Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Surveying Literature: The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness

This weekend I finished The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness.  The Fat Man is George Alistair Sanger.  Sanger has a team of friends, Team Fat: Dave Govett, Joe McDermott, and "The Professor" K Weston Phelan, who have made their game music central in their lives.  This book reads at time like a self-help book, a philosophy work, sometimes with rambling stories and a crude illustration or two.  However, it's a powerful glimpse into the mind and philosophy of a person who specializes in game audio and there's incredibly important information here, especially in the Hitting the Rubber with the Road section, where Sanger includes detailed descriptions and photos of the best ways to work in the field.  Sanger believes the same issues that have been present in game audio will play out as historical themes throughout time, and hopes that his book will begin such a documentation.  As weird as it is, Sanger knows that his book contains important historical evidence and that game composer methods need to be written down and documented.  He acknowledges that he's possibly writing for someone who pulls the book off the shelf years in the future, yet at the same time, the information contained within is critical.

Sanger is often quoted as saying that video game music is such a young field no one is dead yet.  However, with the death of Steve Jobs just a couple years ago, it's clear that the pioneers of technology: those who created, oversaw, and steered the early days of technological development aren't immortal and won't be here forever.  One day-- perhaps soon, we'll want to know things about the first generation of composers-- many of these questions I'm already wondering now: who knew who-- and how, what connections there were between people in games music, what their working methods were, etc.  Along these lines, I loved seeing the pictures in the book showing what sort of setup these working composers used.  Of course, as new technologies develop, office/work spaces and methods change constantly, so it's great to have documentation starting already.  I love Sanger's emphasis on playing real instruments and capturing live sounds rather than just relying on the computer.  I wonder if this is a pervasive feeling in the field?  It seems as the technological ability to include samples has improved, many games and composers have taken advantage of it, although now it's easier than every to simply compose with virtual instruments.

Despite a classical music training, Sanger makes most of his references in the work to popular musicians.  At numerous points he mentions game designers wanting something to sound "John Williams esque."  The Beetles were obviously a huge influence on him given the number of times he references them.  As a post-Beetles aged person, I wonder who game composers closer to my age would site as major influences?  I suppose it's possible that video games are old enough now that game music could be inspiring new composers to go into the field.  It's cool to see pictures and tales of Sanger and his friends in bands; I knew about Uematsu and the Black Mages, but glad to hear jam sessions are  more prevalent than I thought.  It's easy to forget that game composers aren't just digital guys, they play instruments too!

One of my favorite of Sanger's points is that you have to make compositions your own.  If someone asks you to create something "like" something else-- steal certain aspects, and then make it your own.  I couldn't agree more-- one of my mentors Shirley Verrett used to say to her students:  "It's when you sing with your own voice that people sit up and take notice." Making something similar to but different enough is the credo of popular arts-- enough similar to be accepted, but enough unique to stand out and have people take notice.  Finding that perfect balance is life.  Along these lines, some of my favorite moments came from the philosophical parts in the book, for instance, the quote: "Often the only sense of growth in your career will appear to be in the seeming importance of the party doing the rejecting."

One idea I hadn't thought about before is that Sanger describes game music as it relates to a family setting.  My family moved our tv with nintendo up into a bonus room when I was about 10, so we cleared the problem of only having one tv before the SNES came out, but it's definitely a consideration.  His point is this: while the kids play the game and are immersed in it, interactively, visually, and with audio, others around may not be able to see the screen and certainly aren't playing along.  In other words, the kids are immersed, but the parents might only hear the game.  When games were in arcades, they were dedicated environment for game play and video gamers.  Once the gaming scene shifted inside the house, suddenly a room for gaming and gamers was the family room in the house.  I actually never grew up not knowing a home console-- my parents had an Atari that we watched them play occasionally.  When the Nintendo came out, we got that too.  Sanger makes the point that music for kid's games shouldn't be annoying, simplistic, or too repetitive-- not only does it irritate the parent, the child gets tired of it too and turns it off.  Composers take note: don't just stay in tonic!

I hadn't thought of the difference between music that is used many times versus music that is just for a one time game event and how those things compete for audio memory space.  For each time you make a piece that only plays once, there's less space possible for the themes that play for the bulk of the game.

A final point that really resonated for me was Sanger's comparison between the recording industry and game music.  As mediums change: LPs-->Tapes-->CDs-->Digital, the previous incarnations become not only forgotten, but unplayable.  Even though I still have CDs in my storage closet (and great ones!) the only working CD player I own is on my computer.  I don't use one with my home stereo stereo.  VHS-- I own a few still, but I've got no way to play them.  The same happens in games: as the consoles change through time, some games will become unplayable.  Game systems have a lifespan where games are developed and released for them and then technology moves on.  Yes, some of the past games will be ported and become available-- legally or illegally, but other games for whatever reason won't.  Eventually, the old game consoles will become difficult to work and break.

Most of all, reading this book got me thinking about the history of game music.  Will people care to look back to the first chiptunes once they're old and long forgotten?  What will happen as game composers grow old?  Some are moving into consulting, others publishing about game music, some are beginning to teach.  In classical music we learn the idea that rarely does a musician just do one of the following: perform, teach, write about music, composer, arrange, repair, or sell music or instruments... most often, musicians careers embrace multiple of these.  Perhaps this is true of game music composers as well.

For even more Fat Man, I found this video interview with Sanger shortly after the book came out.

For more current readings:  The Fat Man Blog on O'Reilly.  As of writing, last updated Jan 2009.