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From Agnes to Hohokum: The Symbiotic Relationship of Gaming & Electronic Music – Michna & Ben Benjamin

In this feature Simon Whight talks to Ghostly International contributors, Ben Benjamin and Michna, about their experience with the Sony PS4 Hohokum project and discusses their histories within the gaming world.

Despite the basement dwelling, generic thrash metal adoring World Of Warcraft stereotype that often gets spun about gamers, there has been a credible and symbiotic relationship between electronic music and gaming. If you stepped back to a time after the notorious early eighties gaming crash, where the second wave games console explosion that spawned the modern gaming scene occurred, you’d encounter a unassuming PC like machine adored by many called the Commodore Amiga. On this retro delight, you would find Megablast (Hip Hop On Precinct 13)  from Bomb The Bass somehow crammed into 512k of memory as part of the Xenon 2 soundtrack. Wrangling the maximum out of the the A500’s once lauded Agnes sound chip by cramming a full track into the space of what is the equivalent of 1.5 seconds of high quality mp3 audio was one thing, managing to tie down a contribution from an act who was scoring UK top ten hits was another level entirely. A seed was sown.

A fair few of our greying producers and youthful retro enthusiasts will often speak with a fondness for Commodore’s beige box, which even saw a homage from Danny Woolfers’ Legowelt project on the album Amiga Railroad Adventures. Its music sequencing capabilities saw it listed in FACT’s 14 Pieces Of Software That Shaped Modern Music thanks to sample trackers like OctaMED, a piece of software responsible for converting young gamers into musicians aspiring to follow in the footsteps of junglist outfits Urban Shakedown [whose shareware sample pack sent me on the way to a GCSE in Music with a portfolio of breakbeat rave], Omni Trio and DJ Zinc. Even a pre-Atjazz Martin Iveson cut his teeth on the Amiga, on titles such as Jaguar XJ220, before moving onto his dual roles as one of deep house’s original icons and as the soundtrack composer of the Tomb Raider series.

While this delightful era of homebrew audio fun existed in its own little bubble, the platform rapidly fizzled away as the gaming scene came to dominated by the juggernauts of the Japanese gaming industry, ushering in the aforementioned second wave of console fever. With Nintendo and Sega’s series of cheerful cartridge loaded machines came some of the most inspirational composers of our time. Eeking out emotion from basic 8 and 16bit architectures, these musician’s influence can be felt in the music of names such as Lone (whose music feels like it should soundtrack Mario Kart’s iconic Rainbow Road course), Luke Abbott Rustie, Dark0 and Leon Vynehall. Such has been the impact of this era that Red Bull Music Academy  has commissioned a series looking into the impact of luminaries such as legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, Yuzo Koshiro – whose work ran right through the halcyon years of Sega – and Nintendo’s Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, with the likes of Flying Lotus, Ladyhawke, Ikonika and Dizzee Rascal stepping in as the ubiquitous talking heads.

Of course the greatest ties to the music scene came with the advent of digital storage media, opening up games beyond the confines of 1.44mb floppy disks. Positioning itself as a lifestyle accessory instead of a children’s toy, Sony took the inspired step of placing their Playstation units inside the Ministry Of Sound along with playable copies of Wipeout 2097. The game was keenly targeted at the club going demographic, sporting imagery created by The Designers Republic and a soundtrack curated by Sasha. Tracks like Orbital’s PETROL and FSOL’s We Have Explosive became synonymous with the title, exposing a generation to some of the biggest dance super groups of the nineties and single-handedly granting gaming “cool” status.

The lucrative nature of licensed soundtracks was a win-win for both the game publisher and artists involved. Driving games such as Gran Turismo were notable for sporting a raft of high energy dance and rock soundtracks to accompany the onscreen action. However it was with the Grand Theft Auto series that saw licencing leap to the next level. Developer Rockstar’s breakthrough title, Grant Theft Auto 3 on the hugely successful Playstation 2, featured mainly bespoke parody tracks and low key licenses for its radio station audio. However it also featured a standout showing from originating drum and bass imprint Moving Shadow, who hosted the pirate radio station MSX FM, as well as MSX 88 FM in the portable revisit Liberty City Stories some years later. As the game exploded in popularity, so did the ability to draft in more and more licensed talent. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a Boyz In The Hood influenced epic set at the turn of the nineties, featured the cream of the original Chicago house movement in tandem with its naturally hip hop heavy soundtrack.

