Baba Yetu

Like other game designers, I don’t play a lot of games.

I do have a Wii and a PS2, which sounds typical enough except for the fact that the only games I play on the PS2 are Katamari Damacy and Guitar Hero; Wii Sports and Warioware for the other console. Clearly I like quirky and accessible games – not that I didn’t enjoy playing F-Zero X on my old N64, but it always made me shaky, like many other fast-paced or action games. As for Zelda on the Wii, well, consider this – most gamers dislike the long, non-interactive story scenes and prefer all the fighting. I’m the opposite – I begrudgingly slog through the fighting scenes in order to get to the story bits. I find most console games to be rather difficult to play, since they often assume a basic familiarity of the genre that in reality most people do not have.

I recently had dinner with a bunch of game designers at GDC, so I was interested in finding out what their game playing habits were like. Warren Spector, in between declaring that he will never speak about stories in games ever again (apart from in the following week at SXSW) said that he forced himself to play one or two hours of videogames every day, just to keep up to date on the different games out there.

This might sound funny to most people who would happily play videogames all day, but most people aren’t game designers. If you are, you can’t help but analyse games whenever you play them. So sometimes it really can feel like work, especially if you’ve spent the last ten hours arguing about story flowcharts or interaction points. Personally, I’m amazed that he can manage up to two hours a day, but then I was never a big console gamer, so maybe that’s the reason. I really ought to play more games though – there’s a lot to be learned from them, even for the weirdos working in the upstart ‘ARG’ genre.

The game on which I’ve logged the most hours is on the PC, and it’s called Civilization. Being highly addictive, it’d be tempting to throw it into the home-wrecking category of World of Warcraft, except for the fact that each individual game tends to last for around 6-10 hours – enough to provide a pleasant diversion for a rainy Sunday, but not enough to actually destroy your life (unless your name is Iain Banks, in which case it delays the completion of your novel for six months, until you physically destroy the CD).

The latest version is Civilization 4, and it’s definitely up there with the all-time classic of Civ2. One area where it bests its master, however, is the music. Civilization 4 has the best game soundtrack I’ve ever heard – or more accurately, the best game song, and it’s called Baba Yetu. Baba Yetu is a choral song in Swahili, performed by an acapella group. The lyrics come from the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really the antithesis of typical videogame songs, but it’s perfect for Civilization 4. Whenever I play Civ4, I’m uplifted by that song.

I won’t go into detail about its origins, because someone else has a great post about it already, with links to download the song, but when I was surfing YouTube for videogame music and came across a live performance of Baba Yetu at Video Games Live, I had to write about it. The performance does the song a disservice, especially with the male solo, but to hear even a bad recording of it played live is amazing. In the comments, someone says, “Listening to this one being performed made me and my three friends get a craving desire to play this game!”

That’s what good music should do.

(I went to a Video Games Live performance last year in San Jose. I fell asleep. Really. I blame jetlag, the bad acoustics and the fact that I had to shut my eyes to avoid being blinded by the fricking vicious green laser beams. Plus they didn’t play Baba Yetu.)

(I have a few friends who’ve sung in student choirs, and I know they’re always looking for interesting new music to try out. If that includes you, try Baba Yetu – I think it’d be a lot of fun to sing, plus you’d be able to expand your audience to game players…)

7 Replies to “Baba Yetu”

  1. My choir is singing this song also!!!! It is weird because it is probably one of the only videogame songs i like…besides DDR XD

  2. Hi KZ did you find the song. The composer of the song Christopher Tin has the song as a free download on his website. Failing that it can be found on a p2p network like limewire.

  3. In case people missed it, those that own Civ4 already have a playable track available – it is in mp3 format in one of the game’s directories.

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