Sure, we've got musical video games. But we've yet to have a real video game musical, a game that brings the goofy, earnest energy of musical theatre onto a console or PC and lets us play our part.
For a long time, it's felt like an inevitability — people love musicals! They love video games! Who wouldn't want a musical game? And yet one hasn't yet emerged — the Glee karaoke game for Wii felt like the closest thing we had. (Needless to say, that wasn't quite what I was looking for.)
Two upcoming games, both of which may well be video game musicals, have caught my attention, albeit in very different ways. One comes from a source you might expect, and the other comes from the wide world of independent video game development. Both seek to tell a story through puzzles, exploration, and glorious song.
It's no surprise that Disney is working on a game that's more or less a video game musical. After all, Disney has given us some of the great animated film musicals, and they've got an incomparably rich musical history. So when I first saw the super enjoyable opening cinematic to Epic Mickey 2: The Power Of Two, I couldn't help but wonder: Is Disney finally making a full-on musical game?
Last week I spoke with Jim Dooley, the composer behind the music of Epic Mickey 2 as well as its predecessor, Epic Mickey. I put the question to him: Is Epic Mickey 2 a video game musical?
"Yes," Dooley said, "in that the actual songs drag the plot forward. That's essentially what a musical is, it's like, I think the saying is, 'When you can't say it, sing it, when you can't sing it, dance it.' That's kind of the idea, because there's subtext in songs, and it's hard to get that in dialogue only."
In the case of the introductory sequence (embedded a bit down), Dooley said that this is the classic "Charlatan Song," like those sung by Jafar or Scar in Disney films past. "The Mad Doctor is… well, the opening song is that he's conning Mickey and the town of Wasteland. The way music can do that, it's a charlatan song, but the words are sincere, and that's where the subtext comes out."
Dooley knows a thing or two about telling a story using music — he's the man behind the lovely soundtrack to the far-too-often-overlooked TV gem Pushing Daisies, among many other credits, and worked with Hans Zimmer on a ton of films. Given the fact that Dooley studied with Disney music legend Buddy Baker (and the fact that Pushing Daisies not-so-stealthily transformed into a Kristin Chenoweth musical vehicle), it seemed like only a matter of time before Dooley made a proper musical.
Dooley says that he'd love to do more straight-up musical stuff — following in the footseps of legends like Alan Menken (who wrote the bulk of the music for Disney's musicals, from The Little Mermaid to Tangled) and legendary film composer Marvin Hamlisch, to write musical scores and also write songs.
But then, not all of the characters in Epic Mickey 2 will be singing, and it doesn't sound like the game will feature musical gameplay specifically, or at least not much of it — it'll very much be a video game that's a musical, not a music game, and it sounds like all if not most of the musical stuff will take place in cutscenes. In that sense, it's much more traditional than a video game musical could be — a game that involved the player actually performing music along with the story, and building an interactive score that adapts to the player's input, could be very cool as well.
That's something independent game developer Deirdra Kiai (who recently made the adventure game Life Flashes By) is also tackling with her own unique angle and personal touch. Kiai's game, Dominique Pamplemousse in "It's All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!" is a work-in-progress (which you can help fund on indiegogo) that looks to become an adventure game take on the video game musical.
In Pamplemousse, players take on the role of Dominique, a down and out private investigator who needs to solve a big case in order to make the rent. The game has a demo that can be played for free online, and if you're anything like me, you'll likely find it as charming as heck.
That's for two reasons. First of all is the music, a whacky blend of sounds all created by Kiai. This is far from the sweeping orchestras and jazz bands of most musicals — Kiai is a brass player, and so most of the soundtrack consists of euphonium, tuba, and muted cornet notes. Kiai sings the part of Dominique with a charming style that matches with the main character's general bummed nature. Kiai mentions the famous "A Pirate I Was Meant To Be" segment of Monkey Island 3, in which Guybrush Threepwood involuntarily engages in a musical segment, as an inspiration for the game.
The second reason the game is so charming is that the whole thing is stop-motion animated, featuring characters made of clay. As you can see from the video here, the whole thing is very winning. As players go through the demo, pick up objects, and look at the world, Dominique will start to sing. The characters will pause to line the words up with the backing music, but it's cool how well it al works. "I divide each piece of music into a looping main section and corresponding verses that can be played in any order," Kiai told me in an email. "I have the game engine set up so that it keeps track of the current beat & measure, and only plays queued-up verses on-beat at the start of a measure."
The challenge, of course, will be keeping a balance between musical segments and non-musical segments. Kiai agrees, saying that the biggest challenge going forward will be giving the player enough to do. "Adventure games as a whole are already a much slower-paced kind of game than most other genres, so when you include music and precise timing issues into the mix, it's really important to avoid becoming repetitive and tedious. Splitting singing parts into smaller chunks and writing verses that can be assembled non-linearly is one way I'm already trying to deal with this."
That kind of writing is certainly quite a bit different than the more traditional way a musical is written, and opens the door to all kinds of other weird new musical gameplay types. "I'd love to see a musical RPG," Kiai told me, "with Rock Band-esque rhythm gameplay instead of combat. Playing in a band, I sometimes feel like I'm in an MMO and that the band is my guild and our gigs are quests. I don't have the resources right now to get such a game developed, but if I were to have the opportunity to work on such a game in the future, I'd be thrilled."
You know what, I'd love to see that too! And actually, given the absolute embarrassment of riches music gamers have been seeing lately, it feels like it's only a matter of time before we get something like that. While we wait, I'd be happy to play either Epic Mickey 2 or Dominique Pamplemousse.
Dominique Pamplemousse [Indiegogo]