Culture

The rise of the ambient video game

‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ and its contemporaries are sensory soothing software several decades in the making.
Culture

The rise of the ambient video game

‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ and its contemporaries are sensory soothing software several decades in the making.

In February 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda, the original game in the series, to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. It was developed at the company’s studio in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan, amidst a period of rapid economic growth. One of its directors, Shigeru Miyamoto, wanted to draw on his childhood experiences of climbing mountains and discovering lakes in the countryside around Sonobe, a town roughly an hour’s drive from nearby Kyoto and Osaka. His wish found expression in the original Zelda’s large, nonlinear and mythical pre-modern Japan. The designers, coders, and artists crafted a crude 8-bit landscape with the emerging computer-chip technology, the game’s deep, verdant greens a far cry from the concrete and steel dominating Japan’s cities and towns at the time.

Japanese ambient music of the 1980s reflected such concerns. Hiroshi Yoshimura released the album Green in the same year as The Legend of Zelda, crafting a work of almost unfettered naturalism, lush with shrubbery and the drip of water. He did so by entwining himself with a machine during the process — the Yamaha DX7 in this case — just as Miyamoto and his colleagues did with the computer boards, code, and cartridges of the Famicom. Yoshimura’s other records were interwoven with the burgeoning wealth of corporations in ‘80s Japan. A I R, released in 1984, was produced for the cosmetic company Shiseido, imagined as a sonic equivalent to one of their fragrances (it surely smelt of pine and rain), while Surround, released two years later, was designed to be played in the model homes of the Misawa Home corporations.

Both The Legend of Zelda and these ambient records channeled the natural elements of water, earth, and air — phenomena of increasing rarity in the modern Japanese city. To step into such video game worlds was to stabilise oneself within the frenetic noise and anonymity of the expanding urban spaces. The Famicom allowed players to experience video games from the comfort of their home while Yoshimura, alongside other ambient artists of the era such as Satoshi Ashikawa, designed their records for public spaces whose mood they attempted to subtly augment. Later, in 1993, Haruomi Hosono, member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, released Medicine Compilation From the Quiet Lodge, an ambient album touching on house and techno but infused with Japan’s past and elementalism. Its title articulated the healing potential of music created outside of the metropolis.

Other consumer electronics tacitly acknowledged this need for mood-regulation in the city. Both the Sony Walkman (1979) and the Nintendo Game Boy (1989) enabled portable experiences of the respective mediums they channeled through their hardware. People would often deploy these in overwhelming or distressing sensory situations, like the often crowded work commute on public transport. For those who could afford such technologies, the rhythm of music or the video game was frequently preferable to that of the train or bus.

In Japan, the Game Boy’s release prefigured the asset bubble collapse of 1992. What broadly followed was a shift away from the job security supported by post-war economic growth to more precarious working conditions. Partially, the ambient music and video games during this period plugged part of the gap that dwindling labor rights had left. The soft aural tones and system-based play offered a sense of safety where it was otherwise deficient .

In the decades since, a neoliberal emphasis on competition and profit contributed greatly to the erosion of working conditions in both the east and west. Computer programs and their integration into the workplace drove this development, their ability to streamline and automate processes highly valued by the modern business. With industrial processes and production long outsourced to regions with cheap labor, the modern work environment is one primarily of people and their computers. Video games, as a core component of the modern leisure environment, embody this relationship between person, machine and program. They are, after all, a subset of interactive systems that include Microsoft Office, email services and internet browsers. When we grow weary of these programs’ austere bureaucracy, perhaps it’s unsurprising that we turn to video games, just another take on the interactive system.

Advancements in technology have rendered these work and leisure computer programs more efficient, but also more enveloping. Where early video games required the player’s imaginative flexibility to bring their worlds to life, modern iterations bedazzle with sumptuous visuals and high-fidelity sound. They are easy to slip into and capable of rendering various moods to match our own.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, released last year and immediately heralded as one of the greatest games ever, arguably captures such computer programs at their most expressive. The game has incredible grass. It undulates gently in the wind while the sun paints its tips yellow. Meadows turn into shimmers. Holding forward on the controller jostles Link, the game’s boy-hero protagonist, into a light jog, his weight only just displacing the greenery around him. In the evening I sit on the couch, letting the colours and sounds of the digital world wash over me, allowing my brain to slowly decompress. It’s a relaxation activity that slips nebulously into self-care, the video game equivalent of putting an ambient record on.

The undulating grass of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The undulating grass of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

In Brian Eno’s liner notes to Ambient 1: Music For Airports, regarded as one of the first significant ambient works, the artist said he composed the music to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” And while Eno crafted Music For Airports to defuse the atmosphere of the airport terminal, to make it more hospitable, ambient video games lighten moods. Their coded atmospheres offer a space for reflection.

