If you think about it, the histories of video game and cyberpunk culture are closely intertwined. Both began gestating in the late 1970s and began leaving their marks on pop culture in the ‘80s. The “punk” element in modern dystopian fiction typically manifests itself in the hacker archetype, who rebels against the system through an intensive knowledge of computers; similarly, many of the video game developers I’ve met aesthetically and/or ideologically have a bit of a rebellious streak in them. There have been cyberpunk video games and cyberpunk media about video games. And, if you look at video game culture today, you might find that there’s a lot of overlap between it and modern punk culture (although that may have to do with the all-encompassing reach of video games among millennials). I like to look at the gaming world as cyberpunk’s charismatic older brother—it tends to get a lot more attention, is really into sports, and has more opportunities to explore its potential. The video game scene might get itself into hot water every once in a while, but it’s still going strong. Meanwhile, video games’ loner kid sibling, cyberpunk, is sitting quietly in a corner, hacking the mainframes.
Of course, video games over the years have become infinitely more sophisticated than they were in the early days—after all, triple A games oftentimes have budgets that are as large (sometimes even bigger) than your average summer or holiday blockbuster. Unfortunately, it seems that most billion-dollar game publishers these days are taking advantage of none of the near-infinite possibilities at their fingertips, instead choosing to produce the same games over and over again until society inevitably implodes—perhaps even longer, depending on how far EA decides to raise the bar in sadism and corporate greed. Alternatively, lower-budget indie games typically get around their budget constraints by providing simpler gameplay and aesthetics that oftentimes call back to pre-fifth-generation console games.
But this is a music article, and the above is my roundabout way of saying that video game soundtracks are not inherently one thing—as with any medium, soundtracks for video games are designed to set a certain kind of tone, and since the very beginning, they’ve been inspired by film scores and musicians to create a more immersive experience. However, there is a quality to ‘80s and ‘90s video game music that seems to be fairly unique to the medium: that sort of mashup between simplistic electronic midis and jazzy or dancey beats that attempt to capture the magic of old-school 2D platformers and adventure games in the chiptune (or 8-bit) genre of music. In fact, composers of chiptune music, whether or not the music itself is attached to any developers’ projects, have their own cyberpunk-DIY element to them, as many composers actually tap into into the programmable sound generator chips in vintage consoles, arcade cabinets, and PCs in order to create their music. But this isn’t enough to get chiptune as a whole the official ND stamp of approval, especially if the soundtrack is set to a kid-friendly game that the developer came up with while on some pretty serious hallucinogens. In short: you can’t really make a cyberpunk video game soundtrack unless you set out with that intention.
Unless you’re Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace.
Cool Intro Thing
Vreeland’s introduction to music was early in life, as he was raised in a family of singers and instrumentalists. As a child, he learned to play the drums, picked up the guitar in high school, and by the age of 17 began to compose music under the stage name Disasterpeace. His first effort, History of the Vreeland, was inspired by the music of Rage Against the Machine (these guys just keep popping up lately) and Tool, and has a very heavy, rock-inspired sound. By 2006, when Vreeland was in college, he was commissioned by a mobile game developer after his demos were discovered online, and his career since has been thriving immensely.
Of course, as a commissioned composer, Disasterpeace has toyed with a wide range of music styles over the years, from your typical video-gamey soundtrack to blues rock to symphonic to acoustic. But like many great composers, Disasterpeace has certain trademarks as an artist that, when included, are as instantly recognizable as John Williams’ use of strings and woodwinds in his film scores. While Vreeland himself is not a performer and makes his music without hacking into a SNES, there is something about select albums he’s put out that are distinctly, uniquely Disasterpeace. That something sounds cyberpunk as fuck.
Eat Your Vegetables, Punks!
The more substantial aspect of Vreeland’s music career began in slightly more conventional veins, with him composing concept albums that sound like fusions of 8-bit and prog rock for video games that will likely never be made. While Disasterpeace structures music with mathematical precision, composing in atypical rhythms and layering complex electronic melodies with what sometimes feels like an overwhelming swarm of moving parts, evidence of his music’s evolution into a never-before-heard sound can be found on 2011’s Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar and Deorbit, a standalone concept album that wordlessly chronicles a space opera and a prequel B-side album, respectively. While both are still bear heavy chiptune elements, accompanied by basic blips and boops you might hear off an NES game, it’s in these albums that you can hear Vreeland’s music seemingly take a page from noise rock and shoegaze, incorporating heavily distorted, ambient tracks.
This might also be a little obvious, but as industrial music and home consoles began to gain popularity around the same time in the ‘80s, it’s undeniable that some video game soundtracks have been inspired by industrial’s experimental nature. Ironically, while very light inclusion of these elements can be heard on the aforementioned albums (perhaps by accident on the composer’s part), these are ironically nowhere to be found on 2012’s KRUNCH soundtrack, which may be the closest to cyberpunk Vreeland has ever come. KRUNCH, a simple 16-bit obstacle-racing game, takes place in a massive, hostile factory that fully robotic beings are attempting to escape from.
