the year goes on, but I definitely try to stick to it as long as possible. A flaw included is, that I don't have any kind of punishment, when I fail to meet my requirements. Also, I am the only instance to control myself.

Nevertheless, this is my attempt to bring back some value into my Steam games, and catching up - at least a tiny little bit - on my backlog. Wish me luck!

Have a similar system yourself? Wanna join in? Think, this is just a big pile of useless bullshit? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Rebirth of Isaac's Music

Back from the dead. Or at least from those who were writing their bachelor thesis, just to start studying once more.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. You sure have heard of this game and if you haven't, stop reading, go buy it and play it. I played the original and its expansion for 155 hours and Rebirth already stole 81 hours of my life. I'm currently training towards beating the game with The Lost on hard, but I am still afar from it.

The reason why I thought this game might be worthy of this blog is not because it's great, but because of its music. I heard and read some opinions about Rebirth's soundtrack, which you can purchase on Bandcamp or as a DLC on Steam if you wish so. Inevitably, a comparison to its original counterpart is often included. Some prefer DannyB's soundtrack to the original, others like Ridiculon's approach to Rebirth more.

First of all: The new music is, in my humble opinion, great. It fits the mood and throws you right in. I really like its interactivity; when you enter rooms with many strong enemies, the music track will play more tracks, e.g. a guitar solo in case of the Cellar. I am a huge fan of interactive and/or adaptive music in video games and will definitely write about that in the future. Also, I love how Ridiculon not just actually recorded the music, but doing so in some creative ways. As a student of music design, this immediately catches my interest.

However, as I've played the heck hell out of the original, I can't but compare the new to the old music. While I don't want to compare every single old music track with their newer counterparts, I want to share my impression with you. I like both of the soundtracks a lot. Danny Baranowsky did a great job with Binding of Isaac and Wrath of the Lamb, just as Ridiculon did an amazing job with Rebirth. If some assassin held a gun at my head and forced me to decide which soundtrack I prefer - and only under these (or some very, very similar) circumstances - I'd choose the original.

Okay now let me explain, please! I liked the original soundtrack for being thematic and melodic. The music had actual melodies to even hum along with while playing. Rebirth's soundtrack consists more of musical impressions with which the player is presented. Take for instance the music for the Depths in Rebirth. If I asked you to hum its melody to another player and she should identify it, how probable would it be, she would?

The original basement:
The original cellar:

On the other hand, Danny achieved something, I really appreciated in the original. Take for instance the BGM of the Basement and the Cellar. I don't know, what Edmund and/or Florian requested from Danny, but to me it sound a lot like he was asked to produce sound-alikes for this - and all the other alternate floors. (If you don't know what a sound-alike is, look it up on Wikipedia.) The key, instrumentation and tempo are all the same or at least similar, yet it still is a new piece of music as a whole. As a player this was a great help, because the alternate floors came with the expansion for the original, Wrath of the Lamb. So when you were in-game, you identified the floors by the music. However, if you were in an alternate version of the already familiar floor, you knew, already by the music, what stage and which version of it you found yourself in. E.g.: As much as I love the new music for the Cellar, it bears, in my recognition, little to no resemblance to the music for the Basement. All in all, I would not necessarily say that the soundtrack of the original was better composed, I'd claim, for the experience of the player, it was better designed.

Rebirth's basement:
Rebirth's cellar:

Of course, this is nothing of a big issue at all. The game is still great and I love it and if anybody asked me if she should play the original before, I'd probably reply something along the lines of "Hell, NO!" However, if you want to experience the musical feeling of the original, there are plenty of mods which implement the original music into Rebirth. Of changes in graphics, controls and everything else, music in Rebirth is probably what changed the most. (Yes, I consider it a more drastic change than the now very good looking pixel art of the game!) I, for my part, will be playing Rebirth with its intended soundtrack by Ridiculon. At least, until I reached 155 hours there, maybe I'll change then, just to not forget the original's great soundtrack.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

GDC Europe/GamesCom 2014

Phew, here we go. Yes, I've been super-lazy regarding this blog, but I don't want to leave it behind, so here we have a new blogpost! As some of you may or may not know, last week in Cologne, Gamescom was held, as well as the a bit lesser known Game Developers Conference Europe. And I was there. Working. All. Eight. Days.

