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VGM Review #10: ‘Papo & Yo’ OST

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Brian D’Oliveira’s soundtrack to Minority Media’s Papo & Yo is an instantly attractive one. In our modern age of “epic,” film-like orchestrated video game music being commonplace, D’Oliveira presents the listener with a sound that is as unique as the setting and themes of the game in which it is placed—there aren’t many soundtracks that gamers can point to that are based in Latin American tradition, especially not as authentically as D’Oliveira’s. Therefore, the listener, whether experiencing the soundtrack in-game or out, will likely be intrigued by what D’Oliveira offers him or her.


The soundtrack as a whole certainly doesn’t disappoint. D’Oliveira’s writing combines dense rhythmic layering with other sounds and instruments to create fulfilling grooves and environments in each track. If the listener engages the music appropriately, s/he will enjoy the nuances of the rhythmic pattern variations, the appropriate timing of unsuspected instrumental and electronic sound entrances, and the way in which the melodic instruments are used to create a thick musical atmosphere.


However, despite the soundtrack’s many favorable elements, it doesn’t captivate the listener in-game nearly as much as it does outside of it. More

VGM Review #9: ‘Bioshock’ OST

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Numbering only 12 tracks and totaling just 18 minutes, Garry Schyman’s compositions for 2K Games’ now-classic 2007 release BioShock, while not expansive in length, has an immense amount of originality and depth that shatters common video game music conventions and, by doing so, has allowed itself to be rooted within the memories of gamers.

Like a handful of other soundtracks that I have reviewed on my personal website, I have yet to play a significant amount of BioShock. However, the soundtrack is so strong that I feel like I have absorbed the essence of Rapture through Schyman’s compositions alone. As most of the greats tend to be, where the graphical environment and story may be water and syrup, it is the carbonation of each musical track that permeates this game and makes it fizz and pop.

Listeners need to look no further than the game’s main theme, “The Ocean on His Shoulders,” to know the quality and type of work that they are about to experience. Even the first few seconds makes an important impact, providing a dark foreshadowing that lingers in the ear as the premiere instruments of the soundtrack – the strings – bleed a hauntingly stunning and tragic melody that, at 1:10, is padded by a sinister atmospheric dissonance. It is that dissonance that allows the tune to come full circle as it consumes and dissolves the consonance of the strings, forcing the tune back into the obscurity highlighted in the beginning.

Though this tune prepares the listener for the world of Rapture and sets him or her up for the rest of the soundtrack, Schyman’s work is so dynamic that the listener continuously gains fresh perspective within his cohesive musical setting—each piece carries its own momentum and has its own identity within a soundtrack is decidedly BioShock. Take, for instance, the unconventional second track of OST, “Welcome to Rapture,” a tune that sounds as if were in a world dreamt up by Tim Burton. In possibly my favorite instance of the whole soundtrack, the violin that subtlety screams onto the scene on the first beat of this piece breaks apart from the main theme and from any other game soundtrack of which I’m aware. In literally two seconds the listener is fully engulfed by a new melodic direction, and then in the spirit of cohesiveness is starkly reminded nine seconds later that s/he is still playing the game that also features the devices of “The Ocean on His Shoulders.”

Pieces such as “Welcome to Rapture” also break the soundtrack from the ranks of the ever-popular “epic” sound that is so popular today. Sure, “Welcome to Rapture” has an instance of a bigger sound (0:35), but it quickly gives way to delicate melodic content that makes the listener shutter beneath its swirling emotional complexities (0:45 onwards). Even the pieces that sound like they may lean towards “epicness” are thankfully void of that quality’s soullessness. “The Dash” keeps listeners off balance by shifting meter (from 5/4 to 4/4 to 6/8), and “The Engine City,” while entrenching itself in a lumbering brassy romp, is accentuated by string parts that – while not all unmelodic – feel wholly erratic.

Carrying the soundtrack’s originality even further, at times the listener may feel as if s/he were actually doing something other than playing a game. That feature doesn’t stop with the opening measures of “Welcome to Rapture”—in fact, “Dancers of a String” and “Cohen’s Masterpiece” can make one feel as if s/he were doing some as discordant from gaming as watching a ballet. In the modern gaming world, oftentimes one may feel that a video game score is equivalent to a film score, therefore achieving an effect of removing the player’s senses from a direct association with a “game” (albeit that feeling has become a bit watered down now that so many try to achieve that film-like quality). However, Schyman’s works are unique in that they don’t come across as simply something that could be applied to a film. One would be hard pressed to transplant this music and stick it in another game, unlike those soundtracks that sound a bit too film-y. This music is that of BioShock and none other.

