When we’re talking about video game narrative, we often make reference to film as kinda the closest point of comparison. Cutscenes clearly exist in that film-space, and different games have tried introducing certain filmic techniques into their gameplay. For example, when you first get gassed by Scarecrow’s fear gas in Arkham Asylum, the screen tilts slightly – you get this whole Dutch angle thing going on to show that everything’s out of balance. Sometimes there’s a bit of creativity needed, a bit of reformatting for the video game context, but they can kinda manage something.
One area where that reformatting might prove a little difficult is in how games use music. In film, you often get scenes where characters go around doing their business, and you’ve got some song playing in the background, and it’s like a jaunty trip around the town accentuated by the backing soundtrack. Very stock kinda sequence, often used in a montage context, you know. I imagine that sort of thing would be hard for video games to do.
Part of the issue here is the montage context that I mentioned. Games don’t really do montage. If you want to get from the top of the building down to the bottom, you have to walk. It’s real-time, so to speak. Video games don’t have the opportunity to use really basic film-making techniques such as the cut. (Yes, they can use the cut in cutscenes or fucking whatever, that’s obviously not what I’m talking about, fuck off.) If you’re in the game, and it’s just normal straightforward gameplay, you’re walking. You can’t skip the trip.
Take a minute or so and watch this scene from 500 Days of Summer. Pay attention to the way that the cut is used – it jumps the character from place to place, pacing the scene according to the music that’s playing. When the music comes in, you’ve got a beat of eight, and then boom, hard cut, he’s opening the door downstairs and leaving the house. There’s a brief pause in the music where he looks around, and then the vocals begin and it cuts to a second shot to show him walking. We could go through moment by moment and do the rest of the scene, but I think the point is clear. The editing revolves around the song. The visuals cut from shot to shot based on what fits with the music. It’s not really something that video games can do – at least not in the exact way that’s happening here.
In a way, we’re really talking about the problem of pacing in video games. The framing of music helps crystallise the idea, because music obviously has a very specific pace and it’s really easy to show how movies and TV can very closely imitate that pace through their editing. For video games, however, the fundamental problem is that players get to wander around and generally take as long as they want. The problem of pacing, in that strict moment-to-moment sense, makes it hard for video games to incorporate music in scenes like this one above.
Now, there’s a few possible things that video games might try and do to create their own sense of pacing. One option is really heavily scripted quick-time events. This is actually where I’m sympathetic to quick-time events – they often don’t feel like good gameplay, but they arise from an urge to create pacing in a scene. That urge is understandable. Another option comes from Telltale Games, who put timers on their conversations. That is, when you’re talking with someone, you’re only allowed a set amount of time to pick your reply. That’s how they try to maintain a certain rhythm in dialogue, like you’d find in film or theatre. Again, the results might not be entirely convincing, but it’s what they’re going for.
Alternately, a bunch of different music-based games have come at the question from the opposite direction, literally building their games around a set of music. See, for instance, Bit.Trip Runner, where you have to navigate a side-scrolling level and jump or duck over different obstacles. All of your actions make specific noises, and the obstacles are placed at specific distances, meaning that to finish each level you have to make the required noises at required times – which, you know, is basically the definition of playing a song. You also get rhythm-based games like Audiosurf or Beat Hazard, where the gimmick is that they generate levels around mp3s on your computer. The levels get more difficult as the music builds, supposedly, and so at the climax of your song you’re running around screaming and blasting millions of mega-aliens or whatever. It’s very early 2000s, I don’t know many people who have actual music files on their computer any more. Streaming killed Beat Hazard – anyway.
So we’ve got a bunch of different approaches to the way we meld music and gameplay together. From a pacing perspective, there are some obvious difficulties, because video games don’t really have the ability to use the filmic cut in a gameplay context. There are a couple experimental exceptions to that rule – Thirty Flights of Loving from Blendo Games, which is fucking excellent – but by and large, the cut doesn’t exist in gameplay, and it makes this sort of musical pacing effect we see in 500 Days of Summer really hard to replicate.
Jeez, lots of introductory chat today, sorry about that. There’s a bit of preamble that we needed to get through. Anyway, now we can finally get to Fract. Fract OSC is a 2014 game that combines music and puzzles. It kiiiiinda has a certain conceptual similarity to something like Bit.Trip Runner, in that all the puzzles are based around musical systems. Completing the puzzle requires you to create music in a certain way and it ends up being good music because the creators made sure the puzzle solutions sounded nice. I don’t understand any of the technical terminology, there’s lots of knobs and levels and so on, but it’s sort of like a puzzle game set on a digital sound board. The difference between Fract and something like Bit.Trip Runner is that in Bit.Trip if you fuck up you have to go back to the start. In Fract, you’re just adjusting music that’s set on a constant loop. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a while to solve it, because the music will just happily pulse away in the background with whatever your settings currently are. In a way, actually solving the puzzle is the least interesting part, because you have to stop playing with the different settings and go and do something else.
The argument here isn’t necessarily that Fract is better than Bit.Trip or whatever else. They’re all doing different things. Bit.Trip deals with the question of music and pacing by locking the player into a really strict temporality. There’s a big hole in the floor at exactly 32 seconds, and if you don’t jump over that gap and make the ‘bleep’ sound you will die and have to start again. Very strict temporality. Fract deals with the same issue by leaning into the loop. It’s a very particular sort of music, very techno, very Daft Punk, but the loop allows Fract to relax on the issue of temporality. You can take your time, you can wander around and enjoy the visual spectacle of everything, you can try out some different deliberately incorrect settings just to enjoy the music – and the loop makes the whole thing cohere. In Fract, you don’t need the filmic cut. You can just walk around in real-time, and it never feels like you’re out of sync with the music, because the music isn’t structured around a strict temporal progression. There’s no verses or anything. You’re just jamming. Just having a good time. You’re enjoying being where you are. It’s a different philosophy of music for a different type of medium.