Thursday, November 11, 2010

Autotune the whatever

I don’t like autotune. This much I’ve known for a long time. I agree with all the conventional arguments, saying that it makes singers sound robotic at higher settings, or even at lower, making it just a little fake.

However, I’d object to it even if it were able to be done perfectly. And indeed, it can be done with minimal interference – we just don’t notice when it is, unless the listener has a very good ear. Some vocalists have made it part of their style. I can sometimes even like that. My main objection to it is the very reason it was invented: that it smooths out flaws in a singer’s voice. That is what I feel is its main threat. As autotune and similar technologies are attacked for how fake they make singers sound, they’re developed to become better and better. To do precisely what is intended, making singers sound perfect.

Personally, I love listening to a great voice. I also like watching great runners, brilliant actors, or a well-executed dance number, regardless of the genre. I watch team sports not because I barrack for a team (I detest sports culture), but because watching teams act in unison is magical. I like being witness to the human ability to do great things; just like steroids ruin sport for me, auto-tune ruins my enjoyment of song.

Perhaps I should compare this to painting. Anyone who’s been to a gallery and seen oil paintings up close has seen the brush-work on the canvas. This can be subtle, achieved with fine brushes, or it can be extreme, applied with a knife rather than a brush, creating a textured surface. At a distance, the ridges and brushes blur together, making a more unified picture; up close, the details stand out. Compare that to seeing only a print of the painting; a whole dimension is missing.

An auto-tune for painting would be designed to make people paint like prints.  The richness and messiness of the brush-work would be lost, the paintings produced just so would have no texture. They would be beautiful, but distant, lacking character. Perfect.

Human beings are not perfect. Human beings are flawed by definition; the creations of humans are no exception. It is that very flawed nature that makes our artwork real. The mistakes in an hour-long orchestral recording that remind us that the performers really did do that all in one take. The cracking of a voice at the end of a hard live concert, the last rally as the final number of the night is belted out.

Auto-tune threatens that. It approaches looking like a democratising tool; making anyone capable of singing in tune. I’m not so concerned about autotune making things ‘too easy’; I worry about it making things too perfect. Beautiful voices, like Freddy Mercury or Dame Joan Sutherland, are celebrated because they are rare... but also because they’re human. Real human beings produced those sounds. I care about a perfect autotuned voice about as much as I do a steroid-influenced world record. Or perhaps as much as a print compared to the original art. It’s an achievement, and might even be pretty... but it’s not what I want to hear. Give me a flawed, real human voice, as imperfect as it comes, over that same voice smoothed to artificial perfection.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Game as Art

You wake up, no memory of your past, no idea where you are now. Your body is covered in scars of a long life, but you can’t remember where any of them were earned. Before you have a chance to adjust to your new surroundings, you are greeted by a floating skull, who proceeds to talk to you...

Over the next twenty or so hours of gameplay, Planescape: Torment continues the sense of wonder, foreboding, mystery, threat and revelation present in the opening minutes. Along the way you meet colourful characters, explore a world utterly unlike our own, engage in the obligatory battles... but what truly sets the game apart is its exploration of identity.

Your character, you see, is immortal. His body is, anyway. Each time he dies he regenerates, the cost is the loss of his memory. All his actions, his experiences, everyone he’s ever met all fade from his mind and he’s left a blank slate. While the body is immortal, the game posits, is the individual in fact immortal, or just as mortal as anyone else? When the memories are gone, is that individual in fact dead and gone, despite the fact that their body is still walking around?

During the course of the game, you meet the psychological remnants of several of your past selves; each turned out so very different to the others. One is scheming and left enough clues to your identity to try to trick later selves to restoring his mind. Another was driven mad by the revelation and destroyed many of those same clues, seeing the past and any potential future selves as ‘thieves’ who would steal his body from him. One felt terribly guilty at the atrocities of some of his past selves and killed himself after obscuring many of the clues to spare future incarnations the pain of his discovery.

All of these individuals came from the same body, the same neurochemistry, the same physical form as the others. The monsters and angels, the madmen and saints, they were all the same physical person... but their identities were so very different. A question is echoed throughout the game: “What can change the nature of a man?”

No single answer to the question is ever supplied by the authors. Rather, it is left to the player to determine it. Different characters have different ideas; some say that nothing can, others that anything can – one answer is that only the man can change himself. (My apologies for the exclusive language.)

Art is a matter of debate; no matter what the creation, there will be someone who denies that it is art. The one definition that I really like (and tries to be at least a little objective) is that art is whatever illuminates the human condition. Here we have a computer game that is about that aspect of humanity central to our selves: identity. I put Planescape: Torment forward as art. A Game As Art. If one game is art, then games can be art; let the floodgates open. Games can be art.