Even “Empty Houses,” a tune that one may feel simply sounds like a lamentation that may be found in a film, fits very well into the context of the soundtrack. The obvious factor is the emotional string element, but Schyman is crafty and once again uses subtlety to his advantage. The feeling of unease that one gets while listening to these pieces does not dissipate with the intake of this tune. For most of the piece, things feel fine, but at 1:25 the cello bends down out of tune and slides up with a high-pitched note from a violin, which continues to waver in and out of tune. Of course, the vibrato technique does this naturally; however, at the tail end of this piece, the note bends dip just a little too far. That extra bit of bend becomes extremely unsettling—almost maniacal. Though it’s easy to overlook specifically why things are still creepy while listening to that piece, the effect of the strings embeds itself into the subconscious, proving that Schyman’s execution is nothing short of masterful.

The pieces that rely on more atmospheric elements have instances like the one mentioned above, yet in more apparent fashion. In general, these pieces employ horrifying elements to churn the mind of the gamers as well as the melodies that accompany them. “The Docks” is an unpredictable work that makes use of indiscernible noises, random orchestral dissonances, and nautical sounds – such as the accordion melody and the ship bell – to keep the gamer on his or her toes; “This is Where They Sleep” takes a similar, yet more startling, approach, with the overlaying atop a bed of rising tones; and “Step Into My Gardens” has a beautiful cello feature that is surrounded by disturbing percussion, ghastly violin slides, and unearthly whale-like noises.

Schyman deserves all of the praise that he received for this soundtrack—it is truly one of great caliber. From the melodic arrangements to the psychological twists of the horrific atmospheric elements, its originality outdoes itself with each track that passes, shoving aside the stale conventionality that pervades many modern game soundtracks. Without any other context, listening to these pieces makes one want to play the game itself, and if a soundtrack can push that feeling, the listener knows that s/he is experiencing something extraordinary.

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This review is also featured on The Game Faces, a new collaborative video game review blog and podcast.

German Whale of Mystery

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As I mentioned in my last blog post, I decided to participate in a month-long Game Jam sponsored by the Baltimore Indie Games group. The theme of this jam was “Random Name Generator,” and thus each group was tasked to click a button to receive a name, and if they liked the name, make a game out of what they were given. My group decided to generate about ten names we liked, which we voted down to three, which we voted down to one: “German Whale of Mystery.”

Before I get into the details of the game, my team consisted of my friends Stephen and Andrew, a group of three computer science students from American University, and me. Stephen was charge of the art, I did the music and sound, and the others worked on programming. Some of you may be thinking that a six-person group is quite large for a game jam, but it worked for us because our programmers didn’t have a ton of experience in game design. It ended up working well for us!

As for the game itself, German Whale of Mystery is a stealth platformer set in World War II, where a whale is infiltrating the Nazis’ base to defeat (who else but) Hitler. In order to successfully reach Hitler, the whale must avoid guards by hiding behind objects and donning costumes to move from level to level in the Nazi stronghold. If a guard catches you, you meet your end in gruesome fashion.

If you’d like to play our game, do so here! Be sure to read the description at the bottom of that page for the controls.

Focusing solely on the music, I ended up creating five tracks for this game:

1. The Duke of Whales

“The Duke” was my first track for the game both in concept and in creation. If you played the game, you probably thought it strange that the level theme had such a definite ending—there’s a reason for that strangeness. This tune was originally intended to serve as its title theme, but after seeing the animation of the whale moving, I swapped it with “Blubber Blues,” which you’ll hear next.

My original concept was that, since we were doing a game set in World War II, I should write a big band piece. In order to represent the whale, I decided to make the bari sax the featured instrument. Now, I wouldn’t say that the tune is a period piece by any means – it wasn’t done particularly in the style of big band tunes from the ‘40s – but it gets the point across.

This tune, like most of the others, was written in Finale and features no production edits. Not only did I want to keep the tunes sounding “lo-fi” due to the game’s art style, it was in my best interest in terms of time to keep the production value low.


2. Blubber Blues

Though the title suggests that it might be a traditional blues, it’s really just a blues-tinged piece. As I mentioned above, I wrote this one as a level theme, thinking it should be good sneaking music. It turned out, however, that the whale walked quickly and with confidence, so the tune no longer fit. Luckily, it went well with the art on the title screen.


