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Interview: Auditory Memoirs of a Sushi Bar Samurai

In this indie-focused interview, Gas Powered Games and RAD Game Tools veteran Casey Muratori discusses Sushi Bar Samurai, an intriguing independent game with an interactive soundtrack.
[In this indie-focused interview, Gas Powered Games and RAD Game Tools veteran Casey Muratori discusses Sushi Bar Samurai, an intriguing independent game with an interactive soundtrack.] "When a baking mishap disrupts the traditionally balanced diet of the spirit world, a young samurai must learn to master the art of sushi preparation to bring flavor and nutrition back to the afterlife." This is the premise of Sushi Bar Samurai, a game by the independent production studio Molly Rocket, founded in 2004. A PAX 10 finalist at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo, one designer served as the main programmer, art director and composer. Casey Muratori not only champions the role of the videogame auteur through the example of his PAX 10 game, but by uploading video lectures to his website. (Got unwanted blending problems in your animation system? Watch the talk on using the quaternion double-cover property.) Encouraging the indie community is not just a hobby. The founder of Molly Rocket sees it as a prescriptive response to an industry he maintains is dominated by impersonal development processes. In this interview on the interactive soundtrack for Sushi Bar Samurai, he offers a case study on how his culinary game title was recognized for its totally unique flavor. Casey Muratori on the show floor of the Penny Arcade Expo Sushi Bar Samurai is all about preparing traditional Japanese dishes for lost and wandering spirits so that they can transcend. What kind of research went into all the varieties and uses of sushi that you brought to the game? Casey Muratori: I actually did a substantial amount of research for Sushi Bar Samurai, but only a very small percentage of that research is actually used in the game now. If you have too large a set of ingredients, it becomes impossible for anyone to remember what they all are, what they do, or how they relate to each other. The game then has to degenerate to recipe-following mechanics, and I don't find that to be a very interesting or rewarding type of design. I worked the design down to the point where there are eight ingredients, with around 150 recipes, and I think that's roughly the sweet spot for what people can understand and work with in an interesting way. I think if you go above that, you're starting to be more of a sushi simulator and less of a game. While that would be an interesting thing, it's not what I was going for. That said, everything you can make in Sushi Bar Samurai is a valid Japanese dish, and in general I have tried not to disallow any combinations of ingredients that would result in a valid recipe. To lend a dose of verisimilitude to the supernatural game setting, did you talk with chefs, food critics, fishermen? Verisimilitude wasn't something I was shooting for. I wanted the game to feel like a Japanese fable, and sushi is more of the artistic seed from which the game mechanics and art grow, rather than being what the game is "about." Another way of saying it might be that the game is inspired by sushi, but it is not about sushi. In your research, did you find out whether it's true what they say about fugu? Good question! Thankfully, I've never been eating at a sushi bar where someone has suddenly dropped dead, so I suppose I can only go by "what they say" as well. Here's hoping I can never answer "yes" to your question from personal experience! Did you experiment with various software programs before arriving at the tools that were used to create the music for Sushi Bar Samurai? I tried a number of things before deciding that commercial audio programs are basically useless. I tried Digital Performer, Cakewalk, Cubase, etc. They are all terrible. These programs just don't work the way music works, so you're constantly manhandling everything and it's just very tedious. It's very strange coming from a background in 3D, where people always complain about tools like MAX and Maya. If they ever saw just how far behind these music packages were, they'd stop complaining! Even the worst 3D animation package is lightyears ahead of the best music editing software if you make the analogy. So there is no commercial software involved in the production of the Sushi Bar Samurai music. I wrote a completely custom editor which works with the music the way I want it to, and I'm much happier. It still needs a lot of improvement, because I don't have that much time to spend on it, but I'm hoping over the course of a few products it will become quite spiffy. You mentioned at PAX that music theory guides the structure of the Sushi Bar Samurai soundtrack. How strictly are these rules enforced? Theoretical correctness is always strictly enforced, and the music system never violates the rules for the sake of better responsiveness. The reason I chose that trade-off is because the worst thing to have happen in the score is for something musically jarring to occur that draws the player's attention away from the game. The whole point of a good musical score is to reinforce the action. If instead it's detracting from the action by distracting the player, that's the worst possible situation. So if the music system has a choice between an immediate response that would violate a core musical rule, or following the rule and being a measure late, it's going to choose to be a measure late. I've tried to employ a number of new techniques to minimize that number of times when a trade-off has to be made in the first place, but it's never going to be perfect because the music system doesn't know what the player is going to do until after they do it. Perfect scoring requires that knowledge. That's the advantage a movie composer has over a game composer, and unfortunately we will never have that advantage assuming we want games