But here's a few things, I want to share with you guys. First: This wasn't the first time I attended GDCE. I already participated as a volunteer (or conference associate) there last year. The experience is simply amazing. You meet lots of cool people, among the other CAs there are game developers all over the place. And game developers are actually (mostly) pretty cool people. I even chatted a bit with Brenda Romero. She is such a wonderful person.

My job at GDCE this year was that of a badger, i.e. I stand around at the entrance of the expo floor and check, if everybody who enters has their badge. It can get pretty boring in the later hours, but at least I felt important when sending Gamescom exhibitors away. I could see some interesting talks and look at various booths. All in all a really good opportunity! :)

The best thing about GDCE, however, are the parties, where you can hang out with all the developers. There was a GDC/Respawn (Respawn is another event aimed mostly at German indie developers) party on Tuesday evening. Even though there were dance floors, not many people did dance. I immediately felt comfortable among my kind. You can chat with developers and exchange your ideas.

On Wednesday, Gamescom started. For trade visitors, at least, Thursday it was for the rest. I got the opportunity to work for a developer at their booth. I won't go too much into detail here, but let's put it this way: It was almost unbearable.

Not that these guys did anything wrong, I won't blame them. Just Gamescom alone and all the attendees, they're almost the absolute contrast to GDCE. Gamescom itself is very, very loud and every booth tries to be louder than those next to it. After two days, I kept working only with earplugs, while my voice worsened more and more. A small upside I had was a few booths away from me, where Petroglyph had their Grey Goo booth stationed. (Thanks again, Frank!)

Nevertheless, I learnt a lot about video game trade fairs, the attendees (impatient, greedy little brats! Most of them, anyway) of Gamescom and how to set up your booth in general. If I ever become a game designer and win the lottery at the same time, here's how my booth at Gamescom would look like:

  • Two walls with foam between them, as well as a ceiling to shield of some of the noise outside
  • Closed headphones for everyone, who wants to try my games
  • Earplugs as a free giveaway and promotion
  • Barcode scanner for me, so I can scan people's ticket numbers and thus minimize them coming back again and again for another giveaway and not giving a damn about the game

But, apparently, I will probably not become a gamedev too soon, as well as I am not going to win the lottery. All in all, I do not regret working at either of the events, GDCE was much cooler, however. I even think about applying for GDC in San Francisco next year. That way I might finally see some part of the states...

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Gamers' Situation in Germany

After thinking a lot about what my first *actual* post on this blog would be about, I figured, I'd go with a more recent (due to the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order and the currently running Humble German Bundle) theme: The description of a situation in my home country, as well as some opinion. Be it through my name or because you know me, you might have already figured out, I live in Germany. I was born here, raised here and - unfortunately - haven't been able to leave the country for longer than three weeks at a stretch. That being said, it's not that bad, living here, I guess. We have mandatory health insurance, affordable universities and beer that doesn't taste like dish soap.
Also, we are very strict with our laws.

Maybe it's cliché, but it's typical for Germany, to over-regulate things and have everything ending up in a seemingly infinite bureaucracy. I am, of course, aware that these scenarios do apply to other countries of the world, as well. But before we dig too deep into bureaucratic comparison, we better get back on track.

Being a gamer in Germany can suck. It doesn't have to, but it can do so. Hard. Due to the following issues:
  1. Bans
  2. Censorship
  3. Dub localization
I want to explain shortly, how these issues are handled and more importantly, how they interconnect.
But before I start, I want to state the following: I dare to say, the overall situation of 1. and 2. got immensely better over time! Comparing now and 15 years ago, things got less strict here and I think, there actually might be light visible at the end of the tunnel. 3. on the other hand... we'll come to that later.

