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!

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Hello, Worlds!

Hello dear readers,

after a long time considering to start this blog, it took me even longer to create this first entry. As the headline suggests, I'm planning to share some of my personal thoughts on video games, music and video game music. I'm not a journalist, not a game designer either. Yet I sometimes feel the need to share some of my personal philosophies about video games with others. And that's, what this blog is for.

I will by no means try, to deliver well founded, researched articles, but I don't want to write the absolute bullshit, so it might be, that some entries are more, some less scientifically informed. I would love to raise some questions to gamers as well as developers who come across this blog. Feel free to comment but please don't flame, k?

About me:
I'm Hannes. At the moment I am a student of philosophy and musicology, but that might change sooner or later. Among other things, I love playing video games. Good games, at least. I am a person who never is content with getting something interesting, but I always want to know why. E.g. I hear an interesting piece of music and I ask myself: "This sounds great, how did the composer achieve this effect?" Then I look for the sheet music to analyse or, if I can't find any, I will try to recreate the effect on the piano until I have found it.

More recently I got interested in design, with speacial emphasis on game design. I am, as statet, not a game designer, but I can't play games anymore and just enjoy them. My critical eyes and ears are always present. Same goes for watching movies or reading novels etc. That doesn't mean, I can't enjoy any media anymore, quite the opposite! I started enjoying these things even more after my analytical enhancement.

I hope to be able to share one or the other interesting thought of mine and if not, I at least have a place to collect them, now!

More to come soon