For almost as long as video games have existed, they have had a close relationship with pop music. As early as 1983, Bally-Midway collaborated with Journey to create a game full of licensed songs and the band member’s digitized faces (which followed more than a decade of flipping with megaton bands), and that says nothing about media sensations like Pac-Man Fever. “
Meanwhile, interactive musical experiences, somewhat outside the regular “gaming” area, began to emerge in the CD-ROM era. These ranged from simple computer-exclusive content that was beaten on a normal album̵
Thus, the synergy between games and pop music is full of different “first-time”, and this week a modest music video of a Texas indie band may not register as a particularly big deal. It’s not one Doom clone starring Iron Maiden or a fun light gun game starring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video undoubtedly heralds a new era: one in which video game engines, and thus a gaming mentality, have become absolutely fundamental in pop culture.
BE on the rhythm
“Greatness Waitress” is the leading single for Waitsgiving, the upcoming seventh album from Fishboy. This longtime pop rock band from Denton, Texas, compares favorably with the likes of They Might Be Giants, Weezer and Ben Folds. In his latest single, nasal vocals sadly spin a metaphorical yarn about a striking indie-rock band, and the words glide over powerful striking piano and fuzzed-out guitar: I perform often, you should come and see / but you can not see, the band is on break / and the time we took was especially taken / waited … for a good idea.
The single sounds appropriate for a grungy basement room or a friend’s backyard, somehow at the same time loud and intimate, with an animated, teenaged cheer. The music video follows, and sets fictional, geriatric band members as 3D-rendered cartoon characters (drawn by lead singer and songwriter Eric Michener) on a spooky stage. To get a glimpse of what the band really looks like, a series of TVs flash photos and videos throughout the song.
It is the band’s first 3D-rendered music video, but in an appropriate indie-rock way, this is not the result of a Pixar-caliber computer farm that renders each frame to immaculate, ray-trapped levels. The video for “Greatness Waitress” was instead built with the immediate rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and the limited geometry means it will run on most game-compatible PCs. To prove this, the band decided to keep the indie spirit alive by launching the video as an interactive executable; you can even “play” it in a browser. This building removes the intentional cinematography of the YouTube version, instead of WASD viewers wandering around the environment.
Sit back and watch the whole band. Get uncomfortable near the lead singer. Or stick around the entire geometry of the video, cut through polygons and find Easter eggs.
Rock god + Dunk Lord
In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboys Eric Michener says that he has previously used his day job skills as a freelance video editor on previous music videos with a budget. “I work a lot in After Effects, but somehow it has not occurred to me to use a game engine in this way,” he says.
This idea came about thanks to producer, artist and animator Dann Beeson, who contacted Michener via Instagram as a Fishboy fan. The duo bound themselves over a number of things – shared the love of the original The planet of the monkeys films, along with singers’ experience with multimedia album projects (especially Fishboy albums that have come with Michener’s own full-length graphic novels).
“I did not know he was a game developer,” says Michener. “I just saw cool 3D models that were their own artwork.”
In fact, Beeson has some serious chops on his resume: most recently, he worked as the sole 3D artist and animator for the gorgeous NBA Jam homage Dunk Lords, built with Andy Hull from Spelunky programming fame. When Beeson and Michener started talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to sneak into a Fishboy album early), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into animated 3D characters; modeling, structuring and rigging of the “set” in Maya and Blender; and use Unity to compile the assets.
“I’ve been making games for a good part of a decade now and never intended to merge the two subjects” in music and games, Beeson adds. But the process of using a game engine on a music video was a revelation, he says, especially compared to trying to make animation projects all by yourself. “Rendering just a second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need an edit of a shot, it’s all night.”
Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” served as a humbly scaled-up project, requiring “about a night” to create looping animations for each model figure. “Lip sync was done in a kind of weird way,” says Beeson. “I found a way to make motion picture or puppetry, in Blender. I ran the song and scaled a circle up and down to make it look like a mouth. It looked better than anyone was entitled to.” This only took him about 2 minutes and 30 seconds – “exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual set for a deliberately filmed video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a new passport for more interactive fun – including peas about the entire album’s “rock opera” history.
“More and more common”
Michener is careful about answering technical questions about the video, and he wonders how many other video production projects have relied on popular, user-friendly game engines. (If you’m not so familiar with the concept, Ars Technica has previously covered Jon Favreau’s groundbreaking use of the Unreal Engine in movie sets and TV series.) But for him, the lack of technical understanding is part of the point. .
“I love that you can look around this video as if it were a virtual concert,” says Michener (not to mention how few of them we’ve enjoyed in the last 12 months). “I know it’s been a bit of the past, but probably not on a small scale like this for a small indie band like Fishboy.” In fact: only Michener and Beeson did anything with the video, with the singer praising Beeson’s ability to “swing with my ideas.”
“I’ve seen some other short films and demos made in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is that it’s going to be more and more common,” Beeson adds.
Thanks to the deliberate simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” is unlikely to win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you think of that allow you to take control, stay inside a miniature concert and see in what perspective you want? Right now, the answer is limited; even 360-degree and immersive VR options for concerts and videos tend to plant viewers in specific seats, as opposed to Fishboy inviting viewers to hunt for secrets (and cut through geometry along the way). But dirt-cheap device and unreal access will almost certainly change that reality as more artists and musicians come up with clever ways to recreate the real concert experience – and as a preacher of interactive music that’s fun to come by, this project’s charming availability is truly its “greatness.”
Listing image by Eric Michener / Dann Beeson