Listening to Daniel Wyche’s recent album, Earthwork, I connected with the music in surprising ways. It is an album built on a heavy emotional framework, but it also inspires so much imagination like his sound is creating vivid imagery. Wyche puts so much detail and care into his work that when we talked about doing an interview based on his interest and love of gaming, I expected his approach would be thoughtful and thorough. I wasn’t disappointed as this interview gets into a lot of nooks and crannies surrounding Wyche and video games.
Considering we’re basically the same age (I turned 42 last May), I’m not surprised that much of what he talks about is familiar on an intrinsic level. It’s interesting learning about different sides of artists I respect and finding different commonalities (maybe our similar ages and upbringings explains another reason his work has always resonated with me so much).
Earthwork is out now on American Dreams. Daniel Wyche can be reached via his website HERE.
So let’s start with some of your earliest experiences with video games – what were some of your first memories or exposures to video games? And were there particular systems (or even, say, arcade games) that you gravitated to when you were a kid?
So, definitely aging myself here, but I turned 42 in February, and I grew up in the 80s and I feel like I really experienced the first real wave of video games as kind of a mass thing. For me, that happened in three or four primary contexts. Ars Technica has a cool series called “War Stories” about the history of games, etc., and there was an episode with on the original marketing strategy for NES in the US in the 80s, and Gail Tilden, the woman who put it all together. I was younger than the kids in the video probably, but I could really relate to all of it.
The first and maybe the most important was that my cousin Patrick, who I still talk about games and computers with all the time (just built a new PC now with lots of input from him!), had a Nintendo, the original NES. None of the rest of my cousins had one, and his dad, my uncle, lived in an apartment attached to my grandparents’ house. We were over there all the time and would play it constantly. One memory that we (and our other cousins) still laugh about is that when you played the original Super Mario Brothers on 2 player, one player had to die for it to be the other one’s turn. So, Patrick would play Mario and beat the entire game without dying while the rest of us just sat there waiting for a turn that was never going to come. He, my cousin Mike, and I would also obsess over the original Zelda (with the gold cartridge) so that’s where my love of the Zelda franchise came from. (The three of us would also play early Castlevania and listen to Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” on tape). With Zelda, if you go back to it now, it’s actually a really hard game, and there’s almost no instruction in-game on how to proceed. I think this was part of the magic of playing games back then. I distinctly remember that because the dungeons were just sets of adjacent squares, kids at school would make hand-drawn maps on graph paper and trade them at lunch. I loved that side of it, the “insider knowledge” thing, and having to figure it all out sort of collectively.
Later, but still in the 80s and early 90s, I had a Commodore 64, with the original “actually floppy” floppy disks. I used to get magazines and try to code games from them, but it was so tedious and I was a child so I never finished one. There were a lot of classic arcade games I played on it, but a few stand out: Lode Runner, Aliens: The Computer Game (Alien was already my favorite movie, still is!), and this absolutely bonkers Rocky Horror Picture Show video game. This game was so weird, I still can’t believe it. It was also insanely hard (at least for a 10-year-old), and I always ended up getting run over by a pixelated Meatloaf (RIP) on his motorcycle while trying to find my stolen clothes. The music was sick though if I remember correctly.
So, along with all this, one of my other uncles was kind of an early adopter. My house was destroyed when the pipes burst one winter (5th grade, which I think was 1990 or 1991, what a year), and along with it my Commodore 64 and, much worse, a large part of my mom’s immaculately good record collection. We ended up going to live with my aunt and uncle that year, and my uncle and I used to play games on his PC all the time. As a gift that year, I convinced my mom to buy him a copy of a game called King’s Bounty, which we played together constantly. This was the original game for MS-DOS that was released in 1990. It was new and already too much for my uncle’s computer to handle, and it rendered the entire game in CMYK. My uncle also put the chassis flat on its side and had a box fan directly on top of it. It was awesome, and every once in a while I’ll re-download a version and play through it. We also played a lot of a Jack Nicklaus golf game, and I only ever beat him at once (I was like 11, so the odds weren’t in my favor).
One last thing was that, again, this was the 80s and 90s, and we used to end up going to this local roller-rink with the afterschool program (for kids whose parents worked late) all the time. And they had an arcade. I was obsessed with Marble Madness (which was impossible) and games like Golden Axe. The best was when a kid had a birthday and they would “turn the machines on,” which meant you could just play indefinitely (like having infinite quarters). I remember beating Gauntlet at a birthday party in like 1990 and feeling pretty great about it.
