Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Maize Wallin

Image courtesy of Maize & Ctrl_Coda
Image courtesy of Maize & CTRL_Coda

Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Maize Wallin, a Melbourne-based composer interested in tech and interdisciplinary learning. 

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? 

Maize: The first job I can remember wanting was one I’d thought up at the age of five — a cross between a programmer and a sculptor. In the last couple of years, I’ve looked at my work and realized I’ve come pretty close. As a composer, I gather things and arrange them into a functional form.

Between the age of five and now (yeah, get ready for my life story) I wanted to be an actor, and then I was set on being a guitarist. I began learning guitar at age five from a teacher who was not a guitarist. So, subsequently, I learnt a lot of theory. I began to aspire to be a jazz guitarist, but as I picked up more instruments in high school (viola, clarinet, and baglamas!) I wanted to play them all! Hence, I became a composer. Simultaneously, I was also making my own websites from age nine and spending hours at weird times participating in raids and guild events online.

Miss N: How did you get into composing for games and other interactive experiences? 

Maize: When university came around, I was studying Interactive Composition , which basically means “audio with something.” Theatre, film, dance, installation, and games were all acceptable. I took the “interactive” part of the course literally, and most of my pieces ended up being performative, or what I now call “instruments.” 

Conjunct was a work where I really attempted to explore relationships between simultaneous media. I kept it easy and chose music, dance, visual art, costume, and lighting  with  a team of 20 people whom I directed at 19 . Not too hard. It stands out as the work to me that started the obsession. Though I honestly can’t remember about two months of 2013 where I basically didn’t sleep and cried about twice a week. Needless to say, my uni marks were … inconsistent. But the relationships and experience I’ll keep forever. I’m glad I had the ignorance to attempt something like that. I know how not to do it now.

I had a mate who was studying games at a nearby uni, and scored something for him, while he made me a little “music world.” I turned up to a game design course posted on Facebook during winter break, and from there met some of my current closest friends. The course was focused around design and a term I’d already been exploring in my own craft, “Gestalt.” That little link solidified my relationship with games now. There was definitely a place for my thinking.

Tamsin McLinden in front of art by Madison Palmieri with projection mapping by Jason Tay in Conjunct
Tamsin McLinden in front of art by Madison Palmieri with projection mapping by Jason Tay in Conjunct

Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?

Maize: My earliest memory at all was with a light up electronic spinning top. I reckon I was three? That thing blew me away. That was awesome. I’m sure my lil brain had made up a few games with that. Along with games like “chase the chickens” and “open Mum’s eyes without waking her up.”

My earliest memory of a video game — I would have been maybe four or five and we found a lost dog wondering around our street. I was determined to show it Return of the Jedi on my Game Boy Pocket. I think I even got a high score!

Miss N: A lot of the work that you do seems to revolve around live art performance. What drew you to this and what’s your process like?

Maize: I’ve always enjoyed live gigs. I’ve also always been told off touching stuff at galleries and museums. I would say those two things explain both my reasoning and process. If I really wasn’t meant to open the door that was only slightly ajar, the artist would have made it electrified. If I wasn’t meant to try and open the security door that was next to it, the curator wouldn’t have put them side by side. I mean, security guards are great, but they keep ruining the immersion, man.

It was my belief that artists meant their work to be touched. Why else would it beckon to me? I mean, I’m not about to punch a Monet — but I want to dance with Otto Piene and wash my hands in Robert Gober’s weird sink. Turns out it doesn’t matter if the artists wanted it or not, safest bet is security tells you not to touch the thing that looks/sounds like it would feel cool/warm/interesting. So, for all those like me out there, I wanted to make some things you could play with.

I think that sound often fills the gaps in our senses. Sound can tell us how big a room is, how close something is to us, if it’s rough or soft, light or heavy, fast or slow. So my interactive things always involve sound, and then that something else that’ll draw the participant in. I fully acknowledge most people don’t have a bias toward sound — it’s always more visual — but sound often creates that feedback loop that keeps the participant there. I see you, big red button. But, if you don’t make a sound when I press you, I’m probably not going to press you again. Everything has an associated sound, and while I can’t make that big red button drop a bowling ball, I can make it sound like it dropped an atom bomb. Keep pressing to make more things happen!