to respond quickly to player input. In creating the soundtrack to the title, to what degree did you determine that every person who sits down to play the game would be influencing the audio component of the experience? All of the music in Sushi Bar Samurai is fully interactive. It responds to literally every action that the player takes, and across multiple players in co-op play. So to a large degree, the player is controlling the score as they play just as much as they are controlling their in-game actions. This was very important to me. From a presentation perspective, music is one of the most crucial elements to have synced with the events in the game. It's always very jarring to me when I play a game whose music largely ignores what's happening on-screen. So I made sure the music system in Sushi could respond to everything, right down to the individual moves the player makes from second to second. Sometimes it's not perfect, because unlike a traditional score for a movie, it doesn't have the benefit of knowing what the player will do ahead of time, to make sure crescendos and transitions occur naturally over time. That said, the final music compositions aren't done yet, since that's one of the last things that I'll do before the game is complete. So I still can't say definitively how well all the experimental music technology in the game will work. From the smaller test scoring that I have in there now, I don't foresee any problems when I expand the score out into its final size. But, one thing I've learned with experimental tech is that you never can tell what could go wrong! Have you found it challenging to balance this motivation of handing over control of the sound composition to whomever sits down to play Sushi Bar Samurai with retaining your own personal vision for the soundtrack? I don't really think about it as handing over control. To me, it's just the best way to do my job as composer on the title. I think about it this way: if I recorded someone playing the game, I could compose the proper score to accompany that specific play-through. The process would be identical to scoring a movie. So obviously there is a mental process going on in my brain that's allowing me to look at what's happening, consider the musical options, and put together each piece of the score such that it matches the on-screen action. The interactive music system is just my attempt to capture that mental process in an algorithm, so it can be applied by the computer as the player plays the game. If I've done my job as a programmer, then it will create a score for any given play-through on the fly that's similar to what I would do if I looked at a recording of that play-through and composed the music for it specifically. Do you feel it would be possible for you to release the music to Sushi Bar Samurai as a stand-alone item following the release of the game, or does the interactive nature of the audio mean that it's pretty much a different song you encounter every time around? I haven't thought about how you would release a soundtrack, because the music is meant to be continuous from the start of the game to the end, and of course that may take many more hours than the typical length of a CD. So you would have to do a process whereby you decide on some representative play-through segments, and you'd have the interactive music system play back those segments, maybe with a proper prologue and epilogue to make it a track suitable for a soundtrack CD. That might work well, but it's not really something I'd thought about until you just asked! As for the soundtrack being different each time around, that's true to a certain extent. But it's not going to be different in terms of the melodic identity. I set up the motifs that are used, the types of instruments that are going to be playing, the types of chord progressions, etc., and that's all fixed because that's what makes it the Sushi Bar Samurai soundtrack and not something else. So the music is very specific to this game. No two play-throughs will have the same music, but they will always sound identifiable as the Sushi Bar Samurai themes. Overall, what personal experiences would you say have been most influential in contributing to this game? Demoing the game at PAX was, without question, the single most important experience that influenced the design of the game. Prior to that, I felt very disconnected from the people who actually play games. Having worked in the mainstream game industry for a decade prior to starting on Sushi, I think the prevailing tendency to treat players as a market rather than as individuals was still affecting me, even though I have never liked that notion. PAX really changed that. It was three straight days of wonderful people coming up to play Sushi, and they all had sophisticated and interesting reactions to it. It established this very intense emotional relationship in my head, replacing an abstract, faceless concept of "the player" with a very real and tangible notion of the kinds of people who will be playing the game when it is completed. And frankly, I felt like I wasn't giving them everything they deserved. Here were these fantastic people, approaching the game with an open mind, immersing themselves in the world, thinking deeply about how it worked, and I felt like they were ready for much more richness than Sushi was delivering. So immediately after PAX, I decided to completely rework the game with a fresh outlook on the audience. It's pushed out the release a ways, but I think it will be well worth it. The game is now deeper and more rewarding to play, and it gives people a lot more freedom to explore and to choose their own unique strategies and tactics. I won't know how Sushi will be received in the end, but if it turns out to be a great game, it's going to be because of those people at PAX. Of that much I am certain! And to a large extent, I suspect that the games I do in the future will all also be informed by this experience.

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