Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Secret Life as a Video Game Composer

The Global Game Jam happens twice yearly, most recently being September 20th through the 22nd. It's an event where a couple hundred super geeks such as myself come together and break into teams to see who can create the best video game from scratch in 48 hours. This last one was my third Game Jam. They get better each year.

I'm going to try to put into words what excited me so much about this experience. There were twelve official members of our team. This is huge compared to other teams... And if you have ever tried working on a team of people, especially those who don't know each other that well, you know how much of a disaster this could have been. But it wasn't. At all. We were an oiled machine, working day and night, pausing only to run down the hall for food or to relieve our bladders, laying down on the floor in front of our computers only when our eyes refused to stay open a moment longer, then get up and get back to work.

Our team pretty much filled an entire computer lab. On the back row were the programmers - Ben, Mat, Josh, Stephen. Next row were the artists and animators - Ian, Leonard and Jessica. Holding the next row all to himself, a bit of a jack of all trades, was Jeremy. On the front were Bill, who was in charge of sounds, and me, producing the music. Britt, working with Jake as project managers, was the central communication between us... the motivator, idea filter and public relations.

I'm probably doing nothing to capture the essence of the experience, and I apologize. It was awesome. I personally love being at home, hate being out, especially staying out, when I could be writing at my house or kicking back in my recliner. And yet I felt absolutely at home in that computer lab. Everyone was like-minded. Everyone was friends.

I think one reason I enjoyed it so much (besides the obvious fact that I love telling stories, writing music and playing video games) was because of the constant amount of high, creative energy...

But for me, that comes at a cost. Both years I've produced music I had a similar cycle.

Friday -

I sit down once we've all agreed upon the game's theme. I lay out my musical snippets and ideas and look them over, finding the best, rejecting the rest. Then I start writing. I quickly get stuck... a stupid instrument, a riff that's just weak, an idea I just can't expand on...

Friday becomes Saturday - 

I wander to the art department to see the graphics they're producing. Something sparks inside me and I run back to my computer, laying down tracks.
Then I get stuck again. And this time I'm really stuck. So stuck that I wonder why I do it to myself. I grow quiet. Britt comes around and asks how the music's coming.
'Go ____ your face,' I say. Then I apologize. Then I wander around.
Bill says, 'Why do you do it?'
I say, 'I don't know.'
Eventually I give up for the night, settling down in a heap to catch three or four hours of slumber. I wake up feeling better. I sit down at the computer. I shift a melody over an uncharted chord progression... 
BLAM!
There it is. I'm through the cloud. I sit back, but not too far because I don't think people will understand why my eyes are filling with tears. I listen to the song over and over. A hundred times. I tweak and add and subtract and edit. Only then do I show it off. Only then is it ready.

We won, by the way. Well, as much as we could have. Our game was amongst the top 5 entries. We'll find out in a week and a half if we won first place or not.

I've mentioned this idea here before. How I love to compose music but I hate deadlines. I get so stressed out over them. But not like simmering stress, it's volcanic and all at once. And just as quickly, it passes, once the creative block comes down.

Will it be that same way with books? Once I'm writing, no longer just for fun and for myself but for a living, for the people to whom I owe books, will the process treat me the same way? Once there's a deadline? Can I handle that much pressure? Do I really want to find out the hard way?? 
And if not, why do I love Game Jam so much, despite the lows?

Here's a link to the song I produced for the game. This particular song was heavy on elecronica, light on actual instruments. If you don't like techno or video games, I can't guarantee you'll like it. But don't take my word for it.

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