A lot of the work I seem to make for myself comes about because there isn’t someone else doing it who wants to hire me as a composer. I’m often not surprised there isn’t someone already doing it.

Subtract by Jason Tay, Sarah Bruce (Dance), Maize Wallin (Music), and Matilda Woodroofe (Costume) (Photo by Constantine Ballis)
Subtract by Jason Tay, Sarah Bruce (dance), Maize Wallin (music), & Matilda Woodroofe (costume) | Photo by Constantine Ballis

Miss N: Moving onto your experiences in games, do you think there are things inherent within the medium that change how you compose music?

Maize: Oh! The possibilities!! Often, people think that there aren’t a lot of places for dynamic music, but I think it’s everywhere. The key thing that is inherent in playful experiences with music is often the requirement for feedback. Music serves as a sort of notification of what you are going to need to do soon or have just achieved, or what sort of play mode you should be in. Are you on a timer? Should you be alert? Is something telling you to follow it? Games have the affordance of making music functional as part of the gameplay. But does any other media outright ignore music? No.

Music can contribute to any other media. Really, I become frustrated by games’ ignorance of musical possibilities. That’s probably why I don’t compose for video games so much. They’re more worried about whether the higher pitched gun sound gives the player a disadvantage than excited when the music is seamlessly transitioning according to how many bullets are in the air, the time of day, or what character you’re talking to.

Games make me think about programmers more. There are less programmers in other media. Unless they’re festival programmers, in which case, I still don’t need to think about my composition in regards to them. But when I think of what will trigger changes in music in other media, I get to think about dancers and actors improvising, and how I’ll get to as well. I think about speaker placement around the audience—where the audience might go, what they might do. I don’t get the safety net of technically limiting them the way you can in games.

They’re going to pick something up off a table and start making their own sounds. They’re not “random” sounds between some limited parameters. They have intent and feeling. If they want to stand directly under the light the dancer is meant to appear in and then not move — great! They think they want to play with the huge string sculpture the dancer is in? Cool! Are they shocked we ripped up a delicate giant blanket of leaves that is obviously irreparable? Go back to the last save point? No. You’re gonna smell the scent of the Aussie bush suddenly appear and then fade away in a black box theatre.

Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Maize: What really appeals to me in video games is the direct technical translation of information. I love to sync changes in music to variables happening in-game. A color is changing? You’re running? There’s how many kittens in the room? My process involves a lot of writing all these down then creating many, many, many variations. “Consistency and variation” was a concept drilled into me at uni. I like it.

The developer often lets me know what to pursue. I have all my ideas, but ultimately, it’s usually a team project. If I’m approached, I try to get as many references as I can from them  and go from there, though I still hold a lot of artistic integrity and am most disappointed when all that’s wanted is a track to loop and never change. Ultimately, I love collaboration. When I want someone to just tell me what to do, that’s when I just listen to myself and make my own weird things.

Ctrl_Coda Exhibition — Etch A Synth
CTRL_Coda Exhibition — Etch A Synth

Miss N: One of the projects that really fascinated us was CTRL_Coda. Can you tell us a bit about it and what drew you to it?

Maize: CTRL_Coda was Amani Naseem and mine’s attempt at creating an equal relationship between composition and gameplay. For myself, it was born out of frustration with the superficial role music usually plays in games. I thought we could brute force a sense of musicianship by having games designed with musical instrument controllers.

Miss N: What we love about this project is the way the exhibit encourages people to collaborate to make these really amazing soundscapes. What was the process like when you all were figuring out how to design the exhibit?

Maize: Well, the brief to those interested was “make a game controlled by a musical instrument that can then be integrated into an ensemble game.” The process became research. We weren’t interested in coming up with definitive answers to “What is a game?” or “What is music?” What’s art, man? Who cares. What is having a definitive answer going to do other than limit?

So all the teams that came together to make the five solo instrument games came up with their own optional answers. This was something that worried people at first. Where’s the unity in the exhibition if we’re all coming from such different directions? We weren’t worried. They were playful interpretations of performing and composing music. They all fit on the dial wavering between game and composition. That was enough for us.

