Musician working out of NG1 UK, looking to add some music to projects here More info on me and my projects at: newnowmusic.blogspot.com Contact me at : newnowmusic AT yahoo.co.uk Or give my previous tracks a listen here: last.fm/music/New+Now
Now that the year is over and hindsight has shown awarding bodies the best of the best in 2011 it seems pointed to look at a particular facet of what has been regarded as one of the best games of last year.
It maybe that that my ear is unusually bent - in a near autistic manner - to oddities and nuances in sound but it seems that for the dozens of blogs dissecting the game, (some of the best I will list at the end of this post) the sound design in Valve's Portal 2 seems to have been sorely overlooked. Over on Cruise Elroy there is a piece on just how music and sound are an ingrained part of the environment and gameplay in Portal 2. I wanted to take that critique to a level where by those who care more about music than gaming may find intrigue enough to discover for themselves how the two are married within portal 2.
Portal, as a franchise, is known above many things for its sense of fun. The original Portal - although a marvel in originality - quickly descends into a playground once the physics have been mastered and the sense of joy and limitless freedom is only juxtaposed by the claustrophobic narrative and ominous ambiances creeping behind the soundtrack. The music and sound in portal 2 are a much more involved affair, deconstructing the typical idea of a soundtrack and allowing music to become as much a part of the act of playing the game as it is to simply listen.
Mike Morasky took on the role as sole composer for the game after previous collaborator Kelly Bailey's move away from Valve. He has given an account of the dynamic and interactive nature of his sounds within Portal 2 over on gamesradar which highlights the depth of thought that went gone into what is usually seen as an afterthought in game development. The music from Portal 2's forbearer is often condensed in memory to Jonathan Coulton's 'Still alive', and whereby the soundtrack for the sequel is much more grandiose and involved than the stark ambience seen in the original one forgets, while playing, that there is rarely a silent moment. Underneath the chiptune and harpsichords of the soundtrack proper lies similar ambient sounds and almost-songs slightly plucking on the strings of your attention. This is a notable factor in the mind of a game musicians, the line between being heard as part of the palette of the game but not being too prominent as to be overbearing. And so, actual soundtrack (which is free to download from the Portal 2 music site) aside, there is always the creeping noise of the facility itself to complement the visual scale of the game.
With Portal's sense of humour duly noted there are brief musical instances created in the fine line between science and fun. In the initial relaxation chamber you are advised by a faceless announcer
Both these examples show Valve using music not just as counterpoint to action but as an integrated plot point, even if that point is simply a waltz into the absurd.
Other musical moments come as homage to sci-fi greats. There is no denying GladOS' similarities to the homicidal HAL 9000 of 2001 fame, but upon finding the inaccurately named 'Turret redemption line' there is a strong invocation of Vangelis score work for 'Blade runner'. Listen below and compare for yourself.
As you cut along the test chambers, be they rebuilt, ruined or retro, music is almost literally coming from the panels and play elements themselves. In the turret production facility your companion Wheatley spins a humorous yarn about the fate of the robotic caretaker of the unit and the screams of the dismantled robots therein. In the background, nearly hidden from aural discovery and perfectly synchronised with the score tiny, metallic yells punctuate the story. Further down the same manufacturing trail, if you dare get close enough, the laser cutting robot-arms forming shapes for the construction of turrets have a song all of their own known as 'diecut laser dance' in the accompanying soundtrack.
Not only are there audio treats seeping from behind the near sentient panels, almost every testing element has its own unique body of sound, allowing Valve and Morasky to define the game world through more senses than most AAA games on the market. Not only are these elements delineated by aesthetic but they also appeal to the players sense of hearing. The most prevalent show of this attachment and dedication to sound as a gameplay tool is the first of GladOS' 'pretty good' looking chambers. In it the player finds receptors for three of the previously discovered 'Thermal discouragement beams', as the beams are portalled or redirected into these buttons a differing melody line drifts from each, building into the soundtracks 'triple phase laser'. One can literally play with how these three melodies interact and hear the creation of the soundtrack all while achieving what is a necessary part of advancing through the game. This level of immersion and gifted reward to the astute gamer are clear signals from the developer that they mean to have sound as something more than the cursory flourish of an overriding score.
Almost every new testing element added to portal 2 has its own notable sound, a calling card which it either sends echoing around the vast chambers or mumbles quietly to itself waiting to catch a keen eared player. The hard light bridges hum and warm with the unique synthesiser noise that leads in the soundtracks 'hard sunshine', but is only audible if you had disregarded GladOS warning and 'rubbed your cheek on one'.
