There are few bands whose music is better suited to a video game experience than Gatekeeper. For one, their hyper-produced alien-sounding brand of electronic music could already easily pass as the score for Halo or some other sci-fi inspired game. That’s partially due to their penchant for weird samples and effects—on their new LP Exo they ransacked the Hollywood Sound Libraries, known for ultra high-def commercial sound design, to devise music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. So it came as no surprise when we learned last month that Exo would be getting its own album-length video game, courtesy of Brooklyn-based artist Tabor Robak.
Robak first met the band via MySpace while he was living in Portland and they were stationed in their hometown of Chicago. They quickly developed a mutual admiration for one another’s work, perhaps recognizing kindred spirits in their similar affinities for all things sci-fi, 80s nostalgia, and fantasy-related. Later, he crashed on their couch when making the move to NYC, and all the while, they conspired to one day collaborate on something.
Last week, Robak released his video game experience for Exo, a project almost a year in the making. Less so a traditional game experience that may require shooting enemies or collecting gold coins, Robak has instead created a virtual world for each track that immerses listeners in his visual interpretation of Gatekeeper’s tunes. The gameplay has more in common with indie darlings like Journey or Proteus, graphically lush audio-visual experiences that let users wander through strange and wonderful worlds that ignite the player’s imagination. Influences from Robak’s childhood growing up in Portland can be seen in the landscapes he’s created—towering mountains and canyons, dense verdant forests, shimmering waterfalls—all done up in what he calls his “Desktop Wallpaper aesthetic.”
We spoke to Robak about his experience creating the game, his influences and style, and what exactly goes into making a video game for an album.
How did you go about constructing this virtual world? Obviously the music is very evocative, so I’m sure that helped.
Tabor Robak: From the very beginning, what I had were the songs and my discussions with Gatekeeper about what would be cool to have in here. When we started this, my technical ability was very primitive. I didn’t know how to do any of this. The last thing I had made was BrandNewPaintJob.exe with Jon Rafman, which is also made in Unity and is a 3D environment but everything is very cubed off and rigid and it’s totally experimental because I didn’t know the tools. So as my knowledge grew over the year, the ideas that I could come up with also changed. But for the most part, it was very typical. Just listening to the mp3s on the train during my commute, trying to imagine what it could look like. With some tracks, like “Hydrus,” the name gave me a starting point, but many of the other tracks, the titles are abstract or were changing throughout the band’s process of making the music, so I didn’t always have that to rely on. I tried to be mindful of leaving room for the music. That’s why there’s not so much stuff to do.
Whoa. Wait. You didn’t really know how to use Unity when you started? How did you create these elaborate worlds?
Unity has a great app store that’s just as easy as the iTunes music store to use. So I’ve got a lot of great content that I’m using throughout the entire game. The throbbing to the music, that was somebody else’s code that I purchased and figured out how to plug in. The camera system that I’m using throughout is an improved version of what ships with Unity. All the trees and the rocks and the grass—I bought all these nature model packs and then worked on placing them in the environment, which was a fun challenge. To compose something that looks natural and random unfortunately takes a lot of thought.
That’s wild. So what’s the inspiration behind the game? Is there a story here?
The inspiration is a sampling of all the tropes of science fiction and games. The world isn’t defined at all within the game. My take on it is that we landed, or rather digitally warped, onto this planet. All throughout if you really try to analyze it, one of the tropes that I’m playing with is, are we in the digital space or the real space? Like The Matrix. Which is kind of ridiculous to start with because, obviously, we’re in the digital space.
How would you describe your aesthetic? The colours are all super-saturated and lush. It’s really beautiful. Each shot is kind of like a painting.
The whole thing is very “desktop wallpaper aesthetic,” which is something that I’ve always held about my work, which is actually just an off-shoot of “Photoshop tutorial aesthetic,” which is really what my style is. I focus on the tools and effects, tricks, magic. As I get older, I try to limit the amount of sparkles I put on stuff, I use my lens flares a little bit more selectively, but still more liberally than most. But that’s OK—everybody else is shunning lens flares and drop shadows, so I can have them.
Are there any hidden surprises or easter eggs in the game?
There are no easter eggs in this game—I just didn’t have time. But something that I’ve always thought was exciting in other video games is trying to break the game. Finding a corner that you can get stuck in and can’t get out of, or a rock that you can walk through, or just glitchy stuff and mistakes throughout. This game is just filled with those. If you’re really persistent, you can just fall off the edge of a cliff or walk through a rock. I didn’t fix all of those out of necessity, but also because it is kind of exciting, as the viewer, to find these mistakes in a seemingly rigid and impenetrable 3D world. Like a pencil drawing with a smudged thumbprint on it, those mistakes kind of connect you to the maker.
It seems as if people are really trying to push beyond the traditional music video format with new takes on how you might present a track or an album, how to create an environment for the soundscapes. What’s the advantage of creative a video game for a record as opposed to a music video?
For one thing, when you make a music video, you’re competing with all music videos ever made and you’ll be compared to all that. So I think making game-type stuff is appealing because the rules aren’t there yet, and no matter what type of game thing it is, it’ll have some sort of value intrinsically because of the novelty of it.
This is a game experience where you’re supposed to take your time and relish the visual beauty of your surroundings. There’s no rewards-based objective—you’re not shooting enemies or trying to collect gold coins—you’re kind of just getting lost in the environment. So, what’s the motivation for the player to keep playing?
You do get to take your time, but you’re also constantly being pulled away from what you’re doing in the way that it cuts, like a music video, on the beat. So I’m hoping that those are reasons to want to play again, because you can really only see so much at a time. The reason to keep playing is to see what’s next, which is really the way it’s always been in video games. Lots of times it’s the only reason I’ll play all the way through a game like “Gears of War” because the graphics just get crazier and crazier as the game goes on and it gets more and more imaginative. It just sucks that you have to keep doing the shooting thing over and over again. I mean, I like shooter games… to a degree.
What do you hope people’s experiences of the game will be?
I’d love some “ooohs” and “aaahs.” I hope that I have enough glow going on in here that it makes you drool a little bit.
Images courtesy of Tabor Robak/Gatekeeper.