For the last couple of weeks, once the girls are all in bed, I’ve been playing a strange little computer game that I discovered via a demo on the Xbox. It’s moved me to tears a number of times, taken my breath away every time I’ve played.
Now this sounds odd if you’ve not played this particular game, or genre, and especially for someone from my parents’ generation who probably don’t understand how someone can become a millionaire by posting videos of themselves playing games. I confess that not being a heavy gamer myself, even I used to find this concept strange when my daughter would spend hours watching Minecraft videos. So I wanted to try to explain this, but got bogged down there following several trains of thought so that’s going to have to wait til I can tidy it up. I also wanted to explain why specific scenes moved me so much, some of the key moments that make it so powerful, but that would spoil it for people who might play the game, so that will have to wait.
Graphical Adventures – games as interactive stories
The game I’m referring to is Life is Strange. It’s a sub-genre of computer games called graphical adventures, where you follow a story through one or more characters and frequently solve small puzzles or make choices that affect the game outcome. Usually there’s heavy use of “cutscenes”, which are short non-interactive segments that you watch like a movie rather than play. It’s an area of gaming which has become more popular the last few years, and more sophisticated as computer power has increased, giving an ability to render scenery and create realistic characters. Add to that an expectation of good writing (movie scriptwriters and novelists are often key figures in developing the story) and these can be very artistic and very engaging stories.
In some ways this genre feeds an appetite for interesting drama which movies often don’t satisfy, and TV programmes spoil by allowing viewers to binge. As this writer put it: “We still talk about television, but it’s not like it used to be. We’ll gather around Bake Off episodes like hungry cavemen around a vanilla-scented pastry fire, and we’ll get excited about new seasons of The Walking Dead and Hannibal and Downton Abbey, but the internet and new technology have meant that we’re no longer tied to a schedule. But because episodic games – like Life is Strange – are a novel format to gamers, we consume each morsel as soon as it comes out and discuss it ravenously in the hours and days that follow.”
Life Is Strange was released in five episodes, starting in January this year and finishing just this week. Each episode ran to a couple of hours gameplay, depending on how long you took to solve puzzles and explore the world. I only came to the game late, thankfully just in time to catch up with the first 4 episodes before Tuesday’s finale. By that point there was a whole library of articles and fan videos discussing the plot, characters, story arc, visual clues and the soundtrack. Again, this might sound ridiculous but it’s a reflection of how much thought and detail have been put into the game. There are now hundred of t-shirts and other items available (575 from this retailer alone) created from scenes in the game or from fan art of characters and locations in the game. It’s the kind of response normally reserved for the great books or movies of a generation.
Twin Peaks, Groundhog Day and Mean Girls all in one.
The story starts simply enough: your character is Maxine Caulfield, a photography student returning to her home town on the Oregon coast to attend a prestigious arts academy. After a vision of a hurricane destroying the town, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time to a certain point and change the outcome of decisions and conversations. There’s a mystery which emerges in the first episode, which you aim to decipher by asking questions, getting to know the other characters and solving small puzzles. This becomes the game mechanic, but it also forms a key element of the story, to do with choice and consequence. The episodic release allows for pause, with a “previously on Life Is Strange” reminder at the start, and a cliffhanger at the end of each. (although all 5 episodes have noe been released so you could binge if you wanted)
As the story develops, it becomes darker, with some harrowing scenes that are sensetively written and presented by the voice actors. There are a number of moments where your heart is in your mouth, where you are genuinely shocked, and others where you can sit agonising over the choice to be made, mainly because you have built up such an understanding and empathy with all the characters. There are moments in the game when you can just stop and listen to conversations in the background, or take in the scenery and the soundtrack whilst internally monologuing
The soundtrack is a representation of Max’s teenage tastes, lots of emo indie bands which I’d barely heard of. Each song is perfectly chosen for the moments in the story, edited with some of the most beautifully framed cutscenes, or their in the background whilst you explore the scene. It was the use of music in the opening titles (above) that got me hooked, where Max walks down the school corridor listening to her headphones and commenting on her fellow students. The songs are also chosen well to underline the current emotional state, and often provide foreshadowing, which make for great listening afterwards. There’s a Spotify playlist, and a number of videos for the main songs which uses scenes from the game. Here’s a spolier free video from the song at the start of episode 2, where you’re exploring Max’s bedroom, and when you pick up the guitar, she plays along with the song. Took me right back to being 18 again.
