Tuesday, 25 May 2010

"Highways" -- progress!

I found I'm having a quite satisfactory progress with my current project. As I've stated in the past, I am working on a new album, which is actually the "definitive" issue of a little collection of blobs of sound I once used to call an "album" named Musics for Highways (sic), back from 2002 or something like that. I'm happy with how it's coming along; right now I'm in the stage of tinkering and recording the instruments, without much worry about mixing. For people who never heard the old songs, it'll be quite a shock to compare these songs with my previous albums.

Maybe by the middle of the year I'll have it done, or at least pretty much done. And I've already got a project on the queue. Things look great.

Last time I talked about this project, I was anxiously waiting for Autechre's Oversteps. Guess what? The album's excellent.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The problem with randomness in computer games

As a fairly avid Flash game player, sometimes I come to think that the random() function is one of the great curses the programming languages has thrown on the gaming world.

See, Flash games are very often not done by professionals. So, among the many games you'll play, you'll come across a lot of games with clunky controls, bad design decisions, stupid gameplay and so on and on. Honestly, I think bad graphics and bad music are entirely forgivable, because the amount of HORRIBLE designing and development I've seen compensates for all the bad art out there. And many of my gripes seem to converge towards one thing: many designers don't understand how randomness works.

I should say: I'm talking as a PLAYER, not as an actual game developer. Even though I am a professional programmer and a student of Computer Science, the only time I've come to write a full-fledged computer game was for a college assignment. I often have ideas for games, but with the time, the skill and the tools I have, they're basically impossible to make. However, I understand the basic concepts reasonably well, and that's enough to see that some people should take a few lessons before they go out making games.

Get this: randomness is dangerous. In fact, it's so dangerous that pseudo-randomness is STILL dangerous enough (remember that computers are incapable of generating truly random numbers -- it at best APPROXIMATES such thing). Sometimes, games rely entirely on it in order to make things happen. However, depending on the nature of the game, this can make almost unplayable. For example, if a game drops power-ups that play a very important role on the player's performance, randomness can ruin things: one match can be extremely easy, since the player gets many useful power-ups, while the next one becomes damn near impossible, since they just never come. Or, for example, if the arrival of enemies is exaggeratedly randomised, they can make the game inexpicably hard, or even lead the player into situations where death is unavoidable. I've once played a game called Balance Balls 2, a game where the player must keep a red ball balanced on a moving platform, while other balls (some with power up/downs) fall onto it. The player can tilt the platform left that right, to get rid of the enemy balls, but the strength is limited, so once one of the sides become too heavy, the platform inevitably falls. Can you see the problem there? Yes: there are times when an absurd number of balls fall EXACTLY on the same spot, leading into an unavoidable death.

So what's the matter with that? Simple: it removes the challenge. A game like that becomes a simple matter of trial and error, of waiting for THE right opportunity to succeed. The player realises it's not his ability that determines the outcome of the game, but pure chance. So, why bother trying?

On the other hand, I'm not saying that randomness SHOULD NOT be used. Randomness is usually desired, or even necessary, to make the game work. But it seems many developers work with the idea that if the game is not COMPLETELY random and chance-based, it becomes "too easy", because predictability spoils the game.

Besides, does predictability spoil the game? Not necessarily. Again, it all depends on the nature of the game. For example, if the game uses dice, or a similar artefact to decide certain outcomes, then the dice NEED to be as random as possible, to avoid giving someone an unfair advantage. But in solo games, or in games of skill, the player NEEDS to have some sort of solid ground. Randomness doesn't need to be extinguished: it needs to be CONTROLLED. The challenge is in determining how controlled it must be, but there needs to be rules for how much the game can vary. When the game catches the player by surprise, it must be a reasonable surprise. It WON'T KILL the game if you downplay randomness a little bit; in fact, chances are that it will improve it.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Plans for the (near?) future

I thought I'd need a long break from music after the particularly draining task of finishing Of How a World Is Built, but I can't help it: when the creative drive grabs you, there's no way to stop it (without driving yourself crazy, that is).

Thing is, there were actually two projects in my queue as I finished that album. To one side, there was a totally abstract and electronic project I wanted to start, based on ideas I had been collecting while working on the album. It would sort of mash-up the styles of electronic music that I have been listening, while crossing it over with other stuff, such as my fascination with TV and radio vignettes. At the other side, though, was the extremely tempting idea to remake, from scratch, one of my older albums.

