Quite frankly, I've been looking for an excuse to show off my piano skills on Eurogamer for some time - and this month the perfect opportunity fell right into my inbox. A few weeks ago, Rust - the survival game infamous for its anarchy and general brutality - added a surprisingly wholesome instruments DLC pack, allowing players to construct a variety of instruments such as trumpets, drums... and pianos.
This was already intriguing, but one line of the press release really caught my attention. The instruments accept MIDI input. Oh boy. Did this mean I could hook up an entire electric piano to a computer, and play live piano in Rust? I had to try it out.
And, of course, it's the Christmas season - so to make it festive, and my life extra complicated, I announced to my editors that I would go carolling. Live. In Rust.
I had mixed results.
First things first: the setup. I ordered myself a MIDI to USB cable, a book of easy Christmas carols, and hijacked my flatmate's Kawai keyboard. Due to space constraints I had to move all my PC gear into my flat's living room - but the upside of this was I able to easily swivel between keyboards, and have a Christmas tree in the background to set the mood.
Next, I had to actually acquire a piano in Rust, which is easier said than done. The Wheelbarrow Piano requires 200 wood and 100 metal fragments to craft, and players must be in the radius of a level one workbench (which in itself requires 500 wood, 100 metal frags and 50 scrap). Thanks to the nature of Rust, you die - a lot - and I quickly realised playing on ordinary servers would take me days to craft a piano, with a high chance of then being offline raided. I also (correctly) anticipated being frequently shot and mugged - thus meaning I needed several back-up pianos.
To speed things up and make the process of dying and losing loot less painful, I selected a modded server with increased resource harvesting levels, along with instant crafting and free starting tools. After an hour of base-building and resource-gathering, I had my first piano. I then created about 10 more, and buried them in the ground like a paranoid squirrel.
Before I started performing Christmas bangers to the unsuspecting denizens of my Rust island, however, I needed to get to grips with the piano.
In my initial experiments, I discovered Rust's piano doesn't actually play like a modern piano, thanks to the way the MIDI input works. It may sound like an out-of-tune modern piano in tone and boast the same range of notes, but without a sustain pedal or proper dynamic nuance, it plays more like one of the piano's forerunners, the harpsichord.
In 17th century Europe, clavichords were capable of dynamic contrast via touch - but they were too quiet for proper performance. Harpsichords had volume, and a precise crisp sound, but no dynamic control thanks to their plucked-string mechanisms. The first true modern-day piano capable of dynamic variation was invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua (pianoforte literally means "quiet-loud" - although it wasn't named that until later). Cristofori's piano introduced a sophisticated hammer-action mechanism which allowed strings to be struck quickly before the hammer retracted - creating sound louder than a clavichord, and providing the dynamic contrast the harpsichord lacked.
Why do dynamics matter so much? They allow for greater emotional expression, but also for the voicing of specific parts within complex pieces. In essence, you can bring out a melody and other subtleties within chord-heavy music which you just can't on a harpsichord. This is partly why, unfortunately, Moonlight Sonata sounds whack in Rust.
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in Rust is NOT the one pic.twitter.com/eqBkQibwzA— Emma Kent (@GoneEFK) December 17, 2019
The other reason is lack of a sustain pedal - the right-foot pedal allowing for the continuation of notes, which didn't come into common use until the Romantic era around 1800-1850. Yes, this is actually a stealth piano nerd article, I fooled you all.
You can sustain the sound in Rust by manually holding notes (which isn't always possible in some pieces), and you might be able to get away with it by editing a pre-recorded MIDI file to artificially lengthen notes beyond human capabilities. But, in short, Rust's Wheelbarrow Piano is a mish-mash of keyboard instruments from across the centuries - and feels more like a harpsichord than a modern piano. I guess that's unsurprising, seeing as it looks like it's been created from sheet iron, gardening equipment and baby's first keyboard.
All this means the Rust piano is perfect for Baroque-era and early Classical pieces such as those by Domenico Scarlatti, or Johann Sebastian Bach - but less ideal for flowing Romantic/Impressionist pieces by the likes of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Thus, for the purposes of Christmas carolling, I tried to select fast-moving pieces, or ones where I could hold chords to make up for the loss of a legato (smooth) sound and thicker texture provided by the sustain pedal. Not that it always worked.