Even though its introduction is set in the most dilapidated bowels of the aperture facility the sound design given to the gels is by far the most advanced in terms of dynamic programming. The sweeping arpeggios that signify the player stepping onto the orange propulsion gel work in direct union with the game physics of gel itself. During gameplay the gel accelerates the players walking speed, in terms of sound this directly affects the tempo of the arpeggiated synth heard below.
There is also a melody line applied to the blue repulsion gel which bounces you around the now defunct chambers. It's tempo changes in unison as you gain and lose speed on either side of the arc of your bounce. Sadly there was no sound detail added to the moon dust based conversion gel which allows any surface it 'paints' to accept portals.
If ever there was necessity for a sound to highlight the experience of being flung through the air in a retro-futuristic laboratory controlled by a megalomaniacal robot then the bit-crunched, altitude based beats heard when using the aerial faith plates would be it. The game world applies the physical sound of the air rushing past you as you soar but as the forces equalise and you lose momentum the garbled electronic score of 'friendly faith plate' almost descends from the ceiling to fill the lonely void at your apex.
The use of sound in conjunction with the faith plates is given a new level of audio appeal when encountered in the later 'wheatley chambers'. After being taunted about his raison d'etre (he was created as a dampener to GladOS' intelligence) you arrive in a chamber to the sound Bach's 'Little Prelude in C minor BWV 934' being piped in in an attempt to prove his intellect. As the player uses the plates to fling across the room the clavier of Bach fades into a heavily synthesized version of the piece as if altitude affects whether and where the music is organic or sequenced. This serves as a metaphor in the world of Aperture Science where the robotic and mechanised is always viewed as 'higher' than anything human. You can hear the two instruments vying for dominance in the track 'Machiavellian Bach' below.
Outside of normal gameplay there are also a slew of hidden areas throughout the science-fuelled world of Aperture Industries. Preceding the release of portal 2 a comic was produced to tell the story of how Chell came to survive between the two games. Centred around the character of former(?) Aperture employee Doug Rattman it details how he has lived/is living in hidden areas around the facility. When finding these oubliettes the player is not only rewarded with beautifully stylised murals depicting key scenes in Apertures history but also discovering these hideouts you hear the strange pseudo-singing and nonsensical ramblings of the time and isolation demented 'Ratman' himself.
The other, much beloved and discussed, aural element to portal 2 has been the undeniable quality of its voice acting, from J K Simmons voicing bombastic Aperture boss Cave Johnson down to the diminutive yet deadly turrets. Hidden in another secret area within the run-down facility one can find a quartet of these heartbreaking and often heartstopping little characters practicing a song known as the 'turret wife serenade', heard below.
Each and every time I encountered one of these audio easter eggs it excited me as a musician and as a gamer. Having the evidence presented to me, via the game, that Valve care about each layer of a games construction equally and that they created devices to appeal to each of my senses is a real testament the dedication of their fanbase. And with the announcement of a simplified system whereby fans can create test chambers and map-packs of their own, it's hoped that levels will be created with an sound design and music as a primary goal and achievement, giving credit and attention where it is due to the unique way in which sound has been integrated into the game.
Hopefully, in the future of the 'games as art' debate, it will be this level of dedication to the many facets of other art forms that go into game development which will allow gaming the kudos it deserves. Until then we can only hope that, even though easily overlooked, forethought into score and the level of sound integration that Mike Morasky and Valve have created and presented to the gaming community can be taken as a jumping off point.
With that in mind I can only implore you to (re)play portal 2 with one ear open to all the treats the expanded aperture science facility can offer a gamer should they only stop to listen.
All songs named can be downloaded for free from valves dedicated portal 2 music page.
As will become apparent to anyone reading more than a few of my posts here I am a huge fan of the Bioshock series. I believe them to be a shining example of how sophisticated and powerful the medium of gaming can be if treated with the passion and respect a creative venture deserves.
The first thing that needs to be said is that this is not Portal 1, the short lived ambient brilliance of Kelly Baileys work on the original 3 hour puzzlefest created an amazing feel for the isolation and subtly understated storyline of Portal 1. Rarely did it come to the forefront of the experience to show you exactly what Bailey was capable of, he seemed to have kept those moments for the stirring score for Half life 2. The music to portal 1 was emotional but beautifully understated.
New game, new ideas. Bigger game, bigger score.
If you were to gather information about Portal 2 from the soundtrack it is easy to see that this is a cohesive story driven game, the soundtrack resembles that of a cinematic score much more closely. There is a language of instruments running throughout with choirs, harps and electronic blips interlaced to form a more emotionally driven soundtrack. So lets put on our lab coats, check our aural capabilities on the clipboard and look at some of the songs in depth.
