iam8bit's BIT.TRIP record. Image credit: Gramovox.
Vinyl's not just a fad, it's a fundamentally unique way of interacting with music and art. So it makes sense that fans of the medium would want to re-introduce video games to the wonderful world of spinning records that preceded them.
Take Rez for example. Released in 2001, it was one of the first games to utilise music not just as the background to everything else happening onscreen, but the animating force behind it. The rail-shooter on the surface is actually just a vehicle for conveying the pulsing logic of the truly interconnected audio-visual compositions swirling around it. So naturally, in 2002, the game's ten song soundtrack was released on CD.
The music that appeared on that disc had gone through many iterations thanks to the methodical coordination of the game's creator, Tetsuya Mizuguchi. The detail and thought behind the soundtrack also made it a perfect candidate for a similar amount of care and attention in how it was distributed to fans. As a result, rather than simply release a new CD or extended MP3 download when the game's fifteenth anniversary came around last year, John Gibson and Amanda White of iam8bit decided to undertake a more painstaking re-issue.
The creative production company has been producing premium gaming packages for sometime, eventually introducing vinyl soundtracks afte Hotline Miami 2 to the point where the online shop how now offered records for games both big and small, ranging from Monument Valley to Uncharted 4. But Rez Infinite is perhaps one of the outfit's more ambitious projects.
"Rez is a big one. It's a beautiful, heavy piece," White said over the phone. "Very custom. Probably our most elaborate."
Packaging the double LP with a bonus 7" and 64-page retrospective book started first with a phone call to one of Gibson's friends, Mark McDonald, who he knew from his days writing for Electronic Gaming Monthly. "I knew he was over in Japan doing some localisation and other projects," said Gibson. "I asked him, 'Hey Mark, I know this is a long shot, but do you know how we would get in contact with Mizuguchi-san about doing Rez Infinite stuff. We'd love to do a comprehensive soundtrack."
Releasing a vinyl version of a game's soundtrack first requires nailing down the licensing rights, and later coordinating with pressing factories and art printers. Fortunately for Gibson and White, McDonald, who was working in Japan as a consultant, happened to already be helping Enhanced Games with bringing Rez Infinite to PS4 and PSVR. It was incredibly fortuitous, but then then real work began.
"It's a nightmare if you want to be frank about it," Gibson said referring to undertakings like the Rez Infinite packaging.
"Really beautiful, interesting unique things take a lot of time and R&D. You licence it and then there are months and months of research. Hours of Skype calls with Mizaguchi and others. Composing a mini novel about the story of the game. It took several iterations to get it to our standards. Inks weren't curing correctly. The trademark Rez orange just didn't look right, so we kept sending it back."
The end product, however, is more than just the sum of its parts. That's the intention anyway. Just like Rez itself tried to capture the frenetic sensation of experiencing music in a crowd that's pulsing with possibilities, all through the harmonizing scatter of audio cues and neon explosions, iam8bit's vinyl release tries to give material form to the possibilities swirling around the game's creation and the audience who will eventually encounter it. The printed retrospective includes sketches filled with strange iconography and concepts from when Mizuguchi was designing the game, while the album itself is more likely to fill an entire space for captive listeners by virtue of its clumsy portability and need to be flipped every twenty minutes or so.
"No one's really told the story of Rez and the genesis of this music experience game that was lauded and respected but no on really understood the roots of it or where it came from," said Gibson. Mizuguchi wanted the music to be visualized through play, felt and not just heard, and to be imbued with his experiences at concerts and festivals like Burning Man. "Rez was the music game that defined all music games. It would be silly for us to not have wanted to do it," Gibson said. "Fifteen years later it still holds up."
The demand for their vinyl productions helped Gibson and White relaize just how much demand there was for video game music delivered in an analogue format, similar to early tactile years of video games where people happily fumbled with cartridges and floppy discs. "People love to plug stuff into a console and play it," Gibson said, remarking on an observation that has lead several companies besides iam8bit to get into the market of video game vinyl as well.
Data Discs is a European storefront that focuses on selling records of retro games like OutRun and Golden Axe, properties whose soundtracks are perhaps less iconic than some but which are elevated by the aesthetics of how the music is re-produced and packaged. With their Streets of Rage album, Data Discs had been in contact with SEGA and composer Yuzo Koshiro for years before the final product was complete.
