Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Worlds of Sound: Indie Games, Proceduralism, and the Aesthetics of Emergence

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Worlds of Sound: Indie Games, Proceduralism, and the Aesthetics of Emergence

Article excerpt

Introduction: Sound Design, Procedural Media, and Generative Aesthetics

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, 'indie' became a widespread descriptor for a gaming culture comprising developers, players, and distributors interested in creating an alternative to what was seen as a glutted, uninspired, and corporatised game market. The rise of the indie aesthetic has followed a number of parallel social and technical developments in gaming, including the proliferation of gestural controllers such as the Wiimote and Xbox Kinect (Barr et al. 2007); open-world, 'sandbox'-style games such as the popular Minecraft (2009); an ever-expanding market for 'casual' mobile gaming ( Juul 2010); and an increased community of amateur game developers and distributors. As a set of aesthetic and technical practices among game designers and developers, the 'indie' label has deployed and foregrounded key features of video games in the first decades of the twenty-first century, including dynamic ambient audio, computer-generated simulations of natural ecologies, and a focus on game mechanics in contrast to visual fidelity or narrative complexity. Together, these cultural, aesthetic, and technological shifts typify the ways in which experimental, independent, or alternative approaches to game design both deploy digital aesthetics typical of large-scale studio development and yet also attempt to differentiate their small-scale offerings from those of major software companies.

Existing game studies scholarship has provided useful surveys of the relationship between indie game aesthetics and the oppositional attitudes of indie culture (Lipkin 2012; Ruffino 2012; Guevara-Villalobos 2011; Martin and Deuze 2009). Ian Bogost characterises this aesthetic through what he describes as the 'proceduralist style' of game design, highlighting trends such as an orientation towards process and introspection, a foregrounding of game rules and mechanics, as well as an abstraction of visual content (rather than verisimilitude) (2009). Arguably, these features are most noticeable in the sound of indie games, which often functions as an aural guide through the mechanics of the game. Yet, despite the rich history of 'procedural' audio and 'generative' music throughout twentieth and twenty-first century artistic movements, questions surrounding sound and music in games are noticeably absent in Bogost's discussion.1 Indeed, the combined aesthetic and technical practices of indie game developers and sound designers remain to be theorised by music and media scholars, even as the sonic and musical aspects of such practices are understood by players and scholars as crucial elements in both procedural game design and in discussions surrounding the meanings of indie game culture.

Through analyses of sound design in games such as Fract OSC (2014) and Proteus (2013), this essay aligns the aesthetics and creative practices of game designers in the indie gaming community with traditions of generative art and music from the late twentieth century.2 In doing so, I outline a broader musical turn that has occurred within gaming culture-one in which sound becomes a primary mechanic in the shaping of procedural and generative aesthetics at the heart of various forms of digital art. While new media or 'post-media' aesthetics have often prioritised continuity or rupture in relation to disciplinary histories like those of cinema (Manovich 2001), literature (Hayles 2008), or fine art (Bourriaud 1998), the contemporary practices and historical precedents of generative aesthetics ground an understanding of the gaming experience as establishing both a historical lineage with earlier forms of procedural art, as well as an increased turn towards sound as a key medium for design and creativity in interactive media. Thinking more historically about the ways in which proceduralisms arise and recombine in digital gaming, we would see Fract OSC mapping the dynamics of early indie puzzle games such as Myst (1993) to the musical interests of rhythm and gesture-oriented games such as Frequency (2001), resulting in a more non-linear gaming experience based on exploration through a world whose mechanics are defined by its sonic structure and its gestural articulation by the player. …

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