What were some of your favorite games growing up? Was there any one game in particular that really deepened your interest in games?
Later my cousin Pat and I and our cousin Mike would play all kinds of games for different systems, Genesis, Turbo Grapfx-16, etc., but above all the Super Nintendo across the 90s for sure. One of the best memories is that because Pat and I both had divorced parents, we would end up at my grandparents’ on weekends a lot around 1994-95 and would play video games (and stay up to watch 120 minutes on Sunday nights, completely formative). I made this mixtape with a ton of stuff we liked (mostly classic rock, which we learned a ton about from his dad, my uncle—who, incidentally, the title track “Earthwork” from my new record is dedicated to), and we’d listen to it on repeat and play the original F-Zero, but also this game called Rampart. This might sound profoundly random to some people, but I think Rampart might be my favorite game of all time (setting the Zelda series aside). Pat and I had a way of playing where we’d agree not to attack each other until the last round, after building up our castles as much as possible, and then letting loose. We did this for hours.
The other thing, and this is a caveat to all of this, is that my uncles, when we were way, way too little to play any of these things, had an Intellivision system. It was awesome: wood paneling, the little silver control discs, etc. By the time we were old enough to be into games, it was kinda dusty and didn’t always work, but when it did, there was this one extremely basic game on it just called “Biplanes.” I absolutely loved this game because there was something extremely satisfying about the controls, the way you had to fly the planes so that they wouldn’t crash. It was really soothing.
I should also add here that my brother-in-law, Andy Nealan, has been involved in the game design world for a long, long time. He has a Ph.D. in computer science and he’s a professor at USC working in both comp-sci and video arts on games and related themes. He has a podcast called The Eggplant with a couple of his gaming industry/academic friends where they interview game designers, including some total legends (the Toejam and Earl episode is one of my favorites), which will be of interest to any who is interested in any of this. Anyway, Andy’s favorite game of all time is Spelunky and given his credentials that’s got to mean something. Oh, and appropriately enough, he was involved with the game Osmos, which is awesome in and of itself, but also won a few awards, including best game soundtrack in 2010 from IGN.
I know we’ve had conversations around The Legend of Zelda series and you’ve done some academic writing/presentations about it, but as a jumping off point, what is it about those games that you love the most?
Man, it is hard to say. On the surface, it’s just this regular post-Tolkien fantasy and post-DND RPG. But, and I write about this a little, part of what makes the games themselves so rich is all the other games in the series. Because of its long history—and I’ve played every single one as they’ve come out over the course of my life, which is wild to think about—Zelda always feels like home, even when it’s brand new and they have some great innovation. I think one of the masterful things about the series is just that: always innovating in some way, but also making something that feels familiar. I also prefer it to, frankly, more gory or abject American RPGs or fantasy. I have other writing about this, but I think “gritty realism” is actually almost always reactionary, on many levels, though we’d need more time to really unpack that. Briefly, it doesn’t reveal or reflect something true about the world but imposes a view on the world. Like, right now, I’m playing Witcher 3, which is great, and I did Skyrim years ago, etc. These games are fun, but they present a really strange view of the world, both historically and just in terms of what the people who made them imagine the present world to be like, or potentially be like. Anyway, there is actually something really hopeful about the Zelda games—even, and I would say in some sense because of—the “eternal return” reincarnation theme across the series.
In terms of the gameplay, the puzzles are always good, and the combat is always fun in different ways. In the series, I do love the original, but Link to the Past was totally formative. I especially liked how some of the dungeons themselves could be thought of as especially good puzzles. There was a melancholy to the aesthetics of the Dark World (and the light dappling in the forest) that always stayed with me.
I think it’s important also to note that we love games for the same reasons we love music: for what’s “internal” to them, but also what’s “external” in how they intersect with our lives. I love Zelda in part because they’re good and fun games, but I also really love them because I grew up playing them with my favorite people in the world—and because I’ve been playing them my whole life. That may not sound like a reason to like something, but it very much is, at least insofar as it’s taken together with other factors. Sure, the game still has to be good, but I’ve played plenty of good games that haven’t done anything to mark my life. So, it’s the life part of it that really matters, I think.