"Koshiro-san sent us the original NEC-PC88 files (his computer of choice for coding music in the late-80s) and we mixed these with high resolutions captures from Mega Drive consoles," said Jamie Crook, the label's founder. The tracks were then remastered with certain creative decisions made in order to try and preserve the distinctive characteristics of the Mega Drive's YM2612 sound chip. The mixing of the tracks is iterated on, as are the pressings from the factory, which Crook said often require several tries before the right quality is reached ("They just don't make them like they used to" is a common refrain in the world of collecting vinyl).
Crook has been collecting vinyl forever, and unlike many, doesn't consider it a fad or think the growth of video game records indicates a bubble on the verge of popping. "For better or for worse, the medium itself, and the mechanical processes behind it, affects the content in ways that digital formats can't replicate," he said. "It's got nothing to do with the big artwork and the 'tangibility of the product.' For those who are in it for the long-term, it's always been about the music and that's never going to change."
Mondo's Mo Shafeek has a simialr story, having helped coral the four LP Last of Us box-set into existence over the course of several years. A merchandise shop specializing in T-shirts and VHS in addition to being a record label, Mondo is like an iam8bit for retro horror and pulp cinema, with Naughty Dog's horror game or the Castlevania series serving as an obvious nexus point for branching off into other media.
"I also manage the VHS department, producing limited run releases of Shot-on-Video Horror and Genre films," Shafeek said. "I think working in that space has really changed the way I look at retro formats and their audience." While he thinks it's easy to see nostalgia for retro formats as a slippery slope, each different one makes sense to him in the context of the relevant fandom.
"VHS continues to be strong around horror/shot-on-video fans, but that's always been niche, and won't see a sudden surge in popularity. But Vinyl stuck around through the 90's and early 00's because of Indie Rock acts, but as those bands became more mainstream and that small subset of people who still bought vinyl just grew exponentially. Not to lean on this point too hard, but I think that the rise of vinyl shouldn't be viewed as a bubble, but as the symptom of fan's desire to spend money on physical music while the world becomes more digital."
Mondo's sold-out Fight Club soundtrack is a perfect example. "Buy it or you will be incomplete," reads the websites's description of the double LP package. "But be warned, this album will not stay beautiful, clean or perfect. It will not stay mint, or even VG+. It will become fair at best. Just like you." The album's art effectively has to be destroyed to get to the music, transforming the un-boxing of the vinyl into a violent act of self-sabotage, as if to say to the beard scratching hipster who purchase it: don't be too precious, we are all slowly getting warped and degraded.
iam8bit's Gibson and White love the album for this reason, describing it more like an art piece than a novelty item you might find off the shelf of an Urban Outfitters. "It's the best thing they have ever done," says White. And ultimately the opportunity to interact with your favourite media in a different way is vinyl's humble promise to video games. You can't touch the bits on the screen that assemble to recreate your favourite level from Fez, but you can grapple with a piece of plastic that's captured the game's magic in its circular grooves.
"People love analogue records because they put it on a turntable and put a needle to it and they can kind of connect a physical object to the creation of something magical," said Gibson. "Music coming out of a record is weird to say the least. It's grooves and a needle creating a very robust sound. And video games being on a chipboard in a cartridge is equally as weird." iam8bit's interest in turning out elegant musical artifacts in honour of unique video games isn't to idolize a bygone era but to try and expand the experience of the present by channeling the physicality of formats that have since fallen out of favour with the masses.
"What we're doing is responding to a lack in the psychology of people that results from existing in a digital marketplace and a digital world and a digital social space," said White. "People want tangibility." And they are willing to pay a premium for it, at least in the case of limited run pressings that can cost as much as copies of the games themselves and often sellout in days.
What do people get when they come home to a slender box sitting near their door? A piece of the mythology surrounding a childhood memory or a favourite virtual world made flesh with the help of malleable polymers? At the very least they get a high quality video game score crackling with life at the touch of a needle.
"We want to put out stuff that has a legacy that people can collect and appreciate," Gibson added. "At the end of the day if we're not putting out stuff we're proud of and we're not contributing something to the culture, then what the fuck is the point?"