Archive for July, 2016


I share two traits in common with gold.

The first is that I’m worth over a thousand dollars per ounce, and the second is that I’m highly malleable. And by that I mean I’m pretty impressionable; easily molded to suit whoever is interested. I’m generally pretty happy to change aspects of myself if someone wants me to.

The problem is that sometimes it can be a bit hard to tell where other people end and I begin. I know this sounds like an identity crisis. Perhaps it is.

Most of the things that people associate with me are things that I’ve changed over the years to suit one person or another. Take my musical tastes, the clothes that I wear, the sports I enjoy, my career path, the TV shows I watch, the words I use to communicate… I didn’t arrive at any of these on my own. Let’s run down the list, shall we?

Musical tastes? Between 2003 when I started actually listening to non-video game music and today, the vast majority of music in my life has been music supplied by various girls who I’ve been trying to impress. They’d send me songs by their favourite bands and I’d tell them how much I enjoyed them. In years past I’d even go out and buy the band t-shirts of those bands because I figured doing so would be worth some brownie points. Scrolling down my iTunes, there are only a few artists that I can say I arrived at on my own and that I didn’t start listening to because someone else thought I’d be cooler if I did.

Clothing? Anyone with eyes can see that my wardrobe has completely changed over the last four years or so. And anyone with a brain knows why. Perhaps it’s a change for the better, but it’s not something I would have come to on my own.

Sports is more of a mixed bag. Things like curling and fencing I got into on my own (trust me, no one thought I’d be cooler if I watched a lot of curling on TV), but baseball is a product of my mother, and I was indifferent toward hockey until I started hanging out with a new group of friend around 2004. They were all nuts about hockey, and so of course I couldn’t be “one of the guys” unless I too was nuts about hockey, and so I told them I was a diehard Calgary Flames fan. In reality I only had a passive interest in the Flames at the time and had only watched a handful of their games over the years. I could name exactly one player on the team: Jarome Iginla. But in order to fit in I started watching the games and learning the players’ names. As fate would have it, that was the year the Flames ended a seven-year run of futility and made the finals out of nowhere. Had that not happened, perhaps my love for the sport would have faded once I lost contact with those guys three years later.

Career? The extent to which my parents have pushed me on this front is worthy of an entire blog of its own. Pretty much from birth I was offered the choice between becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Fortunately I happened to enjoy studying law, but I can’t help but wonder where I would have ended up if I’d be able to make a decision without any outside influence. Perhaps I’d have ended up in law regardless. Perhaps not.

TV? Aside from sports and the occasional Disney show, I don’t think I’d have watched any TV in the last decade if not for other people telling me what to watch and when to watch it.

Even my speech isn’t my own, and this is the worst one of all. The fact is, most of what I say comes from one source or another. “Guys?” “Let us fuck” “I’m so tired I smell colours” “In some cultures, that means we’re married” “Jacuzz” “The haircut cycle of shame” “Glorious”. All of these and many, many more have been pulled from some other source shamelessly without crediting said source. In fact, I try my best to pull material from places that I know my particular audience won’t know to make me seem more original so that whoever I’m talking to will find me funny and like me more. But sometimes it’s difficult because I can’t tell the difference between an original thought and something I’ve stolen. It’s pathetic, and it makes me wonder whether I’ve even had an original thought in my life.

In the short term, being malleable is probably a good thing. It has allowed me to make friends. Not many, but enough. People often gravitate towards others with similar interests, and so being able to convince myself that I was interested in all these things was important. Like a chameleon, I adapted to my surroundings. I was a different person depending on who I was talking to. That may sound disingenuous, but I had a couple of great years at the end of elementary school because of it, and a couple of really great years at the end of high school because of it.

After a while, adapting to how I thought other people wanted me to be became routine. I lived my life trying to make sure that people were satisfied with me. I still do.

And now, I can’t help but wonder what parts of me are actually me, and what parts only exist because one day I decided that it was more important for other people to like me than it was for me to like myself.

Maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but I think this is at least somewhat concerning.

Advertisements

Video Game Soundtracks

I remember being twelve years old.

Ms. Nalli, in her eternal wisdom, had assigned us a project: We were to develop a presentation about our favourite music video.

The problem was, I’d never watched a music video before. I didn’t even know where I would go to find a music video – bear in mind that this was 2003, well before YouTube. Ms. Nalli may as well have asked me to locate some cocaine and bring it to the class.

The bigger problem was, I didn’t like music.

In the end, I flipped through channels on TV, and it so happened that I eventually landed on Country Music Television. Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” came on, I got a chuckle out of the music video, and away I went.

You’ve never seen me half-ass an assignment like I did this one. I could not have cared less about my presentation, and my cavalier attitude rubbed Ms. Nalli the wrong way. She smote me with a “D” on that assignment. As someone who probably cared too much about his grades in elementary school, that should have upset me. Yet incredibly, my indifference toward music was powerful enough to defeat my academic concerns, and I shrugged it off.

 

I tell that story occasionally whenever I’m asked what music I liked as a kid, because people can’t believe that someone could hit their teenage years without being a fan of some kind of music.

Upon further reflection though, I may have had one crucial detail wrong in this story all these years:

I did like music back then. Of course I did.

True, I probably hadn’t ever seen a music video. True, I probably had only a vague idea of what MTV and MuchMusic were.

But by the time I turned 13, I’d already played a ton of video games. And I’d already listened to a ton of video game soundtracks.

 

When most people think about video games, they tend to think of the graphics and the gameplay first – not about music. And to me, that’s crazy. A good soundtrack can salvage a shred of dignity for an otherwise awful game, and a bad soundtrack can turn an incredible game into a forgettable one.

The key is to anticipate what the player is feeling at any given point in the game, and compose music to match. It sounds simple, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. When done right, you’ll give the player an experience that they will remember forever.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Pokemon Red/Blue/Green (1996)

Back in 1996, handheld games relied on extremely primitive technology to set the tone. Visuals were colourless and unimpressive, and the audio wasn’t much more than a series of beeps and boops.

How on earth do you get the player to quiver in fear then?

Lavender Town, that’s how. Play the first four notes of this theme in front of anyone who played Pokemon Red/Blue in the 90s and you’ll see them visibly shudder as a chill crawls down their spine.

The player first arrives in Lavender Town after a slog through a particularly annoying deep dark cave. You’re exhausted, your Pokemon are dying, and you just want to hear the comforting sounds of an upbeat city theme.

Instead you enter a town which has as its defining feature not a Pokemon Gym, like every other city you’ve been in up to this point in the game, but a graveyard. It’s unnerving in the extreme, and the theme song just drives the point home.

This theme is rather legendary among gamers for the myths surrounding it. You can read all about Lavender Town Syndrome here.

Golden Sun (2001)

The first two games in the Golden Sun series will take you a combined 60-75 hours to get through. This theme plays for a total of one scene in the first two hours of the game, and that’s it.

Despite that, it’s still fresh in my memory nearly 15 years later. Why?

Once again, it’s because the composer managed to capture the player’s emotional state at that point in the game perfectly. Like the lead up to Lavender Town, the lead up to Inner Sol Sanctum (where this theme plays) is a bit of a slog. Once you get through, you find yourself in a mysterious and sacred place. The beginning of the theme fits that tone perfectly. At the same time, the player is aware that some major shit is about to go down, and the theme acknowledges this by building in strength over the first minute or so. It’s subtle, but it’s extremely effective.

Golden Sun is one of my favourite games of all time, and I could probably come up with 20 more examples of killer themes used in the game, but I’m going to exercise some restraint and move on.

Sonic Heroes (2003)

Unlike the first two games I’ve looked at, Sonic Heroes was a bad game. It wasn’t unplayable, but it certainly served to foreshadow the unfortunate direction that Sega would be heading with its most famous mascot.

