Synaesthesia at E3

The organizers of E3, the big annual video game expo held a week ago at the Los Angeles Convention Center, have turned down the sound, even as video-game manufacturers have begun to turn up the music. What in the past has been an implausibly loud mix of business and fun, so loud that you couldn’t have a conversation without cupping hand to ear like some codger, became almost pleasant this year: several football fields loaded with most of the video games due out in the next six months, no earplugs required.

E3 reportedly deemed 85 decibels the acceptable max, and folks with decibel counters wandered the floor, right alongside the Fire Marshall. Thanks to the sound limit, music-related video games were able to be fully appreciated. Good thing that, since there were more music-related video games than ever, due no doubt to the popularity of the portable sound art of Electroplankton, the virtual hero worship of Guitar Hero and the calisthenics-karaoke of Dance Dance Revolution, not to mention of standard karaoke.

The most promising sound-toys (or audio-games) won’t be playable until fall, because they’re designed for the new Nintendo console, the peculiarly named Wii (prounced “whee”). The Wii is Nintendo’s bid against the Xbox 360, which is already in stores, and the Sony PlayStation 3, which is also due out toward the end of the year. Unlike both of those, the Wii doesn’t measure its performance by processing power nor by numbers of pixels per inch or per second; it measures by innovation.

The Wii’s interface, and especially the motion-sensitive “wand” that accompanies it, makes gameplay simple: no fetishization of lengthy instruction books, no coded language of seven-button command combos. There were two cool examples: in one you conduct an orchestra of little people who look like Playschool figures, and in another you bang drums to a defined pattern. The latter was, in this sense, a percussive Dance Dance Revolution or Simon. But something about the gestural interface emphasized an important aspect of play: the better you got at playing the Wii drumming game, the better you got at playing the Wii drumming game, because the game isn’t about hitting specific notes on cue; it’s about getting into a groove. And unlike with DDR, you control the sound that’s emanating from the game.

Sequels and like-designed products are inevitable in any industry, especially video games, where development costs are high and new ideas are few and far between. No one appeared to be aping Electroplankton, but simpler music games were in abundance, among them: a sequel to Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II; a parallel product, Guitar Freaks; at least three new Dance Dance Revolution entries (Supernova, Universe, Ultra Mix 4); Singstar; and the expansively titled Beatmania IIDX 13th DistorteD.

(In related news, over at the Ubisoft booth there was no update as to what would constitute the soundtracks to the next games in the series that takes its name from thriller author Tom Clancy. That information is eagerly awaited, since the most recent in Clancy’s Splinter Cell series, Chaos Theory, was scored by electronic-music figure Amon Tobin. The forthcoming titles are Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Las Vegas, both due out by the end of 2006.)

The lowering of volume at E3 didn’t sit well with everyone. On Friday afternoon, an executive from NCSoft took the stage to announce that the company had been fined five grand after being cited twice for pumping out sound in the 89-90 decibel range for 45 seconds. NCsoft’s expansive booth, located next to Microsoft’s, had bands playing live throughout E3. The NCSoft exec explained that 85 was the accepted ceiling, though by his count the ambient sound in the room was 86. He said the company was reconsidering its association with E3 next year. If they don’t come, it’s their loss. From the looks of E3 2006, chances are 2007 will involve an even more significant merging of sound and technology.

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