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The unexpected forefather of music games

The Commodore 64 game Moondust (1983) is best remembered as a software programming experiment that helped launch the career of its creator, Jaron Lanier—an eccentric polymath who many now consider one of the earliest and foremost pioneers of virtual reality. But it might be better acknowledged as the progenitor of the modern music game.

Lanier used the capital he generated with Moondust to found VPL Research, a company that conducted some of the first virtual reality machine-building efforts in the mid-1980s. Since then, his rigorously exploratory ethos has informed his wide-ranging body of work, which has included enterprises as diverse as collaborating with Philip Glass, consulting for Steven Spielberg, and publishing book-length critiques of digital culture, such as 2010’s You Are Not a Gadget. As the title of that book suggests, Lanier’s philosophy emphasizes more than anything else the crucial role of humanism in tech culture—that is, the centrality of the individual user’s imagination in a digital landscape that increasingly prizes the dubious wisdom (and profitability) of the crowd, thus engendering a flattening cultural phenomenon he calls “digital Maoism.” In Lanier’s human-centered view, as he explained it to The Guardian, the closest relative to the computer is—or perhaps should be—the musical instrument, in that they both offer “a huge range of possibilities through an interface… allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.”

spontaneous collisions of sound and color

Lanier’s reverence for the expressive capability of technology is on early display in Moondust, a game that has been variously hailed as the first “art” game, the first “music” game, and one of the earliest examples of generative art in videogames. In Moondust, the player controls the movements of the spacesuit-clad cosmonaut Jose Scriabin, named after Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, as he glides back and forth across a black void. Unlike its fellow Commodore 64 software, the game’s goal is not to zap aliens, escape mazes, or destroy obstacles, but rather to maneuver Scriabin around, dropping seeds that spread sparkling “moonjuice” over a bullseye in the center of the screen. Roving multicolored spaceships, whose movements the player can also control to a degree, leave colorful vapor trails and help smear the moonjuice around the screen, creating twinkling patterns of iridescent digital light that alter the in-game music by producing bright harmonies and alternating rhythms that change according to how the player moves.

Lanier’s use of the Commodore 64’s SID6581 sound chip in Moondust to spontaneously generate music is what early reviewers of the game found most notable, especially given its oddball status relative to the traditional console fare. A 1984 year-end roundup in the journal Video Games mentioned, “lt isn’t a maze game, there isn’t really a playfield, nobody gets shot… in fact, it is a game of abstracts with virtually no resemblance to anything before it.” More recently, in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future?, Lanier himself called Moondust a purposefully “psychedelic” conceptual project. The game’s somewhat inscrutable modes of play—“Beginner,” “Evasive,” “Freestyle,” and “Spinsanity”—each change the level of control that the player has over the movements of Jose Scriabin and the colorful spaceships surrounding him, who sometimes move in tandem and sometimes don’t. They invite the player to experiment freely with their various physics rulesets, and then stick around to watch and hear what unfolds. If at any point Jose Scriabin ceases to move, the surges of light will cease and the music will revert back to a static, monotonous pattern.

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The seemingly minor decision to incorporate Alexander Scriabin’s name into Moondust may in fact be key to understanding the game’s mission and Lanier’s overall design philosophy. Lanier commented in 1984, once again in the journal Video Games, that he selected Scriabin in part because he “wrote music for all five senses,” and its inclusion hints at the game’s true purpose, which is simply to enjoy the shimmering, spontaneous collisions of sound and color that Scriabin and his spaceships generate. This intention reflects both Lanier’s belief as a technologist in the musically expressive capability of interactive computers, and faith as a software developer in the desire among players for a more relaxing aesthetic experience in games—a novelty then in the age of Pac-Man (1980) and Duck Hunt (1984). Moreover, considering Scriabin’s artistic philosophy yields an unlikely point of inspiration for the kind of vibrant, fused audiovisual aesthetic that Moondust inaugurated, which has come to define the growing genre of experimental “art” and “music” games in the vein of VibRibbon (1999), Rez (2001), and Hohokum (2014).

