Gaming Made Me: Jonathan Coulton

By Dan Griliopoulos on November 5th, 2012 at 10:00 pm.

Interrupted while coiling his precious cables, the sound guy glowers at me. “Scarface? What?” Now, the way you can tell games journalists aren’t like other journalists is our shame. We’re shy, we lack the killer instinct, mostly, that enables tabloid hacks to doorstep grieving families and hack murdered children’s phones. I’m a case in point – 6′ 1″, 13 stone – and I’m being intimidated by a diminutive roadie. “His assistant is called Scarface,” I repeat. The roadie shrugs. As he shuffles away, he’s obviously assigned me to the same aberrant category as everyone else still hanging around at the Jonathan Coulton gig – No 1 Fans, all of them.

After the gig, from the gallery of Union Chapel, I look down on the accretion disc of fandom. They’re loitering but not mingling, in the hope of catching another sight of their hero. With its non-conformist heritage, this old Gothic church is a strangely perfect venue for Jonathan Coulton, whose music is packed full of liberality, anti-authoritarianism, irony and inclusiveness – and for his reverential fans. While he’s best known in gaming circles for endlessly singable Portal ditty Still Alive, Coulton is the high priest of geek music. This former programmer’s songs about geek culture are so well known he was made ‘Contributing Troubador’ at Popular Science magazine.

Many years ago at event just like this, when Coulton was much less famous, one of those die-hard fans came up to him with a question; had he ever thought of doing the music for a videogame? Coulton hadn’t, but he loved games. He was interested, sure! Her name was Kim Swift, the game she pulled Coulton into was Portal, and, hey, the rest is history. Or possible musicology. But that’s not where Coulton’s own history with games started.

Gun Fight. In the days when concept art was highly conceptual.

“The first game I ever saw was the Western shooter, one of the first video games ever.” he tells me (after I found his aforementioned assistant, Scarface III – bizarrely named after a character from one of his songs.) “It was an arcade game where cowboys shot each other, Pong era. It’s a hazy memory – maybe I made it up.” He didn’t; the game is Gun Fight, released by Taito in 1975, the first game to use a microprocessor. Coulton also remembers when Space Invaders came out – when he was eight.

That impressively early access to video games is thanks to his lawyer dad. “I remember when dad came home with a Pong machine that you hooked up to the screws on the back of the television. That was awesome, the beginning of it for me. I was in the chute at that point.” Coulton’s father was heavily into games, and he also brought home Breakout.

“The father and son time was arcades. Every weekend we’d got to an arcade, he’d put ten dollars in the change maker and we’d just go around playing video games, so the early days of games, I was pretty into all of them. The whole evolution I saw, I was really into it. I bought a Pac-Man pattern book, so I could beat Pac-Man, but of course I never learned the pattern well enough.”

At the same time, his game collection expanded and he got more machines – he got a 2600, a Commodore 64, and… a Vectrex? “That was a vector graphics machine that was built into a dedicated CRT monitor, a big box. A black box, the size of a television, a screen, a controller with four buttons and a joystick. It had some real clunker titles in its library, but some good ones. An asteroids rip-off, a Berserk rip-off that was pretty good. They tried to do a platformer called Spike & Molly with vector graphics and it was terrible.”

Yar’s Revenge: TOTALLY different from Space Invaders.

The game he has most nostalgia for, though, is more familiar. “I’m sure if I played it now, I would hate it but… when I was a kid, Yar’s Revenge, on the 2600, was just such a fantastic game. You ate bricks, you had a cannon, you shot a guy, then you did it all over again. There’s something about it I really love. Also, I think back on Super Mario Bros – the one that I really loved, the weird one, I think SMB 2? The one where you can play the Princess and it got really trippy. Um, there were these guys that spat out eggs and you could jump on the eggs. It doesn’t feel like a part of the Mario universe, only in its skin… It’s my favourite of the bunch, which is probably a terrible thing to say and people are probably heating up their flamers.”

Coulton kept playing as adolescence hit. He remembers playing Tomb Raider to such a degree that it got scary. “I do have memories of… that thing you have where your brain remembers a repeated physical activity. You get it sometimes when you’ve been in the ocean all day? You lie down at night and feel like you’re still going up and down waves. I remember, when I was very into Tomb Raider, I had that experience where I would spend eight hours playing Tomb Raider, then go outside, and feel like I was still in the level. I would look at buildings and see how I could get on top of them.”

However, he also got into game programming, starting with the Commodore. “I made a ball bounce around a screen in basic, and saved my programs to cassette tape, dreamed of making a recipe database for my mom, which never got off the ground… My interest in programming was such that I had the terrible, terrible Atari 2600 basic cartridge that came with a controller that had a touchpad on it. It was some strange encapsulated form of basic, designed to teach programming concepts.”