Bans: It happened and it still happens. Violent game is released, not so in Germany. How does that happen? Well, one thing you might want to know is, that we have our own rating system. PEGI? Forget it! Germany needs its own Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (adequately translates into Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body, according to Wikipedia), or short, the USK. Now, I don't hate the USK. Although they have their extremely huge signs printed all over the cover - and thus utterly destroying anything roughly the size of a DS box art - they try their best at rating games. But that's what the PEGI does, too, right? Well, yes, but the simple reason why we haven't switched from USK to PEGI yet is, that the USK is older. And as we all know, it is very hard to adapt to something new and abandon the old for good. Movies get separately rated by the FSK here, too, but that's another story.

The USK can rate for the following ages: 0, 6, 12, 16 and 18. Once judgment is passed and the USK decides to put their label on the game, it cannot be banned anymore. In some, not so rare cases, however, the USK denies to approve a game at all. That's, where the BPjM comes in and puts the non-rated game on the index. As a result, the game in question can not openly be sold in Germany anymore, i.e. no public display or advertising is allowed. And this leads us to number 2. Germany is an important market for the video game industry. Publishers don't want to not-sell their products here, just because our regulation system thought, they were 'too violent'. That is, why they release...

Censorship: ...censored versions of indexed games. I could write a whole lot just about this, but honestly, that's way too much. There even exists a website just to compare uncut with cut versions of games and movies. As mentioned earlier, the situation has improved by now. Back in the days, games were horribly butchered into non-violent versions. My favourite examples include two of my favourite game series: Half-Life and Command & Conquer.

In Half-Life e.g., all the blood, including alien blood, was removed, soldiers were replaced with robots and when scientists or Barneys died, they just sat down and shook their head. The first three C&Cs (Tiberian Dawn, Red Alert and Tiberian Sun) all got Androids or Cyborgs instead of human soldiers, no death screams and the squishing sound was replaced by the sound of cracking an aluminum can. In Red Alert, we even got a different version of Hell March in the soundtrack, with the marching and screaming removed, as it might remind too much of WWII-era. Speaking of, the part of Hitler in the intro video was completely removed, as well. Worst of all C&Cs got it Generals. After being banned because of similarities with the Iraq War, we got a heavily modified Command & Conquer Generäle where every line of text of every single unit was sent through a horrible vocoder to make them sound like robots (but they sounded a lot more like a tapedeck being played underwater).

This sort of censorship and bans is still active in the days of the digital market, as I will demonstrate at the example of Steam. Your IP tell Valve, that you live here. When you find a game,  that is only available cut in Germany, the store page usually should have one of these:

Screenshot taken from the store page of Half-Life 2.

If you are sent a link to a game banned in Germany or where the cut version hasn't made it into the Steam store (yet), it looks like this:

That's what happens, if you want to access the store page to Quake IV.

Sometimes, the version is even marked in the store with a convenient "(DE)".

In your inventory, it looks like this:
The only (DE) game that exists in my library. Only, because it was made uncut again.

Since Wolfenstein: The New Order just came out, it is worth to explain a simple yet very important fact about German laws. It is forbidden to display symbols that were used in Nazi-Germany, including swastikas. German version of the original Call of Duty? No swastikas. The New Order  even gets an extra message on its steam page:

No less atmospheric alternatives...

The § 86a in question basically tells you, that you might have to go to prison for up to three years for spreading unconstitutional symbols. The thing, however, is, that § 86a refers to § 86. And in § 86 (3) it is clearly stated, that it is not unconstitutional to use these symbols if it "is meant to serve civil education, to avert unconstitutional movements, to promote art or science, research or teaching, the reporting about current or historical events or similar purposes."

That's the reason, why in movies like Downfall, Iron Sky or Inglourious Basterds these symbols are all over the place. Apparently movies are art and games are not. (Band names aren't, either.) So it's allowed, to see Nazis get shot, but shooting them yourself, as the evil guys, is not. We could get deeper into that, now, but the problem with German versions goes beyond that. Before we have a look at this, however, we need to take a quick detour.

