Magnetic love in the digital domain

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So vinyl came back in a big way, bringing cassette tapes along for the ride. And while vinyl was predominantly brought back to combat piracy through desirable nostalgia, cassettes have been more of a cheap novelty. They were never great, audio-wise, and judging from the warbled, underwater sounds of punk from my kitchen, they haven’t really improved at all. That’s not to say they don’t have value, though, and I’d be willing to bet that their resurgence in the virtual domain isn’t as superficial as we’d like to think.

What sets tape apart from vinyl is personalization. Mixtapes were a huge part of a late 20s/early 30-somethings life and it’s this age bracket that influences videogames today, either through developer or player. Mixtapes essentially boiled down to connection, discovery, care, and ultimately knowledge; expression and flaunting in equal measure, between lovers and friends. It’s a projection of the self on to magnetic tape, usually through the sounds of others. And this form of expression, this simple way of sharing personalities, has been seeping into videogames more and more, as both players and developers grow older and demand more subtly in their stories.

The most notable and recent example of this was Gone Home. Personally speaking, it was an interesting premise that eventually collapsed on itself within the first hour (there’s even a knowing wink towards the player’s actions, later on). Beyond the professional reviews, a lot of criticism was aimed at the central love story, decried as clichéd and boring, but then that’s exactly what teenage love is like – all or nothing, everything last forever, “you don’t get it, man,” eye-rolling naivety – so it was pretty much in-line with the tools for immersion.

And in this case, immersion and understanding meant going through bootlegs and home recordings. Gone Home uses everyday objects to tell its story, and while it’s narration is taken from one perspective (in this case, someone’s physical diary), the main crux is steeped in Riot Grrrl culture. Sam and Lonnie bond over fanzines, local bands and indie albums. And while it all connects in a spider’s web of inanimate objects, it’s not until you slap a tape in the deck and hear Lonnie’s band haunt the room, that it seems more real, and in your personal space. They become more than just names you found on a note.

Of course, when it’s in the past, it only serves to inform. Which is one of the running themes throughout the excellent Kentucky Route Zero. More of an interactive play than a point and click adventure, KZ0 uses the analogue medium to tell its melancholic tale of transition.

As the Acts continue, the music moves away from spooled recordings to live performances. It’s as if KZ0 is distilling music into it’s most intimate and spontaneous form, or at least an illusion of it. Now, it’s arrived to the point where Here And There Along The Echo has the real-life musician, Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy, rambling sweet weirdness in your ear. That’s about as intimate as you can get between two different mediums in a videogame.

KZ0 is unique in the way modern synths give way to big acoustic choruses, largely untouched and preserved by Ben Babbitt’s band – phasing in and out as both characters and commentators – and how the two styles of music represent the dusty transition between tradition and modernisation, cold and warmth, capitalisation and recession. So much of the plot involves people trying to hold on to what’s real in the face of loss – homes, jobs, stages, friends, family, music, televisions, limbs – that preservation is always at forefront of the main cast’s minds.

Again, it’s the use of nostalgia and outdated mediums that layer these characters, especially Conway and Shannon, making them more relatable with their blue-collar backgrounds. It’s quite the contrast to The Last of Us, where a post-pandemic world is set against purposefully stark soundtrack, only letting in colour when Ellie makes discoveries of the past, like the tape player on the way to Pittsburgh.

Cassette tapes in games are increasingly common as we, musically, begin cherry picking from the 90’s (heavier takes on shoegazing and mid-west emo is very much the in-thing, right now). We’re informed by our aging tastes as much as the people making games, and within a virtual emulation, they’re reaching out to us with their selections as much as I did by pressing record and pause on a tape deck for a girl I used to know.

Grand Theft Auto uses radio, a once analogue device, in a similar but more fluid manner. With increasing space on discs and hard-drives, we’re able to customise so much on the fly, all offered on a plate by the developers. Sometimes, we’re even able to drive menacingly towards our destination to California Girls by Shark? Other times, we can pull donuts around cops to Raging in the Plague Age by Les Savy Fav. We have that control, that virtual dial, but it’s still someone else’s tastes, with a whole bunch of bands hoping you’ll discover their back catalogue in the process.

So those are just some examples in the digital domain. In the real world, publishers are seeing the potential of vinyl, even if they haven’t quite figured out the overheads. Sure, you can plop out a badly sculpted figurine or two, but if you want someone to go the extra enticing distance, you got to give them something more desirable, something that they’ll take care of.

And we’ve seen it every so often with BioShock 2, Persona 4 Arena, and the upcoming Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. Maybe the more publishers figure out what indie labels have already known for some time, the more we’ll see 7″/10″ disc bundles, and considering how they’ve released LPs/EPs on cheaper coloured vinyl (the “bad” vinyl as my other half calls it), it’s not like they don’t see the monetary potential.

Still, it’ll always be a niche idea, tied to trends for however long they last. But as long as the trend exists and developers reach ever deeper into their personal lives for inspiration and connections, the kind that make us more human, we’ll be hearing their virtual mixtapes for some time to come.

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Stephen Turner
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