Wednesday, 7 January 2009

[118] Culture and Creativity: 'Karaoke Gaming' and Korg DS-10

This is quite an ambitious post. It started off as an extended review of the Korg DS-10 music software for Nintendo DS, then it grew and grew into the following essay that fits in sociology, gaming, music and media. I've attempted to go for a more academic, long-form style, with a lot of comment and observation. A move away from piece-by-piece review pieces, into something a little more essay-ish. Advice and comments, as always, much appreciated.


A young cousin of mine recently celebrated her birthday. For her party, she and her friends went to a local, professional recording studio. There, a patient and diligent studio technician took the girls through a few takes of them singing over the backing tracks of some of their favourite pop songs. After a couple of hours, and a quick mixdown, the girls were presented with their own little EPs of the birthday session.

My immediate reaction when I was told, weeks later, was, in retrospect, quite harsh. I felt appalled that studio time was being packaged as a disposable birthday event. My indignation was borne out when eventually I heard the CD - and discovered the engineer hadn't spent time trying to harmonise the girls' performances, or even counting them in. The result was a little sloppy and, I suspect, something that will only be fully appreciated by parents at family gatherings in years to come. A handy, digital distillation of embarrassment to be pulled out at future birthdays and wedding ceremonies. OK, I'm going over-board: the girls had fun, singing along, pretending to be Miley Cyrus and Gabriella Cilmi. That is the important thing; I'm not trying to expound some sort of elitist manifesto.

But nevertheless, it made me pontificate at length, as such things often do, about our culture at large. The girls weren't going into the studio to cut their own tracks, or perform as a group and record covers - they were singing songs. It might be too much to expect from relatively young people - or people in general - to learn instruments and make music together, but I found this strangely indicative of (especially British) culture. A culture that praises and idolises fame as opposed to creativity. Some of the most successful musical stars are identikit singers picked out of the populace by deus-ex-machina talent shows such as The X-Factor or the Idol series. It is a strange deviation of the DIY ideal seen in the blues, folk and rock and roll traditions: anyone can be a star, however they must sing predetermined songs in predefined mainstream styles for cynical record producers. Popular music becomes less about creative expression and more about feeding the cult of personality peddled by gossip magazines and their ilk. Furthermore, artists themselves, be them songwriters, producers or self-sustaining musicians, become less championed in this mainstream, or are sucked into the tabloid quagmire. Indeed, the focus on celebrity as opposed to a medium's artistic merit also fades into other realms of entertainment. It just isn't in the music world, either. Celeb memoirs outsell literary prize winners by the barrel-load, for example.

The same is true, but in a less tangible way, for video games (I'm getting somewhere, trust me). Gaming doesn't have an obvious culture of celebrity, but its intersection of technology and entertainment makes it unique in its treatment of agency and creativity. Grant me the freedom to generalise: gaming, at its essence, is a highly developed form of dress-up. Of course, there are games and titles pushing forward in terms of narrative and thematic complexity, but the act of playing is by and large a surrogate for real-life experience. Immersion is just the extent to which the game in question makes you believe you are that man or that woman jumping, exploring, or shooting. You can be Alex Ferguson managing Manchester United in Football Manager, or a remorseless criminal in Grand Theft Auto. How does this relate? Well, for the moment you won't be apprehended for carjacking after playing GTA, just as much as you never have to get our of your chair to win the trophy or cup of your choice in Madden, Pro Evolution Soccer or Tony Hawks Pro Skater. Gamers can experience the thrill and accomplishment without any of the legwork. And nowhere is this more true than in music games. The Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, for all their giddy (legal) highs and arthritis-inducing button-shredding, are the 21st century descendants of strumming a tennis racket and singing into your hairbrush. What they do, they do exceedingly well, but there's no denying that they distill the action, effort and creativity of performing and composing music into a different and more passive experience enjoyable from the comfort of your own living room.

