The History of Video Game Music

signal_cannon4Forty years ago Space Invaders revolutionized the way we played games. With just four simple notes that got faster as the aliens crept closer, video games grabbed us by the heart and compelled our attention. Now, gaming is a billion dollar industry. But how’d it get there? How did music change the history of computers?

From beeps and boops to strings and plastic guitars. Video Game Music History, today on Signal Cannon.

The history of video game music is actually a look into the history of computing itself. The earliest video games were silent. The first was Pong in 1972.

As a function of a computer, playing a tone requires energy from the CPU…the motherboard. In the early days, like in the Apple II in the late 70’s, computers had very limited processing power relative to what we have today, and memory was at an extreme premium. We’re talking programs sometimes no larger than a single kilobyte. So getting a game to display both motion and sound was at the time a really difficult programming task.

Plus the mechanisms for making sound weren’t very sophisticated. You have to remember that computers in that era were large briefcase-looking things with monochromatic tube screens, primarily for businesses to run rudimentary spreadsheet software and stuff like that. Fully loaded, the Apple II cost over 10 grand in today’s dollars, that’s with the maximum 48 kB of RAM. For comparison, you really can’t buy a thumb drive these days that isn’t multiple gigabytes, millions of times that amount of kilobytes. Personal computing was only really dawning at that point.

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The Golden Record

Listen – 13:45 min

What’s the rarest piece of music? Something so exclusive, so expensive, so…literally out of reach, that no-one will likely ever get their hands on it ever again? It’s The Golden Record.

signal_cannon4Currently…10.8 billion miles, (that’s 17.3 billion kilometers) away from the Sun and hurtling away from Earth at 38,610 miles per hour. It’s a mixtape, in interstellar space.

The Golden Record is literally a phonograph record attached to an unmanned spacecraft and travelling through space. Actually, there are two Golden Records, one on each of the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 to photograph and study the outer Solar System.

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Rachel Unraveled: Dream Big…Bigger…BIGGER

Don’t let reality get in the way of your dreams.

Rachel Unraveled is a new comedy series from Rachel Ravel and Austin Spero. It stars Ravel as the titular Rachel, an aspiring actress who’s sort of convinced she lives in a musical and who’s grasp is constantly outside her reach. Rachel over-prepares for auditions, treats every other actor as a rival, and is wholly incapable of responsibility.

Rachel Unraveled is short. It’s a fast 13 minutes. But it’s funny and very high-quality. The production value is high; the show looks and sounds phenomenal. As far as web series go, Rachel Unraveled feels the most ready to slide right onto television if it wanted to. It would look right at home next to something like CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Search Party on TBS.

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TALLULAH – Searching for Stability

Talullah is sort of an adventure film. In it Ellen Page plays Talullah, a nomad living out of her van who kidnaps a baby from a neglectful rich mother named Carolyn, played by Tammy Blanchard. Carolyn’s a drunk; she doesn’t change the baby’s diapers and lets it roam around on the balcony of her high-rise apartment with abandon. After running off with the toddler while Carolyn sleeps off a drunken night, Talullah connects with her old boyfriend’s mother (played by Allison Janney) who lets her and the baby stay, having convinced her it’s her own granddaughter.

It’s a story of picking up the pieces. Janney’s Margo is estranged from her husband, who cheated on her and left with a man three years before. Carolyn is struggling to love the child who in her eyes tore her marriage apart. And Talullah herself is trying to reconcile an aimless life with a reckless attempt at stability.

She thinks she’s doing the right thing. And the film does a good job of taking you along for that ride. She’s stolen a baby but brings it into an empathetic and compassionate household. You can’t help but suspect it’d be better off.

Of course, Margo is reluctant at first, obviously. But Talullah is wily, and while it may not have been her original plan to use a baby as a bargaining chip for a place to stay, it becomes a useful in. As it turns out, someone to care for is exactly what Margo’s needed for a long time. Her husband’s departure eventually prompted her son to strike on his own with Talullah, and it’s been two years since she’s had love of any kind in her life.

Margo’s leap of faith is a dangerous one, even if she doesn’t know it. She’s never met Talullah before, but because of her connection to her son, entertains the fantasy of playing house to fill that void. It’s a grave situation Talullah’s created. It’s a false bubble of safety while elsewhere in Manhattan a worried mother and the police track a kidnapped child. Margo pushes logic out the window and it’s only from the mouth of her estranged husband does reason emerge. Margo is damaged, and in her own way if she can seem together in front of him, the hurt he put her through will sting a little less.