3. Folk Whale

The first costume that the whale encounters is the lederhosen garb. I set out to write a polka and came up with this, which is more of a polka-esque romp that captures the utter silliness of the game.


4. Scotch and Ginger Whale

The second costume we came up with was a fancy suit, complete with top hat and monocle. I went with a harpsichord on this one as opposed to something more complex like a string quartet because I needed to bust something out relatively quickly. It wasn’t necessarily “fast” to write a solo piano piece, but it did save me some time. To extend the tune’s length without writing all new sections, I wrote an alternate left hand part and sandwiched it between two instances of my original idea.


5. Fin (Game Over)

This tune turned out to work well for both the “You Died” and the “You Win” screens. I had written some goofy lyrics for it and thought to record myself singing in four-part harmony, but didn’t have the time, unfortunately. I spruced this one up in Logic because the Finale vocal samples were just too horrible and the program’s mix wasn’t passable.

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There you have it! I’m going to work on cleaning up these tunes a little bit in Logic so that I can be prouder to have them up on my website, but otherwise, I’m happy with the way they – and the game – turned out. I can’t wait for my next game jam challenge!

Enter: The D.C. Indie Scene

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Greg-EditorSince sending out my demo to who-knows-how-many indie game companies, there hasn’t been too much to talk about on the business sides of things. In the most basic of recaps, responses were few and far between, and the positive ones just featured a few e-mail exchanges ending with a more-or-less “maybe later when we start a new project.” That’s all good, by the way–I may have expected a bit more in the way of response quantity, but I understand that companies get many e-mails a day from those like me who are trying to burst their way onto the scene. No matter how much I am confident that my music must stand out amongst a large percentage of that crowd, nothing really beats the power of exasperation and avoidance on the developers’ side in this case.

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Jen made me this cake for my birthday!

Being that I haven’t found projects to sustain myself – as I believed would be the case when I started on this journey, so no surprises there – I have been spending my time looking for full-time work and substitute teaching. Once I land that job, by the way, I will write a full recap of my sabbatical, going further into detail about my thoughts on it; for now, though, I will focus on that side of business which I have been moving forward with: that of making face-to-face connections.

I view GDC as the cream of the crop in the way of meeting people, but since that’s still a few months off yet, making local connections is where it’s at. If you’re unaware – as I was until I had already been up here for a few months – many major cities harbor chapters of an organization called the International Game Developers Association, or IGDA for short (I like saying it “ig-duh,” but apparently that’s not a thing–people just pronounce each letter individually). The closest chapter to me is the D.C. one, and it contains developers from all areas around D.C. that aren’t closer to Baltimore or Richmond. From what I’ve seen, the number of active members isn’t enormous, but it’s certainly nothing to scoff at either.

indiecon-dcMy first encounter with IGDA D.C., aside from simply becoming a card-holding member via the internet, was through an event of theirs called Indie Con D.C. More

Concert Review: Video Games Live! Bonus Round

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A few weekends ago, Tommy Tallarico and his merry band of video game composers headed into Vienna, VA, to play Video Games Live! Bonus Round at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Excitedly, Jen and I went with a couple of friends to see the show, which was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Disclaimer: Jen’s camera ended up breaking so I don’t have pictures from the actual show [insert here your vision of a crying man]; the ones included are from the VGL press page.

wolftrapIf you have never been to the Wolf Trap, it’s a beautiful venue. Every time I’ve been I have opted to get a lawn ticket, which has been lovely simply because you can set yourself up a little picnic spot. Granted, your spot is going to be squished between all of the other picnic spots, especially if you want a good seat, but to be real, the spaces between you and your neighbors on the lawn are still larger than they would be if you sat next to them in the seated area.

Even though we were pretty far up on the lawn (which is a hill that leads down to the seating area, as you can tell from the picture), we still had a pretty great view of the symphony. Aside from experiencing this music played by a live orchestra, another main part of the VGL show is video, and while we were too high up to see the video behind the symphony itself, Wolf Trap had set up a second external screen that was large and very visible once it got a little darker outside. Deciding whether to focus on the orchestra or on the screens was a minor dilemma at times, but one that was certainly overcome by ability to bring and eat Triscuits and cheese.

As the show’s host, Tommy Tallarico, who looks and dresses like some people that I hung out with in high school, acts like a goofy, energetic kid—and I mean that in a good way. The show, though it is based around a serious concept – the one of symphony orchestras performing music from games, those things that are often seen by people as a horrible, mind-numbing alternative to going outside –, is extremely light-hearted to the point where it is almost like an old-school game itself. Tommy bounds around on stage, hyping up the audience and shredding on his guitar, reminding us that this music, while sometimes serious, is also serious fun. More

VGM Review #8: ‘FTL: Faster Than Light’ OST

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or irl) know that I have been playing a ton of FTL lately. I just bought it during the Steam Summer Sale for something absurd like $2.50 (<3) and it has maliciously taken over much of whatever free time I have to burn.

For those that don’t know, FTL is a real-time strategy game by Subset Games that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter to a release last fall (2012). While it is very fun and comes highly recommended – and not just by me, evidenced by its Metascore of 84 –, it is extremely unforgiving and has done nothing but pain me at great lengths. Still, I will on, determined to beat it someday…

But my excruciating experiences with the game are not why I write today. I come to speak of the soundtrack, of course—a soundtrack that has received high praise from a variety of sources. The accolades that composer Ben Prunty has listed on the front of his website are as follows:

  • IGN: Best Overall Music and Best PC Sound of 2012 (nominee)
  • Kotaku: Best Video Game Music of 2012
  • The Game Scouts: Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2012
  • Complex: Top 25 Best Video Game Soundtracks on Bandcamp
  • NeoGAF: Official Game Soundtracks of the Year 2012

That’s pretty great. Based on his webpage, Prunty has only composed for a few projects so far, so kudos to him for getting that kind of recognition so early on in his career


I will start out by saying that I was instantly attracted to Prunty’s music. The title theme, “Space Cruise” is easy to like. The beginning certainly screams “OUTER SPACE,” from the tone choice, to the chord that bends and fades, to the seemingly eternal amount of space between that first chord and the second. Hearing those elements from the very beginning immediately puts the gamer in the mood to play a space-themed game.

Another great thing about the open beginning is that it sets up the next section, which one can still consider spacey, but in a different, more light-hearted and fun way. Prunty introduces more electronic instruments with different tone colors that fill in the voids that are left between the first two chords. What you hear is a pretty typical layered build-up that is meant to lead into a climax at 0:57.

This climax features a swifter pace that comes about by way of new, swirling rhythmic sounds and notes with shorter durations. It doesn’t last too long, though, as it hits a breakdown at 1:16 that signals the beginning of a devolution back to the more open feel of the beginning. Essentially, the other two-and-half minutes are filled by a variety of melodies and rehashing of ideas from the beginning of the tune in that open feel.

While I enjoy the piece, I do have some criticism for it More

Musings on “The Blitz”

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Note: All of the pictures are of stuff I’ve been listening to recently–they have no real relevance to the actual content of the post.

Final Fantasy Tactics OST

Hitoshi Sakimoto & Masaharu Iwata – Final Fantasy Tactics OST

Since putting the finishing touches on my demo and constructing my new website, I’ve been on an “e-mail blitz,” cold-calling every game company whose contact information I can get my hands on to get myself out there and nail down a gig.

It’s been an interesting experience. Hopping from one website to another, you get to see many business types and practices. For instance, I thought it would be relatively easy to go on a company’s website to find contact information and the name of the person whom it would be best to contact. Most companies have either a contact page or an e-mail address listed, but some you really have to dig for. I’m not talking about just industry giants like Capcom or Rockstar Games, either, which is a bit strange.

What I find most surprising, maybe, is that lack of information about the developing team, especially with smaller companies. Though it’s certainly not a deal breaker, I am more inclined to feel good vibes about a company that enjoys putting their talented staff out in the open on their website, even if there’s just a list without any fancy pictures or silly profiles. Maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned or something, but I expected it, maybe due in part to my old employer having a full staff listing on its website. Now, having every staff person’s e-mail address and work number up *did* bring in its fair share of unsolicited, zany calls and e-mails, so maybe that website isn’t the best model to follow; however, there is a happy medium to be found.

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Maria Schneider – Winter Morning Walks

There are two other types of websites that I really like. First, you have the websites that look effing awesome. My favorite one so far has been the website for Untold Entertainment (hover over “About” to see the best part). Even though some of the links don’t work, I’m willing to look past the site’s flaws and am happy to hunt for the information I need.

Second, you have the websites that link to other developers that they like. Having the want and will to publish those links of apparent competitors says a lot about the company to me; it says that they’re interested in being part of the larger game community and that they exist not only for themselves—those are the kind of companies that I really want to write for and help succeed.

On the other side of the coin, you have the companies that scream “avoid” right off the bat. More

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