Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt reflects on the pop-punk tendencies of skate culture and examines why Roll7‘s OlliOlli World traded in guitars for laptops, and aimed for a much more chill vibe in its unique take on skating in 2022.
When I was 25, I dislocated both of my knees whilst dropping in on a half-pipe. I’d had a few tins of beer, the sun was in my eyes… and I didn’t have my flow. If you can imagine a tipsy idiot with an undercut, spatchcocked and writhing in agony on some banged-up plywood, you’ve got a good idea of how this stupid episode of my life went down. I used to skate quite a bit. After this incident, I skate quite a bit less.
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So instead, I get my fingers to kickflip for me and make my digits deftly pull off indy grabs in video games. It appears I’ve got good timing, too – there’s been something of a renaissance in the genre in recent years; whether you’re looking at the iconic rebirth of ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Remastered‘, the young upstart Session, the returning veteran Skate 4, or the not-like-all-the-other-kids-at-the-park OlliOlli World, aging skaters of all tastes have got options. It’s a far cry from the THPS monopoly days of the PS1.
And skate culture is changing. As Bob Burnquist told me last year, skating has always been open to change – it’s always been inclusive and eager to welcome anyone that had even a passing interest in the sport. No game reflects that better than OlliOlli World; whether it’s in the genderless sliders that let you customise your avatar, the age-blind setup of its core cast, or the multiplayer lobbies filled with players of all skin tones, OlliOlli World (and its pastel punk interpretation of skating in 2022) more accurately reflects a scene that’s been so welcoming of enby skaters, female Olympians, and kids of all backgrounds in recent years.
So it’s perhaps surprising to boot up the game and hear its soundtrack. Instead of the pop-punk, ska, and metal sensibilities that are practically synonymous with skate games, Roll7 instead opted for a more lo-fi, chill-hop soundtrack including artists like Fardust, Adam Swim, and Midflite.
“Music has always been a key component in OlliOlli games as it constitutes an integral part of the flow-state gameplay of the series”, Simon Bennett, founder and director of development studio Roll7, explained ahead of the game’s launch earlier this year. “We are thrilled to [include] these captivating tunes created by outstanding independent musicians from around the world.”
If you play the game, you get to hear 32 tracks, all built around that gorgeous low-tempo, melodic electronica that rhymes so beautifully with the game’s Adventure Time-meets-Jet Set Radio aesthetic. OlliOlli World is a tough game, too – it’s all about flow, timing, and concentration. Un-intrusive beats like the ones on the OST perfectly compliment the zen-like flow you need to harness in order to even clear the later levels; it’s a world apart from the scrappy, let’s-just-thrash-out-the-level mentality of the THPS titles. Given that OlliOlli, as a series, is seen as the ‘Super Meat Boy of skateboarding games’, the studio needed to find a way to keep you focused as the challenges became harder and harder. And more intense. And more obtuse.
Roll7’s insistence on keeping everything around you – the scenery, the beats, the vibe – so chill even as your blood pressure ticks upwards in the latter stages of the game is a smart choice. And perhaps one reason the game is so damn addictive.
The skate scene has always had an indie heart, and so with Roll7 seeking out and promoting smaller artists like this – instead of famous punk acts signed to one of the ‘big three’ record labels – it feels more in-line with what skate culture is supposed to represent; a real, genuine do-it-yourself attitude. Roll7 – unlike Activision or EA – took the initiative to sniff out smaller creatives and give them a platform in OlliOlli World… and lo and behold! Suddenly I’ve got more new artists on my Spotify playlists than I have from video games in years.
And that’s no accident. Finding the right cocktail of music was a labour of love for Bennett, who – despite running the studio – hand-picks all the music for the game himself. In an interview with Spin, Bennett noted that “there are always tracks in every game that we’ve done that I absolutely have to have, and sometimes it’s a real struggle to find the rights for it”. But that doesn’t deter him; the team at Roll7 will be “researching where the rights were and just desperately trying to find all of the appropriate people to license that music” up until hours before the game launches. If that’s not dedication to finding the right music for the vibe, I don’t know what is.
Don’t get me wrong; I love all things alt-rock. My music taste was, without a doubt, shaped by Tony Hawk’s games growing up. But hey, as I’ve gotten older, my tastes have broadened – whether it’s moping instrumentals about existential crises, prog rock fantasies, or pop/rock hybrids, I think I’ve learned to appreciate music in most of its forms. And OlliOlli World has made me realise that, perhaps, alt-rock isn’t the best fit for skating (as much as my 17-year-old self would disown me for saying that).
Perhaps if I’d been gently nodding along to some lo-fi alt-electronica back when I was 25 – instead of rocking out to Bad Religion, again – I’d have been able to concentrate more on my footing and poise. Perhaps I wouldn’t have ended my skateboarding hobby quite so violently. But then perhaps I wouldn’t have discovered OlliOlli World, five years later. Swings and roundabouts, ey?