Games and pop music are made for each other.
Music slips past the bouncers, the rubber-stampers of gritty po-faced games, and scurries slyly into the bar, shaking its boo-tay. It brings with it all the people who games have neglected, all the joy that you can’t get from blood and death, all the freedom you gain from never dying, and it is woven by game designers into something more than itself: It’s a place for more than one person, and it’s not just for your hands, it’s for your body, it’s for your feet, it’s for your hips, games are up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky, you’re up all night to get lucky.
There was a time when I thought pop music was dead. All through high school and up until I moved to Japan, the land where pop music will never be a crime, I slunk into a little mope about how I felt that people should be disgusted by music-by-committee, should “appreciate” singer/songwriters and their candor, but I was wrong. There is no musical hierarchy like this. Throughout that purgatory I was in some sort of indie-music coma because that’s what adults are supposed to like. They’re supposed to want to wallow in their own bitter Smiths-like depression: To be Cool with a capital C you become all about the “nuance of life” and “timelessness,” “loneliness” and how lyrics intertwine with feeling and oh gosh, Jeff Buckley. When you’re approaching adulthood you’re supposed to embrace the music of being by yourself, but that doesn’t preclude liking anything that’s made with everyone in mind. There’s some odd disinterested lot out there who pretend that we’re in some post-Radiohead era where we all have to snobbishly act like pop is catnip for boneheads, and not ultimately something pumped into clubs because it makes us move together. There’s a reason pop music is love-obsessed, sex-obsessed, stuck on base instincts. It’s because it’s as much our mirror as more personal contemplations. It is still us, writ large, with ugly vibrance, and it makes us move.
As Robert Frost said: “Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.”
There’s still something delicately placed, finely tuned, almost manipulative about most big trashy pop beats. There’s a time, isn’t there, when you swagger into a place where the bass is so loud and thrilling and magnetising that everyone forgets that they were halfway through a sentence and are drawn, hypnotised, into the lights. There are moments where you look over and smile because the sweaty limbs you are seeing could be completely mistaken for your own.
Games have dragged that right into the living room. Their biggest triumph is that just like pop music they invite people to connect with each other, more often now than ever in person, in diverse spaces across the cultural landscape. Soldering music, a prêt-à-porter international language, right into the electronic veins of a computer so that it can converse with us is new, exciting, interesting. Though the era of Rock Band and Guitar Hero may be faltering due to the rarity of the peripherals, Singstar will never die as long as people want to sing and you can still plug a USB mic into your platform of choice. Pop music lives, and games owe it a living.
People will always want to dance together. You just have to give them a safe space where it’s okay to do so.
1. THE TRACK
There’s a bit in Saints Row IV that made me actually squeal with delight. Squeal. My character is escaping a futuristic neon structure in a spaceship, she asks if the radio works, and flips the station. Haddaway’s “What Is Love” comes on. I shoot lasers to the beat. My character exclaims, “THIS IS MY JAM!”
It’s at this moment I realise that we tend to use popular music in ads on TV for games like Call of Duty, but less often in games themselves. This could be for many reasons, including that music is so expensive (and legally complex) to license, and perhaps sometimes because the record labels think that the music won’t be honored by a medium so juvenile or violent. Or perhaps (and I suspect this most of all) big commercial games are often conceived by designers who have done nothing but consume and cannibalize their own medium for years without considering that their player base might respond to other less obvious cultural stimuli than harking to ’80s hypermasculine movie aesthetics.
But let’s not leave ’80s hypermasculine movie culture just yet: We can learn something from the time it used pop music to help appear humanoid. Some of the most humanizing moments of the notoriously violent GTA games, for example, are the ones where you’re racing down a highway to the beats of a familiar tune. When FLASH FM throws up “Billie Jean” in Vice City you feel like you know the world you’re inhabiting. You feel like everything is under control. Like you’re invincible. It does more for Tommy Vercetti than most of the dialogue ever does. Tommy knows “Billie Jean,” you think. Tommy’d dance to this. He’s a smug self-serving git but at least “Billie Jean” would make him tap his foot. Music for the ME generation.