Indeed, if Coulton hadn’t been as successful as he is in music, he’d probably still be programming – after a short career as a barista and a music scout, he worked as a programmer for much of the 90s, only finally quitting in 2005. “Once you’ve learned to code in any language, you know how to code. It’s just a question of understanding syntax and how languages are structured. But I did not have superior Code-Fu, ever. I never could make games. I always dreamed of making games, but there was so much pettifogging that needed to be done, to do with graphics, that I never really got into it. And once Nintendo was there, you didn’t want to make games any more, as there were so many good ones to play. At that point, you needed a team of people to make a video game, there wasn’t anyone who could do it by themselves, so it left the realm of hobbyists, at least in the styles of games that people were into those days.”

Coulton had majored in music at Yale university so used his spare time to compose. By 2003, he’d started releasing albums on iTunes and on Creative Commons, but his early success came from his 2006 ‘thing a week’, where he released a new track weekly. But it was 2007’s Portal that kicked his career into a proper living, and also signaled the end of his own hardcore gaming lifestyle. “My daughter was about two years old when Portal came out, so I was falling off the back of that truck. The last really big game that I played all the way through was probably the first Bioshock. And probably Halo 3. And of course Portal.”

The Portal song, we can all agree, wraps up the game perfectly, and was written with the aid of Eric Wolpaw, the Valve writer. “GladOS was really his baby; we had extensive conversations about her, her character, what she wanted, how she was feeling, what emotional state the player was going to be in. The great thing about GladOS is that she’s a pathetic villain. Your relationship with her is complicated, emotionally, because she’s funny and she’s trying to kill you, and she’s not particularly self-aware. Halfway through Portal, when you foil her plan to kill you, and you’re sneaking around backstage… she spends the rest of the game trying various ways to convince you to come back. And she tries everything and none of it works, and you really start to pity her. We wanted the song to be a song that she sang, almost a bit of musical theatre. In fact that was Eric’s thing, he wanted a musical theatre number in the middle of the game, a character singing about their emotions.”

None of them expected the game to be all that successful, as you can see from Valve’s bundling it into the Orange Box. “We were pretty proud of it, but anyone who’s ever published anything can tell you that you can be pretty proud of something and it will not dominate the world. We were all pretty surprised at people’s depth of love for the game. That ending really affected people, which was a really special thing – you don’t get to be a part of that very often. I feel very lucky that I was put into that place.”

Between the first and second Portal, as his kids grew up, Coulton’s hardcore gaming died off. “It used to be okay for me to spend six hours playing Tomb Raider, or whatever. When you have kids, the list of stuff you have to do gets so much longer and they want to use the television also. I can’t do it, because I know that the thing that I’m going to sacrifice is sleep. I can’t afford to sacrifice any more sleep.”

So, like many gaming parents, his playtime became restricted to iOS. “I have fifty games on my phone that I can play any time I want for short thirty second stretches.” He calls out the dreamy Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery as “one of those games that can be appreciated on many levels. It’s one of my favourite trends in gaming recently, is the game that goes beyond being a game, it’s about what a game is, what that means. It’s really fun to see that happening, the medium’s maturing in a really interesting way right now.”

His love of Geometry Wars – “no story and no characters, just simple vector graphics, shooting at shapes not even ships, but it’s pure hand-eye co-ordination and the adrenalin that I love” – has led to his obsession with an similar iOS game called Spirit.

The games he really misses, after the FPSes, are art games. Passage and particularly One Chance. “A game that’s not really fun at all. It’s terribly sad and makes you think; I love that about the medium, that it can run the gamut from “fly and around and shoot stuff” to making you think about your priorities in life.”

Back to history. As Chet and Eric have described it, Portal 2 was an answer to the question, “how do you make a sequel to a game that doesn’t need a sequel?” So how do you follow up a song like Still Alive? “The first thing you need to do is admit to yourself that it’s never going to be as good as the first one. The way the first game and song are perceived now far exceeds their actual quality. I don’t mean everyone’s been fooled, they’re both good. But it’s a phenomenon. When it catches in people’s brains like that, it’s magic and it’s an accident and it’s a miracle and all that stuff… For me, once I accepted that I was going to get a certain number of ‘meh’ comments, it became possible for me to even consider writing it.”

So they did the same thing. They talked about the story. For Coulton, the new emotional journey that GladOS takes in Portal 2 gave her more depth and history. “We decided we were going to write a break-up song, as GladOS is kicking you out of the facility, she finally decides that ‘I can’t do this any more. Get out.’ For me, it became like GladOS is breaking up with you, and she definitely still loves you, in a perhaps even more complicated way, and I won’t say how because spoilers. There’s a lot going on there. It’s the end of her relationship with you, the end of your time in that facility, she’s made some decisions to be a different kind of testing entity, and it’s the end of the Portal series. The Portal series itself is breaking up with you.”

