Street Song by Santa Ragione
Published: July 12. 2012
Developer Santa Ragione explores the hazy connection between music and games with its project Street Song
The connection between music and games has been explored in many ways and from many divergent vantage points. The latest comes in the form of a project spearheaded by popular music site Pitchfork which, in collaboration with Kill Screen magazine, has commissioned several innovative game developers to create new, original games inspired by specific songs. The result is a series of releases called SoundPlay, all of which will eventually be available here.
The first, entitled Street Song and inspired by electronic musician Matthew Dear’s song by the same name, was designed by the tiny independent Italian developer Santa Ragione. The “game” (term being used loosely here) has players running around a desert environment, dotted with monasteries. Move toward one of the buildings to collect a black gem, and you’ll notice that with each object you collect, you get two extra heart bars and some form of special power. These objects range from a car to an eagle to a fancy chair—and we’ll let you take it from here. Suffice to say, abstraction is the name of the game.
“The project was pitched to us back at GDC in March 2012,” says Santa Ragione’s Pietro Righi Riva about the conception of the project. “Kill Screen and Pitchfork wanted to experiment with the connection between indie games and indie music.” The group was heavily inspired by the perspective shared by fellow developer Molleindustria, a.k.a. Paolo Pedercini [see sidebar: No More Karaoke Heroes], and pitched an idea that was not a rhythm game, but rather one based on a song the same way a music video is based on a song. “Of course, the actual idea for the game only came when Matthew Dear picked Street Song to be adapted,” says Riva. “The song is very peculiar, dreamy, its lyrics are difficult to understand and it has imaginary tones and non-traditional structure. We tried to capture that in the game.”
According to Riva, Street Song is about travelling with the imagination and not being able to reach our destinations. “The way the player travels is abstract and surreal because it only happens in his/her imagination,” he says. “That's why monasteries are half-broken and inconsistent—you get to explore them as the pilot imagines them to be.” The “things” you collect—the car, the hawk, etc—are symbols of travel and the potential of what you might find, and as such, they influence the character’s imagination in ways that let him discover new things. “However, the game is really about not being able to reach your destination: Every time you are close to something, even the altar that you come to at the end of the song, you are whisked away before you can understand what's happening.” Riva particularly likes a quote he got from a friend who, after testing the game, said: “When I got pulled back from that final altar, it was crazy! Like when you have a thought, but as you start to articulate it, it slips away.”
When the developer discussed the project at GDC, it was immediately clear that it was going to be an intense one, both because of the prestigious partners (Kill Screen, Pitchfork and Intel, who funded the project), as well as the very short timeframe they were given to develop the game in time for the Pitchfork Music Festival 2012 in Chicago. “At that time of the pitch, we didn't know which song we were going to work with, but we quickly decided to hop in, as it was a great opportunity to experiment with new media combinations and work with talented people,” says Riva.
> Unity also has great, customizable full-screen post-processing shaders that let us define the look of the game early on, giving us an idea of what the final look was going to be.
Thanks to its prior experience with Unity, Santa Ragione decided to use the software for Street Song fairly early on in the process. “Because we had to work really fast and maintain as much flexibility as possible to keep the project open to a quick multi-platform release, Unity seemed the appropriate engine to use,” says Riva. “It’s familiar to us, and makes porting to multiple platforms a painless process.” Because of its small team—Santa Ragione consists of a designer (Riva) and an artist (cofounder Nicolò Tedeschi)—speed was particularly essential. “We need an accessible environment that allows for quick prototyping and experimentation,” says Riva. “Unity has great tools that let us test ideas quickly and with little coding.”
Indeed, the initial prototype came together fairly quickly, which was largely by design. “Keep in mind that our philosophy with this project, from the start, was to have accessible gameplay with minimal input,” says Riva. “The main mechanic—flying through the desert and snapping back to the pilot—was prototyped within a couple of hours, once we decided we were happy with the exploration-based game concept.” The main ambition of the game was to create something that was both free-roaming and on rails at the same time, using music as a guide to give rhythm to the whole experience. “It took a while to get this right, but more so from the design side than implementation,” says Riva.
Once they had the design pinned down, it took about a week to get the idea of music based object spawning into the game. “When you have about a month to develop a project from the core idea to the last line of code, it's difficult to predict the obstacles you will encounter during development,” says Riva. “It's good to spend some time designing on paper and thinking about things, but in such a short time frame we had to do the thinking as we were implementing stuff, and we knew we couldn’t throw away too much of what we had worked on—especially when it came to art assets.”
The ability to iterate quickly was aided by the rapid creation of a terrain technology/editor, which let the developers experiment with the high-speed exploration of a 50 km large desert with reliable collision and dynamic accounting level of detail. “Unity also has great, customizable full-screen post-processing shaders that let us define the look of the game early on, giving us an idea of what the final look was going to be,” says Riva. Finally, the team used the Unity Asset Store to find solution to pick out beats in the song (see sidebar: Greatest Assets), alleviating the need to write their own. Again, Riva says the project was one in which design was actually more difficult than implementation. “I guess the biggest challenge was spawning obstacles on uneven terrain, and with different properties and configurations for every obstacle,” he says. “About Unity I have only one complaint: it took us a couple of hours to understand how Unity rounds axis values on Vector3s.”
One could be the moment we realized we didn't need different gameplay to take place in the monasteries -- that we could just use the navigation gameplay we have throughout the game. We struggled on that unnecessary game design problem for almost four days. Another good one was when we where struggling to make the item selection screens on the right understandable to players without implementing any text or tutorial. The solution actually came from Kill Screen: “why don't you make item selection automatic when the player collects new Items?” We felt so dumb for not having thought of that ourselves.
As with any lightning-fast project, Street Song had its share of late night contemplation. “In our email exchanges with our 3D artist and animator Ernest Nemirovskiy about the pilot’s pose in the game, we probably caused a few head scratching moments,” says Riva. “We explained that the pose had to feel, ‘hieratic, sacred but sensual, and struggling against the forces of nature.’ We are sorry, Ernest!” Riva also chuckles at the very real possibility that they might have listened to Street Song more times than Matthew Dear himself—who he finally met after the project was finished. “I got the chance to meet Matthew in SF last week,” says Riva. “He's a very talented artist and it was exciting and a pleasure to work on something together.”
Santa Ragione made significant use the Unity Asset Store during the creation of Street Song. “The first plugin we bought was Visualizer Studio by Alternate Reality, for applying transformations and effects to game objects based on the audio,” recalls cofounder Pietro Righi Riva, which proved key in maintaining the song’s musical structure inside the game. “We also bought VISky by VIS Games,” says Riva, “which looks very beautiful and offers dynamic controls for skies and clouds.” Ultimately, the latter proved too demanding for a web game that needed to be played on less powerful machines. As far as selling its own assets on the store, Riva says they haven’t dipped their toes in yet, but probably will in the future. Unity 3.5’s new particle system Shuriken also played an important role, as it was responsible for animating dust particles in time with the audio of the wind.
No More Karaoke Heroes
“[What I want to do] is meant to be a critical answer to the proliferation of rhythm games à la Guitar Hero,” writes game developer Molleindustria, a.k.a. Paolo Pedercini on his blog—a major influence for Santa Ragione. “These karaoke-derived products simply capitalize on already successful music, generating royalties for a dying record industry and reinforcing the mythology of the rock star as super-human that common people should identify with. An alternative approach to the musical game form would link the independent music and independent games scenes. Indie music games could promote unknown bands to the multi-tasking, hyperactive, interaction-addicted new generations. They could enhance the listening experience while being autonomous works as the best music videos have been done in the last 30 years.”