[In his latest quirky interview, Gamasutra contributor Jason Johnson talks to Gordon Midwood about his cult iOS and now WiiWare title lilt line, as the funky music-inflected title jumps onto the Wii's digital download service.
Gordon Midwood’s lilt line
is a devious rhythm game with a wicked 16 Bit-authored soundtrack ripped straight from London’s underground club scene.
Its seamless fusion of sound and design won it IGF Mobile’s Audio Achievement award in 2010 and a display berth at Game Developers Conference, thanks to its popular iPhone version.
The already critically acclaimed lilt line
recently made the leap from iOS to WiiWare [trailer
] with the help of Bit.Trip
franchise creators Gaijin Games.
Therefore, we took the opportunity to chat with Midwood about the evolution of rhythm games, the death of plastic instrument games, and his hatred of country music.
What have you been up to today?
I’ve got some kids, so they keep me busy trying to stop them from screaming all day. Keeps you busy on the weekends, and during the week when you’re trying to work. I work from home now so....
Most of my friends are having kids nowadays. I should probably look into that.
I could tell you how it works. There’s a process involved. I can send some diagrams across. [Laughs]
Something about bees and bears and...
[Laughs] Yes, dogs. lilt line is coming out for WiiWare soon. You recently tweeted, “@16bit everyone's got a wii, they just need to try & remember where they saw it last - good news tho eh? (US only on 13th, EU coming later).” When was the last time you saw your Wii?
It was playing FATE
. BIT.TRIP FATE
. Before that, the last time was RUNNER
. No, no. It was the 3D version of Dotstream
. I was expecting it to be more... psychedelic.
I just dusted mine off over Thanksgiving.
It’s a shame what happened to the Wii really, given its potential. The software never came out apart from the Mario
games and the downloadable games that only you and I are interested in.
It is. lilt line is written in lowercase. I noticed you type in lowercase too.
That’s right. I think uppercase just doesn’t look very nice. Lowercase is much more stylish.
Does it annoy you when you see your game referred to as Lilt Line?
No, it doesn’t. The only thing that’s annoying is when I’m dealing with official people. My company name [different cloth] is in lowercase. They’re always giving me tips like, “Do you want to put a capital letter there? It looks much more professional.”
Some people think I’ve done it by mistake. When I explain I did it on purpose, they’re like, “Okay, fair enough. I think I’m going to cap it anyway.” [Laughs.]
Have you ever been tempted to change it?
The last thing I need is to look professional. And people wouldn’t believe it if I tried. I just like the look of lowercase letters, to be honest, and at some point I stopped using capital letters.
Fair enough. Tell me about some of the web-games you’ve worked on.
My background was in Flash. Those web games were my own Flash experiments. One was called scrollbit
. It’s a racer you control with the scroll wheel of your mouse. There’s a bit of lilt line in it.
I’m always trying out things people haven’t done before. And those things can be very unpopular. Especially when you’re playing with control mechanisms. You get into iPod and people say, “This is bullshit. Why doesn’t he just use keys.”
You’re into music games. I assume that means you’re into music too. What kind of music are you into?
Metal. Dubstep. Anything that’s obscure and heavy. Less accessible stuff. As long as it’s different, I enjoy it.
I keep hearing the word dubstep come up in reference to lilt line’s soundtrack. What exactly is dubstep?
[Gordon types 'dubstep' into his computer and starts reading off a definition.]
Are you reading that?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, it’s difficult to describe it. A lot of things are called dubstep now in the UK. People are taking it in different directions. It’s hard to describe. But I can tell you why I like it. It has irregular beats and it’s aggressive. It can get quite heavy and be quite discordant.
If you could make a game based on the music of any musician of your choosing who would it be?
The original intention for lilt line
– one of the prototypes was called Prog-Out – like Wipeout
, but with prog. Progressive rock. I was originally thinking of making it one long level set to a Yes song, and you had to make it as far as you could through this meandering progressive rock thing. I would like to do that, but I’m not sure how painful it would be to play.
It sounds fun.
You say that, but I’m not sure. I heard 16bit
[the dubstep group who did the soundtrack for lilt line
] from a friend. Got in touch with them through Myspace. [The music matched] the visual style. So it all just came together to be what it is.
You Got Games in My Music
You know, I really stink at rhythm games. How do I get better?
Are you any good at dancing?
Maybe I’m better at dancing than rhythm games.
Or, maybe you're too drunk to realize you’re bad at both. You should try playing rhythm games drunk and see how things work out.
So I should start drinking while playing them?
Try it. You’ll lose your inhibitions, and start moving your body. And then you’ll get it. And if that doesn’t work. Drugs. [Laughs]
Drugs, hmm...? Drugs are an important part of music. Half of the music from the 60s wouldn’t exist without drugs. Some musicians play music to enhance the mental states attained from certain chemicals. Trance electronica goes with MDMA. Drone accompanies heroin. Country music seems to fit well with being drunk, I guess.
