An approximation of reality

“My main Game Boy memory is my Nan thinking the music to Tetris was her hearing aid going batshit…”

Late-night, anecdotal Tweets are always fun, but this one from (previous podcast guest) Simon ‘The Sonic Mole’ Cole threw me for a loop.

Undeniably chuckle-worthy though the picture it vividly paints is, it wasn’t that which caught my imagination. It was the degree to which videogames interpret reality and the concessions that players and creators alike have made to paper over the technological cracks along the path to… wherever it is videogames are headed.

The Tetris ‘Type A’ music was constrained by the Game Boy’s hardware

The Tetris music is, well, music. How could anyone mistake Hirokazu Tanaka’s iconic, synthesised version of Korobeiniki for the presumably disturbing sounds of a malfunctioning electronic audio device?

Anyone with an appreciation for the marvellous music of the 8-bit era understands the effort and creativity required to produce such chiptunes from the paltry hardware at their disposal. And therein lies the proverbial rub; the music of Tetris, and many, many other games of the era was miraculous in at least some part because of technical restrictions placed upon the musicians of the day.

To hear a symphony orchestra play the Super Mario Bros. theme is to hear something necessarily simple retold in a much older, more elaborate and more established style.

You and I know to expect a certain type of sound from video game compositions before the arrival of the PlayStation, but they are often approximations of more traditional forms of music. That is not a statement I make to lessen the merits of chip-based music, you understand, but to inform as to the reaction of Si’s nan.

Does whatever a spider can…

Cinema started from a base of presenting reality and then augmented it to become the CGI festival that many blockbuster films are today. Strange as it seems to the modern viewer, audiences believed a man could fly because film-makers waited to make Superman until the technology could produce such an effect to a believable fidelity.

I recently re-watched Spider-man, and obvious though The Elasticated Arachnid may be when/where he appears, it is never difficult to believe a man can swing; the effects are sufficient to portray the intended actions of a superhero doing superheroic things.

In videogames, reality was never the starting point, but the principle is the same; start with what is simple and as techniques and hardware become more sophisticated, so can the games. The Tetris ‘Type A’ music is a step along a timeline that has stretched some four decades, a specific point in time that reflects that era of video game development.

JC Denton
Videogame facial tech, circa 2000, as seen in Deus Ex

Though much is made of the uncanny valley in videogame facial animation, the effect is sufficient to portray the intended actions of faces doing facial things.

Though, from the perspective of someone expecting to see a human face, with all the subtleties and minute detail afforded by film and television, the appearance of Nathan Drake’s face (as wonderful as it may be) must seem quite strange. JC Denton’s blocky visage from Deus Ex a decade earlier, even more so.

Likewise, the music produced from the Game Boy’s relatively primitive audio chip is to me a marvel, but to Si’s nan it represents the staccato, broken sounds of music interpreted by a failing hearing aid.

I realise that this “revelation” is little more than an observation of the well-worn dichotomy between videogames and film in their respective handling of the spectacular versus the intimate.

Nonetheless, it reminded me of the unspoken understanding when appreciating art of all types to respect the constraints, technological and otherwise, under which it was created… and to celebrate the results for what they represent, and what they mean to us on a personal level.

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