Dub localization: This is where it all comes together. But first, let's quickly sum up the situation in Germany. I don't know, where you live, but it is very likely, when you go to the cinema to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, you will see it in its original English audio with subtitles, if your country's language is not English anyway. This is entirely different here. You might even find it strange. Every localized German version of a movie is completely dubbed. Yes, the lips move differently and it looks weird when you concentrate on it. And yes, if you watch movies on TV, they are most probably dubbed. But what if - just what if - you are one of the inexplicably strange persons who would like to watch a movie in its... original audio!?

In times of DVD and BluRay, that's not much of a problem. You buy the movie, put in the disc, choose to play the movie in English (or any other original audio language) and enjoy. However, in times of VHS, this was simply not possible. So, when you bought a film on VHS in Germany back in the day, all you got was the dubbed version. There's a lot more we could discuss here, too, like the story, when Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean dubber Marcus Off quit because he was not content with his salary. But we don't have time for that.

This situation is very similar in the AAA-gaming industry here. The game gets dubbed. I'm not sure about this, but I think, dubbing for other languages is more common with games than with movies. Nowadays, with digital distribution, things got easier here, as well. On for example Steam, you can change the language of your game at will. But back in the days, when you still bought games on actual physical media, you just got your localized German version. Having played the original C&Cs long enough, I know how much of a pita such a translation can be. It is honestly worth to keep up during the English lessons, just to be able to watch your movies and play your games in English. But for those, who are not as fluent and good at speaking English, a dubbed version can improve the comfort of playing. Much open to debate here, too...

Now we're getting somewhere: This is the point, where 2 and 3 interconnect with each other. It is often the case, that there exists one single German version of a game. Or, more easily put:

Brought to you by the Steam store page of the original BioShock.
That is, if you don't care about the censorship but still want to play the game in its original language: NOPE! Not possible. Even if you can't even speak German and just live here for six months due to your job or so. But that's not all: Publishers mostly are too lazy to get out specific 'German versions' for Austria or Switzerland. While German is spoken in these countries, as well, they are not affected by the USK and thus use PEGI ratings. But if a German localised game is cut and only cut, Austria and Switzerland get the cut version, too, even though they are technically allowed to sell and buy the uncut ones. Simply, because the German market for video games is bigger than of the two countries combined. And that's unfair, if you ask me.

By now, it should be clear, how 1, 2 and 3 affect and interact with each other. Just for the recap:
An original version of a game gets no rating by the USK, because of its violence or otherwise inappropriate content, but the publisher wants to sell the game in Germany anyway. So they decide to create a cut version of the game specifically for the German market. This is the version that gets localized and dubbed. Because some of the dialog may or may not refer to the differed content of the game, the version only works with German audio and no English adaptation is being made.

Just have a look at the English Steam reviews of the Deutschländer version of The New Order:

I hope, I could shed a little light on this topic, especially, if you don't live in Germany and wondered about all of the 'cut' stuff, you might have heard.  I, personally, prefer to play my games uncut and in English. Not, because I like it brutal and am a pretentious 'I speak more English than German, because the language is better" idiot, but because I like to experience a game (or movie or book) as the original intention of the creator. If I can. I am not able to speak or read Japanese, so I can't play these games in original, but as long as I can understand the original language, I want to play it as intended.

Germany still has a long way to go in this matter. And while I would not want the spread of Nazi symbols to be allowed, I sometimes ask myself, what will happen, if my generation is the one, that rules the country. I have hope that, one time or another, we will be allowed to experience media the same way as the rest of the world.

What do you think? Do you live in Germany? Should we get uncut versions? Is it okay, to be not allowed to virtually kill distinctive Nazis while showing swastikas in every trash movie is totally acceptable? I would love to read your opinions on that. :) But no flaming, please!

Edit: Thanks to Marc Warnecke who advised me of some mistakes in orthography and content. That should be fixed now!