But Breath of the Wild’s soothing quality wasn’t developed in a vacuum, instead reflecting trends and processes that have grown steadily since the early noughties. Shadow of the Colossus, another open-world game set in an imagined pre-modern Japan, is perhaps the clearest touchstone from which Breath of the Wild poaches its reflective mood and atmosphere. Nintendo’s recent offering is similarly filled with the ruins of an ambiguous, distant past, eschewing the hyper-detail commonly expected of modern video games. Instead, its impressionistic look is comprised of warm washes of colour and simply drawn flora and fauna.

Repetition rules in these games, too. Breath of the Wild asks players to defeat its four Divine Beasts alongside the completion of 120 Shintoist shrines scattered across the landscape. Shadow of the Colossus, meanwhile, features 16 monstrous colossi who must be killed. Both games become predictable — routine — following the same, familiar steps of exploration followed by puzzle solving and/or combat. One can exist both within and outside of their worlds simultaneously, leaving mental space for other subconscious, cognitive activities gently aided by the delicate piano score reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Eno situated repetition at the heart of Music For Airports, building on the work of French composer, Erik Satie, just as his Japanese contemporaries did (Satie’s Vexations is a short piano refrain intended to be played 840 times). While Eno originally used analogue tape loops to create Music For Airport’s repetition, in recent years he has explored the potential of the algorithm. In his notes on 2017’s Reflections, Eno refers to the music as “generative” — i.e. it is self-creating, a process commonly applied to video game environments capable of replication. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s 2013 game, Proteus, used procedural generation to create a unique island each time the player started a new session. No Man’s Sky, meanwhile, explores literal infinite potential to simulate an entire universe, each planet a reformulation of the algorithmic rules.

The result might be described as variations on a theme. Proteus and No Man’s Sky both offer an unlimited number of possibilities, albeit within a single framework. They produce cosy repetitions that calm rather than unsettle. Anomalies aren’t welcome in their worlds. No Man’s Sky’s repetition extends to its loops of action—gathering resources to survive and upgrade your spaceship — giving the game, alongside the thrill of discovery, a consistent tempo. Writing about the game for Waypoint, critic Austin Walker said, “repairing my new ship was exactly the relaxing, quiet experience I needed. A synth track repeated itself, regularly letting me drift into a rhythm I needed more than I knew.”

Exploring a serene world in No Man’s Sky.

Exploring a serene world in No Man’s Sky.

Other studios have self-consciously aimed for ambient experiences such as the California-based, Thatgamecompany. Across three titles — Flow, Flower, and Journey — it has explored soft-focus video games encompassing the life of microorganisms to worldless meditations on existence. 2009’s Flower channels the familiar unease of the city’s destructive potential, asking the player to control an expanding throng of petals capable of healing skyscrapers and electric pylons. But it carries little of the ambiguity ambient experiences rely on, lapsing into prescriptiveness. Flower becomes the video game equivalent of a whale noises CD, a new-age remedy for the ills of modern living. It does, though, stop short of simulating actual whale noises unlike Abzû, directed by Matt Nava, a former Thatgamecompany employee. During Abzû’s underwater exploration, players can sit at meditation statues and switch between the game’s oceanic inhabitants, effectively turning the television set into a Windows 98 screensaver.

Ambient video games have also made the jump to cellular devices, tailoring them perfectly for modern life. David O’Reilly’s Mountain dispenses existential advice while the game’s titular object slowly accrues the detritus of human waste. Breathe is a work by studio, Tru Luv Media, whose output is based on the values of “care, connection, transcendence, and celebration”, headed up by former Assassins Creed designer, Brie Code. The self-described “companion app” directs the user to breathe in and out as a carefully illustrated lotus flower expands and contracts while soft ambient music plays in the background. It’s intended to be synced with Heart Rate data, a health app on iOS devices, that allows the lotus to augment with the user’s own body tempo as they repeat the exercise one breath at a time. Other illustrations are available but they must be purchased for $0.99 each. A mountain is one of the options.

Breathe is a distillation of the ambient video game, furthering its minimalist design principles with the stripping away of paraphernalia until only essential components remain. It, and some of these other video games, offer pockets of calm away from the hyperstimulation of multi-tabbed and windowed internet browsers. And with its explicitly defined goal of self-care, the app attempts to pick up the slack where other services and networks fail, its Apple Store page holding an anecdote of how it countered workplace stress. Breath of the Wild’s ability to administer self-care is less explicit but reveals itself through play in the wash of repetition and quiet pastoralism. These experiences are both a product of and a means through which we cope with the precarity of modern life. For a moment, they soothe our scorched retinas.

Lewis Gordon writes about video games, music and film on the internet.
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