How Online Games Are Becoming A New Arena for Live Music

Courtesy of The Financial Times, a report on how online games are becoming a new arena for live music:

Opposite the beach resort of Sweaty Sands in the online shooter Fortnite, a mysterious black stage appeared on the water. The frenetic combat continued all around, bullets whizzing past the strange new monuments peppering the hills: giant gold busts of rapper Travis Scott, anticipating the most extravagant music performance to ever take place in a video game.

Last Friday afternoon I arrived early for the gig, standing on a nearby hill with a gaggle of other players, idly shooting each other to pass the time. All eyes were fixed on the stage, which turned out to be a bluff: when the time came for Scott to appear, he descended on his own planet, his digital avatar the size of Godzilla, smashing the puny stage to smithereens.

What followed was brief, just a 10-minute medley of hits, but the visual pyrotechnics were extraordinary. The world of Fortnite transformed kaleidoscopically around Scott. One moment, fire poured from his body; the next, his face melted to reveal a robotic skull. According to developer Epic Games, more than 28m people watched the show.

This is far from the first time a musician has been incarnated in pixel form. In the early days when gaming soundtracks were just bleeping synth loops, artists as diverse as Journey, Prince and Bob Dylan endorsed games based on their music. You could control Michael Jackson in 1990’s Moonwalker, dodging baddies to muzak renditions of the King of Pop’s classics (“Smooth Criminal” has never sounded more sexless). The game’s central mechanic seemed strange then — Jackson rescues children from cupboards, who gratefully cry “Michael!” before scampering away — and has developed uncomfortable associations in retrospect.

The first musicians to properly grasp gaming’s potential for marketing were rappers. Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (1999) played on the rap group’s martial arts obsession, coming bundled with a limited-edition controller shaped like the Clan’s “W” symbol (which proved deviously un-ergonomic and near-impossible to play with). In the Def Jam wrestling games, you could make rappers like Ludacris and Lil’ Kim brawl against Method Man and, oddly, actress Carmen Electra. 50 Cent released Blood on the Sand, a shooter where a concert in an “unnamed Middle Eastern country” precipitates a bloody hunt for terrorists, featuring clumsy helicopter sequences included at the insistence of the rapper’s seven-year-old son.

Grand Theft Auto was the series that first realised the potential for licensed music in a game, allowing players to tune in to impeccably curated radio stations while cruising down Miami beaches (or ploughing through pedestrians in a strip mall). GTA 5: After Hours featured DJs Solomun and The Black Madonna, while in Vice City Stories you rescue Phil Collins from an assassination attempt. Your reward: the opportunity to pay $6,000 to watch him play “In the Air Tonight” in its entirety, replete with pixelated widow’s peak. It is only recently that musicians have attempted full-blown in-game concerts.

There is undeniably something lost for audiences compared to reality: no bass rattling your ribs, no ecstasy of losing yourself in the crowd, no inimitable feeling of breathing the same air as a beloved artist.

Yet there is also something gained in a video game performance. Artists come right up to the listener: I was close enough to jump around on Travis Scott’s enormous shoe. He sang to us in our familiar Fortnite stamping grounds, an intimate visit to our digital home. Players attended as their customised avatars, embodied extensions of ourselves more meaningful than a nickname in a chat box or a pixelated 2D face in a Zoom square. Then there’s the magic you can’t achieve in reality: listeners catapulted into the air, submerged underwater and teleported into deep space to elevate the drama of each song. 

That weekend I also attended Square Garden, a music festival hosted by pop experimenters 100 Gecs in block-building online game Minecraft, with Charli XCX headlining. While Minecraft’s textureless squares can’t compete with Fortnite’s dazzling visuals, there was a refreshing simplicity to this show, like leaving a glossy arena concert for a friend’s band playing in the backroom of a bar.

Titles such as Minecraft and Fortnite are selected for these events because they are gradually shifting into something beyond games. They are turning into platforms where kids go to hang out and socialise, a virtual home which becomes even more meaningful during lockdown.

As Charli played unhinged remixes of her sugar-rush hits, attendees pogoed and took screenshots with the artists’ avatars, sharing them on Twitter like prized backstage selfies. When the show finished at 3am, I was relatively sober, my clothes smelled of neither cigarettes nor booze, and, most magnificently, I was already in bed.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 7th, 2020 at 12:10 pm and is filed under Blog.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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