What is your favorite game in the series and what is it that makes it your favorite?
This is such a hard one, but it goes back to what I was saying above about how a game, like a record, fits into your life. I love the original and Link to the Past because I played them constantly with my cousins as a kind. I love Majora’s Mask because my cousin Mike and I played it a ton together when it came out around the time we were in college. I also had a bit of a hard time around them with some family stuff, and hanging out and playing it was an important way of working through that. Later on, my sister Julia and I played through Twilight Princess together, working on it together and ultimately taking turns in the last duel, so that one is special and it’s a connection she and I have. And I know that, for example, Ocarina is a really special game for a lot of reasons, but it didn’t fall into my life the way these others did. Anyway, any of the ones I mentioned could be my favorite—though I could still say Breath of the Wild. It’s genuinely magnificent and it was with me the entire time I was finishing my dissertation. I played it to 100% twice, once on each difficulty, wrote an academic paper about it, and just stayed up late playing when I needed to, so many times, between 2017 and 2020. My cousin Pat, who I’ve mentioned already, is working on playing all the crazy hacks and glitches now too, so that may even draw me back in. Either way, I can’t wait for the new one.
Can you tell me a little bit about the writing/presentation you did on it?
This was a paper I gave at the 2020 American Academy of Religion conference, which is the major yearly conference for my academic field, Religious Studies, for a panel on religion and/in games. I focused a lot on the themes of memory, history, and self-identity. Actually, that’s kind of the name of the paper: “The Lonely Goddess: History Memory, and Self-Identity in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” (This is also a nod to Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, and Forgetting). It’s a lot to explain, but essentially I was interested in the way that Link’s self-identity, his sense of himself, which he loses and regains, is tied up directly with the “sacred history” of Hyrule and for that reason the landscape itself. All of this is cut through with this profound sense of loneliness, this genuine tragedy that founds the game. Along with that, memory and place are tied together closely, but there’s an extra dimension for Link, Zelda, the player through both the theme of reincarnation and the experience of playing a franchise (from the parallel internal and external perspectives). So, part of that is not just remembering “this life” but many “past lives,” always mediated through both place/landscape and what the “sacred history” of Hyrule. None of these things may be unique on their own to BoTW, but the way they are brought together, the execution in terms of mechanics, art, music, gameplay, and narrative—anyone who’s played it knows it’s something special. With all this, I ended up doing a bit of comparison to the concept of a “landscape film” (there’s an article on this concept from 1986 by Kenneth Helphand, though WJT Mitchell’s 1994 Landscape and Power is a classic, and others write about it also). In my understanding, the Western is the model of the landscape film, because in very strong ways the landscape itself is also a character. So, after 40 years of running around Hyrule, and thinking about how important the land itself is narratively, and in terms of the gameplay and concept of Breath of the Wild, it’s clear how we can think of it in those terms. It’s also really cool to think of BoTW as a kind of Western. To be clear, all of this may also be true of some other “open-world” games for sure, but I think it’s exceedingly rare in other cases: just being “open-world” doesn’t make something a “landscape game” at all. Being able to move around the world relatively freely does not make that world a character, at least not solely. (This is a very, very condensed version of the paper, I’ll happily share it once it’s really where it needs to be!) It would be very interesting to think about something like Ghost of Tsushima along these lines, especially since there is a very deep and direct relation of mutual inspiration and formation between Samurai and Western genres in filmmaking. And of course, getting back to the music in all this, we’d have to deal with Morricone… So, there’s a lot to still think about.
Most people reading this know you from your music projects, so I want to talk about music, but from the standpoint of video game OSTs. What games (or series of games) come to mind when it comes to the quality of the music in them and how it enhances the gameplay overall?
The first thing I think of here, at least recently, is Ben Babbit’s masterful music for Kentucky Route Zero. Ben is a friend who used to live in Chicago and is now out in LA doing tons of amazing stuff. I checked out this game in the first place because I heard he’d done the score, and I absolutely loved it. Right off the bat, I was drawn to the game because of the music, and I think that music-first approach kind of let me see the game in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Of course, you and I started this whole conversation by talking about Breath of the Wild over Twitter, so I have to say something about that. It goes without saying but the music there is more than just great—it’s perfect. And I don’t mean it’s perfect “for” the game, as if it’s something external that’s applied to the gameplay. It’s perfect in that it is fundamental to the whole experience. I will admit, I do not like a lot of contemporary game music, because it often reflects a lot of the aesthetics that I also don’t like in-game culture in general: a lot of it is so overwrought while still being way too slick for me, and always kind of strangely trying to achieve someone’s misguided idea of authenticity, especially when there’s any kind of medieval/fantasy sort of thing going on. Some of it also makes me kind of nervous politically, but that is an extremely hard thing to pin down and can only really be argued based on the behavior of individuals or groups—I don’t think any collection of sounds has an inherent politics, though associations and public grammar around this stuff can be read and understood. Anyway, so as an example of some music I can take or leave, I have been enjoying the Witcher 3 lately, but I really don’t like a lot of the music. The kind of shapeless vocal lamentations and pretentious chanting that comes in when you engage in combat are really not my thing. (It reminds me of the score to the new Dune film, which was comically bad.) I do like the in-narrative music though, like the bards singing, etc., it at least feels a little more down to earth for me. Similarly, I really liked the bards in Skyrim, it was cool having them come live in your house and sing to you, those songs were pretty good. The score, I could take or leave personally.
Anyway, I say all this because I read that a lot of people, whoever they are, did not initially like the music to BoTW, because they expected or wanted some kind of bombastic, triumphalist marching music. And look, people can like what they like, you can’t argue with that, but I can say that for my part that just, I dunno, makes me feel really nervous—the idea that it is instinctual for someone to expect bombastic, overwrought weird marches gives me anxiety. Whereas the super minimal, delicate, and careful score within the landscape in BoTW, that really is part of the landscape. And I think the most affectively potent part of that game is that it really can communicate this profound sense of loneliness. If the music was like the music for the original, it may have driven me crazy because that whole frenetic vibe would have been such a weird mismatch. Like, you ever hear a song in a movie that just does not do what whoever put it there clearly wanted it to do?
Of course, I’m going to go all in on Zelda games and especially Breath of the Wild. I think the soundtrack and sound design for that game is something else and helped me connect to the game in more emotional ways than I expected. But more broadly, what makes a great game soundtrack to you?
I absolutely agree with you, and I hope some of what I said above at least helps make some sense of how that worked for me, and maybe you too! Otherwise, I can start by answering negatively: I tend not to like scores that try too hard to be “authentic,” whatever that means. On the one hand, usually, when we try to represent some past or some version of the past, it says more about us now and our various inclinations, biases, etc. than about the time and place we think we’re referencing. This is a bit related to my academic research too: so much of new age culture, things that people believe about the middle ages or the like, all come from the 19th century and were developed in the 20th. So, a lot of what we think about the “medieval” world, especially around its non-Christian aspects, tells us a lot more about ourselves in the past 200 years than they do about that world. We read things we want to see back into all that, and then represent it in a way that is comprehensible, and exciting, to us. It’s definitely fine to trade in that, but just be honest about it. We can think about film scores like this too. I keep going back to that god-awful score for the new Dune, full of someone’s bad idea of “authentic desert vocal wailing.” I am so, so tired of “authentic vocal wailing.” They should have used the wild synth-fusion “Dune” record from 1977—that’s at least honest about the aesthetics of the time the book was written, and it’s amazing too.
So anyway, I really, really like that a very organic, natural game like BoTW has this very minimalist, very contemporary soundtrack to it. There’s a give-and-take: we have this fantasy medieval-esque world (though a very, very weird one to be sure), but the minimal ambient sounds, those little reverse-delay flips that happen now and then, etc., they feel refreshingly honest to me, and I think that’s why they’re just the right sounds. All that said, I don’t have a list of things that would make a good soundtrack, but it definitely has to be something that feels like it’s part of the experience, and not something external that’s tacked on. There are games where I have to turn the music off because it just seems too out of place and distracting. It’s a bit of a “you know it when you hear it” thing on both counts. The main issue is that the aesthetic choices of the visuals, gameplay, and music are most likely not going to come together in the most obvious or surface way: a BoTW soundtrack with like, I don’t know, lutes and stuff could have worked, but there is something deeper about the minimalism and loneliness of the game and its sounds, and that’s where they really come together.
Have you ever done any work on game scores/soundtracks or if not, is that something you’d want to do? What do you think would be the hardest part of it?
I would absolutely love to. So, for real, if anyone has a project, needs a score and sound design, and wants to collaborate, get in touch!
