In a basement recording studio in downtown Toronto, Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning and Justin Peroff hover over the control board. It’s not a terribly unusual scene in itself — in fact, you could probably find them in just that setting pretty regularly were you to check-in any time over the past two decades — but it’s what they’re recording that distinguishes this session from the few hundred others. Today, they’re scoring a video game.
“Can you scroll over to the Sabbath section?” Peroff asks the engineer. The playback sounds like an 8-bit version of some lick off Paranoid. Everyone bounces along.
LOUD on Planet X is an upcoming video game, targeted for release on near every platform in October 2015, featuring nine of Canada’s biggest indie and alternative bands: Fucked Up, Austra, Metric, METZ, Tegan and Sara, July Talk, Cadence Weapon, Lights and Purity Ring.
Part Plants vs. Zombies, part Patapon — players tap in rhythm to the songs, say, Fucked Up’s “Queen of Hearts” or Austra’s “Lose It,” to vanquish the horde of slimy aliens advancing toward the stage. You can earn power-ups like a bouncer who blocks the baddies or a fog machine, which slows them down. It’s a tricky little rhythm game. Beyond its addictive mechanics, though, it seems notable because in a country reputedly reluctant to celebrate its own talent too loudly, LOUD on Planet X is turning some of our brightest musicians into superheroes, making them larger than life. Every band gets a special attack. Naturally, Damian Abraham rips off his shirt and berserks through the aliens, just like he's cleared through countless mosh pits. His legend now lives onscreen, too.
The Toronto indie music community has embraced the project. Jonah Falco and Mike Haliechuk of Fucked Up, along with Canning, Peroff, and upstart producer Harrison have all soundtracked pieces of the game (pressed on green vinyl and given cover art by Michael DeForge for Kickstarter backers). FACTOR and the Ontario Media Development Corporation have supported the project financially, helping expand its roster from just 4 bands to 9 (and hopefully, 12 by the release date). And the artists themselves have helped push through licensing deals, which involve publishing and performance rights, as well as character likenesses.
But as the vision grows, so does its cost. As it stands, LOUD on Planet X is $100K over budget. Its Kickstarter aims to cover some of that shortfall. But at roughly 86% of its fundraising goal reached with just two days to go, it’s down to the wire.
Pop Sandbox, the Toronto-based studio behind the game, specializes in experimental multimedia productions, often with a social interest bent. They created Pipe Trouble, the notorious arcade game about the manufacture of oil and gas; Kenk, a graphic novel about Igor Kenk, whom The Guardian called "the world's most prolific bike theif"; and The Next Day, an animated interactive documentary about suicide.
"I got into production in an era when you don’t have to be tied to a medium," Alex Jansen, the Creative Producer ( i.e. head honcho) on LOUD, says. He comes from a film production and distribution background, where he worked with docs like The Corporation, Manufactured Landscapes, and Jesus Camp. He's also the founder of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, which he began in 2001 while attending Queen's University. He founded that festival, he says, with the mission to bring films to a community that might not otherwise get to see them. The intention behind LOUD is quite similar: delivering great Canadian music to a new audience.
In his downtime, Jansen developed a novel way to relax (and this is really where the video game started). He likes to play old school arcade games on an emulator — Ms. Pac-Man, for example — with the sound turned off, choosing his own music instead. Sometimes, it's classical, he says, sometimes it's a playlist of suggestions from his friends. This is how he was introduced to David Comes To Life by Fucked Up. It's also the genesis for the concept underlying LOUD on Planet X: great gameplay can only be made better by great music. The songs are already immersive things. You get sucked into them, like how drumming on the steering wheel enlivens even the most dismal afternoon commute. But here, instead of navigating Dufferin Street's potholes, you're saving the planet with Austra or Cadence Weapon.
Curating the artists and works involved was of utmost importance. His team was inspired by Fucked Up's Long Winter series, where you can trust you'll be entertained, Jansen says (and where Pop Sandbox premiered Pipe Trouble). LOUD on Planet X was to be a cross-section of the team's favourite Canadian music. Fucked Up was the first on board and interest spread throughout the community, both locally and nationally, as one-by-one they secured their wish list.
There's an incredible crossover between the Canadian indie game community and the indie music community, Jansen says. Things have just gotten more accessible, whether its coding or recording or distribution. "I feel like now, to create a project and then to reach an audience, so many of the walls have been broken down." Also, it's a particularly hot moment for both scenes, he notes. Just as Purity Ring are garnering international acclaim, so are homegrown games like Sword & Sorcery and Mega Jump. Jansen seems equally excited about the prospect of new METZ as he does about the upcoming release of Cuphead.
This past Spring, at PAX East in Boston and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, two of the industries largest gatherings, Pop Sandbox exhibited an early build of LOUD on Planet X. Testers generally came away with nice things to say about the game, Jansen says, but often, the first response was, "I love this song! They're that Canadian band, right?" And, for Jansen, that was always the goal.