Humanity has spent thousands of years pondering the idea that we probably aren’t the only intelligent lifeforms in the universe. The Fermi paradox suggests that despite there being no conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life, maybe it’s simply hidden amongst the 200 billion trillion stars in the universe.
The bigger question, though, at least to synth player and record producer Danalogue, is how advanced these lifeforms would need to be to pass their time playing sports in purpose-built space stations. Danalogue has spent a great deal of time wrapping his head around this question while working on the soundtrack for a video game, which might sound pretty weird but totally makes sense when the game he’s working on is C-Smash VRS, a futuristic sports game for the PSVR2 combining squash, space stations and a whole lot of atmospheric synth.
“I love the idea of the game being on a space station, and I was thinking: ‘how far away we are from not just having a space station that’s practical for scientific things, but where you’ve got enough technical prowess to build this huge squash court in space?’” Danalogue laughs down a phone line to NME.
The concept of C-Smash VRS is so wild you’d be forgiven for thinking it was dreamed up during the experimental era of Dreamcast games such as Space Channel 5, Lack of Love and Kenji Eno’s D2. It was, in fact. C-Smash VRS is a modern-day reimagining of the arcade game Cosmic Smash, and the result of writer and director Jörg Tittel’s obsession with the original game and all things Sega. The addition of VR only enhances the otherworldly experience.
The pair met after Danalogue licensed a track from his electronica jazz band, Comet is Coming, for Tittel’s game The Last Worker. After a load of meetings where they bonded over a shared love of video games and music, Tittel told Danalogue about his mammoth collection of video game soundtracks. Danalogue says he was blown away after learning there was a market for video game soundtracks, and was intrigued by the idea of writing music for a game.
“It was really exciting to me because I’d never thought about releasing music as a game soundtrack,” he explains. “But given I have this massive history of playing video games as a kid, we both really clicked and when he asked me to write music for the game it was a complete no-brainer.”
Danalogue has amassed a solid selection of analogue synths over the years he’s spent playing with Comet is Coming and his electronic duo Soccer96, with Roland 303s, Junos, Jupiters, and a trusty SH-101 forming the foundations for C-Smash VRS. While the music he’s written will sound familiar to fans of Comet is Coming and Soccer96, the heavy use of a Roland TR-808 drum machine shakes things up enough to create a unique sonic palette for the game. “That’s the main departure, really,” he says. “There’s only one track on the soundtrack I did with live drums.”
And as you might imagine, Danalogue’s built a pretty strong network of music contacts through the 15 years he’s spent touring and performing, so why not use C-Smash VRS as an opportunity to bring together a bunch of musicians who would never see their names side-by-side on a project unless it was in the most extraordinary circumstances: like the soundtrack for a game where you play squash in space.
The end result is a cosmic soundtrack featuring some of the hottest names in underground music, including Brainfeeder-signed Salami Rose Jo Lewis, post-punk band Snapped Ankles, Phil MFU (ex-Vanishing Twin), Night Tapes’ drummer Max Doohan and Terracassette. They lent their talents in various ways, from co-writing and engineering tracks to, in the case of Salami Rose Jo Lewis, having every chromatic note in her vocal range recorded and laid across a keyboard as a custom choir synth.
Danalogue and his eclectic entourage of musicians aren’t the only ones writing music for C-Smash VRS, though. Danalogue’s joined by co-composer and techno legend, Ken Ishii, whose written new tracks for the game after he was introduced to Tittel through his friend James Mielke – although they soon discovered they’d met 20 years earlier when Tittel interviewed Ishii while he was working as a journalist for US Official Dreamcast Magazine.
Ishii’s contributions to C-Smash VRS are the techno cherry on top of a cosmic cake bursting with electronica and club music flavours. Imagine the ingredients in that cake are the soundtracks for Rez, Tunic, Hotline Miami, Fez, Streets of Rage, Ecco the Dolphin and Kaze No Notam and you’ve got a decent idea of how delicious everything sounds.
All of this works because there’s a strong link between club music and video games, something which Ishii credits to the early sounds of ‘70s arcade games like Taito’s Space Invaders and Atari’s Circus inspiring electronic pioneers such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, which in turn inspired an entire generation of DJs and producers (including Ishii). “I think [club music and video games] are like twins in a way,” he explains over email. “I was seriously into that first generation of video games in my childhood, and I had an implanted conception, like ‘video games equal electronic music.’”
Of course, Ishii is certainly no stranger to the world of video games. Over the years, he’s pumped out techno tunes for a long list of titles including Rez, Lumines and LSD: Dream Emulator, not to mention his work producing remix albums such as the hilariously heavy Tekken 3: Seven Remixes album.
That said, the music that Ishii has written for C-Smash VRS is somewhat of a departure from the dark techno sound the producer is best known for. This is a VR game, after all, and if this was Ishii at his heaviest, anyone struggling with motion sickness would also have to contend with the threat of an existential crisis after being pummelled by an onslaught of heavy techno and squash balls in a virtual space station.
That’s not to say Ishii’s music lacks energy. Spend 30 minutes listening to ‘Warp’, a new track he’s written for the game you can listen to above, and you’ll be sweating just as much as a 30-minute session of swatting virtual squash balls. But rather than incorporating his traditional techno style, Tittel directed Ishii by providing him with visions and stories for individual scenes, giving him lots of requests that Ishii says “aren’t listed in the theory of making techno.”
“It was mostly words expressing something abstract. No mention of BPMs, track lengths, keys, or ups and downs,” he explains. “He didn’t always want a typical techno style so the results are unique and more diverse. It wasn’t easy sometimes but I did enjoy all aspects of the process and saw this as a new challenge.”
Similarly, Danalogue took an abstract approach to the game’s score – and we’re not just talking about him grappling with the philosophical debate surrounding the Fermi paradox. Rather than trying to write music around a specific genre, Danalogue wanted to capture three specific emotions that reflect the enjoyment of his own gaming experiences and best capture the essence of the C-Smash VRS: the courageous and hopeful aspect of triumph, the high-stakes intensity of competition, and the upbeat energy of athleticism (because if you’ve played the demo of C-Smash VRS, you’ll appreciate how much of a workout it is).
“Every level I’ve been writing music for, I’ve written five tracks,” he says. “We’re using the same sounds, but they get more intense as the level goes on. I went a bit overboard with it – instead of just writing one track and building up the drums I’ve essentially ended up with 25 tracks! I think there’ll be elements to it where certain bits can get looped or will play in the lobby before you go into the level, and there will be bits where when you complete the level the music harkens back to other bits.”
The combined musical efforts of Ishii, Danalogue and numerous other collaborators coupled with the slick design work of Cory Schmitz and the emphatic direction and passion from Tittel means C-Smash VRS is an audible and visual delight that anyone who’s a fan of quirky Dreamcast games won’t want to miss. And if you can’t handle the intensity of a VR sports game, you can whack on your headset, sit down in the lobby and let the music transport you to another world.
C-Smash VRS is set to launch for PSVR2 on June 23, 2023.