Hearing the Love: Ryuichi Sakamoto


March 15th, 2015

Posted in Features

I cannot imagine a world without sound. It is as much of the world as light and matter, each one dedicated to giving feeling to all existence.

Video games, as a medium, is the only way to bring the sights, sounds and feeling of another reality into our own and bring together all of these senses. This amounts to a powerful and influential way to visit and display themes or ideas that can have an amazing effect for change or discovery for us.

With such a powerful tool, it is not always easy to substantially make use of or create a game that becomes its own life or world. Such games are very few, these are the “greats” or “classics” that will forever be as good as they came. More often than not, game creators fall short of such landmark titles or experiences, instead creating direction-less and passion-less works that fail to provoke any feeling or thoughts for the player that go beyond the, “I’m just playing a video game” experience.

Leave it to someone who isn’t even a game developer to take everything video games can achieve, and elegantly impact an entire video game system (and possibly an entire generation) as Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Hopefully the name is familiar, but if not I will give a little bit of background to the awarded music composer. Sakamoto is best known for his television and movie scores around the world, several of which earning him Academy Awards, Golden Globes, or Grammy nominations. The start of this musical legacy saw Sakamoto as a member of the electronic pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978. The group, were pioneers in digital recording and helped to make major contributions to popular electronic music.

Yellow Magic Orchestra very much affected the music sound scape in the 1970’s and ’80s providing the groundwork for video game music and inspiring many of the most influential game creators that would come from Japan.

Master Programmer Yuji Naka credits Sakamoto and the Yellow Magic Orchestra as factors in his desire to become a video game creator. It is easy to think of where SEGA and the Dreamcast would’ve been without Naka and his contributions. Naka and such fellow creators as the late Kenji Eno (a close friend of Sakamoto) blended the hot pot of fresh and invigorating ideas from Japan that fed game creation for the next several decades.

The beauty of Sakamoto’s scores and compositions are the natural flow and harmony in them. There is a grounding nature to his music, sounds feel like tangible organisms of a greater world that Sakamoto has opened a window to. Almost like peering into another reality in our minds that can be felt and seen. Sometimes, Sakamoto uses real world samples like birds or water flowing, this is obviously easy to imagine in our minds. However, more often than not it’s the digitally synthesized noises that create this aurally concrete effect.

There is no better example of this sensory sensation then an 8 second composition of Sakamoto’s.

We’re all familiar with it here:

There is such a robust and otherworldly feeling to the Dreamcast start-up screen. It’s the start of something new. It feels like we are setting off through a portal into a new discovery either from our dreams or the world we live.

This is the magic of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Yuji Naka’s animation for the logo perfectly syncs to create this sense of journey and intrigue. The steps of the echoing keys permeate the scene as the letters are stepped upon bringing us closer to our destination. We’re then brought into the Dreamcast with the water-like portal of the Dreamcast Swirl, targeting the entrance with its captivating and simple yet strange appearance. The accompanying sound from Sakamoto gives the feeling that we have now entered this dream scape and have disrupted the fluidity of the doorway inside.

It’s such a short and maybe even under appreciated at times part of the Dreamcast, but it really signified what the Dreamcast was and is, every time it starts up there is that beautifully enchanting greeting.

While there isn’t much lack of love for the Dreamcast startup screen (it’s very much remembered to anyone that has played the Dreamcast) there is however, a very great deal of love lacking for Sakamoto’s only Dreamcast game, L.O.L. Lack of Love.

Developed by Love-de-Lic, L.O.L. Lack of Love is one of only three games that Sakamoto has worked on, and the only game in which he did more than supply music. Together with game director Kenichi Nishi (who has worked on games such as Chrono Trigger, Captain Rainbow, and Chibi Robo) they set out to make a game with a simple theme, helping others.

“We should care for other people, life, the environment and nature” said Nishi (in an interview with gamestm.uk). Sakamoto came up with the title, feeling that today’s lifestyle and environment really lacks love.

Sakamoto is a very dedicated conservationist and an activist for anti-nuclear organizations. With creating L.O.L., he wanted to be able to display the circumstances and affects that an ill-minded society can have on a planet. A video game, he felt, would be able to convey the different emotions and feelings we can have on other living things and the behavior a player emits on a game world in relation to our own. There are consequences for our actions and how we solve problems with each other. This understanding is crucial to him in spreading the warning of changing our own environment negatively and possibly showing the steps we can take to avoid a fatal outcome.

In the game, players begin life as a single-celled organism in a violent and dangerous Eco-system and must travel the planet solving problems, learning about the world and evolving in order to overcome the trials of life.

