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VirtuaVerse: Cyberpunk point-and-click throwback with ace chiptune soundtrack put out by... a metal record label?
The Reg speaks to Blood Music about its retrofuturistic love letter to the adventure game golden age
The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. 2020 (or is it 2077?) is the year of Cyberpunk on the Desktop, with CD Projekt Red due to release its hugely anticipated project in September. That's still some way away, so we are once again forgoing the enhanced capabilities of our rig in favour of something that wouldn't look out of place in Sierra's early '90s back catalogue. It's also the first video game we've heard of to be published by a heavy metal record label. Do we have your attention? Then let us enter the VirtuaVerse.
He lay on his side and watched her breathe... the sweep of a flank defined with the functional elegance of a war plane's fuselage. Her body was spare, neat, the muscles like a dancer's.
Who wrote this tripe? It's no "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel" but it comes from the same place. I never "got" William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk psalter Neuromancer. In fact, I found it straight-up annoying to read, but many, including the countless evangelists who recommended it to me, would likely disagree. Despite its iffy writing, the novel's influence cannot be denied and the sci-fi subgenre has gone on to penetrate every level of media in one form or another – even music.
If you've stuck your head underground in the right places, you may have come across a movement of retrofuturistic synthwave inspired by '80s pop culture including names like France's Perturbator and Carpenter Brut, or GosT and Lazerhawk over in the states among many, many others. It's a sound that's been trundling on for about a decade, but only more recently has it been recognised as what the kids call a "scene", and an oversaturated one at that.
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Compared to Kavinsky, another Frenchman who in 2013 released the landmark OutRun album, presumably named after the video game, some of these artists hit particularly hard and liberally ladle out the satanic slasher imagery, which endeared them to metalheads. One record label that catered to this subculture, Blood Music, saw the bridge and welcomed synthwave into its roster with open arms.
Why am I talking about this? On 12 May, Blood Music published its debut video game, VirtuaVerse, a throwback point-and-click adventure set in the not-so-distant future where humanity is increasingly hardwired into an augmented VR world disturbingly named "permanent reality."
The concept was dreamt up by MASTER BOOT RECORD (MBR), "a 486DX-33MHz-64MB processing avant-garde chiptune, synthesized heavy metal and classical symphonic music" (I think he's just an Italian bloke, though). We asked the Finland-based label boss, who asked to be referred to as "J", how on earth he found himself bankrolling a computer game when his most notable projects have been exhaustive vinyl boxsets for Norwegian black metal legends Emperor, Finnish folk metal horde Moonsorrow, and even Devin Townsend's whackjob metal outfit Strapping Young Lad.
"The game's genesis lies with MASTER BOOT RECORD (story/soundtrack) and Valenberg (graphics/animation)," J told The Register. "MBR brought on a coder from his local circle, and the three of them developed independently for about a year-and-a-half." The trio would go on to name themselves Theta Division.
"I had already worked closely with Valenberg on two music videos (Perturbator, GosT)," J continued. "MASTER BOOT RECORD also contacted me towards the beginning of [his musical project] to release albums together. I didn't feel it fit the label at the time, but we kept in contact.
"I was only aware of the game through random social media posts. There was no discussion between any of us about it. In 2017, MBR released the album INTERRUPT REQUEST, and I fell in love with it. I wrote him and said I'd be interested in picking up our discussion about working together on music. And I tangentially dropped interest in the game, as it looked cool.
"It was a totally organic, 'Hey, you're working on that, want some help?' And it ballooned from there. The dev team spoke internally and realised they could use a business partner who also had a fanbase in the cyberpunk scene, and we hashed out a deal to work together with MBR for several albums and the video game at the same time."
On travelling the world of VirtuaVerse, the aesthetic crossover between the game and various albums released on Blood Music becomes obvious, particularly the throbbing soundtrack by MASTER BOOT RECORD. We asked J if this was a deciding factor in wading into the gaming scene. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "One of the key visual elements from that scene has become the music video for Perturbator's 'Sentient'. A lot of the retrosynth/darksynth imagery was included in that video, [and] a lot of new imagery was born there.
"Valenberg designed and animated that music video, and his style is completely recognisable in the game. The cyberpunk crossover is evident. I think that drew a lot of fans of the label to the game, which made the release not only seamless but interesting for the label's fans."
Though J is a stranger to modern gaming, he said he played them "religiously" as a child, "including a lot of early point-and-click adventures. I was in the Sierra camp, mostly playing King's Quest and Police Quest. There has been a longstanding, friendly feud inside the team where the other three are LucasArts fanatics, but Monkey Island was actually new to me when I started working on this game. I never had those games as a kid. I abandoned gaming after the Sega Genesis/Master System. I picked it up with the Dreamcast but left again for about 20 years."
I'd be far more interested to publish another game than sign another band at this time.
We posited that, if that's the case, it's a quite the leap into the unknown to suddenly start publishing games. He said: "To be honest, releasing music has become rote for me. It's the same process over and over and over, and many people in the industry become insecure or even furious when you deviate from the traditional path.