In similar neon vein, hypermasculine violence simulator Hotline Miami, the indie triumph of 2012, employed independent artists like M.O.O.N and Peturbator to set a rhythm to the bloody top-down fucking-up of brodudes, and the reason you felt the violence was okay in your little game bubble was because the music set the beat, the groove, the movement. It was like a dancefloor, and your assassin was some awful moonwalking face-smasher. Tapping ‘R’ to restart was a sort of comforting ritual, absorbed into your body memory, absorbed by the beat. The noise of your tap: It was the noise of Hydrogen knocking on your eardrums. A stray bug prevented some players from hearing the music: They reported it was empty play without the rhythms of the night. It was disturbingly violent without the music. It was gross, unhappy. It was sour, bare, without the music to egg them on, to make them feel it was natural to kill.
But take music away from violence, and make it a playground for people there in the room with you, and you find a new way to know them. Die Gute Fabrik’s most famous export is Johann Sebastian Joust, a game played with Playstation Move controllers to the sound of selections from J.S. Bach’s ??Brandenburg Concertos. The aim is to be the last of up to seven players with a lit up motion-sensitive controller. When the music plays slowly, the controllers are highly sensitive to jostling, and when the music speeds up they are less sensitive, allowing for more ways to approach, or perhaps, launch yourself at other players to knock out their light. It’s a game that invites improvisation, an appreciation for personal space and how personal space is negotiated, and to watch it being played is like watching an elaborate dance or, sometimes even, a wolf pack turn on itself. The music conducts the bodies, the bodies are uncertain chess pieces. But that’s despite the refined music of Bach: Bach is not a trash pop guy. You play some Bach alone and there aren’t many people clamoring for the dancefloor. No. You need Daft Punk for that.
And then you move, no matter where in the room you are. The first time I heard this song I hated it. I thought it was really dull. I thought it was repetitive compared to the music Daft Punk made in the past. But this song: This song is purely for dancing. It makes sense when you see other people dance to it. What Just Dance did here is have their dancers make it hard for you not to dance to it.
Paste sent me to Ubisoft in Paris to see Just Dance 2014. Just Dance is a game franchise in which you dance along with an eye-searingly fluorescent mirror image on screen as best you can, to some pretty great pop tracks. Initially released on the Wii to work with the Wii remote, but now releasing on Wii, Wi iU, PS3 / PS4 (with Move), and Xbox 360 and Xbox One (with Kinect), it will score you at the end of the track, if a little forgivingly. If I’d even remotely hated pop music this game would have been a hard sell: Dancing with absolute strangers is intimidating at the best of times. But if you look at that video and don’t want to dance with me I don’t really care. Because if you present me with a track like that, something that is made for feet to move to, and provide me with a space in which to do it, it’s impossible, just impossible for me not to respond to the moves on the screen. There must be people out there who have the same problem. I certainly know people who can’t not sing to specific songs. It seems natural to want to dance to that track.
That these songs are included in the (huge) tracklist is a reflection of the way our pop landscape looks these days. Here’s the thing about pop music: It’s fraught with problematic sexual politics, because it reflects the really quite damaging way mainstream society sees sex. In so many ways, the lyrics, and particularly the videos, are staged rape culture operas where, and I guess “Blurred Lines” and “Fine China” are the exemplars here, women’s bodies are treated like possessions, objects, reduced to parts where often the women are given no voice or agency. In part this is because The Club is where the music’s voyeuristic attitudes come from and where they are destined to go. And yet if you spoke to anyone whose job it is to counsel rape survivors of any gender on campus these days, you’d be pressed to find someone who thought it was a good idea to have “I know you want it” as a chorus to any anthem of the summer. In fact, my own alma mater has just banned “Blurred Lines” from campus. But though “Blurred Lines” has recently caught the headlines for its objectification of women (particularly in the official video), it’s part of a plethora of songs that have problematic undertones, slimy come-ons, sexism, all sorts of terrible attitudes embedded in them intended to shock or legitimize. The problem isn’t with one song in particular, but with how our whole culture expects people to act towards each other. “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry, for example, has an undertone that suggests that gay people don’t even exist at all, and if they do, “it’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave”. Though I don’t think anyone could fault teen experimentation, what is unsettling is that the heteronormative fetishising of gay women is (not) coincidentally what happens through the lens of mainstream pornography. It’s sort of unhealthy that we consume this sort of culture. And then there’s all Chris Brown’s frankly horrible attitudes towards women which I don’t have space to discuss. Pop music is made and distributed by some truly irresponsible pricks.
