Big name bands from The Beatles to Aerosmith have contributed to video games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Indie acts have made their own forays, like Jim Guthrie, who contributed an impressive soundtrack for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery a few years ago. Canadian hip-hop is finding a place here, too: rapper Cadence Weapon brought his tracks to the recently released mobile game Loud on Planet X.
Just like with other music-based games, you can choose to be one of several stars, but with a Canadian indie slant. Loud on Planet X features musicians such as Shad, Fucked Up, July Talk, Tegan and Sara, Metric and Cadence Weapon.
Once you select your act, the band rocks out on a stage with one of their signature tracks, and you have to tap to the beat to shoot lasers at aliens encroaching on them. Getting the timing right can be tricky, but nobody ever said that defending Canadian indie musicians from aliens was going to be easy.
Music and gaming will be the subject of one of the talks at North by Northeast's Future Land conference in Toronto on June 15, where Cadence Weapon will discuss his involvement with Loud on Planet X.
In the runup to his talk at NXNE, I spoke with Cadence Weapon, AKA Rollie Pemberton, who's living in Toronto these days after moving here from Montreal (by way of Edmonton). He told me what inspired him to get involved in this project, and why a growing number of artists like him want to make music for video games.
Motherboard: How did you get into gaming? Were you playing a lot of video games as a kid?
Cadence Weapon: I was a huge gamer growing up, starting with NES. It's interesting how my gaming dovetailed with my interest in music. I have all these mental associations with certain albums and video games, and maybe it's due to how deep I was into pop culture.
Actually, before I got into music I wanted to design my own video game. I was making illustrations and mapping games out, and that was my first major passion. But once I heard about all the math involved in creating games, I was out of it.
What did you find appealing about gaming, compared to other diversions?
It stems from an interest in storytelling and it's something I connected with rap music because music is inherently about storytelling. With gaming, you are in it and it's immersive and there's something exciting about that, especially for a young kid.
The adventure aspect also appealed to me, even though I've never been on the D&D tip, but that Final Fantasy series…wow. Final Fantasy 7 really appealed to me thanks to all those futuristic cities in the game, and I could see the connections of these cities to ones in the real world.
When I first started making my own music, I used to get beats from other people, but thought "Oh, that doesn't sound like me," and then I started making my own beats. It was all done in a very rudimentary way on my computer, and I was finding my music was like video game music, because almost instinctively it went in that direction. Some beats had that 8-bit squelchy Space Invaders-type sound.
If you look back at my first album, a lot of people said the beats reminded them of retro video games, like in the song 'Sharks'. Even in the video for 'Sharks', we added gaming elements like scenes from Frogger.
Seeing as you've been gaming for a while, how do you think music in video games has evolved?
It's changed dramatically. Today video game music is almost equal to music in a film, with that same attention to detail.
When video games first came out, they had all these limitations musically, but I actually found that appealing because of those limitations, and I felt like I had limits as a producer since all I had was a computer and no musical training.
It's strange, but when I hear the music from a game like Chrono Trigger, I hear something that I feel like I can get close to. I'm not sure what it is.
Your involvement in Loud on Planet X might inspire Canadian musicians to get into gaming. So what other opportunities would you like to see made available for Canadian musicians in gaming?
Rather than a game using my existing songs, like with Loud on Planet X, I like the idea of making an original song for a game, from start to bottom, with the game in mind. I would love to be in something like NBA 2K, where I see rappers making tracks just on basketball or the game.
I'd also want to get into scoring, because I do a lot of my own production already. That would be one of my biggest dreams as a musician—to score a video game.
The explosion of mobile gaming is equal to when the indie music scene came up in the early 2000s. It's now levelled the playing field. We've seen how it's become more like "I don't have to go just to EA Sports to work on a game" because a musician can work with a small team of developers like [Toronto-based studio] Pop Sandbox and Loud on Planet X and he can have the opportunity to do something in music and gaming, with that same indie ethos we've seen in Canadian music.
I've seen a lot of rock and EDM and atmospheric music make it into video games, but not a lot of hip-hop (except for sports games). Do you think game publishers need to respect the value of hip-hop for soundtracks or in-game play?
I don't think it's the respect thing but a creativity thing. Can [game publishers] think outside the box and maybe have a trap soundtrack for their next zombie game? Obviously R&B and rap genres are dominating music and pop charts, and I think that should reflect in video games, but that's not the case. It will take a few people to break down those barriers. I'm a creative person and willing to do that.
Musicians are thinking of every possible avenue to survive in this industry. It's up to us as artists to get more creative about how to—and I hate to say such an icky word—monetize what we do.