'Songs to test by' is the first of three albums given away by Valve and composed by musical collaborator on the Portal 1 OST Mike Morasky.
Opener 'Science is fun' gives us an instant bite of what to expect from the score and game alike. It is a fast paced electro stamp-fest beginning with a glorious rasping fall into a beat heavy arpeggiated blip contest. But this is not mearly frivolous 8-bit fun as the title might suggest, the slowed breakdown pulling itself away from the main theme only leads to be destroyed by that bass fall and introduce us to the underscore of anticipation and escape which come to dominate towards the end of the track, just as we are cut off by the sounds of collapse and destruction. This place is not safe!
'Concentration enhancing menu initialiser' is not only a mouthful of words but a rhythmic, driving and ever changing piece evoking the minimalist work of Philip Glass. It brings into play the more organic elements previously mentioned. When the choir joins the mix at about 90 seconds it highlights the once unknown scale of the Aperture Science Laboratories. Thus throwing up the stark contrast of man and machine; or rather Chell and GlaDOS. This fade into a picked harp line provides a gradual slip and slow into '9999999'. The hollow and echoing piano notes given credence by a harp arpeggio and whir of fan blades barely audible. A synth line joins the harp forcing the computerised nature into the track. This battle continues with bit-crunched beats fending off the quiet uprising of an orchestra, ultimately we are left with the lone combatants of harp and whirring buzz who seem to slowly lose the will to continue the fight.
'The courtesy call' begins with a wonderful skewing of the theme from the Aperture Science's outgoing broadcasts calling out from nowhere into a chasm of empty revelation. You are clearly on your own in a sinister environment. The suspense and wonder is the beauty in this section before the rude awakening of an alarm and clutch of horns telling you that the game has changed. The harp will try to calm your distress but the choirs reprise will remind you of the imminent danger of future testing. A nod to the main theme shown in all the run up videos to the games release crashes in and then cuts off. This is by no means the end.
'Technical difficulties' is the most human track thus far, organic and traditional elements play over a sinister progression with very human slows and pauses. The flutes take tentative steps down the hallway to who knows where? Science is again attempting to creep in with its buzzy synths and falling squeals. There is an almost soothing element below the claustrophobia, but this song is about the very nervous disposition of the human element within the belly of the beast.
I was personally happy to see the title 'Overgrowth' on the list as its a concept I had taken on when writing for Portal: Awakening. Slow chords realising the difference in the test chambers you once knew, now dilapidated and crumbling around you. A light chinking of water or rusted metal tells you that nature has taken back what science had tried to grip but had let slip though its pneumatic hands.
There is a just-keep-walking feeling about 'Ghost of Rattman', a steady monotonous pacing telling you that the danger cant get you unless you stop. It feels very similar to some of the creepy and almost childlike tracks found in Chris Vrenna's soundtrack to American McGee's Alice, if the hatter appeared right now you may soil yourself but you wouldn't be surprised. The slightly off piano followed by a flute are haunted over by a choir who somehow dont seem real. I have no idea what the chattering voice is hinting at in his consonant only ramble but I dont want to stay around to find out.
Sadly the creeps continue with the short but sinister 'Haunted panels'. Paying no small homage to the theme from Hitchcock's Psycho, you start to get a real sense of what each instrument is there to do and which emotion they are set to evoke. I also heard a little of the opener to Nine inch nails the wretched in the slow plucked basses.
As if there weren’t enough sentient robots in the game 'The future starts with you' feels like you are witnessing the birth of computer intelligence. This is the sound of a DSL modem coming to life, like Shelly's eponymous monster it does not yet know how to control itself and so whirs and beeps around the empty chamber looking for a voice. Sending out sonar blips and bass rattles to check itself against the environment. There is also an eastern element to the psudeo-horn wails as if they come from some distant future minaret built to sound the robotic revolution. It is somewhat of a comfort when the harp and its familiar melody line begin in 'There she is'. The machine parts following the human sound of the harp around before opening up the whole track to the choral grand reveal. Mental images form of huge, cavernous chambers unbeknownst to the test subject who suffered in the lab above. It is truly music to create suspense and inspire awe.
Which is exactly how we begin 'You know her?', this is magical and almost operatic in the sense that each instrument is player in a larger production. Even the stomping rivalry of the basses and raspy synth. There is a bad guy here, no doubt, and the cellos play its part with skilful incision. Something is growing and coming for you, at best you can attempt to get out of its way, but it definitely means business as the basses build with a heavy crushed kick, this is the theme for a mechanical Godzilla.