Ok this is kinda cute— Emma Kent (@GoneEFK) December 17, 2019
J.S. Bach's Prelude in C, from The Well-Tempered Clavier
I wouldn't call Rust's piano well-tempered but here we are pic.twitter.com/UqbHYnpYMy
On top of these limitations, the Rust piano is definitely in need of tuning. I guess it's going for the honky-tonk vibe, but this does make singing along more challenging. I also discovered that listening to the piano as I played it in-game, rather than through my keyboard speakers, made the pieces themselves slower. Thanks to slight input lag, my brain was waiting longer than expected to hear the notes actually sound in-game, which led to a more hesitant playing style. I could bypass this for flashy piano solos by simply muting the in-game sound and listening to my real-life keyboard (as I did with my Scarlatti performance), but it wouldn't work for accompanying my singing, which I needed to time perfectly with the piano in-game. This slow pace would come to haunt me when attempting the very long "gloria" in Ding Dong Merrily on High. I eventually resorted to playing left-hand only accompaniments, as along with semi-sightreading the music and the input lag, it was too much for my brain to process.
The world's slowest rendition of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen pic.twitter.com/L32NQ88MQR— Emma Kent (@GoneEFK) December 17, 2019
Then, finally, I realised I had yet another problem. Rust normally requires players to hold down a key to activate voice chat, which is an issue if you have both hands on a piano. I was later told this is possible to activate via console commands, but at the time, I sped up the process the old-fashioned way by using two items in my kitchen: a lollipop and a spatula.
Finally set up, I started hunting for people to serenade. The downside of picking the modded server, it seemed, was that it was less populated than the regular servers - while the abundance of resources meant the southern area of the island was effectively a PVP warzone. I got shot many, many times by people simply acting preemptively before they were killed. Most of the time, I was merely mauled by bears, or killed by radiation poisoning. "DO YOU WANT TO HEAR A CHRISTMAS CAROL??" I screamed desperately at a player flying overhead in a chopper. They carried on flying. Perhaps they didn't hear?
Eventually, someone actually approached me and said hello. By this point, I was mid-way through a bottle of red wine, with a terrible mic too close to my face, a slightly laggy out-of-tune piano, and the unnerving sound of gunfire in the background. I instantly pounced on the poor sod to play them We Three Kings. They had the decency to wait until the end of the carol before murdering me.
Next, respawned and restocked with a fresh supply of pianos, I found someone looting a small shed and called out to them over voice chat. As ever, I immediately got knocked down by gunfire. Slightly irate, I offered the only thing I could.
"If you help me up, I will play you a Christmas carol on the piano."
Despite all odds, that worked, and my life was prolonged for at least a few more minutes. After a very breathy Ding Dong Merrily on High, I asked the voiceless player to jump if they wanted to hear another one. They tea-bagged my head, which I took as a yes. God Rust You Merry, Gentlemen started off well enough, until mid-way through I started to hear the sound of a gun being cranked very loudly above my head. This was slightly off-putting, and I soon messed up my accompaniment. Punishment was swift, and severe.
Feeling a little despondent, I ventured north in the hope of finding a more appreciative audience - like one of the three kings, looking to impart a wondrous gift on the right person. Fittingly, I found a horse and ventured through the desert, where I found someone rooting around inside a barrel. This time, I decided to take a gentler approach, opting for a piano rendition of Ding Dong rather than going all-in with singing. Apparently they enjoyed this so much they were willing to stick around when my game crashed, and I had to load in again. Surprised, I then cracked out the absolute classic Once in Royal David's City, and waited to hear their response.
"That was actually sick"
I couldn't believe it - I'd finally impressed someone. "Are you feeling more festive?", I asked. "Yes", the player replied. Fantastic.
My work there done, I sailed away across the dunes on my horse, happy in the knowledge I'd imparted some Christmas joy on at least one Rust player. Although the game is renowned for its trigger-happy players, I wonder if I would've had more success on a normal server, where the resources are more scarce, the risks of being overly-aggressive are higher, and the island is more populated. Still, the fact I was able to convince someone not to shoot me in Rust - even temporarily - truly shows the healing power of music. And I hope you all learned something about pianos.
Merry Christmas, everyone.