For almost as long as video games have been around, they have enjoyed a close relationship with pop music. As early as 1983, Bally-Midway collaborated with Journey to make a set full of licensed songs and the digitized faces of band members (which followed more than a decade of pinball cabinets with megaton bands), and That doesn’t say anything about media sensations like “Pac-Man Fever.”
Meanwhile, in the CD-ROM era, interactive music experiences began to emerge, something outside the realm of company “games.” These ranged from simple computer-only content embedded in a normal album data track to full multimedia software featuring artists like David Bowie and Prince.
Thus, the synergy of games and pop music is fraught with several “firsts,” and this week, a modest music video by an indie band from Texas might not register as much of a problem. Is not a Condemn clone starring Iron Maiden or a fun light weapons game starring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video heralds a new era – one in which video game engines, and thus the video game mindset, have become absolutely central to pop culture.
WASD to the beat
“Greatness Waitress” is the lead single from Expecting, Fishboy’s upcoming seventh album. This long-standing pop-rock group from Denton, Texas, compares favorably with the likes of They Might Be Giants, Weezer, and Ben Folds. On his most recent single, the nasal voices wistfully spin a meta-narrative thread about a struggling indie-rock band, and the words glide over a heavily percussive piano and fuzzy guitar: I often perform, you should come take a look / but you can’t take a look, the band is on a break / and the time we took was specifically taken / waiting … great idea.
The single sounds appropriate for a dirty spot in a friend’s basement or backyard, somehow at the same time strong and intimate, with lively adolescent glee. His music video follows suit, featuring fictional members of the geriatric gang as 3D rendered cartoon characters (drawn by singer-songwriter Eric Michener) on a ramshackle stage. To give a hint of what the band really looks like, a series of televisions show images and video clips throughout the song.
It’s the band’s first 3D rendered music video, but indie-rock style, this isn’t the result of a Pixar-caliber computer farm rendering every frame to pristine, ray-traced levels. Instead, the “Greatness Waitress” video was created using the immediate rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and its limited geometry means it will run on most gaming-capable 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” it in a web browser. This build removes the intentional cinematography from the YouTube version and instead allows viewers to tour the environment with WASD.
Wait and watch the whole band. Get uncomfortably close to the lead singer. Or poke around the geometry of the entire video, traverse polygons, and find Easter eggs.
Rock god + Lord of the dunks
In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboy’s Eric Michener says that he had previously applied the skills of his day job as a freelance video editor to past music videos on a tight budget. “I work a lot in After Effects, but somehow it never occurred to me to use a game engine in this way,” he says.
This idea came about at the insistence of director, artist and animator Dann Beeson, who connected with Michener through Instagram as a Fishboy fan. The duo bonded over a number of things: shared love for the original. Planet of the Apes movies, along with the singer’s experience with multimedia album projects (particularly the Fishboy albums that come with Michener’s complete graphic novels).
“I didn’t realize he was a game developer,” says Michener. “I just saw some great 3D models that were his own works of art.”
In fact, Beeson has some serious skills on his resume – most recently, he worked as the only 3D artist and animator on the beautiful NBA Jam tribute Dunk lords, built alongside Andy Hull of Spelunky the fame of programming. When Beeson and Michener started talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to eavesdrop on a Fishboy album), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into 3D animated characters. ; model, texture and manipulate the “set” in Maya and Blender; and use Unity to compile the assets.
“I’ve been creating games for the better part of a decade and never thought of merging the two disciplines” of music and games, Beeson adds. But the process of applying a game engine to a music video was a revelation, he says, especially compared to trying to do animation projects entirely on your own. “Rendering just one second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need to edit a take, you have all night.”
Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” ran as a humbly scaled project, requiring “about one night” to build looping animations for each modeled character. “The lip sync was done in a weird way,” says Beeson. “I found a way to make moving sketches, or puppeteers, in Blender. I ran the song and climbed a circle up and down to make it look like a mouth. It looked a lot better than it was entitled to.” This only took about 2 minutes and 30 seconds: “exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual stage for an intentionally shot video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a second pass for more interactive fun, including teasing about the “rock opera” story from the full album.
“More and more common”
Michener is careful when answering technical questions about video, wondering 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 previously covered Jon Favreau’s cutting edge use of the Unreal Engine on movie and TV series sets.) But for him, that lack of technical understanding is part of the point. .
“I love that you can look at this video like it’s a virtual concert,” says Michener (not to mention how few we’ve enjoyed in the last 12 months). “I know that’s been a bit lately, but probably not on a small scale like this for a little indie band like Fishboy.” In fact: only Michener and Beeson worked on the video, and the singer praised Beeson’s ability to “pivot with my ideas.”
“I’ve seen a few other short films and demos made in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is that it will become more and more common,” adds Beeson.
Thanks to its intentional simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” probably won’t win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you think of that allow you to take control, live inside a miniature concert and see them from the perspective you want? At this time, the response is limited; Even 360-degree and immersive virtual reality options for concerts and videos tend to place viewers in specific seats, unlike Fishboy which invites viewers to search for secrets (and traverse geometry along the way). But very cheap access to Unity and Unreal is sure to change that reality as more artists and musicians find clever ways to replicate the real-world concert experience, and as a harbinger of interactive musical fun to come, the enchanting accessibility of this project. it is indeed his “greatness”.
Listing Image by Eric Michener / Dann Beeson