Thursday, September 1, 2011

Country Music

As someone who prefers variety to one particular style in just about everything, music has been no exception for most of my life.  When someone would ask what I listen to, I'd usually reply, "Everything--but Country."  I grew up listening to New Wave music from Britain and "hair metal" and rock 'n' roll from the U.S.  College introduced me to progressive rock, grunge, and a late appreciation for classic rock.  Later, I listened to rap and hip-hop as a basketball soundtrack, got aerobic workouts at techno trance clubs in Berlin (there was even a phase when I slept to drum 'n' bass CDs on repeat).  Jazz has also always appealed to me, as I played sax for a dozen years.  But even after some "Newgrass" music caught my liking, and I listened to some Johnny Cash after seeing the film, Walk the Line, I still avoided most country music (and my favorite Cash is still his cover of Nine Inch Nails haunting ballad, Hurt).

On my recent trip to the U.S., however, I found myself in the car with one of my sons, speeding around the twisting roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no CD's to choose from.  I wanted to listen to some music, but I was at the mercy of FM Radio, and as I hit the "search" button repeatedly, every station turned up a country ditty, accompanied by the familiar twangy vocals and steel guitars.  My 4-year -old German-born son asked, "Are they yodeling?"

Then it happened:  a song came on that hooked me.  Then another.  And as I submersed myself in the words and let the music accompany the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, I finally entered the final musical frontier...well, for me, at least. As soon as I was at a WiFi hot spot again, I even started to download some of the tunes I had heard.

What does this have to do with gaming and game design?  Not that much, except that I found a connection with an article I wrote sometime ago on Opinionated Gamers entitled, Learning From Hollywood.  In that article, I wrote about some things game designers can learn from filmmaking.

Country Music has a narrative quality about it that other popular music forms lack.  Similar to film, that story draws us in, especially when we can relate to it and its characters.  I used to think that the only ones who could relate to this type of music were rednecks, but I realize now that the genre is a bit broader than I first thought.  It turns out, I had only been exposed to the pedestrian tunes in the past, and that I was missing the more thoughtful texts and better musicianship.  How often, in gamer circles, we have lamented the fact that people never explore our wide universe of games because they were turned off by Monopoly or some awful "redneck game" (LCR, anyone?).

So, thanks to the Carolina mountain radio stations, I'm revisiting the concept of narrative in games.  As the strategy game market becomes ever more competitive, and designers focus their energies on finding that one novel mechanic to make their games "different," it might be wiser to look for ways of designing stronger narratives in our games instead.

If good music--and even Country Music--transcends its math and mechanics to immerse the listener in its narrative, then perhaps good game design should do the same.

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