The Musical Villages
of Jim Hall's Isle of Tune
Ever since I was young I've had this compulsion regarding windshield wipers—whenever I'm in a car in the rain, I can't help but get into their hypnotic, rhythmic groove. No matter the driving conditions, I find myself bopping my head and humming along as they swipe, swipe, swipe. This habit has produced a lot of interesting beats over the years, from the deep, uneven swing of a pair of oversized bus wipers to fast pulse of a sedan in a downpour. But it wasn't until this week that I saw a videogame designer take that absent-minded compulsion and run with it.
The result is London-based animator and designer Jim Hall's new free-to-play music-making game Isle of Tune. This refreshingly colorful, deceptively deep browser game is essentially a blend of a music sequencer like Propellerhead's Reason and a city-planning game like SimCity. The resulting concoction is a blast to use and has given rise to a large and ever-expanding community of online players. Each user creates, shares and up- or down-votes musical compositions via the game's integrated social network. The site's top 50 list is already loaded with charmingly creative grooves, and more are added every day.
In order to build a song, players are given a wide-open field which they can freely populate with roads, trees, bushes, houses and lampposts. After the roads have been laid, players place upon them up to three tiny cars that with a press of the "start" button begin to trundle down the road in time with one another. As the cars pass objects along the street, beats, tones and sound-effects play depending on the object the car just passed. The player's ability to layer multiple cars on multiple streets opens up a whole world of musical possibilities—creative users have already recreated everything from MGMT's hit "Kids" to Michael Jackson's "Beat It".
"I really wanted to make something that had an intuitive, real-world connection," says Hall, with whom I recently chatted online. "The issue I had with the majority of sound-interaction stuff was that it was generally very abstract." Hall says that the idea for Isle of Tune came to him from a bunch of sketches he made while traveling to work on London's underground, a result of years of thinking about sound and interactive toys like those of Andre Michelle.
"Initially, I was going to work with a train on a railway network—so, switching points, crossing-over lines, etc.—but this evolved into cars and town layout, as it seems more accessible." He points out that cars are singular units, rather than snake-like trains, and so they're easier for both him and his users to control.
"The objects [in the game] were going to be themed, so rather than just lampposts, the percussion sounds would be stuff like fences, signs, traffic lights solid street-furniture type things." The finished game only has a few types of houses, each of which plays a different sound effect, but in his original concept, Hall says that "The houses were going to be all sorts of buildings. But in the end, I had to simplify to get it done."
The result is a leaner—but no less compelling—music-creation tool. Users have gone beyond simply recreating their favorite pop tunes, building interactive works of digital art like "Heart," a heart-shaped collection of red houses that simply... beats. Ka-THUM. Ka-THUM. Hall says that he's surprised at the range of creativity that Isle of Tune players have shown. "They're subverting the technology in very cool ways, and it made me very happy to see that."
Hall started making games around the year 2000, his first being Burning Benny!, a simple flash game that he describes as "basically a keepy-uppy game using a lighter and a screaming pink thing on fire." (I played the game and yeah, that pretty much sums it up, though he left off the fact that it is totally, hilariously bananas.) Web work became scarce after the dot-com bubble burst, so Hall went freelance and has been ever since. He built Isle of Tune on his own time, experimenting and testing it on his friends, girlfriend, and some "very honest, no-bullshit fellow game devs," tweaking the game to get it just right.
After working out the game's kinks and simplifying the concept, Hall launched the Isle of Tune. Since then, he has been receiving loads of email from users with suggestions on how to improve the game. He acknowledges that the limitations of Flash required that he cut a lot of things that he would've rather kept in, and says that the most-requested additions include "different scales, a chromatic scale, more octaves, more sounds, and variable-speed cars—everyone wants to go faster!"
Considering that at the moment the game can only make mid-tempo music, the addition of a variable tempo control will doubtless cause the number of pop-tune recreations to skyrocket, though it will probably open the door to plenty of legal headaches over copyright infringement as well. And though Flash won't allow too much flexibility beyond what's already on offer, Hall is planning to add huge number of new features to the pending iPhone and iPad versions of Isle of Tune. He says that he is "wicked excited" for the their launch, and is hopeful that in addition to making a more flexible editor, he can include subsequent add-on packs that will add new sounds to the game's sample library.
Depending on how the App Store launch goes, it could be simply be a matter of time before we see bands incorporating Isle of Tune into their live act, a development that would make Hall happy indeed. "I love music; I go mad for Pandora, especially now that I'm working from home. I used to play the clarinet many, many years ago as a kid—loved playing in a blues orchestra—but I quit by the time I went to college." But, he says, he wishes he could still play. "I have a lot of respect for musicians, and want to be one of them by proxy!"
Having arguably already met that goal, Hall is hopeful about taking Isle of Tune to the iTunes App Store. "If it takes off, I'll have a party. If not I'll get a job! But I've got lots of interactive stuff buzzing 'round my head, and if I can afford the time to do it, I would love to continue."
Here's hoping he can, and that the next game he makes includes variable-speed windshield wipers.