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Taking a Walk with Pachinko Pictures

Earlier this month, Take a Walk, a new browser music videogame by Melbourne developers Pachinko Pictures, was launched as the final installment in the Soundplay series, a collection of games that I’ve written about before.

The game—set to the Passion Pit song of the same name—is a lesson in style. Setting aside the usual visual strategies that might be employed by a music game, or what you might expect from a game hosted by Pitchfork Media, Take a Walk mashes together video and animation, creating a bold mix of music video and a breezy, snappy videogame. The level of craft, especially given that Take a Walk was created in three-and-a-half weeks, is very impressive, and should serve as a reminder as to not just the diversity of videogames being made in Melbourne, but also of the routine quality we can now expect here.

Earlier in Game On’s life, I profiled David Surman and Ian Gouldstone from Pachinko Pictures. The release of Take a Walk provided a nice opportunity to check back in and see where the studio is now.

Dan Golding: Is the combination of footage with animation a nod to the music video, or does the inspiration for that come from elsewhere? Using footage as texture and style is pretty unique for a game, but it seems such a logical fit in this case.

David Surman: We pitched a few projects a year or so ago that were built around the idea of video as backdrop to gameplay, but they never materialised and as such we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore the concept. You often hear about the differences between film watching and game playing, and we wanted to just steamroller through that and combine the two together. Sort of inspired by Ducasse’s surrealist concept,  “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

There’s a lot of potential to chop and combine things in new ways in games so long as developers allow themselves to go there. We collected together footage from the Prelinger archive, which is an incredible resource of twentieth century recordings, and used that to create a video that cuts abruptly on the beat and changes subject according to the song structure. This gave us our “bass note”, an underlying rhythm matching the song for the duration of the experience. Taken on its own, it’s a rudimentary music video, that gets completed by the gameplay component that sits on top. It also enabled us to sneak in tonal and emotional moments that would have been hard to achieve in the gameplay alone.

Ian Gouldstone: We’re interested in pushing audiences to consume lots of things at once and see what they retain. In the case of Take A Walk, it’s music, animation, live action and gameplay. Consuming that many streams of information is a skill common to anyone who has used a desktop computer, but you seldom see the idea replicated in individual media. I think it helps create an intensely memorable and replayable experience ideal for a short piece like a music video game.

DG: One of the things I’ve been struggling with recently is the perceived wisdom that videogames have to have music that intrudes as little as possible. What does making a game that has its music at the fore allow you to do?

DS: We work consistently with a musician called Jon Dix, who is based in London and most recently created all the music for Lol-a-Coaster. We go back to him again and again because he has a taste level that matches us—we always feel like we’re on the same page and he gets where we want games to go because he is thinking and feeling the same things, not just about games but also about his own music. I think this is common to teams of people working together for long periods of time.

So in the case of videogame music work that is expected to fade into the background, I suspect that diminished conservative view also applies to the gameplay, or the art direction, or the storytelling. It is part of a larger shift that as games have become increasingly eager to please the broadest possible demographic their flavour has had to become increasingly mild and non-offensive. I think this is a conceit of marketing that has never been borne out among users—people want provocative, engaging content. Look at Sword and Sworcery by our buddies at Capy—that game commits fully to the goals the team set themselves. In art and music the taste level is there.

Remember, contemporary art direction is a relatively new addition to the range of jobs within development. Art and Creative Directors can dial up or dial down the tone of the game, and as such they are the most vulnerable to marketers and product managers pushing for such changes. These new synergies between development and marketing during production are more visible than ever.

IG: In the big picture, bringing music the fore helps you to extend your reach beyond the game, sometimes to players who are not in a position to play, and sometimes to brand new audiences. Once again, Capy did an excellent job of this with Sword and Sworcery. In the smaller picture, I think music can function, mechanically, as an elegant timer. It can give players a natural sense of when the experience will end without having to resort to a traditionally troublesome timer mechanism.

DG: All of the games in the Soundplay series so far seem to have really held up the idea that aesthetic style can be something worth pushing further than we usually see. How do you see your own work fitting in?

DS: The best thing about talking about style is that eventually it gets to a more mature discussion of taste. Style is a really capricious concept. On the one hand, an innovative visual style will carry your game a long way and reach new audiences. On the other, style can become a straightjacket that constrains the range of possible choices for a developer. We’ve worked in a very broad range of styles across many different projects, and that has often run counter to the commercial expectation that you’ll do something with a particular style, and then keep producing work that looks the same over and over.

It’s pretty sad when young artists are burdened with this expectation. We can say that in the past the look and feel of games was limited by technology, but those circumstances are gone, and now games are entirely limited by the perceived culture. The tools are easier than ever to use, and there is a surplus of power in the hardware (compared to previous generations) and so the style of many contemporary games is dictated in part by a love for established norms, but also by a fear from breaking from the pack and doing something new. Certainly, when developers are meeting the costs of production and marketing, as so many now do with markets like iOS, this fear is underscored by a level of rationalisation.

Where Soundplay fits in so brilliantly is that it is a small commission—a budget was able to meet some of the cost of our time spent making the game, and so we were free to experiment with style. With no expectation of revenue, the game is free to fully explore the limits of a browser game experience. In a development culture where there is a huge oversupply of content of varying quality, style has become one of the means by which developers can achieve a level of distinction.

Our aim is always to explicitly avoid following any given stylistic trend, at least in games, though we do draw on other media, particular animation. The question of treatment—the look and feel of the game—arises from the discussions we have about what kind of experience we want the player to have. We knew that we wanted a casual but engaging game, that held up to watching as much as playing, and paid due diligence to its music video heritage. Because the song tells several distinct stories that each build out from the notion of ‘take a walk’, we felt that we could bring together drawn characters with silhouette backdrops with video. This collage effect expresses each tableau verse in a metaphorical way.

How do we fit in? As the final commission in this particular series, we had the luxury of being able to see all the other games. This opportunity was offset by the extremely tight timeframe of three and a half weeks—so while we could knowingly do something very different, achieving a result would be hard. The style of Soundplay is really the style of KillScreen—smart curatorial choices presented beautifully. Beyond that each contributing developer has brought their own style. Our aim was to bring something very organic, with a strong sense of materials. The evolutionary theme, degraded video and drawing work together to achieve that.

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