Nobody at Queasy Games wanted to work with Beck. Well, almost nobody. The alt-rock musician can be a divisive figure, for sure, but that wasn’t really why the team working on 2012’s Sound Shapes had misgivings about his involvement in its game. Prior to this, the game’s development possessed a distinctly “indie” feel, and the publisher, Sony, had kept red tape to a minimum. Throwing a Grammy winning rock star into the mix would surely overcomplicate things, as far as they were concerned. Yet the partnership ended up producing what many fans consider to be the highlight of the Sound Shapes experience.
“Cities,” the first of three Beck-soundtracked levels in the game, is all gloom and groove, presenting a strange dichotomy between the song and the visuals on screen. It’s set against the backdrop of a war-torn metropolis and a dance-able beat. Beck sings of a dead city as the refrain “You weren’t made for this place/ It’s not your fault,” billows from smoke stacks, while missiles, bulldozers, and other instruments of destruction strut along to the beat. It’s at once distressing, relaxing, beautiful, and sad. It’s Sound Shapes at its best.
Originally, Sound Shapes wasn’t even conceived as a video game, but rather as a music visualizer. Shaw-Han Liem is a Toronto based musician known by the stage name I Am Robot and Proud. After a show in his home town, Liem met Queasy Games founder, and fellow Toronto native, Jonathan Mak. The two began hanging out and playing around with the concept of fusing interactive art with sound. “At first,” says Liem, “our intention wasn’t to create a game, we just wanted to explore, in general, music and visuals.” Though Sound Shapes would grow into a multi-studio production, involving major label musicians, according to Liem, “it literally started out with two people in a basement.”
In the beginning, Liem was the only musician on the project and thus, he set the groundwork for how the design teams would work with the other musicians. “I was working with the team every day so I was the closest one,” explains Liem, “so with the levels I did, we tried to have the musical aspect of the game involved at a much earlier stage for the level.” That would require the music itself to be fluid and moldable. If an object needed to make a different sound, Liem could easily make that change in his song. As Liem describes it, “The levels and music were written as one process.”
When the alt-folk songwriter Jim Guthrie became involved, the process didn’t need to change too much. “He’s also in Toronto and he’s a friend of ours, so it was easier for him to be more involved and do more iterations and revisions,” says Liem. The team of designers that worked with Guthrie to make four levels based on his songs, was the same team that would go on to work with Beck’s music, though the process would prove to be very different. When it came to Beck, the team simply didn’t enjoy the same collaborative benefits it had experienced with Guthrie and Liem. “With me and Jim,” says Liem, “you could do that, but obviously you can’t call up Beck and be like, ‘can you try this drum beat 10 BPMs slower? Because the level’s too hard.’ It was an experiment for us to see – does this concept scale? Does it allow us to take an already completed song and turn it into visuals or gameplay in a way that feels organic?”
Beck’s lack of involvement was a big sticking point for the team at Queasy Games, but Sony’s marketing department saw it as a worthwhile trade-off. Level designer Danny Vader and producer Mathew Kumar – both on loan from Capy Games – were handed what was, at that time, the unenviable task of translating Beck’s songs into the Sound Shapes format. Vader was the only Beck fan on staff and remembers the initial hesitation. “The other artists,” he says, referring to Beck and Deadmau5, “were secured by Sony corporate as like, ‘here, we paid these guys some money to use these songs.’ That’s totally fine, it’s just different from how we did all the other stuff.”
As Vader explains, “Beck has singing and lyrics and nothing else in the game had done that. So that was a huge challenge.” Every object in Sound Shapes visually represents a part of the song that accompanies each stage. A kick drum might be represented by a hopping enemy that always lands on the beat, or a dancing blob might represent a song’s buoyant bass line. Lyrics required a completely different approach; they needed a physical, on-screen representation. However, whereas instrumentals left room for interpretation, the lyrics told a story that somewhat dictated what the designers could do. “We can’t just do whatever we want with this “Cities” level because it’s sort of saying something and we had to discern what was being said,” explains Vader, “I remember all of us sitting around listening to this song over and over again, not just trying to figure out what he’s saying, but figuring out what we are going to do with these lyrics in terms of conveying the meaning of the song.”
