Where Games Take Place

Street Songs from the Soundplay Game Jam

If you’re like me, a videogame’s music is a big part of the overall play experience. I remember games like Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008) and Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011) for their soundtracks as much as for their gameplay. Sometimes I would stop “playing” these games just to enjoy the atmosphere created by the music, even when it meant certain death. I’m always on the lookout for games which utilize music in some new or interesting ways, so I was excited when a friend pointed me towards Street Song, developed by Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolò Tedeschi of Santa Ragione games.

Street Song was produced in collaboration with Kill Screen and hipster staple Pitchfork. It came out of a “Soundplay” game jam, a weekend long event which Kill Screen co-founder Tom Gregoria describes as an opportunity to “develop independent games paired with independent music in a really rich way.” You can check out a great mini-documentary on the Soundplay concept here.

Street Song is an odd game, but very cool. Among other things, it acts as a sort of ludic interpretation of Matthew Dear’s “Street Song.” Game music is conventionally used to increase a sense of immersion, give you practical information like enemy proximity, set a mood, and so on. In short, we’re used to having songs for games. As a game for a song, however, Street Song turns this convention on its head. That might seem weird at first, but it actually turns out really well. If you want to play it, and I suggest you do, it’s freely available here. It doesn’t take long, and oddly enough, although there’s almost infinite replay value, in some ways it’s a game you can only really play “purely” once. But just in case you don’t get a chance, I’ll describe the gameplay below.


The gameplay itself kind of reminds me of a skiing simulator: It utilizes a first person perspective, the environment sort of looks like a ski slope, and you seem to be constantly moving “downhill.” Like most skiing games, you must periodically adjust your course to hit or avoid objects, such as speed modifiers, or what I’ll call “obstacles,” which hurt you. The central conceit of the game, as I see it, is that the song will play for as long as the player can “survive” by avoiding the obstacles, which are signified by polygonal diamonds and what I can only describe as 3-D line graphs. If you hit an obstacle three times, you “die,” meaning the song is interrupted and you begin back at the starting point (of both the game and song). If you want to hear the full song, you’ll have to survive for a little under four minutes, and that can be tricky. But there is nothing in Street Song to tell you any of this. There are no explicit instructions, no pre-set victory conditions, and no indication in general of what-means-what. The player has to learn the rules through play, as the game’s signifiers are largely ambiguous. In fact, you don’t even know how to fail until you do, and this makes for an exhilarating though occasionally frustrating experience.

As you move through the environment, procedurally generated objects will begin to materialize, but it is not immediately clear what they do, or if they “do” anything at all. You only find out that those diamonds and line graphs hurt you once you hit them, and you may find that some buildings will transport you to a new area, while others will allow you to pass through them unhindered. So it’s not even clear what is and isn’t ludically significant, and this creates a great form of tension: Do the objects somehow respond to your actions? Can you or should you hit them? Will they help you, or harm you? The answer is “all of the above,” but you only really learn what means what through trial and error.

Moreover, as far as I can tell, there is no way to “win” here. For me, victory simply meant getting further in the song than before, but that is an arbitrary and self-imposed victory condition. In fact, even if you do make it to the end of the song, the game still “resets” and you’re back at the beginning. So the “end” is the same whether you live or die; that doesn’t make for a very good victory condition.

In some respects, then, Street Song doesn’t really feel like a “game” at all. The categories of “win” and “lose” don’t really apply here. As I found out, you have to come up with your own victory conditions, your own strategies, and ultimately, your own meaning. If Street Song does exist as a ludic form, it more closely resembles the loose, care free nature of Caillois’ paidia (pure play), and the seemingly “pointless” pleasure of ilinx (vertigo), than the more structured forms of ludus (game) and agon (competition) normally associated with videogames. If you’ve played Thatgamecompany’s Flow (2007), Flower (2009), or Journey (2012), then you’re probably familiar with the concept.

“Games Happen”

Street Song is representative of Righi Riva’s overall game design philosophy, which is heavily player-centric. For Righi Riva, games should not tell players how to play, but rather, should provide them with spaces to play within. In this model, emergent gameplay and possibility are granted primacy over didacticism and pre-determination. As he puts it, (via Gamasutra), “Games happen. They happen largely in the minds of players and not in the things we give them, so you kind of have to let go and stop worrying…. We don’t really design the games, we design these things, and we hope games will take place in the way we expect them to.”

Games happen. They happen largely in the minds of players and not in the things we give them, so you kind of have to let go and stop worrying…. We don’t really design the games, we design these things, and we hope games will take place in the way we expect them to.