"I'm interested in challenging myself and exploring new ground. It gave me the courage and energy to jump back in. Immediately upon signing, I bought an Xbox and a Switch and spent two years binge-playing leading up to the release. Even past the release, I'm still binge-playing. Currently getting towards the end of [Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice]."
Would he do it again? "I haven't discussed the possibility with any other development teams. However, I found the process of working on games much more rewarding and inviting than releasing music. Any internal issues we had were solved usually within an hour (versus sometimes years in the music industry).
"We exhibited VirtuaVerse at Gamescom and have been in contact with teams at all the major publishers, PC and console. Everyone is friendly as hell and seems to want the best for everyone. We were approached multiple times by grant boards telling us about their offerings, which blows my mind. People haggle over $2 or $3 in the music industry. Music is in a difficult downward spiral, and everyone is squeezed.
"My experience in the music industry is that most of the people are fighting for their lives and ready to stab each other in the back. It isn't true of everyone, and I've met some incredible people through there. But I've found it far colder, less supportive overall, and more restrictive. It's a perfect industry to lose your mind in.
"To answer your question, I'd be far more interested to publish another game than sign another band at this time."
But what of VirtuaVerse? Blood Music describes the game thus: "In a future not so far away, one superior intelligence prevails above all other AI. Society is migrating to a permanently integrated reality connected to a single neural network, continuously optimizing user experience by processing personal data.
"An outsider, Nathan, makes a living off the grid as a smuggler of modded hardware and cracked software. Geared with a custom headset, he is among the few that can switch AVR off and see reality for what it truly is. Nathan shares an apartment with his girlfriend Jay, a talented AVR graffiti artist whose drones bit-spray techno-color all over the city's augmented space.
"One morning, Nathan wakes to an empty apartment and discovers a cryptic message on the bathroom mirror. Having accidentally broken his headset, Nathan is disconnected but determined to figure out what happened to Jay. He embarks on an unbelievable journey involving hacker groups and guilds of AVR technomancers."
So begins a neon-soaked journey through hardware graveyards, digital archaeology, tribes of cryptoshamans, and virtual-reality debauchery. VirtuaVerse's graphics aren't quite as good as, say, the first Monkey Island game (1990), a gold standard of the adventure genre, but though there are fewer pixels to play with, Valenberg's art wizardry captures the essence of the cyberpunk genre – constant advertising, hacker crews, flying cars, grimy back alleys, and jacked-in addicts.
Despite its high-tech subject matter, VirtuaVerse is a primitive paean to the point-and-clickers of old. You need only the one functional hand to play, left-clicking to move Nathan and interact with objects. A click on an item brings up a submenu of sorts, giving the option to examine or pick it up. Your bottomless inventory, which as usual has a comically TARDIS-like ability to carry even the most cumbersome objects, serves as a means to combine items or offer them to other characters and so on. If you are a big fan of that era, you'll feel right at home because there is barely any innovation in gameplay or style, bar the ability to switch your AVR headset on and off, revealing potential routes to solving the game's many puzzles.
Is this a good thing? Yes and no. VirtuaVerse makes no attempt to claim it is anything more than a love letter to those early days. It's the sort of retro worship that is mirrored in its characters' reverence of floppy disks and CRT monitors – useless but also kind of cute. On the other hand, gaming has moved on and VirtuaVerse feels dated. Even towards the end of the '90s LucasArts was breathing new life into the adventure game. Titles like Grim Fandango showed you could render the same spirit in 3D and switch to a keyboard control scheme. A nice touch was that the main character would turn his head to look at items of interest so you knew you could interact with them, and maybe even use them to your benefit.
VirtuaVerse often turns into a bit of a pixel hunt. You can enter a room, exhaust dialogue options, mess with everything in there, leave, and be none the wiser. But there will be a critical object that stands out no more than anything else in the scene, which drove me to frustration on more than one occasion. And then there's the puzzles. Hooo boy. This game is hard, OK? Mercifully, VirtuaVerse includes a "journal" feature, which helps to remind you what your end goal of each section should be – but the route is protracted and rarely makes much sense at the time. Once you solve one tiny piece, you immediately hit a brick wall again.
The legendary Yahtzee Croshaw describes it best:
First, think of a problem that the player has to get around – like, say, helping a cat down from a tree. Then think of how a normal, sensible person would solve the issue with the objects that would be close to hand. Then seal your head inside of a half-full vat of boiling chlorine for about 20 minutes, and write down another way you'd solve the problem that at that moment makes perfect sense to your probably fatally poisoned mind. Repeat this process until you have discovered the most circuitous possible solution.
Croshaw would be the first to admit he's prone to exaggeration, and VirtuaVerse perhaps isn't quite that maddening, but I assure you, after your third hour stumbling around blindly missing a gaping hole in the puzzle, you will be twitching for a walkthrough.
To some of you, however, all this probably sounds delightfully familiar and you're rubbing your hands in glee at the thought of donning your nostalgia goggles once more. Regular readers in particular will no doubt relish the obscure programmer humour, too. If that's the case, you'll love it. But if you'd rather smack yourself in the face with rusty shovel, well, there's always Doom Eternal. ®