It seems unlikely, but if Valve do Portal 3 before Half Life 3, would he do another song? “I’d be a fool to say ‘no’. But I don’t know where the story would go. I can’t think of how we’d make GladOS sing again. I wouldn’t be able to know what song she would sing until I knew what story she was a part of.”

How about a different game? Coulton would love to work on a game that has music built into it in an interesting way – but nothing has come to him yet. “For me, songwriting has always been a bit about solving puzzles. To have a situation that requires music in some interesting, to have that be the impetus for creating something, in theory that would be something I’d love to do, but I don’t know what it would be.”

While he’s waiting though, he’s excited about the direction that gaming has taken lately. “I can’t wait to see what it evolves into next. It’s a very young medium and we’re still learning how to tell stories, what it means to play a game. I’m super-excited to watch that idea change in the next ten years.” And even if he can’t play our sort of games any more, “Who’s to say that the dreams that I’m having aren’t from some video game in some alternate universe?”

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42 Comments »

  1. President Weasel says:

    The water’s not cold, baby dip in your big toe,
    Maybe I’ll see you in flagrante delicto.
    Grass below you, sky above,
    Celebrate spring with a crazy little thing called
    f**king outside

    I love Jonathan Coulton.
    (warning, the lyrics in that link aren’t safe for work. No siree).

  2. pakoito says:

    I’m not british and WAT IS THIS

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Why it’s an article about American singer/songwriter Jonathon Coulter’s love of gaming. Not exactly Anglo-centric.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      WATFACE.

    • 2lab says:

      I’m British and I have no clue who this is.

      edit: Tedious music with game references, as informed by 3 mins on youtube.

      • Gabe McGrath says:

        Portal = a PC game that many people admire
        Song at end of Portal = An unusual end to a mainstream PC game.
        Song at end of Portal = Very well loved by PC gamers
        Man who wrote said song = someone interesting to interview.

        It’s nice to step 1 degree outside ‘only interviewing game makers’ now and then.
        It’s like an interview with ‘the voice of Alyx Vance’ for example.

      • choie says:

        How are you a gamer reading this blog and unaware of “Portal” and the phenomenon of “Still Alive”? Jonathan Coulton, tedious? The man writes songs about Leonard Nimoy falling in love with Bigfoot on the set of “In Search Of…” for chrissake, about passive aggressive narcissists, about the sweet desperation of unrequited love from the perspective of an IT drone/office worker/seahorse/evil supervillains (okay he writes about unrequited love a lot!), about Pluto’s moon Charon consoling poor Pluto after it was demoted from a planet, about losing loved ones and being too tall to find a girlfriend and coming across a sinister doll when going antiquing. Everything he composes has heart and tenderness in it, not to mention insidiously memorable (and cleverly composed) melodies.

        I understand not having heard of the abovementioned songs, they’re not game-related and they’re pretty niche. But not knowing “Still Alive” or “Want You Gone” as someone reading this blog? How is that even possible?

        • Gaytard Fondue says:

          I guess I this is not the best place to mention that I never actually played Half-Life 2 for more than an hour because I thought it was boring…

          • El_Emmental says:

            If you say you played and enjoyed Half Life 1, but couldn’t get into Half Life 2, you may only be tortured for 3 days and left wandering in the fields with dogs on your tails… we’re humane people after all.

      • mondomau says:

        While I would respectfully disagree with you on your verdict of Jonathan Coulton’s music, I would less respectfully point out that you clearly have a woeful lack of understanding of the word ‘informed’ and it’s proper usage.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Tedious music with game references

        You’re like the guy who sees a Shakespeare play and complains that he totally ripped off all those movies.

        I could be forgetting something, but I don’t think there’s a single JoCo song with videogame references aside from the ones he wrote for Valve. To put in the game.

        He writes about a lot of silly things, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike the music, but it’s not like he’s some awful pandering nerdcore rapper.

        • paddymaxson says:

          OG – Original Gamer is kind of full of them.

          But I more or elss agree with you, 2lab is being a bit clueless.

          That said I’m not a HUGE JoCo fan, I know “Thing a week” was mostly rushed stuff but some of it is utter tripe, but I like most of what he does, it’s entertaining and geek friendly.

          • Simes says:

            OG – Original Gamer is kind of full of them.

            And is also a track on which he guested, rather than one which he wrote. So the original point still stands.

            Also indicative of how trying to educate yourself about someone’s work via Youtube might not give the most accurate results. :)

      • frightlever says:

        Tedious seems a bit harsh. I loved “Still Alive”, the Portal song, after playing 6 hours of Portal, thoroughly immersed in Portal lore and other things, mainly Portal. I still love hearing that song from time to time because it reminds me of that time I played Portal.

