Where Is My Video Game Musical?

“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?


    Parappa the Rapper?

    Also, that godawful level from Kingdom Hearts 2?

      haha, i was about to mention the Little Mermaid bit in KH2. also Um Jammer Lammy (parappa spin off I think)

      Ugh don't remind me about Atlantica. It's already bad enough that we will have to play it again for a trophy in KH 2.5 but now we'll have to do it with surround sound.

      Atlantica was also my immediate first thought upon seeing this article. Glad other people feel the same.

      HEY!!! that level in Kingdom Hearts 2 wasn't that bad, all you had to do was press a button at the right time, and you got extended version of all the awesome song in The Little Mermaid, and some new ones that aint in any of the 3 little mermaid films


    This will be the closest thing to a video game musical.

      Oh wow, I totally forgot that you made me back that :P

    I haven't played it, but wasn't one of the Epic Mickey titles supposed to be a musical?

      ...and then I read the article....

    The music levels of Rayman have a pretty great interactive feel to them too. Kinda reminds me of that Beat Takeshi take on Zatoichi when all the workers are making a song out of their, er, working.

    Also now I really want to play some more EBA. Where is the sequeeeellllsssss!!

    Last edited 03/02/14 1:21 pm

    They better damn well be skippable cut-scenes, but skippable musicals in a musical game would mean that I'd finish it in around 10 minutes.

    Well it couldn't be a game with musical numbers because that'd just get in the way of the gameplay and annoy people. It couldn't be a Monkey Island style dialogue thing because try as they might, the song from Curse was pretty stilted (albeit hilarious) no matter how good you were at picking the responses in time. It couldn't be a guitar hero style thing because then people would just focus on the buttons and not listen to the song.

    The only way I could see a game musical working is with a dialogue system comparable to Alpha Protocol so you could pick responses but had to do it on a timer which kept the rhythm of the conversation feeling reasonably natural and forced a default response if you didn't select anything.

    If you could have it so you had 3+ states of emotion for each line toggled by holding state-shift buttons while selecting responses it could make for a dynamic experience.

    Think of a Mass Effect musical, Shepard (Femshep naturally because she's the more awesome) is trying to convince the council to let her investigate something potentially important. When the Salarian councillor is haughty and refusing permission for seemingly trivial reasons, Shepard has several response options

    ABXY buttons: 4 basic replies sung in a neutral/conversational tone
    LT+ABXY buttons: Same replies sung in an aggressive tone
    RT+ABXY buttons: Same replies sung in a pleading tone
    LB+ABXY buttons: Same replies sung in an anthemic inspirational tone
    RB+ABXY buttons: Same replies sung in a romantic tone just to confuse the shit out of them (presumably useful for other situations)

    I imagine it'd be a hellishly complicated thing to record and troubleshoot but its the only way I can see it being interactive enough to be satisfying as a game and flowing enough to be satisfying as a musical.

      The only way I could see a game musical working is with a dialogue system comparable to Alpha Protocol so you could pick responses but had to do it on a timer which kept the rhythm of the conversation feeling reasonably natural and forced a default response if you didn't select anything.

      Musicals aside I wish more turn based games would do something like this (maybe not with the forced default). Mass Effect type conversations would work so much better if you could queue up responses and have them come out in a more natural flowing way. Not just with dialogue either. Pokemon could have much more cinematic battles if you could choose your next action while your current turn was still playing out.

    This is going to sound dumb, but I think the Arkham series is the closest we've had to a musical game. It's one of the few games I can think of that gives you that sort of true player controlled rhythm while managing to essentially auto-tune it so no matter what you do it comes out cinematic. Something like Mirror's Edge gives you the tools to dance, but unless you've mastered the controls you just sort of pull off maneuvers without independently of each other without that sort of beat causing them to flow together. You have to play the game and practice before you can enjoy it on that level.
    That's always the biggest hurdle of translating a story from something being told to something being participated in. In a movie Spider-man can just jump blindly, swing around a corner and land on a villains head. In a game you have to get a player to do that confidently without asking them to do it and knowing that they don't have super human reaction times. If they have to do a second take it's screwed up.
    A musical game would require you to have the sort of blunt power you don't normally get in a video game. The sort of Hulk-like power you can't screw up. Even then though it sort of defeats itself because you still have to think about what you're doing and what you'll do next. A good musical seems to be in the moment where a game would have you thinking 'ok, I just caught the hat, now I need to get ready for the cane'. You become the actor in the musical rather than a character participating. That can be rewarding in a skate/Guitar Hero way but I don't think it really captures the spirit of a musical.

    I don't think it's impossible, and I'd love to see someone do it, but I think unless you're willing to settle for something like a mine cart level version of a dialogue tree it's a very tricky design. It seems like no matter how you come at it the game loses flexibility fast.

    I don't have an opinion on video game musicals, I am just glad to see there are more adult males who like Frozen.

    I am alone in the office for a little while and just about to listen to the soundtrack.

      Musicals are awesome, how can people not like them!
      Besides, if people complain...
      ...I don’t care, What they’re going to say...