It’s a difficult spot then, that a game centered around popular music, that wants to be for everyone, finds itself in. The minefield landscape’s left up to Nicki Minaj to do most of the problem-dodging and even she has her moments. The music itself may be fine tuned for a dancing beat, but couple it with lyrics that are about hurting someone or smashing an ass in half or what have you (thank you Robin, you are a nice man) you might make some of your audience feel a bit nauseous. How do you make this game with the popular tracks in it that have people buy it, and also try to make it not outwardly hostile to a huge section of your audience?
Xavier Poix, the Managing Director at Ubisoft Paris told me, “We’re a family game. We have the rating process. Of course, we need to build the choreography and the universe of the game itself without any offensive things. So we discuss that every time this kind of potential issue comes up. But at the same time, we want to propose to our players what they want to have in the game. We know that, for ‘Blurred Lines’ for example, some people will say that it’s strange to have that kind of song in the game. But at the same time, we’re revisiting the song. We don’t do the original video clip with the naked women… We blank some parts of the lyrics, of course.”
It’s Veronique Halbrey’s job, as Just Dance character designer, to interpret the songs and give them a Just Dance slant. She explains, “When we try to visually illustrate the lyrics, we’ll come up with something completely different.”
“We know, of course, about the lyrics,” Poix says. “Even if we are French people with bad English,” he laughs. “We know the theme of the song. But our goal is to propose another way to discover the music. Not what’s behind the music, not the meaning. We don’t care about the meaning. Or sometimes we care, but not on this one… Again, because we’re playing with the song… We’re not supporting the song as it was when it was released.”
“We have so many kids playing Just Dance,” Halbrey says. “It’s always on our mind. We have to think about it.”
“We have this discussion almost every time. Unfortunately, most of the hot recent hits have bad words in them,” Poix elaborates. “It’s crazy. But even… We want to bring some stuff for everybody in the family. So for example, we had this discussion also for the alternative version of ‘Rich Girl’ from Gwen Stefani. We wanted to propose an alternative version for dancing with a chair—a little bit sexy, but not too sexy. Because we didn’t want to be offensive, and we didn’t want to be… You’ll see the final result, the alternative version, where the girl who’s dancing is…”
“First, she’s wearing clothes,” Halbrey laughs.
Throughout most of my time in the studio, we were taken through the process of actually constructing an entirely different experience from my view of mainstream pop. It seemed that Ubisoft were keen on making pop… well… fun. And less gross. And completely approachable. It’s in the mix of new pop and old pop, “old diamonds” as Poix would say often of tracks like “Careless Whisper.” But how do you go about sloughing off that embarrassment that everyone harbors of dancing in front of others? How do you get them to let go?
2: THE LOOK
The first thing we’re asked to do in the giant glass building in Paris that is the hub of Just Dance operations is do a serious, pens-out-nod-nod-nod interview on the evolution of the franchise of Just Dance.
I snuck off and did a Scrooge McDuck dive into the vast costumes cupboard. It’s in a corner of the office near where they do the green screen with the dancers; it’s got all their ridiculous costumes in it including a massive squashed panda head from the Ke$ha song, a wooden bokken painted blue, a giant tribal mask and about 20 different sorts of silly PVC squeakiness. Daphnee Ayabe, the International Product Manager, wandered along and grinned at my rummaging around, and then dutifully corsetted my broad hippoesque torso into the “Starships” costume as if this were a completely normal day at work. I guess for the Just Dance people it is. This is the sort of office where you’re off to find the john and you open the wrong door and six people are nonchalantly dancing to Ghostbusters behind it and wave for you to close the door. It’s like in Wayne’s World where Wayne opens a door to see a ninja training ground, only these ninjas are dressed in parachute pants and sport extraordinary rhythm.
I think Daphnee is laughing at me as I do a spread-eagled star for her in my silly costume in the green screen room… but she takes a picture and sneaks off and gets some disgruntled graphics-wrangler to make me look like I’m in the actual game. By the end of the day the other journalist who’s here with me, fellow Scot Keza Macdonald from the much vaunted IGN Dot Com, discovers the costume box, and four of us attempt to wear the silliest stuff we can find in them. There’s that tribal mask I put on, and I pick up the blue samurai sword. Keza puts on some sort of pink wig and an eyepatch. Keza asks me what I’m going to write about this visit. “Oh, some gonzo thing,” I say, and she rolls her eyes at me. “I was thinking maybe I’d do it in blank verse or something, you know, it’s Just Dance” and Keza looks even more like I have thrown up in her handbag. I live for this shit. I don’t even know if she has a handbag. I am past caring. What is this weird hat doing here?!