In the end, the game is a High School coming-of-age drama with time-travel, but becomes more than that because of the writing and the game mechanic itself. The story could possibly have been told through a TV programme, film or book, but becomes more powerful and meaningful because of your unique choices and your friendships. I cannot spoil the finale here, but all I can say is that the decisions you make for Max contribute to a morality tale about choice, consequence and determinism. It’s that deeper meaning and the response from players that might make it one of the “first great works of digital literature“.
HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS
If this has intrigued you, but you are definitely *not* going to play, here’s a great, and very moving analysis of the meaning behind the story. I am serious. Super spoilers. Here’s a slightly longer one that covers the summarises the story a little more. These fans also nailed the morality of a time travelling teenager back in April, a video that was so spot on as it formed a whole segment of the final episode.
The videos will also give you an idea of the gameplay and the beautiful artwork that’s gone into the game.
Warning: this contains some thoughts on the Interstellar soundtrack and the second part discusses major plot points throughout the movie. I can’t stress this enough – read up to the warning and come back when you’ve seen it!
Movie soundtracks as modern symphonies
As a suite of music designed to evoke a range of emotions and rhythms, original movie soundtracks may be the closest thing we have to a symphony. I know there are new classical compositions all the time, but I’m not sure they’re as well broadcast to such a wide range of people. Classical music is often seen as inaccessible, elitist and irrelevant, and I suppose given the complexity of sounds, the skill needed to read sheet music and play an instrument, it’s understandable why that view prevails.
It might have always been like this; I find it hard to imagine the circumstances where Handel’s Coronoation Anthems made it to the slums of London. But almost everyone can hum the James Bond themes, or the Star Wars Imperial March, even if they don’t recognise Carl Jenkins or Phillip Glass.
A good soundtrack is an integral part of the film, like the set design, photography, acting and the story itself. A great movie soundtrack is one that can bring you back instantly to that moment you watched the film for the first time, where you feel the same empathy in that scene. I defy you to listen to Michael Giaccino’s “Married Life” from Up without tearing up. Or even something more fierce – I remember listening to “The Battle” from Gladiator whilst marching along a busy street and having to fight the urge to whirl my umbrella like a sword.
I have a fair few movie tracks in my playlists, John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: Phantom Menace would be a good example. There are others in my playlists where I’ve not even seen the film, but the came to the track via the composer’s other works, say John Barry or Alexandre Desplat. Earlier this year I even bought the soundtrack for “Grand Budapest Hotel” before I’d seen the movie – the music in the trailer was that good.
Learning to appreciate the organ
Over the years this has led me to explore classical music a bit more, using the ability to “walk through” Spotify to find new music, including ancient music I didn’t know. I’d been getting into organ music this last year or so, partly via other composers like Bach and Mozart, but Neil Hannon’s organ oratorio “To Our Fathers In Distress” really sealed it.
I’ve been a big fan of the Divine Comedy for years, perhaps because of the stories within the songs, but also the complex melodies and use of classical instruments in pop songs. Coming from a similar background, there’s a kind of spiritual journey in his songs that match my own, so Hannon’s simple story about a typical Sunday growing up in a church family brought back a lot of memories. Presented with a selection of organ favourites it made me seek out more organ compositions.
It’s a fascinating instrument for a number of reasons, not least the way that it synthesises brass, strings and voice, acting as an analog ancestor of the Moog, Roland, or even Garageband. There’s a huge range, with big bass pipes designed to operate below human hearing and vibrate the listeners in their seats all the way to gentle flutes and choral voices. And the sheer baroque beauty of the ornately arranged great organs, the most complicated human device for a good 600 or so years, until the invention of the telephone exchange. When you’re there listening you can sometimes here the mechanisms that drive the sound, the air wooshing through; it’s a huge living, breathing creature with a unique history and personality.