By tapping into that innate, mysterious magic of being a rock star, they still feed into that sense that there is something other than the act of creating found in music and expression in general. Of course, music-based games can inspire players to pick up a guitar in real-life, or to form a band, but there is still the chance that couch-potato apathy could set in. As this awkwardly conceived ironic-but-serious-but-not Guardian article notes, it is easier to follow on-screen instructions and press buttons than to learn chord charts, master scales and brave blisters. And besides, at the outset, it is probably more fun and user-friendly to play games than learn music; I'm not saying that Guitar Hero players should chuck out their PS3s and buy Peaveys. However, it is almost enough for me to give up hope for creativity-inspiring gaming.

Indeed, in the widely-circulated recent London Review of Book article 'Is it Art?', John Lanchester comments on 'the C word' as being integral to video games' stake for a place within the 'serious medium' pantheon. He hopes for a future where games offer 'the real possibility to make something new, something of your own'. Consoles are, after all, made from the same bits of plastic and metal that make up full-blown computers, which offer various avenues of creativity and expression. Give a person a laptop and they can compose their own music, create their own digital art, code their own games and, well, write their own rambling essays about the lot. Lanchester rejects Little Big Planet's user-generated blend of creativity as being too 'corporate' in its freedom. I disagree, as the game that fully embraces user ingenuity by giving the players the necessary tools to make the packed-in levels to use as they wish. I believe the unique attraction of Little Big Planet was hit home for me when, on a Christmas Kotaku video podcast, a senior gameplay programmer revealed that it took the team one and a half days to 'reverse engineer' a level created by a user that mimicked the classic shooter Gradius, and that he was surprised by the various genres of level being created, such as 'art gallery' stages. It is obvious, less than three months from release, that Little Big Planet allows expression for inspired players. It is like a console development towards what underground PC gaming communities have been doing for years - creating mods for Doom or Quake utilising developer-released SDKs (software development kits). These activities promote active, creative engagement with the mechanics of gaming as a medium.

Little Big Planet may be the attention-hogger, but many recent games have given the creative reins to the player. The under-performing Will Wright evolve-em-up Spore features deep species-based interaction, and a large community of other user-generated worlds to explore. Another recent and mostly overlooked game is Bangai-O Spirits, developed for the Nintendo DS by shooter geniuses Treasure. The game allows the player to create their own levels with surprising flexibility, encompassing traditional blast-away-all-enemies stages, head-scratching puzzles and veritable firework displays of bombs, missiles and exploding robots. Importantly, these levels can be encoded, distributed and downloaded as sound, using the console's built-in microphone (example). Creators can upload the sound bites online (through Youtube or elsewhere), effectively cutting out the game-company middleman.

Youtube, in fact, is widely used for dissemination of creative content for various platforms - for videoblogs, short movies and amateur music recordings. Indeed, one of the most active gaming subcultures in the vast plains of Youtube involve gamers meticulously creating tracks on a music composition programme bundled with Mario Paint, a SNES cartridge from 1992. The situation is an interesting one, as the musical capabilities of the game are now more recognised and appreciated than its more visually-minded aspects. Music composing games are yet to have their breakthrough hits on the consoles and, considering the relative complexity and almost par-for-the-course knowledge, I don't believe they ever truly will. One of the new features added in 2008's Guitar Hero World Tour is a self-styled 'Music Studio', where players are able to write and record their own tracks. This is a major step towards encouraging the legions of Guitar Hero freaks to lay down their own slices of prime rock riffery. However, the studio programme has drawn criticism and comment in reviews for its poor sound quality, lack of vocal support and, probably worst of all, its sheer uninviting complexity. Developers Activision and Neversoft did a good job in opening up the game, but I doubt it will convert many.

More extreme examples of complicated software packaged for the console-buying audience are to be found on the Nintendo DS. The DS is a hugely successful console due not only to its Gameboy-like portability and Nintendo brand loyalty, but for its strong, very widely spanning games library. The handheld manages to sustain multiple subcultures, with varied, often mutually exclusive gaming habits. I have personally heard it described as a 'girl's console' (referring to its pink colour scheme and the popularity of games like Nintendogs) and as a 'brain-training machine' (referring, obviously, to the Dr. Kawashima Brain Age / Training series and its watered down lookalikes). The disparity is such that of the 5 owners I have in my immediate family, only two have any overlaps in their collections, and even that is concerning one title.