I get Daphnee to put on a horse head and take a picture of her having a conversation with me, the weird character from the “Starships” Just Dance video. Daphnee tells me that the costume I am wearing was meant to be a sort of edgy kawaii style, kawaii but sinister. It is very sinister, I say, looking at the sharp black spikes coming out of my skirt. Why are the costumes so… goofy?
“Of course, sometimes we’re doing exactly the contrary of what people would expect from a song,” says Xavier Poix, “because we want to make a joke or something like that. But again, we’re looking for a concept. We’re working on our concepts with our players in mind. It’s not all about our tastes. Sometimes we even have some songs that we don’t like that much, but we know that part of our audience—which is very wide—loves it, and we want to propose the best thing we can in this precise direction. We choose the teams who are working on the particular songs depending on their background, their skills, and what they like in real life. That’s interesting, because we have people in a lot of different studios from a lot of different cultures.”
“It’s really a story,” Halbrey nods. “Each time I try to create a character, I think, ‘Okay, who is this girl? Why is she dancing to this song?’ Even if it’s not useful sometimes, we try to tell a story behind the character. For me it’s not only about a dancer or a song. It’s really a combination of these different elements—the personality of the dancer, for sure, the outfit, what we call the dance mood, the choreography, the atmosphere, and the story. It’s a combination of all these elements to make something unique. Each time we try to do a kind of mini-music video starring a new dancer. We want to create something new.”
“The interpretation, also, is very important,” Poix says. “Sometimes we’re doing some kind of actual direction. We give some instructions to the dancer to act as if they were somebody else, with another psychology. It’s funny, because sometimes it becomes a kind of comedy.”
“The girl that we saw wearing the Lady Gaga costume, it was really funny, because the initial…” Halbrey breaks off. “‘Imagine you’re a kind of queen in the future, but like Marie Antoinette,” she acts out to an invisible dancer. “One time she was coughing a little bit and said, ‘Okay…?’ … It’s really important for them, the costume. When she didn’t wear the costume, it was a little bit abstract for her, to get into the character. But the moment she put on the complete outfit, she told us, ‘Okay, I understand now.’”
So it’s partly to distance the song from its lyrics, partly because they want the player to get lost in a little weird fairytale—something that estranges them from the room they’re in. And that’s smart—because as soon as you forget about how silly you’ll look dancing along, that’s when you start to enjoy yourself.
3: HOW IT MAKES YOU FEEEEEEEL
At lunch, we ate Quiche Lorraine and drank Coke (they said last time they had Americans in the office they complained about the lack of ‘soda’ and I think they were trying to be hospitable to the US PR accompanying us, Shannon). It was probably my favorite part of the day, because I love development stories. Any time you get developers of any game vaguely similar, mechanically speaking, to each others’ work together, you get a ton of interesting stories about bugs and problems—sit in the Game Developers’ Conference lunch room, for example, and you’ll hear the best stories. These are often the stories they don’t tell you about as part of the PR schpiel. Everyone likes to pretend that their development process has been smooth as a cut throat razor shave, nothing happened, nope, nothing here, we just made a game—poof! Like magic! Move along please. But my inner QA tester pops up and attempts to cause trouble. “What’s the silliest bug you’ve had?” I ask. “I mean I know you probably don’t get ridiculous physics ones, but you must get some odd ones.”
Xavier Poix grins and tells us about their problems with ghosts in Just Dance 2014. He tells us that he doesn’t really know why, because they don’t use the same data, but that some silhouettes from old Just Dance games popped up in the backgrounds of the new game for a while. It was a mystery to them as to why: There were no shared assets, nothing had been essentially copied. And the worst thing was that one of the ghosts was Rick Astley from Just Dance 4. The game was actually Rick-rolling itself, just doing the hand-tumble in the background like some shoulderpad-clad poltergeist jerk. They had to forcibly remove Rick Astley from Just Dance 2014. He is just never going to give it up.