Or, just being paralyzed in the brain. [Laughs.] Did you put that one in?
Yeah, we’ll put it in.
Don’t. The country music fans will be ringing me up.
I don’t think there’s a big crossover between country music fans and people who read the site.
You don’t know that because you haven’t tried. Now, they’re all going to come out of the woodwork on that comment.
They probably will. That’s the one rule of the internet. If there’s someone who can be offended, they will be. And they’ll leave a stupid comment at the bottom.
GM: Especially country music fans. They have a lot of time on their hands because they’re apparently quite lonely people. [Laughs] This is turning into an attack on country music, isn’t it?
Yeah. I got my headline. lilt line Creator Attacks Country Music.
Wii is Shit. Country Music Worse. [Laughs.]
I love it. So, do you think its possible for games to influence mental states the same way music does?
Yeah. Why not? Even more so. I quite like more intense gaming experiences, opposed to ambient or mellow gaming. I like things that are a little bit more intense – or a bit of a rush – if you were making the drug analogy.
Me too, but sometimes I just want to kick back and relax. I guess I go both ways.
True. It does go both ways. I love games like Flower
, but I would never make that game. If I made Flower
, I’m sure the flowers would be everywhere, and suddenly they’d be dying. You’d have to beat them up into the air to keep them in rhythm. And the clouds would attack you.
The Shape of Music Games to Come
I feel like rhythm/music games are a relatively new genre. What is the first rhythm or music game you played?
I’m supposed to say PaRappa the Rapper
, aren’t I?
Of course. What’s your opinion on plastic instrument games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band?
Well, they’ve done a lot to spread out the joy of gaming, but I find them a bit too literal for my tastes. There’s some bars coming down. I press a button on my plastic thing. It doesn’t really excite me.
It feels like a menial task.
Yeah, yeah. A grind is what you call it. A lot has been written on the death of the music game genre. It’s their own fault. They flogged it to death. Here’s some more plastic. Buy this.
I don’t think they’re bad things. But with anything, if it gets commercial success, things quickly become derivative of it, and innovation gets tossed by the wayside.
Sometimes it seems like the business end stifles gaming.
It’s a line I’ve got to tread right now. Up until four months ago, I was working full-time. So I could make any kind of game I wanted. lilt line
was a game I wanted to make.
People would say to me: the music’s not very accessible. Why don’t you put some different music in there? Or why don’t you put a spaceship in there? But, no. I wanted to use a line. I wanted to play dubstep. I wanted it to be very harsh.
If that was a commercial decision, it would’ve gone in a completely different direction. Then, it wouldn’t have been the game I wanted to make. It’s something I’ve got to consider now that I support myself making games though.
That’s the classic trade-off between being an artist and getting paid. To me, it seems like the music game genre is too compartmentalized. You either get some mass-marketed rock and pop, j-pop, or various forms of electronica. Now a few hip-hop games are emerging. But there are a lot of types of music games that are yet unrealized.
At Game Developers Conference last year, I was supposed to give a ten minute talk on how I made lilt line
, but I talked about how a lot of music genres were unrepresented in games. Everyone was kind of glass-eyed – like what’s that guy talking about – we’re not supposed to be talking about that.
I played Neurosis
. And some folk music on top of Call of Duty
trailers. Just to make people think about how music can change the tone of a game. Music within mainstream games is very predictable. It’s not just in rhythm games, but in traditional games also. It’s unadventurous.
Sense of Steve, Yeah
I know people who never listen to game music. They play with the volume off, and listen to their iPods. But playing lilt line without sound ruins the experience. It’s kind of weird, because you’re doing the exact same motions, and it’s totally playable without sound, but the experience is lost. Where is the meeting point between music and play?
The tracks in lilt line
are supposed to represent the music a little bit. Kind of a semi-visualization of the music. There’s definitely an area for visualizing the music and playing through it, like Audiosurf
One of my original ideas for the game was having the track control the pitch – so, if you’re going up, that raises the pitch. The way you play the track creates the music. But it sounded like shit [laughs] so I just put some decent music in there instead.
Are you a fan of Rez?
Actually, I’ve never played it.
JYeah, I know. I’m a terrible person.
I didn’t say you’re a terrible person.
I gather one of the reasons Rez is remembered, besides looking so cool, is synesthesia
Yeah, I can’t say that either.
Is synesthesia something you strive for in your games?
Yeah. I love that. I can’t say it, but I love it. I try to put it in as many of my games as possible, even if it’s a more traditional game. I tend to think a lot about what could be called a music game. There are a lot of genres that could be, but its not being explored. A lot of the stuff is very generic. There’s a lot of areas that have yet to be explored. I’m going to try to do that.