A music video you can play: Indie rock inside the Unity engine

For nearly as long as video games have been around, they’ve enjoyed a tight relationship with pop music. As early as 1983, Bally-Midway collaborated with Journey to make a game full of licensed songs and the band members’ digitized faces (which followed more than a decade of pinball cabinets featuring megaton bands), and that says nothing of media sensations like “Pac-Man Fever.”

Meanwhile, interactive musical experiences, somewhat outside the firm “gaming” realm, began emerging in the CD-ROM era. These ranged from simple computer-exclusive content slapped onto a normal album’s data track to full-blown multimedia software featuring the likes of David Bowie and Prince.

Thus, the synergy of gaming and pop music is littered with various “firsts,” and this week, a modest music video by a Texas indie band might not register as a particularly big deal. It’s not a Doom clone starring Iron Maiden or a hilarious light-gun game starring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video arguably heralds a new era: one where video game engines, and thus a gaming mentality, have become utterly foundational in pop culture.

WASD to the beat

The non-interactive version of “Greatness Waitress” by Fishboy.

“Greatness Waitress” is the lead single for Waitsgiving, the upcoming seventh album by Fishboy. This long-running pop-rock group out of Denton, Texas, compares favorably to the likes of They Might Be Giants, Weezer, and Ben Folds. In its newest single, nasal vocals wistfully spin a meta-narrative yarn about a struggling indie-rock band, and the words glide over heavily percussive piano and fuzzed-out guitar: I often perform, you should come take a look / but you can’t take a look, the band’s on a break / and the time that we took was specifically taken / on waiting… on a great idea.

The single sounds appropriate for a grungy basement venue or a friend’s backyard, somehow simultaneously loud and intimate, with an animated, teenage jubilation. Its music video follows suit, posing fictional, geriatric band members as 3D-rendered cartoon characters (drawn by lead singer and songwriter Eric Michener) on a ramshackle stage. For a hint of what the band really looks like, a series of TVs flashes pictures and video snippets throughout the song.

It’s the band’s first 3D-rendered music video, but in fitting indie-rock fashion, this isn’t the result of a Pixar-caliber computer farm rendering each frame to immaculate, ray-traced levels. The video “Greatness Waitress” was instead built using the immediate-rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and its limited geometry means it’ll run on most any gaming-capable PC. To prove this, the band decided to keep the indie spirit alive by launching its video as an interactive executable; you can even “play” it within a web browser. This build removes the YouTube version’s intentional cinematography, instead allowing viewers to WASD their way around the environment.

Hang back and watch the whole band. Get uncomfortably close to the lead singer. Or poke around the entire video’s geometry, clip through polygons, and find Easter eggs.

Rock god + Dunk Lord

In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboy’s Eric Michener says he has previously applied his day job’s skills as a freelance video editor to prior shoestring-budget music videos. “I work a lot in After Effects, but it somehow never occurred to me to use a gaming engine in this way,” he says.

This idea emerged thanks to the prodding of director, artist, and animator Dann Beeson, who connected with Michener via Instagram as a Fishboy fan. The duo bonded over a number of things—shared love for the original Planet of the Apes films, along with the singer’s experience with multimedia album projects (particularly Fishboy albums that have come with Michener’s own full-length graphic novels).

“I didn’t realize he was a game developer,” Michener says. “I just saw cool 3D models that were their own works of art.”

Indeed, Beeson has some serious chops on his resume: most recently, he worked as the sole 3D artist and animator for the gorgeous NBA Jam homage Dunk Lords, built alongside Andy Hull of Spelunky programming fame. When Beeson and Michener began talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to sneak an early listen to a Fishboy album), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into animated 3D characters; modeling, texturing, and rigging the “set” in Maya and Blender; and using Unity to compile the assets.

“I’ve been making games for the good part of a decade now and never really thought to merge the two disciplines” of music and gaming, Beeson adds. But the process of applying a gaming engine to a music video was a revelation, he says, especially compared to trying to make animation projects entirely by yourself. “Rendering just a second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need an edit on a shot, there’s your whole night.”

Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” worked out as a humbly scaled project, requiring “about an evening” to build looping animations for each modeled character. “The lip sync was done in a kind of weird way,” Beeson says. “I found a way to do motion sketching, or puppeteering, in Blender. I ran the song and scaled a circle up and down to make it look like a mouth. It looked way better than it had any right to.” This only took him roughly 2 minutes 30 seconds—”exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual set for an intentionally filmed video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a second pass for more interactive fun—including teases about the full album’s “rock opera” story.

“More and more common”

Michener is careful in answering technical questions about the video, and he wonders aloud how many other video-production projects have leaned on popular, easy-to-use gaming engines. (If you’re as unfamiliar with the concept, Ars Technica has previously covered Jon Favreau’s cutting-edge use of the Unreal Engine on the sets of films and TV series.) But for him, that lack of technical understanding is part of the point.

“I love that you can look around at this video like it’s a virtual concert,” Michener says (without mentioning how few of those we’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months). “I know that’s been a bit of a thing lately, but probably not on a small scale like this for a tiny indie band like Fishboy.” Indeed: only Michener and Beeson did any work on the video, with the singer praising Beeson’s ability to “pivot with my ideas.”

“I’ve seen a few other short films and demos done in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is, it’s going to become more and more common,” Beeson adds.

Thanks to its intentional simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” likely won’t win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you think of that let you take control, live inside of a miniature concert, and view at whatever perspective you want? Right now, the answer is limited; even 360-degree and immersive-VR options for concerts and videos tend to plant viewers in specific seats, as opposed to Fishboy inviting viewers to hunt for secrets (and clip through geometry along the way). But dirt-cheap Unity and Unreal access will almost certainly change that reality as more artists and musicians come up with clever ways to replicate the real-world concert experience—and as a harbinger of interactive music fun to come, this project’s charming accessibility is indeed its “Greatness.”

Listing image by Eric Michener / Dann Beeson

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