Update: Cello Fortress sounded so bats*** insane that I decided to follow up with its creator, Joost van Dongen, to find out more about the project: notably how he reconciles making his music pleasing to listen to while simultaneously reacting to other players.
On Dongen's blog he wrote, "He [the cellist] improvises live music on his cello, and tries to do that in such a way that the game not only does what he wants, but also that the music actually sounds good." This statement seemed strange to me, because it seems like what one should do as a musician to make the music sound pleasurable would be at odds with what they should be doing as a player to defend against unpredictable other people.
To this Dongen replied, "The biggest challenge for the cello player is indeed to play something that both sounds good and controls the game well. It took me a lot of practice to be able to do that! Improvisation can always be taken into all kinds of directions and it is very well possible to make little bridges from one musical type of thing to another. You can hear that between 40 seconds and 55 seconds in the trailer: I quickly go from slow high notes to fast high notes, then to dissonant chords and finally to low notes. I can make that sound pretty natural, I think. There is a lot of musical subtlety one needs to improvise to really make that sound good."
This sounds very tricky: no wonder it's only a performance piece rather than a commercial product. But just to be clear, I asked why he decided to make Cello Fortress exclusive to live events rather than something people could fiddle around with.
"I already make commercial games at my 'normal' job," he said, referring to his status as co-founder and lead programmer at Ronimo Games, the studio behind Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers. "I really like to do both 'traditional' games and weird stuff like Cello Fortress, and I actually do both at the same time!"
Finally, I was curious what kind of equipment Dongen employed in his bizarre hybrid of live music and video games. "The game runs on a PC and is controlled using standard wired Xbox 360 controllers," he said. "The cello's sound is picked up using a cheap piezo-element. That's a special type of microphone that picks up extremely little noise from anything but the cello itself, which works well in noisy spaces."
So there you have it! Now, what other hobbies could we combine with video games? Rock climbing? Crocheting? Competitive eating? The mind reels...
Original story: Eccentric indie developer Joost van Dongen - whose previous credits include modern art-themed racer Proun and De Blob - is creating one of the most peculiar games in ages with Cello Fortress.
The conceit is that four players control tanks with Xbox 360 controllers in what looks like a rudimentary top-down twin-stick shooter while the hazards they face are controlled via cello. As in a real, actual cello.
How does it work, you ask? The computer adapts different sounds into various attacks. Fast high notes make cannons fire bullets, "ugly chords" are converted into flamethrowers, and low notes activate mines. As such, all the music is completely improvised. "This is the ultimate in adaptive music," wrote Dongen on his blog.
You're probably thinking that there won't be much of a market for a game that requires owning a cello, several gamepads, and whatever equipment Dongen runs it on, and you'd be right. Cello Fortress was never designed for public consumption, but rather it's part of a performance piece where Dongen tours shows manning the cello while audience members challenge the mad maestro.
Cello Fortress is still in beta with placeholder graphics, but that hasn't stopped Dongen from making the rounds with it. There's even a tour schedule for upcoming performances around Dongen's homeland of the Netherlands.
"Cello Fortress is a really weird and unique game, but for me it makes a lot of sense: playing cello has been a hobby of mine for ages, and I am a professional game developer," said Dongen. "I like to make weird, unique things. How could these ingredients not combine into a game?"
"Coming up with the actual concept for Cello Fortress was more difficult though: cello and computer can be combined in many different ways and it took me years to come up with something that is fun for the audience to play and watch, controllable by a cellist, and still allows for beautiful music. I think Cello Fortress hits the spot!"
If the trailer above seemed too edited for your liking, check out the footage below of an actual Cello Fortress match.
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