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Level Up: Rob Kovacs on Games as an Art Form and Memorable Gaming Moments

We grabbed an interview with Rob Kovacs to dive into his recent synthwave album ‘STRAYLIGHT’ (Emperia Records), scoring the STRAYLIGHT video game by Dr. Bloc, and much more!



Rob Kovacs, photo by J Bartholomew

Rob Kovacs is not your everyday musician, the type who writes as a solo unit or part of a band, releases records, and then goes on tour playing those songs. He’s much more versatile than that, a composer, pianist and singer-songwriter who not only writes his records but has also found his niche with video games. A side project of his is releasing music under the name 88bit, wherein he reimagines classic video game themes and reinterprets them through the piano.

Being a longtime video game fan and studying early video game soundtracks has inspired him to become a video game composer, with his most significant project, being the soundtrack for the virtual reality game STRAYLIGHT. Kovacs was initially asked to write the game’s title track, but then he got involved in scoring the entire game, along with collaborator Dr. Bloc, along with all of the game’s sound effects. The soundtrack consists of ten progressive synthwave tracks inspired by his study of early video game soundtracks. Those early composers had to take many risks to break new ground with new and rapidly developing technology. Kovacs tried to maintain the same approach when scoring STRAYLIGHT, work with new technology and offer something new to the space of video game music.

With the STRAYLIGHT album out on Friday, January 27th via Emperia Records, and the game having followed on January 31st, we spoke with Kovacs about how he got interested in the world of gaming, the inspiration he derives from them, what he feels are some of the more memorable games over the years, and video games as an art form. More info on Rob can be found here:

What video game introduced you to the world of gaming?

Rob Kovacs: “I grew up in a house with nine arcade games, games like Super Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong Junior, Popeye… And my older sister had an Atari where we’d play Pitfall and some boxing game. So, video games were a part of my list as far as I can remember. The first game I ‘really’ loved, though was the Legend of Zelda. I spent years trying to figure out that game, blowing up every wall, burning every tree, etc. It provided a world of exploration and discovery unlike anything else.”

How do you feel about more games featuring VR options?

“Well, I’ve been on a development team (Dr. Bloc) developing a VR game (STRAYLIGHT). So, I’m all for it! VR is like the new frontier of gaming. It feels like what arcades and early 8-bit and 16-bit gaming were like. The tech is still developing, and we’re all figuring out ways to make the best use of it. For example, movement in VR is still a tricky thing, and devs are trying to find new ways to move comfortably. That was the main impetus of STRAYLIGHT, how can we fly around in space without getting motion sickness.”

Have video games ever inspired you musically?

“Oh, definitely and in ways beyond just music in games. Learning, memorizing, and composing music requires a lot of pattern recognition. Growing up with video games, and trying to learn levels and beat bosses, you also have to recognize the patterns to progress. I have a very early memory of standing on a crate to play Super Pac-Man and figuring out that if I take this certain path, I can eat all the apples before the Super Pac-Man pellet runs out.

“The first game where I tried to learn and recreate the music was The 7th Guest, composed by George Sanger, aka ‘The Fat Man.’ I was in seventh grade, and the music was all midi and sounded a lot like my Yamaha keyboard, which also had multi-track recording capability. I listened to the music and tried to recreate the different parts on my keyboard and got it sounding pretty dang close!

“More recently, with the STRAYLIGHT soundtrack, I took inspiration from composers like David Wise (Donkey Kong Country, R.C. Pro-am), ‘Hip’ Tanaka (Metroid, Earthbound) and Brad Fuller (Marble Madness). I’ve transcribed and dug deep into their scores and a lot of early video game music. They were all experimenting with brand-new technology for a brand-new medium. It seemed like they could do whatever they wanted as there was no precedent set before them. All of those scores I referenced sound completely original. I feel VR is similarly new tech and is providing a new experience. I tried to take a similar approach when writing the music, ‘Let’s create something totally new.’ Thankfully, my team at Dr. Bloc trusted me to do so.”

Artwork for the album ‘STRAYLIGHT’ by Rob Kovacs

How would you introduce someone to gaming who has never played a video game before?

“I would give them an NES controller and probably have them play Super Mario Bros. The controls are simple and intuitive, and there’s plenty there to grab their interest. Too many buttons can be overwhelming and confusing.”