    I can't even imagine how a video game musical would work. Maybe a headset mic comes packaged with the game and it has some sort of system where you press a button and enter "musical mode" and maybe to progress certain areas like say a depressed NPC is blocking your path you cheer him up by singing....no that sounds ridiculous .

    What about tagging a Bastion style narration system using vocals instead of basic storytelling on to something like Prince of Persia 2008 - that was as much of a rhythm game as anything Harmonix has ever released. It wouldn't need to be constant singing either - if we're dealing with musicals rather than opera then it could just have musical numbers when they're appropriate to the story.

    I think with some clever design, that's a game that could work quite well.

    Last edited 03/02/14 2:17 pm

    What about PSX era Final Fantasy? They're not musicals with big song and dance numbers in the traditional sense but they are musical in that the music does most of the work conveying the mood and telling the story in the game. Just try playing them without the music and see how much you lose.

    Also, it's been mentioned already but the musical levels in Rayman Legends absolutely rocked, making a whole musical game out those types of levels could kick arse.

    Man, I need to go back and replay EBA. To me it really is the pinnacle of the music/rhythm game

    On topic: One random idea I just came up with might be a choose-your-own-adventure style musical, where you sing the songs. You sing the words to the provided notes (like singstar or rock band, but a little more... freestyle). Certain factors (e.g. your speed and key you are singing in) are used to work out the emotion of the song, which has the immediate effect of adjusting the music to match the mood for the next phrase. The overall mood of the song is calculated at the end, and that mood used to branch the story.
    Of course it would be challenging to implement, both technically and artistically, as someone would have to write a large number of songs along many branching story paths, each with a number of different arrangements for each mood.

    Last edited 03/02/14 3:04 pm

    I always loved the way soundtracks in the SSX series evolved depending on where and how you were boarding. Taking that concept, expanding on it and applying it to another genre that allow for the players actions to shape the sound of the game could be the basis for a musical game.

    @markserrels - check out this adventure game... its quite cool. started up on indiegogo and has now been finished.


    I'm a little confused. Are we talking about a rhythm game but with lyrics, or a game which just has a soundtrack with vocals for certain fights/sequences? There are games which have sections in which you perform in a play. This may simply be following on screen prompts, remembering dialogue, or even remembering actions for certain queues. It wouldn't be too hard to extend that design to also include having to be in certain places taken from song queues rather than battle tells.

    I guess it's a tricky thing though to balance player interactivity with what would be a heavily scripted sequence. If you give the player too much control, it's just a vocalised soundtrack section (eg. The Great Mighty Poo battle, the ending of Saint's Row III, One Winged Angel), but if you restrict the player agency too much, it's just a QTE section.

    have you ever played eternal sonata. that is about as close as you can get to a musical game.

    conkers bad fur day, the great mighty poo.
    they should have made the whole game a musical but this was still pretty good

    the wish fulfilment of moving to music, being part of music and affecting music in some mechanical, video game form

    This is why I dislike using the word "mechanics" to describe video game styles of interaction. It makes the above sentence appear incongruous with the subject. The word is synonymous with repetitive, monotonic actions, devoid of creativity and passion. This is hardly the kind of word that should be associated with video game design, even if it does describe MMO gameplay well.

    How about Space Channel 5?

    There's also the DDRs of this world, but SC5 actually ties the dance numbers together with a plot of sorts. Hatsune Miku: Project F also occurred to me but that game doesn't have a unifying plot as I recall.

    Really it comes back to the question of what a game needs to qualify as a musical. There have been any number of games released that were driven by music. Most rely on QTEs because otherwise the music is just background.

    Came for the clip ("Let It Go", and Frozen, are simply amazing).
    Didn't stay for the rest of it.
    Carry on.

    I've talked to my Frozen-loving friends, and I say that the next Disney Princess movie shouldn't be a movie at all- it should be a video game! It would be an original setting and an original protagonist (played by the gamer of course.) The game would play like a RPG- the "Princess" would interact with NPCs. While the protagonist would always be "good", all the NPCs would have their own motivations and objectives. Depending on how the gamer interacts with the NPCs, NPCs may actually change their attitudes; "good" NPCs may actually be "bad", and vice versa. Key moments would be animated cut scenes, and even downloadable songs could be featured. A game such as this would become the ultimate Disney Princess experience- the viewer isn't just watching the movie- he or she becomes a part of the movie, and determines the story themselves.

    Wasn't there some kind of a musical game on DS? Rhapsody or something I think it was called.

    As a musical obsessed freak and hobby-esque game designer. I've flirted with this idea a few times. As an above poster said, getting the balance between it being a highly scripted QTE event and a BGM where characters sing during gameplay is exceptionally difficult.

    I was thinking that perhaps the song could be altered by making decisions like, who is involved with the number. Whether its a duet between friends, romantic, or rivalry would be based off decisions made in-between the songs. This would solve a "branching storylines" problem where you would need to compose 18 different songs, 10 of which most people won't hear. Whether the powerful emotion needed for a musical number could be done when things are so flexible are one issue with this idea. Also, it doesn't actually address the issue of interactivity during the songs...

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