And then we got down to the dancing. They switched on the Wii U.
The most outstanding part of Just Dance as a franchise is that it doesn’t really care much about you getting the moves right or wrong. Mechanically speaking, it just wants you to mirror what’s on screen in a vaguely similar way, and the dancers are not motion captured, they are filmed, giving the dances more finesse and more of an organic feel on screen. You feel like you’re doing that beautiful thing, even if your limbs are flailing all over the place.
“Maybe it’s not fair for Dance Central, but…” Veronique Halbrey would say later, “If you look at the screen, it’s really smooth. When you look at the dancer, you want to dance, because it’s really fluid, really smooth. You see them feel the dance move.”
And she’s right. There is a fluidity in the game that is pleasurable to watch, even from the videos—those outlines, the consistent outlandish style of them.
Xavier Poix says, “When we did the special Japanese version for the Japanese market with Nintendo, Nintendo produced the game. It’s the first time ever in Ubisoft history. It was a success in Japan. They called it the codename… I don’t know if we can talk about that, but the codename for Just Dance at Nintendo was ‘Mirror.’ I think they understood very well what we wanted to do. This is more of a mirror game. It’s not a real dance game. It’s more of a mirror game.”
“We don’t want to be exactly like real life, of course,” Halbrey says. “We want the character to have something in between… a little bit cartoony… We don’t want it to just be a picture up there, a movie. It’s a balance, something in between.”
And there was Ke$ha.
Just Dance 2014 thinks about the use of space, technology and, most importantly, other people, in a really involving way. There’s always someone who sits out and watches when these games are put on, but the Wii U version lets you gain extra points by singing the song at the microphone in the tablet. You can also direct a music video from the Wii U tablet whilst the dancing is going on, and upload it afterwards, something no doubt my dad would find hysterical and would tell everyone at work about my “wee Ke$ha dance on the internet” until I held his TV remotes to ransom. What’s also amazing is that in the One Direction “Kiss You” song, on the Xbox One (with the much-beloved Kinect) you can have up to six players dancing at the same time, and it ends with a human pyramid.
A word to the wise: When a potential human pyramid is on the cards, take off your massive giant black heeled boots. I possibly injured an Ubisoft tester quite badly on the leg. I certainly bruised him. He looked a bit like I’d stolen his quiche.
STILL DID IT THOUGH.
The dances also utilize other people fantastically well: In the Ke$ha track you do an arm wibble that connects up to your panda friend (in my case this panda was Keza Macdonald of the internets website Ai Gee Enn Dot Com) and it makes you feel like a massive genius for completing such a simple dance move with another person. This goes the same for the robot dance in “Get Lucky”.
Not only this: There are literally like, one hundred billion goofy modes you can play in depending on which console you own, and a new mode, World Dance Floor, which connects live to a song being played across the world simultaneously. As you see the world flags and nicknames appear down the left hand side, you realize that around the world other people are doing the same dance as you at the same time. You can compete for points against them if you like, but of course, largely, this is not the reason you play Just Dance. You’d play it just for the sake of dancing with the rest of the world.
The usual social-network gubbins comes with all this and fries: but the essential game, the tracks, the visuals, and the actual choreography itself, all of it is thrilling and really really fun to play. I’m fed up of games finding excuses for me to shoot virtual people, and I want more excuses to bring friends into the living room. If I could afford an Xbox One, which I can’t, I’d certainly be getting this game for it so that we could do a six-person pyramid. But perhaps that’s it: This game started its humble beginnings on the very console that people declared prematurely dead—the Wii—and embraced people that games never thought they’d embrace. Even my mother would be into this game. And guess what? This game is still coming out on the good old Wii. Dust it off! Dust it down. Forget the next generation. Dig that little sweetheart out.
And to the love affair of pop and games: to the safe space made that there wasn’t before, I salute you. I leave the final word to Ste Curran, ex-Edge magazine editor, game designer and unofficial broker of videogames and pop music:
“I am pretty sure pop was fine before games, and I am pretty sure games were fine before they had the bitrate to do pop music justice. But they can both benefit from each other and if games train people out of the teenage attitude that popular = bad… then that’s awesome too.”
Cara Ellison wishes very much that she could be Veronica Mars, but she has very poor deductive reasoning and terrible hair. She lives in the UK and writes about games for places like The Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer.