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Panoramical asks: Why can't music software be a game? Exclusive

July 1, 2014 | By Mike Rose

For David Kanaga, the composer behind games like Proteus, DYAD, and the upcoming Panoramical, some of his favorite games aren't games at all.

"Music software, Photoshop, After Effects... there's all this software out there, and how I usually have a good time, if I'm looking to play something resembling a game on a computer, I love opening one of these things up and just moving the variables around," he says.

That's why Panoramical, a game he is putting together alongside experimental designer Fernando Ramallo, is very much a case of creating the game that he wants to play.

Panoramical is essentially what you'd get if you tried to turn music-making software into a video game. Players manipulate the various variables to create new visuals and tracks, and fiddle to their heart's content to get the sound just right.

"I could never actually make music, but I always enjoyed just feeling around music programs," Ramallo tells me, "tweaking things that I was never really sure what they did, at least on the technical side."

"It feels like an encapsulation of a lot of the things I like in music software and image software."
"But there was a lot of fun in tweaking things until you found something interesting. I think Panoramical feeds off that."

Ramallo and Kanaga first met at IndieCade back in 2011, and immediately hit it off. Ramallo stayed with Kanaga at GDC in 2011, and they decided to start prototyping game ideas together. Panoramical soon began to form.

"After Proteus, Dear Esther etc., we both realized you can make a game without much traditional gameplay," Ramallo says. "Proteus was a big influence in thinking, 'Ok, I don't need to add gameplay to make it worth it.'"

"Before Panoramical, I felt that if you didn't add gameplay, you wouldn't get value," he adds. "I think a lot of people are now realizing that there is an audience for intimate experiences that aren't necessarily 'game' games."

Kanaga agrees, adding, "Panoramical is really exciting for me, because it feels like an encapsulation of a lot of the things I like in music software and image software, all the creativity tools. But it's just there, ready to be played with, not trying to tell you that you've got to make a sellable product out of it or whatever, which I think a lot of these tools are for."

Panoramical was picked up by Indie Fund in early 2013, after founder Aaron Isaksen happened to be attending an event that Panoramical was being shown at. The Indie Fund team was interested to see how a PC game audience would respond to, in Ramallo's words, "a game that was basically an art installation."

Interestingly, while the duo has been showing Panoramical at plenty of shows and has become a regular on the circuit, Ramallo actually believes that it would work better as a game for a computer, rather than a big show piece.

"After Proteus, Dear Esther etc, we both realized you can make a game without much traditional gameplay."
"Events are actually not the best way to play it," he says. "When we show it at events, we try to create a space that is comfortable. We put some pillows on the floor for people to lie on. It's a cozy game. The living room environment or your room is the best way to play it, immersed in it with just one person or a small group."

And now the pair has more hands onboard. Announced earlier this year, Finji is helping out with marketing side, while Fez studio Polytron is lending a hand too.

"We were in touch with Phil [Fish of Polytron] for a while about the game," says Ramallo. "He played it a couple of years ago when we first showed it to anyone. We were staying at a friend's house in Austin. Adam [Saltsman of Finji] saw it too in Austin. So we knew they were interested in the game."

He continues, "This year after I came back from GDC, I was pretty stressed out about not only making the game, but also managing all the business aspects, accounting, press... I'm not very good at reaching out to press and doing marketing stuff. So I felt like I really needed a hand with that. I heard about Finji doing sort of publishing, and that seemed like exactly what I needed."

He talked to Saltsman, who was onboard rather quickly. Fish was also very interested in helping out, and in the space of a week, he'd decided to join forces with the Panoramical team to help make the game bigger than Ramallo could have on his own.

Kanaga has plenty of fascinating thoughts about how music in video games can be pieced together. One point he made in particular stood out -- he told me that he likes to treat the creation of video game music as if it were any other part of a game's design.

"I'm keen on trying to treat the music as a design process as much as possible, and thinking about 'game feel' with the music," he says. "That's a concept that people talk about a lot -- if you jump in a game, how does it feel when you jump? What is the exact amount of time that you're in the air when you're jumping -- is that faster that when you're falling down?"

"The game already has time structures in place, and the goal of the music oughtta be to just hug that as tightly as possible."
"There's all these really detailed time structures happening in games," he adds. "So when I'm doing music, I try to think ok, the game already has time structures in place, and the goal of the music oughta be to just hug that as tightly as possible."

He practiced this trade to a wonderful degree in both Proteus and DYAD, with hundreds of musical "events" occurring within each game. With Panoramical, he's hoping to take that further.

"I think Fernando's visuals are vastly more musically-interesting than the music that I've composed for them!" he exclaims ("Oh, you stop," laughs Ramallo). "So the basic idea of having all these variables, that's sorta how I like to think of designing music for games, where there are going to be however many 'degrees of freedom' -- ways that a player can act in a space -- and ideally every action that the player can perform, we would feel that reflected in the music."

"And that's kinda what I mean in Panoramical by the visuals being more musically interesting in a way -- when I'm playing it, I feel like I can really feel musical changes with every little shift of the visuals."

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