I Am Not An Atomic Playboy

The key to my heart is, well, my heart. I need to have an emotional connection to something or I’ll get bored. That’s why it’s really not a surprise to me that the right music in something that’s otherwise mediocre can win me over, and the right music in something really great can push me into being a rabid fan. I had to watch Star Wars: Episode 1 several times before I was sure it was bad. Stupid John Williams.

When I was a kid, music in videogames was kind of a new thing. Some games would play a little electronic ditty during intermissions, like the Pac-Man series. (My favorite is the first one from Ms. Pac-Man.) Once the 80’s got rolling, we started seeing a lot of cool music showing up in games. I can distinctly remember trying to stay alive long enough Spy Hunter to hear the totally sweet synthesized guitar solo in its version of Peter Gunn. When I was 10, I remember renting a very difficult and frustrating game. I probably would have returned it and never played it again if the music hadn’t sucked me in from the first 5 seconds. That game was the original Mega Man, and I really wish somebody had included the instruction manual because I didn’t figure out until weeks later that I could steal the bosses’ weapons. That game (and all its sequels, especially Mega Man 2) and the Castlevania series had me riveted to the screen. And boy, did I do a lot of forgiving things I didn’t like based on the music. Like the beginning of the Frankenstein level with all the water and the bats. And Elec Man. CHEATING. ALL THE TIME.

Bejeweled 3’s Secret Link To My Past

I eagerly await each Wednesday, because that’s the day Xbox Live releases its new Arcade titles. This week’s was Bejeweled 3, the trial version of which I decided to download because I haven’t had played a decent brainless casual game in awhile. It was Butterfly mode that did me in. Jewel-butterflies float to the top of the screen where an evil spider is waiting, and you have to clear them before one gets eaten. My emotions have already been compromised by this situation, and then the music hits me. It’s new age-y and cool. It starts slow and swells right about the time that first butterfly nears the top. I feel the adrenaline surge through my hands and my resolve turn to steel. You will NOT have him, spider.

So, I bought Bejeweled 3. Fortunately, the rest of the game had some fun new modes and even the original can keep my 3 year old enraptured (especially the fire jewels that blow up). I spent several hours just playing and relaxing and trying to figure out who wrote the music for the game. It seemed really familiar for some reason. My best guess was Andy Pickford, who I listened to quite a bit in my “new age” music phase a couple years ago. When I finally summoned the willpower to get up and find my phone so I could look it up, the answer shocked me. It was written by a guy named Peter Hajba (aka Skaven) — who was one of my heroes when I was a teenager. And he did the music for the previous Bejeweled game too! How did I miss this??!!

Most kids want a car when they graduate from high school. My parents got me a computer instead. At 66mhz, with an insane 16MB of RAM, it was an impressive machine at the time. This was when I got a modem and was first introduced to the BBS scene, and one of the things I liked to do was look at software demos. Not trial versions of software, mind you, but more demonstrations of coders’ capability to push computers to do more than they really ought to be able to do. Some of the best demos out at the time were by a group called Future Crew, of which Skaven was both a coder and a musician. He, along with Purple Motion (also of Future Crew) were writing music I’d never heard anything like before. Future Crew’s demos utterly blew me away (and the rest of the world too, as they won several major demo competitions). Their demo Second Reality literally redefined for me what I thought my computer was capable of.

Little Moving Numbers That Turn Into Music Somehow

Good ol' MultiTracker.

This was also the same time in my life that I was writing music regularly. I didn’t have any training beyond three years of band back in jr. high school (bari sax FTW!), but I immensely enjoyed composing. Most of the other parts of my life found its way into my music, which at age 17 consisted entirely of videogame references, horror movies, and karate. (It is not all that different today, except I probably watch fewer movies now.) Back then, I used a program called MultiTracker Module Editor to take a bunch of instrument sound samples and mess with their pitch and smush them all together to make music. Sometimes it was awful, but sometimes it wound up beautiful. Sometimes it was both. I was part of a group called Tranzik ƒ/X, with some of my friends from far-off (30 mins away!) Bloomington, IL. We’d share everything we wrote between our BBS’s. We were pretty small potatoes, except for my friend Quarex, who got into the Kosmic Free Music Foundation. I’m not sure if anybody but our local group heard my stuff, but it was still exhilarating every time I uploaded a song. I entered a couple of composers’ competitions (with a song about cyborg Kris Kristofferson, no less!), but didn’t even place in the top 100. At one point, I had dreams of writing music for videogames, and almost got my wish when a friend of mine started coding a RPG. Unfortunately, as things do with college-age people, we got distracted and nothing ever really materialized.