The film concludes competently enough, though at points dips into silly on-the-run clichés. Talullah’s boyfriend reappears in New York and attempts to let her make a getaway, inventing a cockamamie story that might get her off the hook. And that felt a bit contrived. He could’ve never shown up again and that would have been fine. And there’s an awkward standoff with the police. Talullah claims Caraloyn doesn’t even want her baby, and the detective looks to her as if they would just let the kidnapper go if she said no.

And while the law eventually catches up to Talullah and she’s taken away in handcuffs, the film seems to want to shine a hopeful light on the rest of her life. Just before she’s carted away, Margo vows to “do whatever she can to bring her home.” Basically saying, “I’m rich and I’ll take care of it.” When in reality, a runaway girl made her an unwitting accomplice to kidnapping, not to mention the untold amounts of money she’s been stealing from her for 2 years.

Sure, the point is that Talullah got Margo to recognize the things about herself that need fixing by doing something that partially makes amends for her selfish past. But against the backdrop of real, serious crime, I would’ve expected an ending involving more punishment.

Vin Diesel’s Killing It. So Why Isn’t He An A-Lister?

Closing in on a cool billion dollars after less than two weeks, The Fate of the Furious sits at the top of the box office, adding to a bewildering string of successes from the Vin Diesel Action Brain Trust™.

Remember Riddick? Turns out it opened to a #1 weekend. How about xXx: Return of Xander Cage? Surely nobody saw that piece of hot threequel garbage. Wrong. So far it’s the seventh highest-grossing film of 2017. (The Fate of the Furious is #2.)

Not to be outdone by anyone but himself apparently, Diesel’s starring in a third mega franchise installment opening this weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, sure to be a box office slam dunk itself.

What’s more, Vin Diesel isn’t just an actor in his films. He’s the main creative voice and a major financial and producing partner in the Fast and Furious, xXx, and The Chronicles of Riddick franchises. He picks the directors. He casts. He typically has a lot of influence on the story. His movies bring in billions. The Fast and the Furious films together have grossed over $4.8 billion and there’s at least two more coming by the end of 2021. What’s more, it’s clear Universal Pictures is happy with their man; they’re rewarding him with a fourth Riddick film, which is currently in development.

Financially, Vin Diesel is safely one of the most bankable and recognizable figures in Hollywood and abroad. Don’t mistake it. The man is at the top of the entertainment industry. And if you look at his resume he’s done drama, comedy, notable voice-over work. But…you wouldn’t necessarily call him a distinguished actor. How come?

Firstly, there’s the fair perception that he just makes trashy films, even the ones critics intellectually compartmentalize because they’re made with a wink and a nod, i.e. Fast and Furious 5-8. His preferred genre lives very comfortably in the shit pile. An experimental franchise-starter like The Last Witch Hunter –the protagonist of which Diesel based on his longtime Dungeons and Dragons character- isn’t sitting on the shelf next to the likes of “quality” action films like Iron Man or Skyfall.

Secondly, Vin Diesel is just not a leading man like say, Robert Downey Jr., Daniel Craig, or Chris Pratt. I don’t believe audiences are filling theaters specifically to see Diesel in each Fast and Furious installment. I’ve always felt the charm is more in them being an ensemble. Besides, these days it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who’s practically running away with the show. The Rock, who’s made a small habit of stepping into franchises late and turning them around, has proven so popular in The Fast and the Furious that’s he’s likely getting a spin-off film with co-star Jason Statham.

So despite the record business Diesel fetches and high-profile films he stars in, he’s still a rung beneath his contemporaries. There’s a prestige ceiling he seems unable (or more like content not) to reach for.

Which is interesting because other actors with low-brow action franchises like Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) or Liam Neeson (Taken) enjoy a level of “legitimacy” separate from their tent pole vehicles. So what gives?

You might say, he just doesn’t have the chops. It’s certainly easy to dismiss his gurgling, bruiser action performances as the best he can do because they’re all you see of him. He just doesn’t do any other movies. Unlike other actors might do, he doesn’t alternate his crowd-pleasers with quiet indie films or Oscar-bait. He doesn’t really step out of his corner. But he’s not a hack. Go watch 2006’s Find Me Guilty, a based-on-true-events courtroom procedural and tell me he can’t embody a compelling character. He does a good job.

Vin Diesel - Vin Diesel

I think Vin Diesel has had massive success and owned the path his life has taken, but isn’t in the place he expected to be at the start of his career.