        I sampled his music on Youtube as well. Absolutely not for me. But I have, in general, little interest in game music. Some people love it, they love MIDI music, they love geeky songs about video games. It takes all sorts to make a world.

  3. Geen says:

    YAY! I got to tell him he was awesome, then high five him after meeting John Hodgeman (Also awesome). He’s probably my most favoritest musician evar.

  4. ScottTFrazer says:

    Mr Coulton and I are friends on Xbox Live. He’s a dirty console gamer.

    Of course, so am I. Also, his music is great. And CC – licensed, so you should go listen to it.

  5. choie says:

    Thank you kind gents for this lovely interview with this marvelous musician! Coulton and RPS = a consummation devoutly to be wished — and not only was it wished, here it is! I certainly do hope he and Valve get together again on some Portal follow-up or another game. I think Coulton’s talents and Valve’s writing sensibilities are a perfect match.

  6. AmateurScience says:

    I want a theremin. And cake.

    • President Weasel says:

      Don’t you know you can’t have your cake and WEEEOOOOOOOOOOEEEEE OOOOOP OOOOOP EEEEEEOOOOOOO?

      • Harlander says:

        Theremin are unreasonably expensive to buy. I tried to construct one from electronic components on two occasions, with varying degrees of failure

  7. caddyB says:

    While I don’t really listen to any of his songs ( apart from the obvious ones in Portals and Code Monkey ) I have massive respect for the man.Super massive.

  8. mondomau says:

    I was at that gig! second time I’ve seen him in the Union Chapel. highly recommend a live show if you’re a fan, particularly when he’s touring with Paul & Storm.

  9. 1Life0Continues says:

    Am I the only one who thinks ‘Want You Gone’ was better than ‘Still Alive’?

    I dunno, I just prefer it. It ties into Portal 2 so much more to me.

    Also, “I Feel Fantastic” makes me chuckle, as well as being a snide stab at our medicinal culture. I’m not a huge fan of Coulton (or nerd rock in particular) but he strikes me as a very intelligent man who weaves very smart lyrics into catchy songs.

    Anyway. I’ll go back to my corner now.

  10. Martel says:

    I love his music and really enjoyed it at the end of Portal, but I think my favorite one might be “Re: Your Brains”

  11. Skabooga says:

    Hey, nothing wrong with liking Super Mario Bros 2. It had a dreamy, imaginative style all its own; I’d go so far as to say there is no Mario game I like more than that one (although, depending on mood, there are some I like just as much).

  12. Lucifalle says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to do this… SARA QUIN! SQUEEEEE! WILL YOU MARRY ME?

    *cough*

    Great article ;), now excuse me while I go replay Portal (and listen to the soundtrack, very carefully).

  13. Rob Lang says:

    Was at that Union Chapel gig. Twas a great evening. I’m a developer manager called Rob. Hilarity ensues.

  14. Foosnark says:

    I had that same ridiculous BASIC cartridge for the Atari 2600. It took quite a lot of effort to track it down. It came with its own weird little keyboard controller that was used for maybe two other unpopular games. It was pretty terrible.

    Some of JoCo’s music *is* tedious. He has a lot of stuff about how much he hates being a responsible adult in a committed relationship with a job and all. His stuff about mad scientists and haunted dolls and sea monsters and geekery are much, much better.

  15. ShowMeTheMonkey says:

    Jonathan Coulton rag-dolling to a monkey.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTO5yiN1b-I

  16. mineshaft says:

    I Crush Everything! Today With Your Wife!

    (and in Jonathan Coulton’s discography)

    I don’t know what all this is about “game music”, he just writes music about what interests him, like the Mandelbrot set, Rick Springfield’s inability to make it in France, the unrequited love of programmers, how crazy Tom Cruise is. He provides backing music for John Hodgman on the hobo names, duets with Sara Quin and Suzanne Vega.

    His craft has improved over time, too. Buy his music!

    Kind of depressing that he doesn’t have time to game as a parent, but I’ve been there too… it’s a valley that you can climb out of as your kids mature. We’re a gaming generation and great games are even better than great shows. Hang in there.

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  18. GeorgiaSomer22 says:

    My mothers neighbour is working part time and averaging $9000 a month. I’m a single mum and just got my first paycheck for $6546! I still can’t believe it. I tried it out cause I got really desperate and now I couldn’t be happier. Heres what I do, http://Fox76.com

  19. zubsero says:

    Years ago I downloaded all his songs off some site he had then emailed him telling him how easy it was to steal his music.

    His response was essentially: neat, buy a mug.

    I like him.

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