All of this had me primed for Interstellar (which I reviewed here), in which the organ plays a significant role. The track notes for the soundtrack CD have been posted online, and they describe a fascinating back story, with as much meaning and creativity as you might expect from Nolan and Zimmer. Trying to move away from the sharp brass and strings that had almost become a cliche, Nolan suggested the Organ, which rekindled some childhood memories for Zimmer. He created the music on a synthesised organ (i.e. samples from real great organs), then realised it needed a bit more weight. So they fitted out Temple Church in London with recording equipment, squeezed in an orchestra and a choir, and had the virtuoso organist Roger Sayer play the organ parts.
HERE BE SPOILERS
I’m now going to talk about the soundtrack to Interstellar, and refer to the scenes in detail. You’ve been warned!
I’m still listening to this regularly, and have found it an excellent accompaniment to a 10k run. The urgency of several of the tracks really drives you, especially Coward – challenging to you keep breathing and pushing through *just* when you need that energy at about 55 minutes. Other more peaceful tracks allow you time to recover and enjoy the passing scenery, listening to your own breath and footsteps.
I’m not musical, but I will do my best to describe the lietmotifs and phrases as I’ve experienced them. I think there are two main 5 note lietmotifs: Love and Fear, I suppose. Both of these appear in the opening track “Dreaming about the crash”.
Love is “F Bb A G A”, Fear is a minor (?) version of this, becoming “F Bb Ab G Ab”. Sometimes these are played with one transitioning into another, as in “Stay”,where Cooper has to leave Murph wihout being able to say goodbye properly. Then the opposite in “Detach”, where Cooper’s fear and depair suddenly changes to hope and love, and subsequently a brand new, glorious phrase which isn’t anywhere else.
- “Cornfield Chase” brings the third lietmotif, one I’d call motivation. It seems to be A E A E B E B E C E C E D E D E. I think the organ plays this, support by the strings, and then the piano variation, perhaps representing the drone flying aimlessly. As it’s hacked it’s taken over by the organ variations, ending abruptly as it lands. This motivation theme comes back later.
- “Dust” brings slightly different feeling, this arid dry earth, arid and ready to give up. I can’t recall the scene exactly, but the organs and reverb piano come in in the second half the track, and these also come back in later tracks.
- “Day One” continues to merge these themes together but it’s “Stay” that really pulls out all the stops, starting with the simple Love, and then becoming the crushing Fear for both father and daughter as they separate, unreconciled. All the while, waves crash and wind blows in the background, whilst a single note seems to indicate the ranger, waiting for take off.
- “Message from Home” is stark and lonely, a simple slow piano phrase that doesn’t , ending on an unfinished “Love”, or is it “Fear” – we don’t know, as the note lingers and fades out.
- “The Wormhole” lacks any melodies, but evokes a clock ticking as they approach the point of no return. The organ rises to a crescendo and the echoes fade away into “Mountains”, which again has the ticking clock as they try to work out what’s happened and get back into orbit. As the realisation of danger hits them, the pace picks up and a warning blast comes from the organ. The drums rumble as the wave rises, and the choir shouts out what seems to be a warning to leave. It’s an incredible track, possibly inspired by Prokofiev’s “Midnight” from the Cinderella suite – the urgency of the ticking clock?
- “Afraid of time” seems to evoke time passing whilst they discuss their purpose. The lonely piano from “Message from Home” comes back here.
- “A place among the stars” and “Running out” are full of fear and doubt, but don’t stand up to listening on their own as some of the others do.
- “I’m going home” – I can’t remember the scene exactly but I think it’s when they find Mann. The limbo bit reminded me of Phillip Glass’ “Living Waters” from The Truman Show, a sense of limbo and uncertainty, but turning to relief. This comes back in “Detach”, but in a much more spectacular way.
- “Coward” is a magnificent piece. Straight away the mood is more sinister, accompanied by the pulsating brass and ticking clock. But the Motivation theme comes back here quietly after about 2.5 minutes, and shortly after new version which seems to elaborate on love and fear. This elaborated track actually reminds me of Tubular Bells, and I wonder if that’s intentional, with Mann as the Demon trying to take over Endurance/Regan, who in turn is spinning into self-destruction, only to be saved by Cooper/Karras throwing himself into the abyss to save her. Interesting that Ellen Burstyn was chosen to play old Murph, when she played Regan’s mother in The Exorcist. Or am I reading too much?At times it goes quiet again, with the lonely piano, then rises and rises, shifting gear and then suddenly ending. I can’t remember without seeing the film again whether the track ends with Mann’s disastrous opening of the airlock, or if it continues until they recover control over Endurance.