– Pietro Righi Riva

Games can be compelling and meaningful without providing explicitly defined goals or victory conditions. As long as the designers create an engaging environment to play in, players will inevitably create their own meaning and their own games.

However, Righi Riva is quick to point out that this does not suggest a complete absence of rules altogether. Indeed, one of the things Street Song demonstrates is that even the “freest” games require some form of rule system. For example, there is a “fail” condition expressed in terms of a health bar (signified by the classic videogame heart), a physics engine which dictates how your avatar can move, a “start” point, and so on. The player still has lots of room for movement, but a game must have some constraints. All this ambiguity, tension and free space makes for an interesting (and surprisingly engaging) game. Street Song certainly fulfills Righi Riva’s “goal” of providing a space to play within, and I think it finds a good balance between freedom and constraint. But that’s only half of the game’s appeal really.

A Music (Video) Game

What’s also cool about Street Song is that it is meant to be a ludic interpretation of a song. In Righi Riva’s words, “Street Song is a music game in the same way that a music video is a music video. So it’s a game about a song.” Again, this goes much further than a conventional “soundtrack:” instead, Street Song is what the song would be if it were a game. We’re mixing media here, so we’re into dicey territory. As Elvis Costello famously said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If that’s the case, and perhaps it is, then how might “gaming about music” fare?

Pretty good, actually. Since they’re both forms of play, games seem well suited for helping us extract meaning from musical forms, and vice versa. Indeed, if we compare “Street Song” with Street Song, I think we can locate some interesting parallels.

First, both the song and the game can be described in terms of Salen and Zimmerman’s (admittedly vague but useful) definition of play – “free movement within a more rigid structure” – from Rules of Play (MIT Press, 2003). As mentioned, Street Song offers a high degree of freedom, but there are still underlying rules and parameters one must play within, and this goes for the song as well. I would describe it as atmospheric, ephemeral, and eerie; it probably resides somewhere in the ambient genres. However, like the game there is also a more rigid structure to it, as the song is essentially metronomic, keeps a regular time signature, and contains what you might consider lyrical “verses.” So although it’s an ephemeral track in a lot of ways, there’s a definite structure to it; like the game, the song provides a loose frame for a freer form of music (play) to operate within.

Another similarity shared by both song and game is their respective uses of “layering.” The song begins with a minimalist, ambient sort of drone, coupled with a simple melody. But it soon adds (and later, subtracts) various layers every couple of bars or so: Light percussion, then some bass, background vocals, main vocals, and so on. The game likewise starts off in a sparse environment and then gets progressively more complex. Initially, the game space could be described as desert like, or again, maybe like a ski slope. The howling wind, empty space and what looks to me like black snow (ashes?) all give me a wasteland vibe, personally. As you move through the environment and those ambiguous objects begin to appear – speed modifiers, buildings, etc. – additional layers of visual, ludic, and even narratological complexity are thrown into the mix. Eventually, the number of objects you encounter multiplies, and soon you are faced with several, often competing elements at once. This is the same layering and complicating pattern we found in the song. In both cases, you have to engage with added layers of complexity as you “move through” the text.

What’s really cool is that every once in a while this layering will occur synchronously. Thus, a ludic element, like a speed ring, might appear in the game at the same time that a sonic element, such as main vocals, appears in the song. Here the “pick up” in the song is reinforced ludically by a pick up in the game. When the vocals enter the song there is more “energy” to it, and there is more going on; the same goes for the game when the speed rings are introduced. These moments of synchronicity between media are very satisfying, and I think it’s at these times that the game works best. But these moments are special; they’re not too frequent, nor are they predictable. For the most part both the musical and ludic elements seem to come out of nowhere, and so whether listening or playing, you don’t know where you’re going, or what’s coming next. Both the game and the song are perpetual exercises in anticipation.

There might be some ludic and lyrical overlap as well, but I don’t have the space to delve into it here. And to be honest, I haven’t a clue what Matthew Dear is saying half the time. I like the sound of his voice, but it’s tough to make out the actual lyrics. The vocals are heavily distorted, and the delivery is oddly inflected. The internet gives me lyrics, but they don’t seem accurate. I think ambiguous or incomprehensible lyrics work really well in this situation though. We often think that a song’s “meaning” lies in its lyrics: The lyrics will tell us what the song is really about! But we don’t get that comfort in “Street Song;” its lyrical ambiguity leaves interpretation up to the listener, in much the same way that Street Song leaves play up to the player. Neither the song nor the game tries to explain anything to anyone; there are no textual “anchors” as such. But this absence of precision also frees interpretation, and so in their ambiguity, both the song and the game exist as precisely the sort of possibility spaces championed by Righi Riva.