The biggest challenge is the most fun part: to make music and sound that are genuinely part of the gameplay and any narrative, not something that feels external and somehow “applied” to the game from the outside. Something that would make the game feel fundamentally different if it wasn’t there. I would like to approach something like this with primarily analog instrumentation (rather than software) and a lot of live foley-like soundmaking, and of course get real weird with it.
I have to admit, I’m not super down the rabbit hole of video games (we only own a Switch) outside of Zelda and those games – but do you have a favorite system and why is it your favorite?
I admit I have been mostly a Nintendo and PC person. I never got as into the Xbox or PlayStation, and I know those are what the big console gamers like. I always kind of considered them a bit “after my time,” even though that is strictly not true—but I just grew up with Nintendo and with computers. In terms of genres, while I love RPGs and Metroidvanias, I also really love RTS games. In the 90s and after, I played the different Blizzard RTS games religiously: Warcraft II-III, Starcraft I and II of course, etc. I go back and forth following professional Starcraft and have some favorite players, but it hasn’t been as interesting to me lately. Otherwise, I don’t really like FPS or fighting games that much honestly, so a lot of the major titles in those areas (and the console systems that really center them) were never really for me. It’s kind of interesting because I’ve been playing these games my entire life, but I would not consider myself a “gamer” because that is itself a culture and an identity that I don’t belong to and don’t share. I did build a new PC this winter, and I’m excited about that. It’s mostly for music stuff, but I’ll definitely be playing the new Age of Empires—the first real big-name RTS to be released in years—and whenever the new Elder Scrolls comes out for sure.
What are some of your favorite games you played last year? My daughter recently used her Xmas money to buy Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity and man, that’s a whole different type of Zelda game and I liked it way more than I expected.
You know, I played through Hyrule Warriors, and while it was a lot of fun for sure, I do have qualms with it. It eventually felt like I was losing my mind! I did not like the narrative, and I think that if you’re going to use time travel to tell a story, you really, really need to bring your A-game. It’s the easiest trope to use, and absolutely one of the hardest to make work—and I think this is true of all speculative fiction, not just games. I should note: I mentioned narrative a few times here, and while a lot of people who are very serious about games think of it as secondary to mechanics, I absolutely do not. I’m super interested in the games-as-literature method of critique and analysis, and I love that video games can achieve something like the dream that accompanied the birth of film almost a century ago, of being able to participate in the film itself in ways that are close than spectatorship. So, story and storytelling matter to me. They aren’t easy, and a lot of games try to make a story central to do interesting things with decision-making, but those stories can be so, so bad sometimes. It is often better when all of that is just left to the background as window-dressing. I think it could be cool for more narrative-based artists to collaborate with game designers—not just authors, but composers, people who think seriously about how to bring someone from A to Z in a way that is fascinating, exciting, and interesting in ways that are not predictable or typical.
Gameplay-wise, Hyrule Warriors was a lot of fun, but it also got to be way, way too frenetic for me and I had to put it down (I did like playing as Impa though, the huge frog is cool). I played earlier games in that series and genre, and I find the kind of combat where you swing a huge sword and kill like 87 monsters at a time just not that fun after a while. Honestly, it makes me anxious!
Otherwise, the Ori games were my absolute favorites last year (and that was after playing Hollow Knight the year before—what a game). They are super fun and absolutely gorgeous. I imagine the narrative could have been fleshed out a bit, and I think the music could have taken more risks, but they were top-notch. I also really enjoyed Metroid Dread, which I was texting with Jordan Reyes about a lot. Not exactly last year, but in 2020, Animal Crossing was a bit of a lifesaver in that it facilitated staying in touch with a lot of my family, especially my cousins and their kids, but I think that was true for a lot of people.
Any games you are especially looking forward to this year?
Like I said, Hollow Knight was absolutely groundbreaking on a whole bunch of levels and I just loved it. I literally just bought it because I thought the art looked cool. The gameplay is awesome, the entire aesthetic is awesome, great music, genuine challenges, a weird and intriguing story, etc. It’s probably an all-time favorite now. So, I have been waiting for the sequel, Silksong, for a long time, and I really hope it comes out soon (I had read February, but who knows). Aside from Silksong, the new Zelda for sure, and whenever that new Elder Scrolls comes out. I’m also really up for fun recommendations, so if you know of anything, let me know!