'The friendly faith plate' is somewhere between skinny puppy and the aphex twin and still manages to harness itself to the overall feel of the record. It is a glorious cacophony of noises with head bobbing skill running through. Id heard that electronica giants the chemical brothers don’t write songs, they write noises and then fit them together into the tracks you hear, this is what’s going on here I'm sure of it.
Things are being constructed, possibly from used remains, into something larger than the sum of its parts. Machines hammering away on a production line with the interjections of welding torches and steam powered presses. All that noise cuts out and we are left with nothing but our own heartbeats in '15 acres of broken glass', the glitched beats make moves to surface behind the reflective panels. There are hints of the darkcore work of Lustmord here, but where as the former is about underground stone caverns this is most definatley a man-made hollow environment. There is a feel of something happening behind the scenes which you only catch glimpses of as the beat moves in and out of the five minute ambience.
'Love as a construct' is a very different story, our freshly birthed modem has grown a voice. You may not understand it or have any grasp of the language it uses but it is most definitely speaking, possibly even singing. The track has some of the Kelly Bailey ambience to it and a childlike innocence and optimism that has shown itself for the first time in forty minutes. It would soar it had a concept of flight, instead our little DSL sits alone and sings a little ballad to itself.
Clicking in from nowhere with one of the most interesting synth noises I have possibly ever heard 'I saw a deer today' is a comb filtered march of machines. How its title relates is a mystery to me but the constant movement of the longer background phasers have you almost moving your head to follow them. There are sounds of overworked telegraph machine furiously tapping away with an almost funfair/carnival sound to the main melody. It is good to hear the sense of fun that the original Portal was noted for surfacing in the soundtrack.
'Hard sunshine' is about the most accurate description one could give to the opening synth sound on the track. A melodic drone backed by twitterings of a computer trying to pose as a human, the once disparate foes seems to have found a home together as the encapsulating of organic, traditional instruments shows its work through the manipulated sounds Mike Morasky has created here. You can see the light for the first time since being trapped down here and all you can do is stop and stare.
A long hammond organ note sounds, grows and shifts until it is replaced by the next sumptuous note in 'I'm different'. Filled with resonance and echoing metallic character the higher notes rising and falling away in the background are reminiscent of 30's horror scores only brought to life by the imaginations of AI. More evidence of the coherent nature and language of the music in Portal 2 as a larger body comes with familiar and previously used synth sounds from as far back as 'Science is fun' tie the whole thing up in a neat package.
More Glass influences appear on 'Adrenal vapour' sounding almost taken direct from Einstein on the beach. The constant glass bells playing out and over each other find beauty in their own chaos and fractured repetition. Sometimes becoming a single sound as the overlaps line up and other times sounding almost too fast and numerous to comprehend.
All this science aside its time for some fun as 'Turret wife serenade' wobbles to life, with a toybox polka covered by a wailing faux violin. The interspersal of noises we have all heard when tipping a turret off a ledge and watch it lovingly shuffle off its mortal protocol is a lovely touch to something which relies heavily on the humour of the portal franchise.
'I made it all up' is again back to the slow ambience of the music in Portal 1, just hinting at the environment and tinkering off the walls with a light optimism like much of the soundtrack. There is a feeling of inner joy to this track much like underworlds score for Danny Boyle's sci-fi slow burner Sunshine. The pan of the high violin notes underpinning the ever bouncing synth is a welcome break from the high intensity of the rest of the album.
'Comedy=Tragedy+Time' dives straight back into the bowels of the lab with a creeping sense of anger and frustration. The low notes are hunting something over and above the tense strings hiding under the jarring beat. There is an ominous danger to the track, an anticipatory hunger of snapping snares and odd machine noises.
The records closer 'Triple phase laser' is a slow moving dance around three near indecipherable synth melodies. Rocking gently to a back and forth rhythm caught in a loop of underhanded contemplation and longing. It really is a track to fear the repercussions.
All in all what this first volume of Portal 2's music has shown us is its maturity and depth, taking the fledgling steps of portal and opening up the Aperture Science world to a new depth. The music a fully formed coherent piece with a language unto itself which broods with individual voices given life through the varying instruments and styles.
While in many places it retains the fun and comedy of the original there is emotion and development seeping from every note. With 22 tracks in this the first of three, the sheer scale of the musical undertakings of Mike Morasky should be applauded and anticipated as we wonder what the Aperture Science Psychonautics division will release to we lowly test subjects next.
For my time here on moddb it would seem that one thing is vitally important. And this
feature applies to almost any productive / creative member of this community,
be it a development group leader, a texture mapper, an environment moddeler, a concept
artist or soundtrack musician. If you wish your mod to succeed or your work to be seen and appreciated you must reward those who show any vested interest in what you are creating.