- “Detach” is equally brilliant, rising from a continuous discordant organ, bringing the fear theme back as heightened as it ever has been, but right at the peak it suddenly becomes Love once again, pauses for a moment in limbo, returning with the relief from “I’m going home”, but this time with an enormous joy, before fading away. Some riffs here reminiscent of Vierne’s Symphony No 1.
- “S.T.A.Y.” brings back Motivation, but sounding more like binary, ending in the dryness of “Dust”.
- “Where we’re going” comes back to “Dreaming about the Crash”, but with wind and waves, with an organ crescendo ending the film and turning it into Motivation.
As for the sound levels, I disagree with the moans, it’s supposed to be like that. At the times when the sound rises and becomes overwhelming and you think you need to turn it down, it’s just there for a second to take you with Cooper, through the singularity.
Hold your course.
I’ve long been fascinated by old maps as they show how things have changed, but also what was important for people to record at the time. An old map gives you an overhead view of the local area, a broad perspective on what was going on in the local community. You straight away can see where people lived, worked, played and where later communities and towns developed from inidividual settlements. So I love the wide access to maps we have today, not just from Google, but other sites that have published old maps online like Vision of Britain, National Library of Scotland, Old Maps or Motco‘s maps of London.
One thing that I would love to see is a browsable map that allows you to slide a scale, move through time and see how things have changed, perhaps even year by year. I don’t think this can be automated so it would need to be manually curated, like OpenStreetMap. This way you can fill in between the gaps, so that if we know the date a particular estate or building was laid down between two editions of the Ordnance Survey, we can add that section. Or going further back, to add information from the Domesday Book, or Anglo-Saxon records. It would allow local historians to upload their knowledge for a wider audience.
All roads lead to Ilkley
Last week, there was a discussion on one of the Bradford local history Facebook groups about Roman roads. This led me to look for a detailed map that could be viewed as a layer over modern imagery, but the closest I found was these excellent maps by Keith Briggs. These are based on an amazing catalogue by Ivan Margary called Roman Roads in Britain (it does what it says on the tin) which I was able to borrow from the Institute of Archeology Library. The librarian, Katie, knew the book well, and I was thinking that this was some kind of librarian wizardry, but in one of those moments of serendipity it turns out she’s doing her PhD on Roman Britain.
Following the descriptions of some of the roads, I traced a few on Google Maps, first from Bradford to Elslack via Keighley (721), from Elslack to Ilkley (72a), and from Keighley to Ilkley (720a). Sometimes the descriptions were on the scant side, and often the route has been obscured by later farming, centuries of floods or modern housing. A few times I inferred a path based on marks on the ground or treelines between two known pathways. Not particularly scientific, but feels right, and you can view the map here. Might be a good way for people to follow these pathways and look for clues.
I have since found two additional resources, a recent book and accompanying online maps by Mike Bishop entitled “The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain“, and a website, Vici.org, which is billed as an “Archaeological Atlas of Antiquity” and seems to have an OpenStreetMap approach.
What I’ve learned
I don’t intend to fill out the rest of the map, especially now I’ve found the Vici.org website. Besides which, it was time consuming, often speculative and I have to take Margary’s book back at the end of the week!
One thing that struck me is that I got a vivid sense of an ancient Britain, stripped of the current settlements and probably very raw and wild. I wondered why they would take an more arduous route over the moors to rather than a slight detour along the valley floor. The road from Bradford to Keighley is particularly striking in that regard. I suppose some of this was due to “following orders”, routes being made out of military necessity rather than evolving from local use. With the colonial strategy being to link the main encampments, there might have not been sufficient flexibility in the command structure for an extensive surveying process.
We might also wonder why some routes are lost, especially when portions of them seem efficient and straight. The example of Elslack fort offers some clue: sometimes forts would become abandoned, and if the military were the only ones using the road from, the isolated segments would become disused whilst others proved useful to the locals. Additionally, roads that evolved between later settlements would become the dominant route. Another factor in the abandonment of roads is depopulation after the Roman Empire, and devastation wrought by the Norman Invasion, during which many Saxon settlements in the North were wiped out.