When he was just starting out Diesel made a couple of very earnest, very straight independent dramas: Multi-Facial and Strays. They were his first films, impressing Stephen Spielberg enough to cast him in Saving Private Ryan. In the transparently autobiographical Multi-Facial especially, Diesel’s character sees himself as a proper dramatic actor in the shadow of Al Pacino and others. And he gives himself sympathetic scenes to show off. He’s actually pretty good and the film is full of pathos. I think this is (or was) the real Vin Diesel, the dramatic actor. Even the first Fast and the Furious, while an actioner, was handled with more sincere dramatic weight than the series’ current melodrama. I suspect he may have ended up a type of actor he didn’t originally intend to be.

Let’s differentiate though. There are two Vin Diesels: Vin Diesel in front of the camera and Vin Diesel the producer. As an actor I imagine he originally identified with his early work. But he’s also a capable businessman and quietly a major nerd, which informs his producing. He taught Dame Judi Dench how to play D&D on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick. The only reason that franchise continues is because Diesel himself is the biggest fantasy fan in Hollywood and makes it happen. His first independent films he didn’t just act in; he wrote, directed, scored, and financed them. I think there’s an auteur somewhere deep down inside.

I know, laugh. Of course he’s not reinventing the wheel. But instead of art film he’s doing it with pop action. Again, make no mistake: Vin Diesel has major financial and creative control of three blockbuster franchises, chief among which is one of the most globally successful film series ever. He has a lot of clout.

So why isn’t he higher on the “list?” I think it’s the completeness with which he’s moved into his role as action brand-maker in the last decade. I’d put him in a similar category as Sylvester Stallone in terms of career trajectory: begin artistically, continue crowd-pleasingly. Long ago, Stallone wrote and starred in Rocky, so he’s got the talent. But for the rest of his career he never really seemed interested in re-proving that he could be “actorly.” And in fairness, why should he? He’s Sylvester Stallone, he’s done just fine. The same with Vin Diesel. He’s carved out such a huge and multi-faceted piece of the pie that he’s made his own reputation and legacy, regardless of if his career doesn’t feel like an on-going improvement.

You always hear actors talking about improving and reaching with every role, growing as an artist and performer. You take on challenges to deepen your repertoire as a professional. Is Dominic Toretto a particularly difficult character for Vin Diesel to play? Probably not. But you can bet he took Saving Private Ryan seriously.

He’s likely a fine actor and I imagine he looks forward to ending The Fast and the Furious so he can do something else, maybe something he can really sink his teeth into.

Avenger’s: Age of Ultron: Muddled, Bloated

Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, like… a lot of people

This is the kind of movie you learn to tolerate because it will live in popular culture for basically ever. (*cough* Star Trek Into Darkness *cough*) See it again on Netflix, Sunday afternoon TNT, whatever. It exists, goddammit, and you might as well forgive it’s shortcomings because your mom doesn’t care about plot and your little brother thinks Captain America looks cool smashing robots.

But this movie stunk. It should have been called the WEEKEND of Ultron for all the impact it will ultimately have on the series’ continuity. Instead of matching its predecessor’s level of quality, it traded storytelling for flash. It starts at 100 mph and finishes in the exact same place. It was completely and utterly without real consequence.

But let’s dive in. From the get-go this film was all wrong. Instead of catching up with our heroes in different places -in varying levels of danger- the gang’s already together. They’re fighting to retrieve Loki’s magic wand thing (I can’t remember why it was missing in the first place. It doesn’t matter.) But it basically amounts to nothing plot-wise. (And Loki’s not in it…spoilers.) After that, there’s a party where secondary characters get one-liners to pay off their final battle contributions. After that, Tony Stark invents Ultron. After that, Hawkeye gets most of the movie. After that, a European(?) city that I’m pretty sure has a made-up name gets Superman Return-ed into the sky. After that…fuck, who knows. Just get ready for a string of deux ex machinas to end the movie. There’s also a guy called The Vision who’s important…

It’s a mess. It’s too dense. There’s a lot going on and I hate to admit it doesn’t really amount to much. In contrast, the first Avengers film had purpose. It was a celebration of the success of this novel idea of a shared film universe. It was fun and joyful and was made with obvious craft. There was tension and release, build-up and pay-off. It was exciting and supremely satisfying.

I got none of that from Age of Ultron. Sure, it was fun-ish. There was still plenty of spectacle and excitement. Some Joss Whedon moments sprinkled in, too. But oddly, this film lacked the Joss Whedon DNA that I kind of expected. Age of Ultron didn’t feel as much of a quality product as the first Avengers. Juggling so many elements, the plot felt overburdened. The core of what made the first so good -the core of what any well-written story needs- wasn’t here.