However, Vreeland hadn’t quite settled into his sound until 2012’s FEZ soundtrack, an album that features heavily ambient tracks distorted heavily by digital static. Discarding traditional 8-bit sounds for vaporwave and dream poppy synths, Vreeland successfully lives up to the Disasterpeace name by presenting us with tracks that simultaneously feel calming and foreboding, oftentimes pairing melodies that capture the spirit of curiosity and exploration to elements that seem to suggest something more sinister if one chooses to look past the surface.
This, of course, is fitting with theme of Polytron’s FEZ, a game in which you play as Gomez, a character that can only perceive the second dimension until he puts on the titular headgear, which aids him in a quest across a ruined, three-dimensional world. And while this retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in a digital context may be something that any jaded hacker or information courier can find appealing, the game itself is decidedly not cyberpunk. Despite this, many tracks off the album, without context, might sound perfectly appropriate in a cyberpunk atmosphere. Here, try this one on for size:
Do you hear it yet? Not quite? Well if you’re having a little trouble, let’s pull a track off of Disasterpeace’s first foray into cinema, the It Follows soundtrack.
He sounds like Vangelis.
I hate to make direct comparisons between musicians, I really do. It’s a bad habit to get into and it undercuts the significance of a musician’s work. But here’s the thing: Vreeland has explicitly stated on his blog that Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack and music of similar varieties have not played a role in his creative process, having only seen Blade Runner once many years prior to the post.
I’ll come back to this thought in a minute, but right now it’s more important that you know a little bit more about Disasterpeace’s music history. Fitting perfectly with the Disasterpeace style, Vreeland’s score to David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 indie cult horror film It Follows draws inspiration from John Carpenter’s own compositions, resulting in a deeply discordant, intense soundtrack that is legitimately freaking me out as I’m listening to it while I write this. The film itself, while toting a fixation on ‘90s-era style in the suburbs of Detroit, bears no cyberpunk trappings, though the concept itself—a sexually-transmitted monster that hunts down and murders whoever bears its curse—feels like a combination between The Terminator and The Thing gone art house, and the soundtrack’s jarring, heart-pounding nature not only supplements the psychological elements, but carries them across the finish line.
Disasterpeace also composed the soundtrack for 2016’s Hyper Light Drifter, another massively successful 16-bit indie game from Heart Machine. A near-completely nonhuman space opera that takes place on a planet long after its native civilization was decimated by war, HLD follows a laser-sword-bearing alien who seeks to find the cure to their terminal illness among the ruins’ forgotten technologies. While the idea of the knowledge of technology lost to time which appears as magic in futuristic settings is something that cyberpunk toys around with from time to time, you can’t exactly have cyberpunk without human characters. And yet, despite the space opera leanings, if you hadn’t been given the context for many tracks on this album, wouldn’t they sound like something you might hear in a world akin to that of Ghost in the Shell or Deus Ex?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a firm believer in the universal unconscious, as I’m sure many of you are. For those of you who aren’t quite as familiar, the universal unconscious (or zeitgeist, the “spirit of the time”) is the concept that all humans, whether on a macro or micro scale, have sets of ideas that bind us together as communities, as cultures, and as a species. While the core of the universal unconscious, that mercurial pool of the things that make us human, remains (mostly) unchanged over time, the attitudes many of us share are constantly shifting. Ideas constantly evolve. Human thought on a mass scale is nearly incomprehensible, but on the individual level it’s responsible not only for everything we do, but how we express ourselves through our actions. Those who engage in creative careers tend to immerse themselves in their work, shifting their entire mindsets for the sake of their art. And none of us are ever completely certain where our ideas come from, but they have to come from somewhere—whether from some stimulus that we either registered subconsciously or an idea that we cobbled together from our own thoughts.
So my point is this: thirty years before Disasterpeace composed the FEZ soundtrack, Vangelis scored a futuristic score that was meant to capture the essence of a dark, decaying science fiction world. Since then, Disasterpeace has been releasing soundtrack after soundtrack that cannot be traced directly back to Vangelis’ work, to games and films that are more of fusions between science fiction and fantasy than hard science fiction, but still feel as though they’d still be appropriate to play in your average street market hawking cybernetic implants and limbs. How did this happen? Did Vangelis’ style in the Blade Runner soundtrack disseminate into the minds of the musicians he influenced, swirling around in the zeitgeist until it somewhat remanifested itself as a spiritual successor in Disasterpeace’s music? Or does Disasterpeace represent a shift in the zeitgeist, effortlessly capturing a sound which reflects his perceptions of a world that Vangelis had to envision through creative force? Is Disasterpeace’s body of work the true soundtrack to a dying world?
But, most importantly: I just really really really want Disasterpeace to write a cyberpunk video game soundtrack. I’d lose my shit.
As you may have noticed, I gave y’all a double dose of dystopian music last month to make up for May’s unceremonious gap. New to StaDW? Want more? Check the rest out here, and if you’ve got suggestions for more music to accompany our cyberpunk world as it is, leave them in the comments.
very good piece, very thorough I think.
the last section brought a smile to my face, thank you