At one point, the team even considered cutting the lyrics altogether. “I think we were pretty beaten down trying to figure it out,” recalls Vader, “it was even floated, ‘F___ it, let’s just cut the lyrics. Let’s cut the singing and just use the instrumentals. I was pretty adamant and maybe even a jerk about keeping them… We have Beck, we gotta have Beck singing. You can’t call it Beck if it’s just some beats and s___. We gotta have his voice.” They devised a few clever solutions to the problem. At one point in the song, the words “move a little/ shake a little/ hurt a little/ break a little” are personified by a platform that does exactly as the words say. When Beck says move, it moves, and when he says hurt, the platform turns red and hurts the player’s little avatar. The lyrics end up providing context and warn the player of coming danger. It’s a clever little solution to the problem, and “Cities” is full of examples just like that.
Originally, however, when Queasy received the “Cities” track from Beck, it was only instrumental. Without the lyrics, the song does possess a more uplifting vibe. The original instrumental track that the developers received from Beck’s team was even titled “Happy Africa”, which caused a bit of a mix-up. Vader and Kumar worked with Pyramid Attack, a Toronto based art studio, to develop the level based on the “Happy Africa” theme. Kumar recalls the confusion. “When we got more feedback from Beck’s people, we were like, ‘oh we need to throw all of that away.’ We’d actually gotten it all wrong.”
“There was all this sort of African mask stuff. We went heavily in that direction,” adds Vader. “I think the file we got from Beck – he probably just… had made the beat first and just named it Happy Africa as a file name. We got that file, and then [his people said], no no here’s the song. And we hear the lyrics and we’re like, ‘oh f___, this has nothing to do with Africa at all. He’s just using a kalimba and calling it that.”
Meanwhile at Pyramid Attack, Steven Wilson, the artist working on the Beck stages, needed to redo all of the artwork he had originally conceived for the “Happy Africa” version of the level. Every time Vader and Kumar had to change an asset – which was often – they asked Wilson for a different take on something he’d already given them. “He was a trooper,” jokes Kumar, “we got back five versions of everything we asked for, until we could drill down exactly how the level looked.”
In the final version, none of the African themes made the cut. “It ended up having what I think is an unexpected visual vocabulary,” says Wilson. “The concept of this level doesn’t fit the song at all, but somehow it works. The song has a sense of space and place that I really liked. I pictured an African savannah at sunset with baobab trees, swooping insects looping in the air, friendly-looking animals, huts, campfires, dancing musical instruments, etc.” Though he tends to have a fondness for the Happy Africa version of the level, Wilson appreciates that the final design helped distinguish “Cities” from the pep and color of other levels in the game.
Another point of contention between Vader and Kumar and the rest of the design team, was the giant red sun that slowly envelopes the screen several times in the song. Some of the team leads were afraid that the sun wouldn’t be pliable enough for player creators in the user generated content. Player created content was the number one priority for Queasy Games – if something wasn’t useful in the level editor, it wasn’t worth putting in the game. But the designers fought to keep the sun in there. “I remember there being a lot of discussion on that,” says Kumar, “because it was such an overpowering entity in the game. But to me, that’s one of the Beck moments that we wanted. We kinda had to fight about that.”
Vader and Kumar had to convince the project leads that the sun was worth keeping in the level. “I think there was a lot of discussion about, ‘ok, that is an important sound in the song,” says Vader, “but how are we going to make an entity out of that? So let’s just make that into notes, or let’s cut that sound.’ But that is such an important sound. For that not to have a gameplay component just seemed like it was going to be such a glaring omission.”
The legacy of Sound Shapes is one of collaboration; players are not only listening to a song, but actually engaging with it, contorting it, and taking some ownership of it. “It speaks so much to how music is different things to different people,” says Kumar, reflecting on the game’s legacy. “We were able to create this thing that people could bring themselves to by playing the level and seeing what we have to say about it, or by taking those pieces and making their own stories with it.”
Despite the challenges of working with a major artist like Beck, the team found that his involvement was well worth the added complications. “With this, we were sort of changing the idea of what authorship means - what does it mean to have a completed piece of music? So Beck was a great match because just before we had talked to him he had released an album that was just sheet music,” says Liem, referring to Beck’s sheet music album, Song Reader, which encouraged listeners to record their own versions of his songs for YouTube, just as so many Sound Shapes players have remixed the pieces from “Cities” into thousands of creative levels. Liem continues, “so he’s obviously interested in experimenting with ways of releasing music that aren’t an album on CD.”
Beck has never released “Cities” or any of his Sound Shapes tracks in any other form. They exist today, only as interactive songs inside the game. “Cities” lives almost exclusively inside that context, and the team is proud of that fact. “We’re the only people to hear those songs the way he recorded them,” recalls Kumar, “We were basically told that as far as he’s concerned, the versions in the game are the versions that should be out there. That’s something I appreciate and I think Beck understood that when he gave it to us.”