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…)

Shamisen Serendipity

I don’t listen to the radio any more, and I don’t listen to music TV either. This makes me dependent on other forms of media (movies, TV shows, YouTube) and other guides (blogs, friends) to help me find my music. What I’ve discovered is that I’m encountering much more eclectic music this way, and interestingly, a lot of it isn’t very recent. In fact, a few of my favourite bands had already broken up by the time I started listening to their music (alas for The Delgados…).

My latest discovery has been the Yoshida Brothers. If you’ve seen the Nintendo Wii commercial, then you’ll have heard them. The music uses the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that is plucked rather fast. I can’t imagine how I would possibly have heard their music on the radio or on TV, and even if I did, it would’ve been difficult to discover who they were. With the internet, and in this case, YouTube, I was able to listen to it and find a note written by another viewer who knew the artist.

I’m quite curious as to how other people discover new music. We have Pandora – an internet radio station which can be customised for various styles of music – at work, and I heard a few new artists that way, but after a while it became rather boring. If you turn on the ‘Zero 7’ station, unsurprisingly, you just end up hearing songs that remind you of Zero 7, but often not quite as inspired or good.

Whenever I’m at Oxford, it’s always interesting to have a look around the music being shared over iTunes and browsing people’s libraries – if I find someone with similar tastes, I check out their other highly rated songs for ones I haven’t heard of. Of course, this only works if people actually rate their songs (a startling high number do not). A new iTunes plugin called iLike seems as if it might do the trick in terms of looking for patterns between your favourite songs and other people’s and then suggesting new artists, but I’m not sure if I’ll get around to installing it quite yet. I’m slightly surprised Apple hasn’t built in the functionality themselves, but who knows what they’re planning…

Who supports longer copyright?

Various news outlets today have been claiming that the Public ‘support longer copyright’. I quote from the BBC article:

62% of people polled by YouGov for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) think UK artists should be protected for 95 years, as they are in the US.

I found this very surprising – I can hardly believe that many people in the UK really care about copyright durations, and I imagine that those that do are likely to be opposed to it. This survey, of course, shows that I’m wrong. Or am I? It all depends on the exact question that was asked int he survey. The Observer article puts a slightly different slant on it:

The study, by YouGov, found that 62 per cent of those polled believe British artists should receive the same copyright protection as their US counterparts.

Ah… this is obviously not the same thing as the British public actually wanting 45 years added to copyright. This is the public wanting copyright parity with the US, without necessarily knowing (or being told) what the US or UK copyright regimes actually are. If people were asked the question ‘Do you think British artists should receive the same copyright protection as those in the US?’, I’m hardly surprised that they agreed. Why wouldn’t they? The US seems to be a reasonable enough place, so surely we should have the same copyright rules.

Unfortunately for the BPI, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for their aim of enriching their members. The simple fact is that they can’t risk an open question of prolonging copyright, because there’s a real chance that most people would be against it, hence the reason for disguising the question.

I would dearly love to find out the exact data gathered by YouGov for this BPI survey. Hopefully it’ll be released next week and we can find out whether I’m right. The problem is that even if I am right, it’s hardly likely that any newspapers will bother changing their articles.

One more quote from the Observer:

Just under 70 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds hold that view, the highest of any age group surveyed. That is likely to surprise some observers, as they are the generation most likely to illegally download songs.

If it surprised you, why didn’t you spend a minute to look into it? Or perhaps that’s not your job as a journalist.

The iPod Shuffle, in use

A few weeks ago, I finally received the iPod Shuffle that I ordered from Apple. I’ve already written about why I bought it, but in short I felt that it would complement my 20GB iPod well, with its tiny size and respectable 512MB capacity being more than enough for walks and runs.

I’ve used my Shuffle enough in those weeks to have given it a good appraisal. At risk of rendering the rest of this review superfluous, I can say that I’m glad I bought it. It’s not perfect, but it is worth £69.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Shuffle was its size. Being something of an Apple follower, I knew very well that it was ‘no larger than a stick of gum’ and lighter than one to boot. However, on actually seeing and holding the Shuffle in person, my first thought was, ‘Is that it?’. Not only is it tiny, but it has practically no controls apart from the standard play/rewind/fast-forward and volume controls. On the back is a slider that lets you select between normal play and shuffled play, but that’s it. No screen, no equalizer, no radio.

After mucking about with the lanyard that comes with the Shuffle and mulling over exactly how stupid I would look wearing it around my neck outside (verdict: not as stupid as you might think, but still far from cool) I got around to putting some music on it. As I’ve said before, the Shuffle is basically a very well designed USB memory stick that plays music, so to load music, you just plug it into a USB port.

