February 5, 2013 12:00 AM | John Polson
Q-Games' Pixeljunk 4AM is a fascinating foray into dynamic, interactive music using the PlayStation Move controller; though the team calls it a "virtual audio canvas," it's sort of challenging to describe.
The game hinges on the core ideas of mixing different musical channels -- and of sharing sonic landscapes with other people. The team again worked with electronic musician and multimedia artist Baiyon, a PixelJunk mainstay, and the unique result has earned PixelJunk 4AM a Best Audio nomination in this year's Independent Games Festival.
As part of our ongoing series of interviews with IGF nominees, we catch up with lead designer Rowan Parker to talk about the game's style and inspiration, working with Baiyon, and the important role of indies in the changing landscape.
What background do you have making games?
I've been designing games for about six years now. My first job in the industry was with Koei in Tokyo. I now work at Q-Games in Kyoto, Japan on the PixelJunk series and am currently heading up the next big PixelJunk game, codenamed PixelJunk 1-6.
What development tools did you use?
We always develop our own in-house engine & tools for the PixelJunk games. We find this is the best way to milk every last bit of optimized performance out of the PlayStation 3.
How did you come up with the game's concept?
Dylan [Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert] and DJ Baiyon had been wanting to create a musical experience using the PS Move controller for quite some time. PixelJunk 4AM was the final realization of that idea.
It seems like an oblique question, but I've seen reviewers struggle with how to talk about 4AM; "music visualizer" "instrument" "toy", et cetera -- how do you describe it yourself, and who have you wanted to reach and engage with something that defies boundaries a little bit?
It's definitely hard for reviewers to talk about when they have no reference point to compare 4AM against; there's simply nothing else like it. We were really challenging people to think about what a "game" is, and the role of interaction between players, music and a live audience.
We dubbed it a "Virtual Audio Canvas" as the music literally exists in the space around you. I'm glad we've been able to give regular people the experience of performing a music set live to thousands of people! Most people would never get to experience that in their lifetimes.
You worked with Baiyon for the individual tracks and, I imagine, in terms of the overarching sonic landscape. What was that process like, and how did it differ from previous work with him doing soundtracks for other PixelJunk games?
It certainly doesn't compare to just a regular soundtrack from normal games. 4AM's music is intrinsically linked to the Audio Canvas for control of the sound. Without Baiyon working closely with us to split each song into its core channels of Kick, Bass, Rhythm and Synth, we wouldn't have been able to analyze such granular musical elements and offer control of them to the player. This was an advantage unique to working very closely and directly with a DJ.
What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?
Our artists worked together with Baiyon using many sources of inspiration for the visualizers in 4AM. Anything from patching a KORG synthesizer to the stargate scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Dear Super Hexagon. I can't bear another minute without you by my side. We must elope. I'll await you tonight beyond the old mill. Rowan. <3
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
Right now, indies are making the "gamer's games." Larger publishers can continue to push out "opiates for the masses" while indies remain small and nimble enough to be truly creative.
That's not to say all big budget games are terrible, but there's something elegant in watching how indies always seem to make it to each new platform first with a heap of real off-the-wall creativity in tow. Game on!
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra.]