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.
“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.”
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?”