Much has been made about whether video games can be art. What do you think?

“It was clear to me that they were art even when I was a kid. Games literally use art, visual, musical, storytelling, to make the game. Additionally, there is art even in level-design. Good level-design takes you on a journey; it sets you up, lets you down, surprises you and keeps you coming back for more for some eventual climax at the end. Mega Man 2 comes to mind as an early game with brilliant level-design.”

What is the scariest game you’ve ever played?

Friday the 13th (NES). It’s dark, and at any moment, Jason could pop onto the screen!”

Do you prefer playing solo versus cooperative, or competitive?

“I have the most fun playing cooperative games. I made a decision when I was 14 to focus on music and sell *almost* all my NES games. I kept some of the cooperative games and a couple of favorites like Zelda and Fire and Ice.

“One of my favourite gaming memories, though, was more recently when my friend Nick and I tried to beat Bubble Bobble, all 100 hundred levels. There are several endings, but to get the *good* ending, you have to beat the final boss without either player getting hit.

“We’re both decent platforms, but this is a pretty tough feat. And there’s this self-imposed pressure when playing together that you don’t want to let your friend down. We’d get close, and then one of us would get hit, and the other would reassure the other that we almost got this! When we finally did beat the boss, it was such a feeling of accomplishment. And a very wholesome feeling that we did it together.”

Do you ever watch Twitch streams? Do you have a favourite streamer?

“As a music streamer myself, I end up watching quite a bit! I mainly watch music streamers. HAYZEE is an incredible indie-folk singer. I love Office Drummer’s energy and playing style. MusicisCode is a wonderful piano streamer. KevinYWong is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter, and he plays violin!”

What is the hardest game you’ve ever played?

Arkanoid on the NES comes to mind. I even have the paddle controller for it. Even with that, the ball moves faster and faster to the point where it’s nearly impossible to keep up with. Though, there are people who can beat it without Game Genie!”

“I like the music in the game, which is slightly embellished from the arcade music. Though, in the NES version, the final boss music has some errors in its transcription. I have a piano arrangement of this soundtrack, taking the best of both versions.”

Have you ever played any video game at a competitive level? (Think esports, leagues, etc.)

“Yes! I played in the Nintendo World Champions when I was 8. I made it to the semi-finals in my city (Cleveland.) The whole convention was an unbelievably overwhelmingly awesome experience. I remember playing A Boy and His Blob and an arcade of Super Mario Bros. 3 before it was even available on Nintendo yet. And you could fly!

“For the contest, you had to play a combination of three games, Super Mario Bros. (get 20 coins), Rad Racer (get two checkpoints I think?), and then rack up as many points in Tetris before time runs out. I qualified for the quarter-finals four times but lost each time.

“On my fifth and final try, I changed up my strategy and decided to go down the pipe in SMB for the underground coins. I think I crashed in Rad Racer, but overall got to Tetris pretty quickly. From there, I built quite the tower before getting two long pieces and completing two Tetrises before time ran out to win the round and go on to the semi-finals. I still have the shirt. It was pretty awesome.”

What game do you think you’re the best at?

Mega Man 2 I know pretty well inside and out. I’m no speed runner, but it’s probably my best game.”

What is your favourite trading card game (e.g. Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Hearthstone, etc.)?

“Oh, I got into Magic: The Gathering back in middle school. Lots of arguing with friends (laughs). I don’t actively play anymore, but I still have my old cards.”

How big is your collection? Any cards you’re particularly proud of owning?

“I have two decks of cards. There’s some fun stuff in them, Forks, Arcane Denials, Wheel of Fortune, a couple of Dual Lands.”

When was the last time you played? When do you plan on playing next?

“My friend and Twitch mod, GipsonLens, plays Magic. We roomed together at Twitch Con and played there a bit. It was definitely fun to play again.”

Born in 2003, V13 was a socio-political website that, in 2005, morphed into PureGrainAudio and spent 15 years developing into one of Canada's (and the world’s) leading music sites. On the eve of the site’s 15th anniversary, a full re-launch and rebrand takes us back to our roots and opens the door to a full suite of Music, Film, TV, and Cultural content.