Unfortunately, due to the physical dimensions of the Shuffle, I had to unplug some other cables to get it in. This is not particularly convenient but the same problems exist for all other similar players and memory sticks. Loading up music is typically easy using iTunes, although unusually you have to manually click a button called ‘Autofill’ on iTunes every time you want to wipe your current songs stored on the Shuffle with a new set.

Listening to music is when you realise exactly how small the Shuffle is. While people, including myself, were initially impressed by Apple’s idea to push the Shuffle as something you wear around your neck with a lanyard, I think it ultimately detracts from its main asset – its size. One way to put it is that there is no pocket too full for the Shuffle. Even if your jeans are weighed down with wallets, phones, PDAs and keys and you have resigned yourself to either listening to no music or wearing a belt clip, there will still be room for the Shuffle.

Another way to put it is that it’s so light and small, you don’t notice it’s there. This is particularly important when exercising. On my runs in Oxford and London, I’ve seen many people who are perfectly happy to run around holding iPods, CD players and even CD wallets in their hands. For my own part, I can’t stand any kind of excess mass on me as I run; I did try running with my 20GB iPod once, clipped onto my shorts, but it upset my rhythm and I rapidly became annoyed. I’ve now gotten to the point where I’ve stopped wearing my watch because it was too distracting, so I wasn’t optimistic about the Shuffle making the cut.

Of course, it did. The Shuffle weighs less than the key I take with me when running, and if I stick it in my pocket and run the headphones inside my T-shirt, the only impact it makes is to generate music.

When I first took Shuffle running, I’d filled it with a random high-rated selection of songs. This turned out to be a really awful idea, since I ended up with a mishmash of good but entirely unsuitable songs. Without any proper screen or navigation on the Shuffle, the only thing I could do was to repeatedly fast-forward in the hope that I would eventually stumble across an appropriate song. This almost put me off taking the Shuffle running, but I decided to give it another try. This time, I manually loaded it up with appropriate (and approriately-arranged) songs and I was rewarded with a more enjoyable and noticeably faster run. Specifically, I normally run 10k in about 45 minutes when exercising, but this time I managed it in 43 minutes. The third time, 42 minutes. Clearly a big improvement for my motivation.

As for the 512MB storage, it’s more than enough for my purposes. In these times of multiple-gigabyte mp3 players that can hold thousands of songs, the Shuffle 512MB with its 125 song capacity looks positively crippled. Then again, 125 songs will last for over six hours – in other words, long enough to keep even the slowest marathon-runner entertained, and that’s just if you don’t repeat any songs. The essential thing to remember, however, is that this really only works if you select your songs intelligently. You can do this manually or by setting up a playlist of high-rated genre-specific songs that you Autofill the Shuffle from, but if you don’t, you may find yourself fast-forwarding through a bunch of songs you don’t want to listen to.

This doesn’t matter quite as much if you just want to listen to some music on a walk to the shops, another task which the Shuffle is eminently suitable for, and probably one that more people care about than running. Still, the single thing that’s impressed me about the Shuffle is how it’s sped my running up by 7% and made it more enjoyable, and I’m perfectly happy to spend £69 for that.

The Execution of All Things

I have a bad habit with music. Whenever I acquire a particularly good album or set of songs, I play them again and again continuously until I either can’t listen to them for at least another year, or manage to exert some degree of self control and cruelly cut off my access. The current album I have on near-continuous play is Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things. I first heard them from a song off The Trip by Snow Patrol, a compilation album of Snow Patrol’s favorite songs; Rilo Kiley’s With Arms Outstretched was one of those songs.

I tend to listen to new artists and albums with half an ear during work, and if anything catches my attention I’ll mark it up for further listening. I was listening to The Trip by Snow Patrol one day when the Rilo Kiley song came on and I thought, ‘Huh, that’s actually really good.’ With Arms Outstretched is a simple, beautiful alternative acoustic song with female vocals on just the right side of weird (just like the lyrics, in fact). A quick Amazon search revealed that Rilo Kiley, while not being particularly well known, were very well rated and so I quickly ordered The Execution of All Things, which most people believe is their best album so far.

I haven’t heard the others yet, but it is pretty impressive. The band has a great range that isn’t easily described. The review on Amazon.com asks, ‘Are they alternative-country rockers or alternative rock crooners?’ I don’t know what either of those are, but The Execution of All Things has at least four excellent songs, which is pretty unprecedented in my experience. In comparison, I think that U2’s latest album (How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb) only has three really decent songs, and two of them sound the same anyway.