There is a distinctness to the game that grounds the player into this alien world. There is very little HUD and the graphics are done with heavy, juicy colors and a very realistic day to night cycle with changing behaviors for the creatures living there. A lot of the game looks like a painting with great depth to everything.

Sustenance is the biggest threat to the player, and often times it is kill or be killed from starvation. This dynamic is crucial in bringing weight to the world and the decisions and actions that must be dealt with.

Sakamoto’s score defines each phase of life and every hardship or triumph in the game with a minimalistic flavor that can be easily digested but leaves you fulfilled. The loading screen jingle is probably my favorite, it’s almost as if I am idling at a Japanese train station as I wait for the queue of the next event (train). The wind blows calmly past, hitting the metal of a chime as it plays a deliberate melody like that of the signal announcing the arrival of the train as it settles into the station.

Sound is used smartly, there is no background music which creates an isolation effect that is punctured by the creatures noises as they walk about or the sound of you taking a pee. The times that music does play is during important events, putting even more emphasis on them.

Playing L.O.L. Lack of Love feels a lot like living. If I were placed into a new environment I’d start off feeling lost and would need to search my surroundings, become familiar with the locals, and figure out what I have to do to keep myself alive.

I really cared about the creatures in the game and how I was affecting their lives, by time the ending came I was really pulling for them and their future.

For a brief moment I thought about the real world’s future during the ending for L.O.L. Lack of Love. It’s very easy to change something’s world drastically with an indirect action, one that may never be felt or given thought to which makes it easy to disregard. Many times it feels like no matter what we do things cannot change, or how can such a small action result in a change for the better?

If only love were as routine as sound.

  • Nice! Thanks for the insight. I like the way you describe the Dreamcast startup sound. It really transports you into a dream world. Now that I’m aware of Ryuichi Sakamoto and his contributions, I feel like I have to get L.O.L. now.

    ‘Passion’ is a good way to describe Sega at this time in general. Music was extremely integral in crafting unique experiences that this era provided. I definitely feel games during this period go beyond being just a “video game”. They’re experiences that actually make you feel something. Okay, I have to get L.O.L. Hahaha!

    • Gregory Oborne

      Thanks man! That’s a really good word to describe that era, and it’s even more evident with how passionless they are currently. I agree 100% it’s easy to play a game nowadays and forget it quickly, games back then were way more fulfilling.

      Haha awesome, L.O.L. is definitely quirky it’s got a really obtuse way of doing things so I got stuck a lot but it’s really worth it and it’s like a lot of DC games that was ahead of its time.

      • Ahead of its time… That’s Dreamcast in a nutshell.

  • This was a great read, Greg!

    I often feel as if music is an overlooked aspect of many video games, so it was great to get an article specifically highlighting how important it is. Some people may not think that music is as important to a game as the visuals and gameplay are, but the sound of a game is what truly plants us into the atmosphere of the game because it separates us from our reality (or connects us to it). So even if a game has immaculate gameplay and gorgeous environments, it truly can’t become an incredible experience without fitting music.

    I have to admit, you made me really interested in L.O.L., I may have to pick it up now! The sounds Ryuichi makes are just incredible, and I feel playing a game built up around them will be quite an experience.

    As a side note, one of my favorite musical moments in a video game is the area just before you fight Dark Falz in PSO. It looks like such a beautiful and peaceful place, it has a soft yet somber melody, with birds chirping in the background. But upon further listening, you realize it is simply looping over and over again and it becomes very ominous, much like the Obelisk and gravestones looming around the area. And to top it off, the birds chirping are a looped sample, making you realize something about the peace is artificial and something is wrong. Great moment in a great game!

    • Gregory Oborne

      Thanks Clark I’m glad you enjoyed it^^b

      You’re right it does get overlooked at times and it’s kind of easy to maybe not fully appreciate sound when it’s being consumed. I think some of the best music kind of melds into the game so well that it becomes “one” and that also makes it tough to maybe direct attention to as well. I agree atmosphere is really enhanced by it, PSO and Shenmue for example wouldn’t feel as atmospheric if it weren’t for the quality and appropriateness of the sounds.

      Awesome! I wanted to post some of my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto tracks in the article but I didn’t want to distract from the Dreamcast-ness. I hope you do/did check out some though they are really amazing. A track I really love by him is called “Thousand Knives”. Definitely try getting it I haven’t played a game like it yet, even if it was a little frustrating at times haha

      Man yea, the way that moment grasps you it makes you not want to leave. It’s almost like a spider web that has pulled you in unknowingly by time you realize you’ve stepped foot in a place of death. You described that perfectly, it’s crazy too PSO was full of such little moments!

  • Eric Oborne

    This is definitely one of the best video game articles I’ve read. It was so informative and descriptive. I think many “professionals” could learn a thing or two by reading something as in depth as this.