Interview: Up 'til dawn - PixelJunk 4am's Baiyon and Sound Shapes' Shaw-Han Liem

Multimedia artists Baiyon (PixelJunk 4am) and Shaw-Han Liem (Sound Shapes) talk with Gamasutra about how independent console titles are pushing the boundaries of audio design.
Kyoto-based DJ and visual artist Baiyon decided to embark on independent game design back in 2009, resulting in the gardens evocative of woodblock prints and soundscapes of minimal techno in PixelJunk Eden. His contributions to Q-Games' PlayStation Network title were well received, and soon elaborated upon in an "Encore" expansion pack. Q-Games is currently teaming up with Baiyon once again for the creation of a unique brand of music software, which will be for use exclusively with the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Move controller. Dubbed PixelJunk 4am, the experience seeks to conjure up that ephemeral late night, early morning dance club atmosphere, where you feel in control of the music. Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis in Japan, Baiyon set out to contribute to relief efforts through the creation of a charity album. Debuting on iTunes and Bandcamp, the resulting two-volume compilation called "Vibes Against Vibes" has been published through his private netlabel Descanso. The albums feature a collaboration with Hip Tanaka.ex, also of charity compilation Play For Japan: The Album. Also contributing to Vibes Against Vibes is Shaw-Han Liem, creator of the electronic music album series I Am Robot And Proud. The Canadian musician will soon be responsible for his first game as a sound designer, as he is building music tools for Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak's highly anticipated Sound Shapes for PlayStation Vita. In this interview, the two multimedia artists offer their views on how independent console titles are pushing the boundaries of innovation in interactive audio design.
Shaw-Han Liem and Baiyon in Tokyo, living the dream of indie game development
PixelJunk 4am was first envisioned as a music visualizer, but currently allows you to generate audio from scratch. Is its new title meant to communicate something about performing live music? Baiyon: When we started PixelJunk lifelike, we wanted to make a visualizer that was influenced by the world of PixelJunk Eden. Q-games and I then considered letting the player create the music. I was initially hesitant to allow for that freedom to edit my music, but I wanted to explore its potential. With each new iteration of the canvas and gameplay, I gradually warmed to the idea. When we began to discuss letting players broadcast their performances live, I was sure the project had the potential to be something special musically. This was when we decided to change the name to 4am. 4:00 A.M. represents a special time. It's not peak time, but there's still a crowd that wants to dance. It's an unknown, secret time between morning and night, a romantic time. The title "4am" is the best for conveying the feeling of that atmosphere. Would you say that there have also been significant changes to the direction of Sound Shapes that have emerged over the course of development? Shaw-Han Liem: Oh yeah. It's a living thing. The way we approach design is in ways similar to writing music, in the sense that you don't know in the instant that you're doing something whether it's going to be good or bad. You have a feeling, you implement it, listen to it and make a decision. Often when you make a record, there's thirty minutes of content on there, but then there's a thousand hours of shit left out. All those hours involve trying stuff that doesn't work. The worst thing you can do is decide too early what it is and what it isn't. Are you at all interested to see what Baiyon would create using Sound Shapes' music creation tools, seeing as you both make audio and visuals? SHL: That is super exciting. I can't wait until the game comes out and the community starts going. I think it's cool when other musicians use Sound Shapes, but for us it's not about whether Baiyon can use the game to make the music he already makes at home. Even for me, putting together music in Sound Shapes is very different from using sequencers. We're trying to build a tool that is unique, both for musicians that are used to other resources and for those who don't know what a drum machine is. The game is not for me to make music, but to allow other people to do it, so after the launch is when the game will really become interesting. Where both your games appear to overlap most significantly is in their sharing user-generated content through the PlayStation Network. While some people are uploading Sound Shapes levels to PSN, others will be broadcasting their live PixelJunk 4am performances over the same network. Baiyon: The message of our new trailer is that you can broadcast your performance from anywhere, sharing both the music and visuals that you are creating. It was shot by [Q-Games president] Dylan Cuthbert at Club Metro and looks like I did a live performance using just 4am. PixelJunk Eden allowed you to record playthroughs and upload them to YouTube, but with the new game, is the focus deliberately on 4am play movies being broadcast in real time in place of archived video? Baiyon: That's what we wanted. More than anything, 4am is focused on that "live" experience. SHL: It's cool that you know while you're watching that there's a human being on the other side of it.
