For almost as long as video games have been around, they’ve 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 digitized faces of the band members (which tracked more than a decade of pinball machines with megaton bands), and that says nothing of media sensations like “Pac-Man Fever.”
Meanwhile, interactive musical experiences, somewhat outside the realm of corporate “games”, began to emerge in the age of CD-ROM. These ranged from simple computer-exclusive content inserted on the data track of a normal album to full-fledged multimedia software including the likes of david bowie and Prince.
So the synergy of gaming and pop music is littered with various “firsts,” and this week a modest music video from an indie band from Texas might not be considered a big deal. It’s not a Loss clone with Iron Maiden or a hilarious small arms game featuring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video arguably heralds a new era: one where video game engines, and therefore a gaming mentality, have become utterly fundamental in pop culture.
WASD to the beat
“Greatness Waitress” is the first single from Waiting, Fishboy’s upcoming seventh album. This longtime pop-rock band from Denton, Texas compares favorably to bands like They Might Be Giants, Weezer and Ben Folds. In his new single, nasal vocals wistfully spin a meta-narrative thread about a struggling indie rock band, and the words glide over heavily percussive piano and fuzzy guitar: I play often, you should come take a look / but you can’t take a look, the band is on break / and the time we took was specially taken / on hold… on a great idea.
The single feels appropriate for a dirty basement or a friend’s backyard, somehow both loud and intimate, with a lively, teenage jubilation. Its music video follows suit, posing fictional members of the geriatric band as 3D cartoon characters (drawn by singer and songwriter Eric Michener) on a dilapidated stage. For a glimpse of what the band really sounds like, a series of televisions display images and video clips throughout the song.
This is the band’s first 3D music video, but in keeping with indie-rock fashion, it’s not the result of a battery of Pixar-caliber computers rendering every frame to pristine, traced levels. by rays. The “Greatness Waitress” video was instead built using the immediate rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and its limited geometry means it will run on most game-compatible PCs. To prove it, the band decided to keep the indie spirit alive by releasing their video as an interactive executable; you can even “play” in a web browser. This version removes the intentional cinematography of the YouTube version, instead allowing viewers to navigate their way through the environment.
Stand back and watch the whole group. Get uncomfortably close to the lead singer. Or browse all video geometry, cut polygons and find Easter eggs.
god of rock + Dunk Lord
In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboy’s Eric Michener said he’s already applied skills from his day job as a freelance video editor to low-budget music videos. “I work a lot in After Effects, but it never crossed my mind to use a game engine in this way,” he says.
This idea emerged thanks to the impetus of the director, the artist and the animator Dann Beeson, who connected with Michener via Instagram as a fan of Fishboy. The duo bonded over a number of things – a shared love for the original Planet of the Apes films, as well as the singer’s experience with multimedia album projects (particularly the Fishboy albums which came with Michener’s own graphic novels).
“I didn’t realize he was a game developer,” Michener said. “I just saw some cool 3D models that were their own works of art.”
Indeed, Beeson has some serious credentials on his resume: most recently, he worked as the sole 3D artist and animator for the magnificent NBA jam tribute Dunk Lordsbuilt alongside Andy Hull of Potholing programming fame. When Beeson and Michener started talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to sneak a Fishboy album), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into characters. 3D animated; modeling, texturing and rigging the “set” in Maya and Blender; and use Unity to compile the assets.
“I’ve been making games for the better part of a decade now and never really thought about merging the two disciplines” of music and games, adds Beeson. But the process of applying a game engine to a music video was an eye opener, he says, especially compared to trying to make animation projects entirely on your own. “Rendering a second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need a montage on a plane, there’s your whole night.”
Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” operated as a small-scale project, requiring “about an evening” to create looping animations for each character modeled. “The lip-syncing was done in a pretty weird way,” says Beeson. “I found a way to make cartoons or puppets in Blender. I ran the song and made a circle up and down so it looked like a mouth. It looked way better than this what he was entitled to.” It only took him about 2 minutes 30 seconds – “exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual set for an intentionally filmed video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a second pass for more interactive fun, including teasing about the full album’s “rock opera” story.
“More and more common”
Michener carefully answers technical questions about video, and he wonders aloud how many other video production projects have relied on popular, easy-to-use game engines. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Ars Technica has already covered Jon Favreau’s cutting-edge use of the Unreal Engine on film and TV shoots.) But for him, this lack of technical understanding is part of the problem. .
“I love that you can watch this video like it’s a virtual concert,” Michener says (not to mention how few we’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months). “I know it’s been a bit like this lately, but probably not on a small scale like this for a small indie band like Fishboy.” Indeed: Only Michener and Beeson worked on the video, with the singer praising Beeson’s ability to “pivot with my ideas”.
“I’ve seen a few other shorts and demos made in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is that it’s going to become more mainstream,” adds Beeson.
Thanks to its intentional simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” is unlikely to win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you imagine that let you take control, live inside a miniature concert and watch it from any perspective you choose? Currently, the response is limited; even the 360-degree and immersive VR options for concerts and videos tend to place viewers in specific seats, unlike Fishboy inviting viewers to search for secrets (and cycle through geometry along the way). But cheap access to Unity and Unreal will almost certainly change that reality as more artists and musicians find clever ways to replicate the concert experience in the real world – and as a sign of -runner of the interactive musical pleasure to come, the charming accessibility of this project is indeed its “grandeur”.
Listing Image By Eric Michener / Dann Beeson