I don’t have any records to show how many hours I put into this game in 2004, but a safe estimate would be in the 40 hour range. Those 40 hours are a black hole; I can barely remember any of it.

But I do remember the final boss battle. Not because it was a particularly exciting or intense final boss battle, but because of the battle theme.

I think it’s a risky move to put lyrics in a video game soundtrack. Throwing in lyrics makes it more difficult to establish a connection with the player’s emotional state, and most of the time you’ll only end up distracting the player.

Used sparingly however, lyrics can be effective. This particular theme stands in contrast to the rest of the game’s soundtrack, which is purely instrumental aside from a few intro themes. It works because the lyrics aren’t overly complicated, and the same refrain is repeated over and over: “Let me show you just what I’m made of.” That’s exactly what you want to hear when beating up on a game’s final boss.

Without this theme song, I’d likely have forgotten all about Sonic Heroes. Instead, I’m still talking about it 12 years later.

Xenoblade X (2015)

Finally, here’s an example of what not to do.

Xenoblade X is the spiritual successor to a 2011 game called Xenoblade Chronicles. Now, Xenoblade Chronicles had it all. A beautiful world to explore, captivating characters, a plot full of twists and turns, cockney accents, and a killer soundtrack. It probably ranks somewhere between #10 and #8 on my list of favourite games ever. Lofty praise indeed.

When Xenoblade X was announced, I may have peed a little. For seven months I waited for the game to be translated into English. I was ready to dump 150 hours into this thing.

Then I got into my first battle, and the above theme started to play.

There’s nothing wrong with the first 40 seconds or so. It’s a battle theme, so something up tempo and aggressive fits the mood perfectly.

And then 40 seconds in, the song changes its tone, its feel, and even its genre. It’s a sudden,  jarring shift that takes the player completely out of the game for a moment. It goes from being a theme that meshes with the game’s fantasy theme reasonably well to one that isn’t even close. Rap and futuristic fantasy is not a match made in heaven. Instead of complementing the player’s emotions, this theme creates a discord which pulls the player out of the immersive experience they were having.

Aggravating matters further, this is the standard battle theme, which means that if you play Xenoblade X, you’re going to be hearing that music over, and over, and over again. If nothing else, it encouraged me to try to defeat enemies in 40 seconds or less, lest I have to hear that garbage again.

I ended up playing the game on mute – something I virtually never do – and ultimately I just lost interest.

 

Video game soundtracks are extremely important. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, they can absolutely make or break a gaming experience.

Next time you’re gaming- be it PC, console, handheld, or smartphone – put down the controller for a moment and just try and take in the music. If the composer has done their job, you won’t regret it.

Objective Truth

“Objective truth has no relevance here.”

Those words carry a heavy meaning, coming from a defence lawyer.

From a practical standpoint, I get it: In a lot of cases, most of the witnesses are going to be people who have a vested interest in the outcome. In some cases, all of the witnesses are people with something at stake. In that scenario, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to tell you the objective truth. Instead. everyone is going to twist the truth in one way or another to serve their own purpose. Even if someone does tell you the objective truth, there’s no way of verifying it.

In short, searching for the truth just isn’t practical. Fine.

The problem is that not having access to objective truth opens up the possibility of mistakes being made. In very rare situations, it allows for factually innocent people to be incarcerated. More frequently, it allows factually guilty people to go free.

I used to be fine with the latter. I was a big believer that people should walk free, regardless of their factual guilt, unless the Crown could prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ironically, working in criminal law has turned me against that concept a little. In the last month and a half I’ve met a bunch of people who have (probably) done a lot of bad things. And honestly, it’s difficult at times to stomach the thought of some of these people going free. Just picturing the smug faces, happy as can be that they’ve gotten away with something illegal makes me cringe a little bit.

I don’t think anything can be done about this problem though. Errors are going to happen no matter what, and I’d still prefer that factually guilty individuals go free than factually innocent individuals go to jail.

It’s just a bit more difficult to digest when you’re actually in the trenches rather than just reading about cases in a textbook.