“I don’t like musicals,” is what I would always say to my friends. But then I watched Frozen, and I remembered how much I love animated musicals: Aladdin, South Park, Beauty and the Beast. Then I remembered that time I burst out of the Kotaku offices arms outspread in front of hundreds of tourists at Circular Quay singing ‘Let it GO, Let it GOOOOOOO…’ at 4.30pm after a particularly difficult day at work.
Then I remembered there is no such thing as a video game musical and I got a sad. Then I asked myself a question: why isn’t there such a thing as a video game musical?
At one point in time Warren Spector threatened to make a video game musical, and many of us were intrigued, but the end result was Epic Mickey 2. Another platformer with a handful of non-interactive songs. No. That’s not what I wanted. That’s not a video game musical.
Here’s why I think a video game musical is necessary, why I think it’s an important genre that needs to be invented, why I think it would be amazing.
The first, and perhaps most important reason is this: we are already begging to interact with the musical. As human beings we are desperate to interact with music as presented in musicals. When it comes to cinema there are, in my mind, only a handful of genres that have you leave the theatre actually trying to imitate and become what you just watched on screen. Take Martial Arts movies: every child who ever was (questionably) allowed to watch Van Damme movies during the 80s can attest to this. They either tried Karate lessons for a couple of weeks (and gave up) or they had impromptu fights on the playgrounds and tried (unsuccessfully) to do the splits.
It’s the physicality and the wish fulfilment aspect of cinema. Watching someone well practiced and well versed in some sort of skill is inspiring and uplifting. As a child you want to imitate what you just watched — not because of the violence (sorry moral panic police) but because of the dazzling, technical skill involved.
Video games, in a sense, enable us to practice that skill. Often without the skill. They provide us with a safe space to do incredible things that we probably couldn’t do without oodles of talent and years of training. This is why sports games are so popular. I’d argue this is why Street Fighter 2 was so popular. Post Van Damme, an entire generation of kids were pretending to high kick each other in the face, Street Fighter 2 was a perfectly designed outlet.
All of which is a long winded way of explaining that musicals are similar: they are physical expression of skill and technique. We leave the theatre singing the songs, often trying to imitate the dances. I’ve been singing Let it Go for the last month and it does. not. stop. ever.
Both musicals and martial arts movies are the type of experiences you sort of want to interact with. Basic fighting games are ten a penny, so that’s already covered. The altogether too human impulse to sing and dance? That’s a niche that’s simply waiting to be invented, cemented and defined.
Video games that allow its players to interact with music have been successful in the past. Often wildly successful. Guitar Hero is the most obvious example and that, much like fighting games, are based on the very human impulse to watch and imitate people practicing a well honed skill. We’ve all played air guitar, Guitar Hero and — later — Rock Band were brilliantly delivered mechanisms that allowed players to take that stilted form of interaction to a new level. Karaoke and Singstar served a similar impulse.
And on a different level, games like Flower, Child of Eden, Rez, Everyday Shooter — games that subtly intertwine music and sound with mechanics — these are games that engage players on a unique plane. It’s one thing to have your interactions made visible on screen — but all video games do this. When sound is combined with visuals and player input the experience vibrates through your entire being. Imagine a musical that combined the physicality and weight of the best fighting games with the light, engaging vibrations of a game like Child of Eden or Rez? That’s what a video game musical has the potential to do, that’s what a video game musical has the potential to be.
Arguably the closest we’ve had to the video game musical is something like Oendan or Elite Beat Agents. IGF nominated game Dominique Pamplemousse defines itself as a ‘musical detective game’, but it doesn’t quite allow you to interact with the music itself, which is sort of paramount for the type of game I’m suggesting should exist (that’s not a slight of Dominique Pamplemousse, which is a great game for multiple different reasons separate to this discussion).
Elite Beat Agents is a game that makes you feel like you are dancing. It also manages to make you feel as though that dancing is having some sort of impact on the events playing out on screen. This is what I’m looking for — that reward. That actual physical interaction with music, the suspension of disbelief — the wish fulfilment of moving to music, being part of music and affecting music in some mechanical, video game form.
The pivotal scene in Frozen takes place high on a mountaintop. Surrounded by snow, Elsa — after restraining her ability to create snow and ice for most of her life — finally finds the space to practice the incredible gift she’s been blessed with. She sings and, in time to the music, creates incredible structures, staircases, castles. It’s an incredible, gleeful expression of freedom and joy, it’s a celebration of the creative impulse and the moment is elevated by the music itself.
As a gamer, I almost empathise with Elsa. Video games have the power to grant us that feeling — of creating and affecting our environment with music — but we are being restrained. We want to sing and dance! Let us sing and dance dammit! We want to create massive ice sculptures like Elsa, beat up palace guards to the beat like Aladdin — can someone please make this happen?