A controversial composer and pianist associated with the school of Russian Symbolism, Scriabin probably invited as many invocations of the word “visionary” in his time as Lanier does now as a VR guru in Silicon Valley. Neither a Romantic like Rachmaninoff nor a Modernist like Prokofiev, Scriabin developed a mercurial harmonic vocabulary that bucked the conventional traditions of early 20th-century Western classical music by drawing upon a unique, deeply held set of mystical beliefs. Scriabin held that music was a realm that provided access to mystical forces and metaphysical energies beyond human comprehension, and tested his personal theories in bizarre ways, such as holding “flying” experiments where he would try to levitate through the air. His repertoire, written largely for solo piano, is mysterious, frightening, otherworldly, violent, and sensuous, often alternating between modes of clamorous agitation and voluptuous languor. Faubion Bowers’s introduction in his 1973 Scriabin biography memorably catalogs his muses, inspirations, and pursuits:

“Sound, shifting lights, the play of gestures, triumphal processions, sacerdotal dances, billowing scents, touching caresses, ritualistic and exorcistic prayers, light and church lamps, smoking incenses and perfumes, genuflections and kisses, all combined to cross the abyss of thousands of centuries… the holy mysticism of all cultism.”

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As a self-proclaimed synesthete, Scriabin also reportedly experienced “color hearing,” and believed in the natural correspondence between music and color, thinking for instance the note ‘F’ to be dark red, and ‘E’ light blue. He modeled his mysticism around a six-note synthetic chord that music theorists now call the “mystic chord,” and at the time of his death, was completing a piece called “Mysterium” that expressed a transcendent apocalypse, which he thought would eventually take place in the form of a giant, cosmic orgy. Until his death, the composer sought to channel metaphysical currents in his music, believing that human souls needed to be roused by, as Bowers put it, “a hypnosis of apparitional rhythms.”

With Moondust, then, Lanier was allowing the player to don Scriabin’s space helmet, drift around, and weave a unique hypnotic stream of “apparitional rhythms” to the abstract fireworks display of color that allegedly resided in the composer’s imagination. And in fact, Scriabin’s influences on Moondust are far-reaching and thorough—Lanier certainly conserved the composer’s fascination with color by making the game’s spaceships green, yellow, red, blue, purple, and teal, and by advising that players turn up the color levels on their television sets while playing in order to optimize the experience. Scriabin’s tendency toward explosive, orgiastic aesthetics (in his Tenth Sonata, for instance, he imagines the apocalypse as “kisses of the sun come to life”) also anticipates the way one of Lanier’s future partners at VPL Research remembered the game in The Economist—as a “visual orgy,” an extended experiential event in which the goal (if there was one) was to create “surge[s] of light and sound.”

Lanier helped launch a vibrant aesthetic tradition in games

Scriabin’s synesthesia, which lured him toward “projected symphonies of colors, touches, aromas,” according to Bowers, also provides a clear model for the kind of manifold sensory experience to which Moondust aspires. By linking the player’s touch to spontaneous eruptions of sound and colored light, Lanier mobilized his own virtual form of color hearing. The game’s design principles demonstrate a commitment to both humanism and sensory interconnectivity by premising its explosive color-flares, ephemeral light trails, and esoteric musical progressions on the nature and degree of player input. Even now, over three decades after the game’s release, synesthesia remains a prime conceptual idea driving the technological development and aesthetic advancement of both VR and “art” and “music” games. It was central for instance to the original marketing campaign for the 2001 PlayStation 2 game Rez, soon to be re-released for PlayStation VR, which looked to Scriabin’s contemporary and countryman Wassily Kandinsky as its source of synesthetic inspiration, even offering a “Trance Vibrator” USB peripheral device that pulsed along with the in-game music. More recently, synesthesia helped inspire the idea behind the abstract art game Hohokum, which integrates filtered layers of audio into its musical score that sync up with visual cues that the player can trigger while exploring and interacting with each level’s various starbursts and color fields.

Lanier released Moondust the same year that a team of experts standardized MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology for computers and electronics, a development he feared would strip music of its unnameable magic. Lanier writes on the topic in You are not a Gadget: “[MIDI] could not describe the curvy, transient expressions [of] a singer or a saxophone player… Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea… After MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure.” Rather than simply adopt or conform to this rigid structure, Lanier sought with Moondust to stretch its limits by imbuing it with the spontaneous, mysterious, even hallucinatory qualities that Scriabin conceptualized in music. Using the composer’s synesthetic sensorium as a model and his ephemeral, mystical, and transient idiom as inspiration, Lanier helped launch a vibrant aesthetic tradition in games that has steadily flourished into a popular subgenre, especially in light of recent advancements in VR. Although Scriabin’s work fell out of favor under Stalin, his artistic legacy as a key figure in the development of Western classical music remains, as does his position as a significant forebear to early music game aesthetics, which have helped guide experimental game designers toward capturing the intangible and mind-bending experience of sensory gestalt ever since.

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