Kill Screen 5: The Sound Issue

I always like to get a new issue of Kill Screen in the mail, even when the subject matter isn’t something that I am particularly interested in. The newest issue, which I am only now getting around to really looking at (holiday season and all), is actually much more interesting than I thought it would be. It deals mostly with sound and sound design in games–something that I am interested in, but not something that I focus on at all. Like Chris Dahlen, who has an article in this issue about background music in games, I have a “liner notes” understanding of music. I know what I like; I know what I don’t like. I know what major and minor chords are. That’s about all.

In any case, my interest in this issue really reflects my experiences with past issues: in-depth journalism is fantastic, personal pieces are boring, entertainment fluff is incredibly forgettable.

For instance, I thought that the single page piece on Lana Del Rey was pointless, no matter how good “Video Games” was. The article about Mux Mool and Minecraft was mostly fluff, and a short semi-interview with Nico Muhly didn’t really do anything for me.

The highlights of the issue were as follows:

1. “Say Hi to Lumi” by Jason Johnson – This article explains the existence of Lumi, a fictional character and protagonist of a couple games. More than that, though, she plays concert dates all over the world. They holographically project her, some real Gibson shit, and people have genuine affective reactions to her as a person. She is loved, and that is amazing.

2. “Taking the Deep Dive” by Danielle Riendeau – I want to play this game. It is called Deep Sea, and it is all about sensory deprivation. Your visuals are blacked out, covered in a gas mask, and you only have your sense of sound. The concept is that you are under the ocean, in complete blackness, and there are monsters that you can only identify by sound. People pass out while playing it. It makes me giddy–I think this is a powerful piece of gaming. It dissolves who you are in a character–it replaces both of those concepts with the game itself, with an experience. The self-as-subject is gone; the self-as-controller is all that is left. I can really be into that.

3. “Worlds of Sound” by Julian Murdoch – This is just a lengthy interview with the sound designers of the Bioshock franchise. They go into the way that information is transmitted in the game; there are no cutscenes in the game, but instead there are large chunks of, essentially, radioplay that tells the story. I remember how sad it was when I was playing–most of the subplots are of the tragic, body horror kind. Splicers becoming addicts, addicts becoming violent. Toward the end of the article, Ken Levine talks about how the main theme works to instill that emotive effect:

That’s why the violin sold me, because it said “This is a sad story–not a horror story, not an action story, it’s a sad story.” Look back at Bioshock and look at Rapture, and it’s the sadness that permeates everything.

4. “Cantus Firmi” by Matthew S. Burns – This article is probably worth buying the magazine. Burns makes a compelling argument about the way that video games deploy music and sound. He claims that sound design is at the beck and call of player action–sometimes a beautiful theme doesn’t finish playing because the player began firing her weapon, for example. Burns wants the pieces of sound to be broken down into smaller pieces, or individual notes, in order to make the sounds truly dynamic. The game world would be able to truly respond to the player–to the intrusion of player agency–in a real way, rather than simply playing “combat theme 1” every thirty seconds.

Of course, the rest of the articles are pretty great. There are interviews with composers and voice actors. There are explanations and sounds. You should buy the issue here.

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