Jonathan Mak demoing Sound Shapes for thatgamecompany's Robin Hunicke at E3
Sound Shapes has gone from being developed in isolation to being the product of a team of around ten staff members. How have you found that transition affects your process as an audio designer? SHL: It's a new thing for everybody, including Jon and me. It's similar to the difference between doing your solo music and playing in a band. There are advantages to both: When you're doing music solo, then you're the boss. If you're working with other musicians, you give up some of that autonomy but have access to ideas that you wouldn't have come up with yourself. How do you go about arguing for a particular creative decision within your team, considering your response to a particular music choice is so subjective? Baiyon: I always want to explain things in terms of my musical experience, as opposed to arguing why a certain melody is "good." Of course we know that some instrument "has a Detroit-style sound," but maybe that doesn't mean anything to the programmer. It's worth explaining why you love a certain groove and want it in the game, because that makes for more effective communication. SHL: I think everyone understands experiencing music on that level. You don't have to know music theory or why a certain combination of notes has a certain effect. Everyone can understand the experience of listening to music that they really love. Baiyon: So, what do you do if, for example, the programmer says this music or sound effect doesn't work for this level design? SHL: When I'm considering music, it's a collaboration between a level designer, someone doing visuals, and a coder acting as the glue between everybody. I didn't write any music for Sound Shapes--the music that you hear in the game is collaborative. Because everything in the game is so interconnected, the level designer becomes as much of a musician as I am. So if I think something is cool musically, but the level designer thinks it can't be implemented in a way that makes sense for the game, then it doesn't matter if I think it sounds good. It has to be a very tight collaboration or it doesn't really work. Obviously that's very different from the music writing that I normally do, and that's what makes it a fun challenge. Right now you're in Tokyo on tour. Do you have an idea why I Am Robot And Proud is known among so many game designers here in Japan? SHL: It might be because I grew up at a certain time. The music tools, like trackers, that I could afford share a common lineage with what the Amiga developers were using, and the whole demoscene. I come out of that without really realizing it.
Having so much experience performing as musicians, what it is that now attracts you to game design? Baiyon: For me, games are a great medium. I'm doing several things at the moment, like performing as a DJ, running a record label, designing clothes and making animation. Still, I feel that gaming is unique. SHL: When you talk about what's different about creating games, I think it's cool that people are walking around with these extremely powerful computers in their pockets. They have these fairly inexpensive, powerful machines in their homes and they're not afraid of them, the way they might be intimidated opening up C++. Few people are afraid of games and there's lots of interest in experimenting with them. You put a controller in someone's hands, it's a very sophisticated piece of technology, but they're not worried by all the gyroscopes and accelerometers inside. They feel safe to experiment. There's a lot of potential in exploring interactions with people in that state of mind. Baiyon's game is called 4am. Does that resonate at all with your experiences going on stage at that time during your music tours? SHL: That only happens to me in Japan, where my set time will be 4:00 AM. It's something unique that I can associate with touring here. When I play in the States, usually everything is finished by 2:00, especially playing live at clubs. Here, you have the concept of all-night parties. The trains are done running, so you're there at the club until morning. It's a different mindset. It's fun for the artists, but it surprises me that the audience can be into it all night long. Baiyon: It's a good experience for musicians to travel and see how music plays in different places. For instance, in Berlin a party will start at midnight on Friday night and never stop for a moment until Sunday night. It's crazy, but it's routine for minimal techno. I love Berlin because it's such an emotional environment. SHL: They have these huge concrete bunkers in Berlin, reclaimed power stations, that they use as music venues. You couldn't set up a band in that space, because all the reverb would sound really bad. But if you play a sine wave through a huge subwoofer in a space like that, it sounds amazing. The whole room becomes a reverb chamber. I feel like Berlin techno music must have evolved around that style of architecture. Baiyon: The environment, buildings, political situation and laws all influence the music.
Baiyon demonstrating PixelJunk 4am at E3
You've collaborated on a track for the Vibes Against Vibes charity album. What was it that interested you about creating a music track together? Baiyon: Basically, I was thinking about what I can do for charity. I observed my friends doing so many things, like making music for benefits or going to areas that sustained damage to help out. That made me think about what I could contribute to help people who were harmed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis. When I was a teenager, I experienced the Kansai earthquake. It was crazy huge. So many people lost everything they had. As a teen, I wanted to do something but I felt powerless. This time, I wanted to see what I could do as an artist to help out. So I started asking my friends if they would contribute a track to this charity album published on my label. It was especially important to me for there to be a track by Shaw-Han. When I asked him, he said, "Would you like to do a collaboration?" So, I said, "Why not?" What interests you about Baiyon's music style to the extent that you would want to collaborate on this track? SHL: I think that Baiyon's music is different from my usual style. Electronic musicians have kind of a common language. That makes it easy to communicate using the music. We also both tend to perform in similar environments. Baiyon: Our styles are different but we have the same audience. Regarding our collaboration track, I finished a draft but then I threw it out. The problem was that it wasn't a good balance of each of our styles. I then had to start over, which is why it's taken such a long time. I'm happy because I sent the track to him and he said it's awesome, so I am very appreciative of that. [For more information on the Descanso record label, see the official website. For information on I Am Robot and Proud, see the official webpage. Our previous interview from the Game Developers Conference can be read on Gamasutra. Images are courtesy of Descanso, I Am Robot and Proud, and Q-Games. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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