Right now, I'm about halfway into the latter project. I'm honestly surprised: I see a lot of potential in this work, and I'm eager to get it done. Basically, I took the songs from Musics for Highways, which consisted originally of MIDI songs recorded straight from the Windows General MIDI FM synthesizer, and rebuilt them entirely using the technologies and software I've employed on my two previous albums. I am not treating this as a "remake", as a "new edition" of the album: I'm treating this as the "actual make", as if the previous recording was a mere early draft, a prototype, a rough sketch. What I like about those songs are the naïvety, the lack of pretension, the directness of ideas, and how well they matched the concept of highways and roadtrips. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get one or two tracks recorded soon and published for a preview. For now, just wait anxiously for the release of Oversteps, by Autechre.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Commercial music

I have a couple of "side interests" that wax and wane in my life, with indeterminate frequency. They range from "pretty ordinary" to "somewhat exotic", from the things that could be mentioned in a friendly chat, to things that would be seen as pretty bizarre, even if there's nothing wrong with them. One such interests is in adverts. It's a somewhat contradictory interest, though: I have never studied advertising, I watch almost no TV at all, read few magazines and almost never listen to the radio. My interest, however, stems mostly from childhood memories, when the TV and the radio were much more present in my life. Once in a while I start hunting for old adverts and jingles that spark a wisp of nostalgia in me, and quickly my interest broadens towards advertising in general.

Recently, I reached a pretty radical paradigm shift, compared to the thoughts I had as a teenager. I have no shame in recognising advertising as an art, though I admit that's a dangerous statement. Dangerous because it's bound to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Many people think advertising is the beating heart of the consumerist capitalism, that promotes poverty and the destruction of the planet and so on and on. Others think that it's downright sacrilegious to think of an advert, something designed to SELL, as a work of art. Both are empty arguments. The former, because I don't necessarily become a proponent of the evils of capitalism by cherishing one of its elements (and people who think so should start looking beyond the surface of things); and the latter deserves some more discussion.

Let's imagine an advertising jingle, since the main focus of this blog is music. A jingle is commissioned by a company in order to make money, in this case, by selling a product. Some people feel disgusted by that. I say: do you know all those works by so called "classical" composers, which today are performed by expensive orchestras, played in concert halls and recorded by fancy record labels with big names? Those works were also commissioned by rich and noble people, and their goal was also to make money. The only difference, here, is that those composers were not selling anything other than their own talent. But you see, the fact that those works were made for money does not mean that those works can't be works of art. Money and art are not mutually exclusive, unlike many people think. The more "romantic" music enthusiasts think that music must be made exclusively with passion and inspiration, and money should be left aside. That's NOT how the business works; and when I mean "business", I mean, yes, all those artists that are heard and loved for decades, NOT just the media fads.

Also, a jingle is not a product put out in a matter of seconds. Writing a good jingle takes a great deal of talent, of sensitivity, of vision and great skills. Think about it: a regular song can use 3 or 4 minutes and repeated listens to sink into your mind. A jingle has half a minute to do much more than that! A jingle needs to grab you right from the very first seconds, and keep the message in your mind for the rest of the day at least. Sounds easy?

Of course there are many low quality jingles and adverts, that try to get by solely on repetition and exaggeration. But there are adverts that leave a strong impression for years afterwards. There are things that I remember clearly and cherish even after 15 years! Does that mean I am a brainless sheep, follower of mass media? Or does it mean that there are incredibly intelligent, talented people working in that medium? I'm just stating facts here, but there are renowned artists that have worked in adverts. Speaking of Brazil alone, film-maker Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God (one of my favourite films), The Constant Gardener and Blindness, has directed TV adverts. Musicians and famous and respected as Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto have composed and performed jingles.

You'll say that they have "sold out". Sold out for what? Meirelles's feature films also give him money; Jobim and Gilberto's songs also gave them money. Besides, they were not openly and blandly selling off their image for a product; they were merely being professional artists. We may notice a difference there: it may be extremely annoying when a famous celebrity accepts to sell his image, but what's the matter if the artist truly puts his heart and soul into his work, even if it's just to sell something? In that vein, I remind you that Tom Waits, of all people, has done voiceover work for an advert; in fact, an advert for Purina dog chow (which you can watch HERE). Oh, Waits fans will want to kill me for that one, but I say, what's the matter? Waits does a brilliant job, in an entirely professional way. If he has decided to never do that kind of stuff again, it's for his own principles; doesn't mean the WHOLE act is rotten. Need more examples? What about Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart offering their music and voice for Luden's Cough Drops? Watch HERE. Amazing work!

Notice, though, that I'm not saying that all artists should be forced to accept their songs used in commercials, or anything; this is a business that requires respect. If someone doesn't want his work or image associated with advertisement (like Tom Waits), he has to be respected. What I am defending, though, is the vision of advertisement as a form of art. And, as with every form of art, you gotta learn to appreciate it.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Of How a World is Built: Officially released

The album is now finished and released. As usual, it's available for free download, both on its official page and on its Jamendo page. Download right now!