Ctrl_Coda Exhibition — Polyn8
CTRL_Coda Exhibition — Polyn8

Miss N: Were there any challenges that you encountered in creating the exhibit?

Maize: It was hard finding the right people, but this was going to be the case in anything where you’re looking for almost 20. Everyone had the great experience of having to work with MIDI or Arduino or whatever data their chosen instrument could give. That was hard. It was hard to give resources for that. We wanted to supply our teams with all the resources we could, but as they all did such different things, it was very complicated. Sine Morris, our producer, helped us so much in communicating with all the different teams. It was also the first time I was working with producers! They’re amazing.

It was also really complicated getting all the different instruments into one ensemble game. Never again. Thomas Ingram was our big technical support in finishing the ensemble game and showing it. We learnt that it helps to have a programmer in the support team.

Miss N: What’s the one thing that you were most excited or most surprised about with the exhibit? 

Maize: The most satisfying thing we could hear was “I feel like a composer!” and the least satisfying thing was “I knew I wasn’t good at music.” Both responses weren’t anticipated. Personally, I focused more on how different people would approach the hardware interfaces. Will musicians come up and play familiar chords and rhythms? Would gamers come up and try to find the shoot and jump buttons? Basically, yes. And they were all let down! MUWAHAHA.

The most satisfying times were show times. With the help of Josh Cousins, our shows always looked beautiful. And with the four of us (Amani Naseem, Sine Morris, and Josh Cousins) with the games in the room, we happily played beside new people and gushed about the games and the experience. Inevitably, at each show, there’d be that one audience member who had something cool to say.

CTRL_Coda Support Team (Josh Cousins, Maize Wallin, Sine Morris and Amani Nasseem)
CTRL_Coda support team (Josh Cousins, Maize Wallin, Sine Morris, & Amani Naseem)

Miss N: Looking back on your experiences, what’s been the most challenging aspect you’ve encountered when composing music for games?

Maize: The most common feedback I get is that the music is calling too much attention to itself. I’m working on that. I’m definitely much better now than I was. Weirdly, I have never gotten this feedback working in theatre, film, dance, installation, or advertising. So, perhaps it’s a conspiracy.

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?

Maize: My own craft has developed. My overall sense of art has far matured. I make better music now than I ever have, and I think harder now than I ever have. My fulfillment is cumulative. 🙂

Miss N: In games, sound is often the unsung hero in that if it’s done well, it’s invisible, but really completes the player experience. When done poorly, though, it’s obvious and noticeable. For you, what does sound add to the user experience? 

Maize: I think sound can play an informative role. Many games suffer from giving too much information all at once to the player in unintuitive ways. Sound makes information intuitive. But for me, sound rounds out games. It gives that relationship between the player and the game reality that other mediums don’t cross.

Bjork’s Biophilia
Björk’s Biophilia

Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have pushed the boundaries of the medium in terms of sound design?

Maize: All of these concentrate on “play” as a way of discovery. They’re all also very musical: Björk’s Biophilia, Samantha Kalman’s Sentris, Radiohead’s Polyfauna, John Zorn’s Cobra, Brian Eno’s Bloom, Stelarc’s Ping Body, TONIC by Scott Hughes, and Gameoven’s Bounden.

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire? 

Maize: Urgh, I want to either say no one or go on forever and ever! Hmm. These people have influenced me and these people are awesome because they think about audience beyond someone that is playing their game. They include: Llaura Merriglitch, Brenda Romero, Jennifer Scheurle, Samantha Kalman, and Christy Dena.

Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out, what advice would you give?

Maize: Calm down! You’re not missing as much as you thought you were. It’s fine to miss stuff anyway. Don’t stress that you don’t repeat events. If people really wanted you to, they’d help fundraise. Especially don’t stress about not having learnt any programming. And it’s basically okay that nothing ever works out as long as you prepare for it.

Update people on what you’re doing more. Like the fact you are working on a game of your own, and people should subscribe. And that you are always looking for more collab, so get in touch 😉

Miss N: Thank you, Maize!

If you’re interested in following Maize, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @maizewallin. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.


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