Anyway, back to Rilo Kiley. All of the vocals are by Jenny Lewis, who has a voice which is slightly reminiscent of an americanised Emiliana Torrini. Those four songs start with, appropriately enough, the title song The Execution of All Things, a weird alternative pop song with great chords and slightly bizarre lyrics. Next is My Slumbering Heart, a more traditional up-tempo pop song. The third song is With Arms Outstretched, which I’ve already mentioned, and the last is Spectacular Views, a perfect alternative rock album finisher where the guitarist gets to show off.

Rilo Kiley recently released a new album called More Adventurous. It’s yet to come out in the UK but reviews have proved divisive. Most agree that it’s a good album and that it’s more ‘produced’ than The Execution of All Things. For some, this is a good thing while others aren’t so hot on the new sound. I’m eager to find out for myself.

The ancient art of karaoke

Karaoke. The word can provoke extreme emotions in many, from freezing fear to joyous abandon. I tend towards the latter, so when I got an invitation off Lal to go to a karaoke party yesterday, I was pretty pleased.

The two previous times I’ve done proper karaoke (SingStar, fun though it may be, is not the same) have been in front of large groups of people, so I’ve already gotten over the fear aspect and now actually relish the opportunity to get a crowd dancing. This time I was a little apprehensive when I walked into the club on Frith Street, which didn’t look like any karaoke club I’d been to before, and then even more apprehensive when I realised it was one of those where you hire out a room with a karaoke machine for a few mates. I’ve never understood why you’d want to do such a thing – surely the fun of karaoke is the big audience?

Anyway, a few beers later and my apprehension was dispelled. The real beauty, I now saw, of getting a karaoke room is not having to wait for a bunch of talentless hacks you don’t know to have their turn before you get your go – instead, it’s just you and a bunch of talentless hacks you do know happily singing along to the classics. Actually, I lie – everyone there was pretty good and had done it before, although when a girl started singing in pitch-perfect tune to a song, everyone went quiet and starting murderously muttering about being ‘too good’.

What songs went up for me? No less than the Very Best including Road Rage (Catatonia), Somewhere In My Heart (Aztec Camera) and of course, Sex Bomb (Tom Jones). It’s definitely a great way to have fun with friends and good for those who haven’t yet made the step to performing in public.

Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue

I’ve long been a fan of the Red vs Blue series – I subscribed to both season and am the proud owner of the DVDs. When the soundtrack CD Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, performed by Trocadero, came up for sale, I felt obliged to buy it in order to support the series and also to get Blood Gulch Blues, the catchy title track of season 1. I didn’t expect it to be much good – I never recalled hearing any decent music during the series, and I uncharitably thought that a band doing music for free for a webseries surely couldn’t be that great.

Well, Trocadero aren’t that great, but the CD has three great tracks, which is three more than the vast majority of bands. Blood Gulch Blues has a catchy retro electronic keyboard sound and incorporates the trademark Red vs Blue guitar riffs. Funny Farm has much more of a rock sound; the vocals and lyrics don’t measure up to Blood Gulch Blues but the instrumentals are good, up until the end where they become repetitive. Half Life is a classic album finisher with a subdued start and good tune that works up into a noisy rock conclusion.

As for the rest of the 12 tracks, either they’re unmemorable or I just haven’t listened to them enough. As a measure of how much I like the three tracks I’ve mentioned above, they’ve all joined my select list of iTunes Top Rated Songs, which are all suitable for public consumption and playing at parties. Check out the previews – you might like them.

Summon the Worms

Usually it’s the other way round, but after listening to the incredible Children of Dune TV movie soundtrack, I feel compelled to buy the DVD (and the CD – I believe in buying stuff I listen to a lot). If you’re wondering why I decided to listen to the soundtrack of a movie I haven’t watched, the reason is because the music from the Master and Commander trailer is not actually from the movie, but from the main theme of Children of Dune (tracks 1 and 18, in case you are interested).

CopyLeft

EasyMusic and Copyleft – interesting to see that Stelios is considering dabbling in the world of Copyleft music: “We are currently investigating business opportunities in the area of music downloads, especially following the ‘copyleft’ principle. Copyleft is where music has no copyright at all so music can be freely downloaded from sites and exchanged between people as much as they want.” Of course, it’s not entirely true that Copyleft music has ‘no copyright at all’ but I suppose for most people the distinction is neglegible.