With the advent of high-speed broadband for all and a myriad of varying communication
methods, our fickle society has had its attention span effectively shelved.
Information flows thick and fast, news of a recent earthquake in Los Angeles reached citizens outside the epicenter before the quake itself via twitter feeds last year.
The market leaders of consumable media (music, literature, games) have long been in the know
regarding their fans necessity for the feed of information and have thusly
catered their marketing to a whole new level focussed drip feeding.
The question for big bands, games developers and publishing houses now is what to
reveal and when, giving the consumer just enough to keep them hooked but not
too much that it saturates the necessity for the full release.
This new regime of slow-and-often information publication is not something that should
be thought of as unique to the large industry model simply because of the
numbers drawn in by major releases, drip feed information and tangible connection
to dedicated fans can mean life or death to the smallest of grassroots creative
outputs. No matter what your production flavour it is imperative to keep any point of attention
locked down with an almost constant stream of useful and insightful
With all the capabilities of communication at ones fingertips it is in the creators best
interests to keep a strong link with those who have and will provide future
support for a project, simply put if you give people nothing they have no
reason to stay interested in what you are hoping to pass into the digital work
upon completion. It takes almost no time to render off a quick image of your WIP environment or to post a quick 140 character update on twitter.
No matter how inane your ambling on the subject of your current creative process, the
minimum knowledge that said project is still in the working can calm the water
of what may seem to be very persistent and need bunch of followers.
These people, no matter how insistent on constant publication, are the people who
decide if your creative thrives or dies. Without people at the receiving end
waiting expectantly for what you have to show for your time and effort, you are
essentially letting your voice fall on deaf ears.
Community and connection are the life blood to the survival and propagation of your
product and name, be sure to take the time to appease the community during the
process. Allow them insight and understanding, sneak peaks and grand reveals.
Take some time once a week to give them the knowledge that the idea they like so much –
your idea – is alive and kicking and you will find they will snap up the fruits
of your labour on release day and be aching to know what’s next.
Obviously being here on moddb predominantly as a musician it is my prerogative to write occasionally on the subject.
I came here to find some expansion to Valve's glorious puzzler; Portal, and was rewarded thusly with a veritable cornucopia of mods of all shapes and sizes, from the small, unique and delicate, to the sprawling, time sapping canon releases.
Almost every mod / map has had at least a modicum of fun, something that makes it worthy of a gamers time and keeps the developer in praise and self-esteem enough to continue modding for the betterment of the community formed here. The worst are cursory puzzles, a minor fling that at most will give you the satisfaction of achievement. The best...well, they are the glorious love affairs of unique opportunity and grand reveals.
Your mod doesn't need to be huge to be great, as with so much in life, content will conquer capacity. What I consistently crave form the modding community is for people to use their skills to their best advantage and what better way to prove you are good at what you do than being innovative and original.
Change the scene and put in as much original content as you can muster in your given time frame because seeing how far one can take what should be a closed source engine is one of the most fulfilling, exciting and impressive events you can give to your audience.
This is where I and the other composers itching for work come in.
Gaming is an experience, it requires the sum of many parts in order for it to be praised as a success. There may be moments when sheer visual appeal can drag the rest of your game out of obscurity but this will never give you longevity, which in a high speed industry like gaming is the metaphorical holy-grail. If they are still playing your game ten years from now you have definitely got something very right.
A great mod is about assembling a great team.
Your mappers must have the capacity to provide puzzle and intrigue.
Your moddelers, the ability to create new concepts to keep the gamer guessing
The texturers and artists but add visual appeal and glowing glory to everything.
...And then you stick any old, overused, free music over the top!
Every time I finish a project here and put feelers out for another I see a host of composers and musicians looking to work, looking to work for free to get themselves recognized as any other member of a development team.
Sound and aural landscape influence the feel of a game, subtly and consistently without actually imposing on the game play and help to bring depth and an added sense of originality to the action in hand.
How many of your life experiences are tied to songs which help you reminisce, how much of our life is molded around the sonic environment we live in. These musicians are looking for chances to give modders an added level and most times their efforts are given for free as with any other member of a development team who puts their time into a game.
Adding original music not only gives your mod the unique edge to stand out but you have the ability to give watchers and fans tit-bits and tasters without the need to render scenes or create videos.
This will free up time to to hone the mod while showcasing some of the aural talent that is often hidden or unnoticed here on moddb.
So spare a thought for the composers and musicians, find out what they can do for you and your mod and help add new depth to your games and more community to the community.