With console generations passing and the series becoming one of the dominant (and controversial) forces in gaming, both critically and commercially, Grand Theft Auto IV saw the legendary Francois K step in to host a station in a game that saw every contemporary musical niche covered. The series return to Grand Theft Auto 3’s Liberty City as a setting demonstrated the strides with which the series had evolved at each iteration. Now, with the already successful Grand Theft Auto 5 making its way to the latest generation of consoles, seeing names such as Flying Lotus, Giles Peterson and Soulwax guesting on the game is an expectation rather than a coup, such is the draw of the series.

There is a criticism to be had here. Licensing is a rather quick and easy tie to the gaming world, with soundtracks and featured names becoming no more than a snapshot summary of what is current and available commercially. However, the indie gaming scene that rose in prominence over the Xbox360 and PS3 console generation has seen a more personal link formed. Without the budget for headline act dominated soundtracks, the indie game developers have been working with their equivalent entities in the music scene, leading to the rise of bespoke soundtracks for games. Q Games, led by one time Star Fox developer Dylan Cuthbert, partnered up with the Japanese techno artist Baiyon for platformer Pixeljunk Eden. With the game being stylised and minimal in appearance, the M_nus-esque backing fit the game like a glove, standing out from the offhand licensed fare and vanilla orchestral bombast of the AAA market. So successful was the partnership that Q Games worked again with Baiyon, this time on the unusual lightsaber fetish meets post-club DJ/performance title 4AM.

Since then, more and more artists have seen the potential of gaming as a unique avenue for exposure, with the strive for uniqueness in a ridiculously saturated market providing a different path to consumers over the expected route of audio-visual installation. Doseone, formerly of experimental hip hop outfit cLOUDDEAD, has provided the soundtrack to couch co-op 2D brawler Samurai Gunn, while Ninja Tune artist Daedelus’ braindance contribution to the Vic20 styled duelling game Nidhogg is frankly astounding. Also, wracking up significant stream-plays for indie Glasgow electronic imprint Wrong Island Communications, M|O|O|N had a standout showing on the incredibly popular and hyper violent Hotline Miami.

All of this brings us to one of the most ambitious bespoke soundtrack collaborations to date. Honeyslug’s Hohokum has been lighting up Sony’s various console platforms to great acclaim. It is one of a few titles that tears up the gaming rulebook, leaving the player alone to indulge in the purest sense of play in a regression to a childlike state of rule free imagination. Everyman lead characters, hideous tropes and prescribed mechanic are all swatted to one side as you are encouraged to simply express yourself as you mind sees fit.

Playing Hohokum is not too dissimilar to shooting through the surreal world navigated by the cartoon Beatles in their animated Yellow Submarine epic. Such a vivid visual approach meant that the game needed an exemplary soundtrack to round off the package. When it came to this aspect, lead developer Ricky Haggett began queuing up a Spotify playlist of appropriate tracks as inspiration. After a while, it became apparent that there was a common theme to the selection that was being curated: Ghostly International artists. Their pastel hued palette of audio, vibrant without saccharine, was an easy fit for the game. From that point it became common sense to work with the label in creating a soundtrack for the game.

And so an illustrious collection of names decorates the Hohokum OST tracklisting, featuring Matthew Dear, Tycho, Ryuchi Sakamoto and Osborne, to name but a few. Their trademark sound is keenly attuned to the nostalgic 16bit feel of the game, harkening back to simpler times before the market became obsessed with online competitive multiplayer, drip fed content and plodding cinematic led gameplay experiences.

With the electronic music scene breaking down preconceptions of genre and performance, and the indie gaming scene breaking free of AAA-gaming tropes, there is all the potential for these two worlds to entwine further. Audio visual installations, as mentioned, have been an obvious step, where projections and setting add a much needed lift to the staid act of live electronic music performances. With the game OST, artists are taking a step further by hitting an audience who are actively engaged with their media consumption, the music able to penetrate deeper and hit a receptive emotional core. We can only hope that we are in the primordial stages here and that these dedicated works become as expected as the commonplace licensed fare we have now.