So what’s the core? Or what was supposed to be the core?

Tony Stark is getting tired. He’d done good, but he’s beginning to realize that he can’t do it forever. He wants to leave a legacy behind. That legacy is Ultron, Earth’s last defense against the unknown forces of the universe. Of course, his invention goes rouge, and it’s up to the Avengers to deal with the threat. Tony Stark must come to terms with his own limitations as an inventor while reconciling his need to retire and his responsibility to be a hero.

That’s a compelling setup. But here’s the thing: They didn’t really do that. Instead, Ultron turns into Robert California, multiplies himself a thousand times, and then the Avengers headshot their way to victory against disposable robot hordes.

I’m hesitant to rewrite the entire movie, but here’s how Age of Ultron should have happened:

The Avengers are not together. Everyone is off on adventures while Tony Stark is at home in his lab. He’s building Ultron. He’s neglecting his girlfriend, Pepper. He’s not sleeping; he’s staying up all night with music blasting. He’s obsessed with this new project, the one that’ll change it all. The one that’ll give him that tiny bit of respite he’s been needing all these years. This is the big one, the last one.

No action, at least at first. The real drama is in this relationship: a mad scientist and his creation. (They sold the Pinocchio motif pretty hard in the trailers. That’s kinda what I’m getting at.) Develop a dynamic between the two. Ultron starts out like a child, an information sponge but capable of rapid learning. Have Ultron stumble, have Tony teach him things, impart a bit of his own personality into his new creation. Demonstrate a father-son relationship.

Eventually, have Ultron start thinking on his own, making decisions, ones that Tony doesn’t necessarily agree with. Create a rift between the characters, fundamental differences in thinking. Ultron becomes more calculating. Maybe he starts to see Tony’s tolerance for excess and inexactness and starts making assumptions about the rest of humanity. “The world needs order. The world needs rules…” Ultron might assume. Maybe he witnesses Tony and Steve Rodgers arguing and decides that the world needs better protectors than squabbling misfit heroes.

Now you’ve got a strong foundation on which to hang the rest of your movie. Ultron’s insurrection feels more personal, like a rebellion. His motivations are more organic than just: “kill all humans.” Plus, you set up more compelling questions for the Avengers themselves to answer, too. Now they have to deal with a force that they had nothing to with and one that was created by one of their own behind their backs. You’ll have jealousy, confusion, resentment. Bruce Banner will have the obvious reservations: science run amok, and so forth. Captain America will see Tony as reckless and a wedge driving the team apart, setting up their inevitable falling out. Thor will warn Tony that meddling in galactic affairs may bring danger none of them can even imagine…

Joss, my man. Did you just shoot the first draft, or what? Didn’t want anyone to proofread it, huh? He should have axed half the other characters, too: Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver. At least give The Vision something more to do than nothing.

Seriously, what a wasted opportunity. THE VISION. The second try. Tony fucked it up the first time with Ultron. Ultron’s gotten too strong to contain. He could’ve been driven not just by principles but by hatred and misunderstanding. The perfect opportunity to put all your remaining eggs in one basket and go for broke. Force Tony to do the unthinkable and go back to the drawing board and get it right this time. That would have been dramatic. That would have been awesome and terrifying.

All of that did kinda happen. But it was neutered by a weak story and even weaker character development. And why does Thor all of a sudden “have a vision”? Hasn’t Paul Bettany been playing Iron Man’s suit for the last like, five films? According to the logic of the films The Vision is entirely Tony Stark’s creation. What does Thor have to do with JARVIS at all? It’s comic book fan service shit and it totally detracted from the film.

Anyway. There are problems. The movie is too “on” all the time. It’s too dense and structured really thinly. There’s no tension and release, no emotional highs and lows. You can’t have a satisfying conclusion without first building tension. The Hulkbuster fight should have been the centerpiece of the entire movie. Instead it felt flat and frenetically samey like every other action scene, like someone yelling in a crowd. And they literally destroyed a building. Oops! Sorry. No consequences. Let’s all congratulate the Avengers for “actually saving people” at the end despite engaging in domestic terrorism elsewhere… That’s why the opening scene sucked. It signaled an emphasis on stringing together little moments for the audience instead of crafting a compelling story. “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep…”

I’m not in a hurry to see it again. At least not until it’s on TV or something. Kinda getting superhero-fatigued, if I’m honest. But then what to I know about anything? Marvel’s just printed another billion dollars to put in the kitty. Hook, line, sinker.

When’s Civil War, again?