I’m not really sure why I stopped composing, but I get the bug every now and then. The last time it hit me was in the middle of one of my favorite D&D campaigns of all time, after an epic battle. MultiTracker didn’t work so well under Windows XP, but there was a module tracker called ModPlug Tracker (now called OpenMPT) that I could use. I wrote the musical score to that epic battle, and it was sufficiently awesome that my DM rewarded my character with an awesome dire flail blessed by his god. (Which is, in part, where my twitter username comes from.) That same year, I decided I needed to write my own version of the wedding march for my wedding. (I didn’t get any dire flails out of that one, but I got something better.)

Programmed For Awesomeness

This finally brings me back to Bejeweled 3. Skaven wrote the entire soundtrack using OpenMPT, the same software I’d used to compose my wedding music. Yeah, I realize it’s a little bit like making a ragecomic in Photoshop and then pointing to the cover of Wired saying “OMG THEY USED PHOTOSHOP TOO!” — but for those of us involved in the demoscene back in the day (even as tangentially as I was), it’s still really cool to see the old ways alive and well. Perhaps the coolest part about all this for me was a noting that Skaven used a library called BASS to dynamically call different parts of his songs at different points in the game. That part of the butterfly game where the music rose and grabbed me by the heart? Not only intentional, but triggered programmatically. I didn’t know how to code back when I first started writing music. Now I can use both skills to make something awesome. I can be more Skaven-y than I was before.

Just what this turns out to be is anybody’s guess, including mine — but the concept of in-game music for your D&D game that the DM can adjust in the middle of a battle without cutting the song off makes me very excited. If nothing else, this has convinced me I need to start composing again. Maybe some generic in-game battle music for people to use. Maybe love songs for githyanki.

My point to all this? Nobody told me I had to have a point when I took this gig! But if I were to have one, it would be that I really started to enjoy D&D when I realized it was OK to bring what I was passionate about to the table as a player, and to see what other people did too. That’s why I get bored with pure stats, and why I like playing with real live people. For me, it’s nonsequiturs and possibly now music. I’ve fought in a lot of epic imaginary battles, but the one I wrote the music for will be etched in my memory forever. For you, it could be upholstery. If any of you can apply square foot gardening or hang-gliding to your game, please take pictures.

P.S. Skaven, you’re still my demoscene hero. Thanks for the inspiration all these years.

P.P.S. As for the rest of you: go purchase Skaven-music. ALL OF IT.

Photo Credit 1: A still from Future Crew’s Second Reality
Photo Credit 2: A screenshot of Renaissance’s Multitracker Module Editor



  1. Spy Hunter… man, I loved that arcade game. I spent a lot of quarters on it and loved the secret boat, the weapons, the foes, and the music. Nice job on your song too, by the way. I did a bit of mod stuff but really had fun with ACID. Truth is, I lacked talent. I stuck with music (drums) long enough to play some gigs, find one hot groupie (we talked about life, that’s all, honest!), and meet some very cool musicians. I found my passion for music is really as listener (player?) instead of composer (DM?).

  2. Thanks! Do you still have any of your old MODs?
    If the ACID you refer to is the ANSI art editor I remember, I did my fair share of that too (using TheDraw primarily). Somebody had to make a floppy diskette version of the Jurassic Park logo for my BBS filebase!

    I knew I wasn’t as good as a lot of the other composers out there when I was writing it too, but that never stopped me. (My teenage attention span did that for me.) Even so, there’s something to be said for doing something you love even if you suck at it.

    I wish there was such a thing as groupies for MOD composers.

  3. I’m normally a pack rat, but I was smart enough to delete my old music. ACID is a sound looping program that is now owned by Sony (and was/is linked to Soundforge). You could take sounds and really easily drag and drop all over the place. Worth checking out.

  4. I also could not possibly give you a reason as to why I stopped tracking, other than the standard “slowly there were more and more things that I spent my time on, and tracking was” wait a minute, I DO know why. When tracking involved writing for demoscene groups or even sharing on my BBS, you had a kind of instant feedback loop and a regular stream of new songs from people you knew to keep you inspired (or jealous and wanting to STRIKE BACK!).

    Once I took my BBS down (or rather once it was taken down through a malicious scheme to convert it to a Telnet BBS) and stopped hanging out on IRC #trax for eight hours a day, the sense of community disappeared completely and I lost interest–only picking up the tracker again for our sketch comedy project. I am glad we both had random life events to track again one last time for, even if yours was perhaps a bit more significant.

  5. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! When I first saw the screenshot above I knew I recognized it from somewhere. But it took me a second to place it. But then I remembered it was from that demo! I had to read the article just to see if you knew where it came from (though the title clicked a few seconds later).

    I too shared a similar experience of being completely blown away by Skaven and Co’s work. Second Reality was the first demo I’d seen, but from there I went on to download something like 3 years worth of competition entries. They were prominently displayed in the files section of the renegade bbs I ran in high school. I think Second Reality was always the best, though. I never got into composing, though a number of my friends did.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks. First time I thought of this stuff in a long while. Great to hear that Skaven is still out there somewhere.