One morning, you may find yourself throwing eye-daggers at friends at 6 a.m. for repeatedly blasting Mario Odyssey’s theme song. Then, later, involved in the stage clean up of half-consumed beer, cucumber sparkling water, and sweat from one of your favorite musicians from one of your beloved game series. E3 is weird.
Apart from E3 2017 being opened up to fans making navigation of the show floor feel a bit more challenging than last year’s, at its core the show was much of the same. Developers and industry folk blaring trailers and housing enticing demo stations for future games. Elaborate set displays are a norm at any E3. This year, Yakuza’s inspired build of a street in Tokyo reminded me of my late nights in that city in 2006. Super Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City drew a packed area with semblance of lines unable to be differentiated from the next.
It’s only my second E3 attendance but in the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly aware of game marketing. Specifically, how music litters every trailer at the conferences. Music’s a huge part of most video games. Soundtracks and sound design are a must that will enhance a gaming experience when done right. Usually they’re comprised of dedicated composers creating scores for a game. But licensed music isn’t out of the ordinary either.
Sitting in Microsoft’s conferences this year and last, the games were introduced by current popular music and covers of songs decades old. In 2016, Microsoft implemented the ability for gamers to listen to their own music while playing with its Xbox Live feature, “Background Music”. There’s a place for licensed music to intersect with games. Final Fantasy XV’s opening theme, “Stand By Me” was a cover performed by none other than indie rock band Florence and the Machine. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises are built around licensed music.
Then there’s what Devolver Digital and some of the indie games under its publishing banner are doing.
Before Hotline Miami’s 2012 release, I had distinct definitions of what videogame music embodied. In my mind, it was separate from what I refer to as “regular” radio airplay music. Here now in 2017, there’s a blurring of my convictions thanks to the series. It’s why amidst being bombarded with the (apologies in advance if you like the godawful song) grating jazzy, vocal tunes of Mario Odyssey’s theme and Just Dance’s pop artist Bebe Rexha paraded around Ubisoft’s stage, I found solace on Devolver’s lot at their Indie Picnic E3 Creator Afterparty last Wednesday, June 14th.
Occupying a space that blended creativity through visual styles of various indie games with soundtracks that aren’t exactly your standard composed fair—not anything like the sort you’d find with JRPG genres, for example—Devolver’s parking lot gathering was its own entity. The arcade cabinets of indie games and the developers chatting about their work created a laid back atmosphere—one with people sitting around having a couple of beers and food courtesy of the publishing company. It was less hectic than the sprawling space of the convention center, felt less manufactured (but let’s be real, at the end of the day, they’re still there to highlight their business), and much more intimate.
For the featured games themselves and the vibe at Devolver, it’s a pushback against what I used to expect of games and their utilization of music. Some of their indie titles instead take talent not just from game designers but musicians and artists to craft something cool and wholly different.
On Wednesday night, three musical artists featured on a couple of Devolver’s biggest games played setlists which highlighted that difference—that a videogame soundtrack doesn’t have to be classically expansive compositions, or fall to licensing the most popular music on the airwaves. The evening was akin to bringing your obscure obsessions with underground bands (you’ve convinced yourself no one else has heard of) into the forefront for a few hours, where you could share the experience with a select few. Was it kinda hipster? Yeah, maybe. But, for me, it was the place to be.
There’s nothing I like better than being at a concert. What I don’t like is going completely unprepared and seeing someone I have no idea about. I did the latter here (for shame!) but came away with a new artist to check out, and a renewed interest in a game that’s been on my radar for awhile now. It’s almost embarrassing I haven’t played Enter the Gungeon yet but Doseone’s set opener pushed it to the top of my list.
As the musician responsible for Gungeon’s intensely layered and heart-pounding soundtrack, it makes sense that Doseone’s set was incredible. It was energetic, he was funny with quips in between tracks about woodpeckers, death by kittens and god knows what else. It was pure joy watching him work. He’s everything great as to what makes live music so damned good. Simply put: he killed it.
As if being thoroughly entertained by Doseone wasn’t enough, El Huervo’s set happened next to cool down my dancing. For those not in the know, Niklas Åkerblad’s the cover artist for the brilliant Hotline Miami games, as well as a musician who contributed to the games’ soundtracks under the pseudonym El Huervo. It was a low-key set, with Dennis Wedin (the artist from Dennaton, the creators of Hotline Miami) on bass, in tow.
“Don’t fuck it up,” I joked with Åkerblad on the Tuesday before his performance. I was repeating a comment he had made the day prior when he hoped that the show would go well. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous through our short text exchange. But when Jose (Nach) and I met with him right before his scheduled Wednesday night slot, he was eager and focused to get all that energy out. Having discussed his musical process with him weeks ago, I was curious to know if and how the words from his interview would all translate and be channeled into a live show. Would that rawness and inner turmoil he uses to create music be present on stage?
I can tell you that Åkerblad’s foot tambourine game was on point. Okay, his regular tambourine game was too.
And that El Huervo did not, in fact, ‘fuck it up’.
The set began with a warm-up of beats, and then launched into songs from El Huervo’s extensive discography. And near the end, they did not forget to play at least one of the tracks used in Hotline Miami that’s become a part of the series’ identity. At times, the performance was chill, but always expressive. The show ended with Wedin bolting, Åkerblad curled up on the stage, and Jose holding a trash bag to aid in the cleanup of the multiple liquids left on the set. Because safety first, you know?
“We did the best we could,” Åkerblad told me after. “At least I didn’t hurt myself.”
It looked a little dicey from where I was standing at one point. But, yep. I can confirm that no El Huervos were hurt during the performance in front of a live audience.
In other words, it was a perfectly good concert experience.
And it’s one that didn’t end with El Huervo because the final billing belonged to another band featured on Hotline Miami’s soundtracks, Magic Sword. If I could aptly convey how awesome they sounded, I’d do so. Unfortunately, it’s not easily described by mere words but I can provide a picture of the stage get up.
They were fantastic, electric and the crowd gathered around was always engaged. They sounded great and it was a good end to the evening when the lights shut off as their set ended. Magic Sword, and the other major acts on the stage that evening are a testament to how excellent and dynamic the creative approach to music and games meshes for their respective indie offerings.
E3 2017 was a mix of the strange, expected, and sometimes, bland. Booths all vied for attention. It was a barrage of sights and sounds, with my ears attuned to music. It’s a lot for the senses, honestly. But it was amazing to be able to spend a few hours away from the main convention center to soak in the musical talent from artists as they continued to challenge the way I think about videogame soundtracks—with live performances that were straight up rock.
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