Thursday, November 22, 2012

Surveying Literature: The King of Kong: a fistful of quarters

Over my Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to devote some serious time to video game music study/analysis.  My own copy of Collins Game Music just arrived from Amazon.  I've checked out some DVDs from the UM library.  I've also learned that UM has a video game library: here, you can check out games and play them with your friends.  Amazing.  How is this a secret to everybody?!

Earlier today, I found a list of top video game documentaries.  Tonight, I'm watching The King of Kong: a fistful of quarters.  Most incredible for me considering the musical focus of my study is the video footage of Walter Day and Steve Wiebe playing the piano/drums and singing in the "extras" section of the DVD.  Wiebe also talks about music coming into his mind at random moments and -- as mentioned in the commentary-- his own music and performance underscores two scenes in the film.

As a pianist, I definitely can see parallels between the hand eye coordination involved in playing an instrument and those found in video game play.  For top notch game players and performing musicians, I think there are strong parallels between the importance of accuracy, memorization of sequences of physical actions, timing, etc, in playing video games and in performing music.

One of my memories about the Donkey Kong battle between Billy and Steve is the fact that the top score games take around 2 1/2 hours to complete.  Consider the music of Donkey Kong.  The background tracks are barely a second long and repeat incessantly during play.  This amounts to thousands of repetitions in a gameplay session. 

Comparing arcade version of gameplay/sound:



with the Nintendo version:



For me, the sound of Mario moving in the NES version is abrasive when compared with the relative calm of the arcade version.  Also, consider the environment of the arcades (I caught the end of this era growing up) they were not a calm places.  Arcades were loud, fun, places for parties, and associated with friends.  This sound from the games was to pull the player into the rhythm of the game.  Although I've yet to hear anyone comment on it, I wonder if great Donkey Kong players use the music as a guide to the timing of their moves?

Also it's interesting to see the personalities of the gamers.  There's almost an obsessive quality about getting it perfect as well as having the perfect playing session that I can very much relate with as a classical performing musician.

I like how "real" the footage is from this documentary.  One of the advantages that games studies have is that the interested parties are intrigued  by computers.  Thus, we've got films like this with old video footage about high scores from the 80s when personal video cameras were relatively new.  In modern times, we've got perfect speed runs watchable on YouTube.  Seeing as how video games happen on multimedia devices, it just makes sense that people naturally drawn to technology find themselves drawn to them.