As a music magazine where art and imagery are at the very core of the website ethos, this has been a topic that has been particularly close to the heart. As such, it was a great privilege to be able to speak to two of the Ghostly contributors, Ben Benjamin and Michna, about their experience with the Hohokum project and to hear about their histories within the gaming world.

Have you ever considered yourself a gamer, casually or dedicated? 

Ben Benjamin: Addicted would probably be the most accurate term, to the extent that I have to limit my gaming to other people’s consoles. If I have a console in the house I pretty much disappear from the world.

Michna: I guess you could say I had casual dabblings with a few early consoles: Atari, NES, then SNES… but only for Mario Kart. After that I got heavily into BMX, graf, gigging in bands, DJing, and discovering females.

Do you have any prominent memories of inspirational gaming soundtracks from your past? I always get a bit misty eyed when heading over the Corel Mountains in Final Fantasy VII…

Michna: There were a few games on NES that I always thought were massively underrated in this department. Zanac, Rygar, Cobra Triangle, and The Legend of Kage. Zanac specifically was on a higher level with its Tetris style soundtrack and gameplay that was rumored to have AI.

Ben Benjamin: The overall art of creating game music was more interesting to me than specific songs. I remember finding out that the original 8 bit Nintendo had only 5 note polyphony. I was amazed how complete much of the music sounded despite that limitation. I would slow down recordings of game music on my Tascam 4-track to figure out how they used arpeggios and other tricks to make the compositions work.

When did you first hear about the potential of contributing to the Hohokum soundtrack?  

Michna: Around 2012

Ben Benjamin: Ghostly contacted me in 2013 during my final year of grad school. I had very little time for music projects, but contributing to the game was too cool to pass up.

Had you ever considered this as an channel of exposure to explore as an artist?

Michna: Yes, absolutely. I’d love to pursue sound tracking games, film, TV, and more!

Ben Benjamin: I actually prefer contributing to larger projects as opposed to being the product itself. Contributing to games and video is really fun, and doesn’t require me to be as much of an extrovert.

What was the composition process like, any different to the way you usually approach writing a piece, or were there some unique challenges involved?  

Ben Benjamin: The process wasn’t particularly different from composing for commercials. However, the game itself is significantly cooler than the commercials, to the point that I’ll actually admit to friends that I contributed to it.

Michna: I found it was much more complex due to 2 things: the fact that the song changes as you move around the level, and pushing yourself to add enough elements that change in the mix, so the song keeps moving forward during gameplay.

Did you have a brief you worked to, artistic concepts or any previews of the code running for inspiration? 

Michna: Yes, initially I worked off of highly detailed PDFs, similar to a google map of the level. I could really zoom in on a tree or gibbo, and compose sounds that fit the aesthetics of what I was seeing.

Ben Benjamin: I had verbal descriptions and a few PDFs, but the visuals were distinct enough that the compositional approach was pretty much self-explanatory.

Have you had a chance to see your music tied to the actual game and play through the sections you’ve contributed to? 

Michna: Zach from Santa Monica Studios [one of Sony’s major internal development studios] came to New York and let us play a secret copy of the game a few months ago. I was trippin. I couldn’t believe how smooth everything felt.

Ben Benjamin: So far, I’ve only seen the FunFair trailer with my song Temporary Aztec. I don’t think I’ve seen my music used better.

Taking Neogaf, possibly the most prominent gaming forum around, as a barometer of success, more people are talking about the soundtrack than the actual game before the release. Lots of users were sticking down pre-orders for the digital and the vinyl. Is this something that surprises you?

Ben Benjamin: I’m pretty much clueless when it comes to knowing what appeals to audiences, but it’s very cool to hear that people have this kind of interest.

Michna: I think for a game to release a full soundtrack on digital and vinyl with an established label like Ghostly is going above and beyond. There are so many moving parts to locking just that element in, it really doesn’t happen overnight.

Hohokum is out now on Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita. You can stream the soundtrack here, and purchase the digital files and a particularly sexy vinyl copy from the Ghostly store

TRACKLIST

A1. Tycho – L
A2. Matthew Dear – Pawn In Their Game
A3. Osborne – Mount Arvon
A4. Geoff White – Wedding Party
B1. Michna – Increasing Ambition
B2. Ben Benjamin – Air Parsing
B3. Shigeto – Lamp Lighting

Discover more about Ben Benjamin, Michna and Ghostly International on Inverted Audio.

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