One relatively minor subset of the DS game library is made up of music composition tools. The forerunner of this mini-genre is Jam Sessions, which allowed players to put together, and strum through chord sequences. It was a handy, extra portable gizmo, but is a steadfastly secondary accessory to a songwriter's 6-string.

A major breakthrough in this field came in 2008 when AQ Interactive collaborated with Japanese digital music pioneers Korg to create a DS application that fully emulates their MS-10 and MS-20 synthesizers from the late 1970s. Unlike the Guitar Hero Music Studio, the Korg DS-10 is a full recreation of a (very flexible) instrument in its own right, one which has been used by groups and electronic musicians for decades. The DS-10 is a surprisingly robust, powerful package, letting the user edit their own synth and drum machine tones and patterns as well as adding their own effects and modulations (video). The implementation of the DS hardware is outstanding, allowing a much more hands-on approach: synth tracks can be input through the use of a keyboard setup, and dials and knobs can be tweaked and twisted using the touch screen interface. The nuts and bolts of the application are still very sequencer-heavy, and there is little in the way of a tutorial for those who don't know their flange from their saw-tooth wave. Indeed, the manual does describe and illustrate what the buttons and switches do, but not how they effect the sound. This is not necessarily due to obtuseness on behalf of Korg or AQ, but the chunky operational manual that came with the original hardware is required (and, thankfully, free and online) reading.

Despite this initially user-unfriendly veneer, the Korg DS-10 houses one of the most intuitive, easily satisfying pieces of kit in musical creation - the Kaoss Pad. In this implementation, the Kaoss pad traverses along a preset scale, with its pitch and frequency determined by the position of the stylus on the touch-screen. It works like a stylophone, but with extra dynamics. Even over the most rudimentary of backing tracks, the pad allows any DS-scratcher to crank out some synth tunes of their own.

However, despite this small glimmer of unskilled appeal, the DS-10 requires, even expects, a certain level of competency to make good use of its depth. It isn't a game, really, it is a composition tool, a musical application. This distinction led IGN to review it as thus, rating it alongside its bigger siblings on desktops like Fruityloops (earning it a negative write-up in comparison). Nevertheless, I think that they missed the point. Part of the DS-10's genius and charm is its appearance on such a popular console. The great game buying public may not pick it up and place it in their basket next to the latest crowd pleaser or brain teaser, but it is the closest thing to pure musical expression I can think of outside of 'real instruments' and computer-based home studio software. And hey, at least there's an audience for it somewhere, and they're uploading and sharing their tunes on, you guessed it, Youtube.

These musical games, with their relatively complicated systems of tracking and composing, probably stray too far into the less entertaining, more brow-furrowing side of the toy/tool binary, but they raise a good point. Can a video game include necessary 'creative software' while still enticing the gamer with pick-up-and-play accessibility? I'm not so sure. Maybe, somewhere out there, there is a developer turning their eyes onto bringing musical expression into the living room. A game project that harnesses the joy of dress-up, but keeps a firm-footing in imaginative play, while overcoming apathy and laziness. Turning karaoke enthusiasm into creative expression. Making education and creativity fun and easy to get the hang of - a musical Little Big Planet. For the time being, though, I'm hoping some child out there, ripping into their pile of birthday presents expecting America's Next Top Model: The Game or Imagine Teacher/Dream Wedding/Interior Designer (etc), is surprised to be confronted with a Korg DS-10. Sometimes all they need is a nudge.


Thanks to the fellows at O'Reilly Digital Media for the Korg DS-10 in action pic.


Olivia said...

Remember the first time you recorded something? Looking back - several recordings and lessons learned later - you probably found the recording to be utter . . . well, not that good. But the whole point is the experience of recording something for the first time. There was a thrill and a spark. No overwhelming perfectionist-serious-art going on. Just playing. And that's what the girls experienced. For all you know the sound technician didn't make much effort because that's not what the client was looking for. They were looking for something that wasn't too serious to burn them out. They wanted a final product when they walked out. It's choosing your battles.
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