With Kanye West releasing a game where players guide his mother through the gates of heaven, we look at some of the other weird crossovers between musicians and video games
Back in February, Kanye West revealed that he’d been developing a video game. Titled Only One after his 2015 single with Paul McCartney, the Chicago rapper’s description of the game didn’t sound particularly promising. “The idea is, it’s my mother going through the gates of heaven, and you have to bring her to the highest gates of heaven by holding her to the light,” he told New York’s WWPR-FM of at the time, “We’ve been working on it for like six months.” As it turned out, Kanye was underselling things a little. While Only One doesn’t exactly look great, the trailer released earlier this week isn’t completely charmless (thanks mostly to the whimsical art direction by developers Encyclopaedia Pictura, the same company that produced the video for Panda Bear’s “Boys Latin”).
Given the existence of Only One, and the fact that Kanye’s new album is apparently going to be titled Turbo Grafx 16 after the little-remembered console, it seems clear that he is serious about gaming and serious about the game reflecting well on him. But Kanye isn’t the first musician of his calibre to make a video game. Since the 1980s, artists have been involved in the gaming industry, lending their names, their brands, and their talents to a slew of different titles. Some of these have been simple endorsements to earn a quick buck (like Lil Wayne’s new mobile skateboarding game), while others have seen the artists take a more direct involvement, extending their artistry into new mediums (like Björk’s interactive Biophilia apps). Here are a handful of the best, the oddest, and the most unlikely video game crossovers out there.
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
Liverpool group Frankie Goes To Hollywood sold an astonishing amount of records in the 1980s (although thanks to a cruel contract with their label ZTT, they received a paltry share of the earnings), and at the height of their popularity their name was attached to a video game for the Commodore 64 that probably ranks as one of the most peculiar musical tie-ins ever produced. Released in 1985, a year after Frankie’s debut album Welcome To The Pleasuredome, the game involved a series of minigames that the player had to complete in order to earn points to fulfil their potential. Once they had enough points in four categories – sex, war, love, and faith – they would become a full person. For some reason, the game also turns into a murder mystery at one point. The most distinctive part of Frankie Goes To Hollywood is its writing, a garble of non-sequiturs and pseudo-profound language that fits neatly into the universe of ZTT built by the label’s Paul Morley and Trevor Horn.
Prince didn’t have a straightforward relationship with technology: on the one hand he always seemed willing to embrace the creative possibilities opened up by new technologies, but on the other he was sceptical of anything that might cause artists to lose ownership of their work. The advent of home computing introduced a lot of new options for Prince, with his earliest experiment being 1994’s Prince Interactive (he’d go on to use the internet in interesting ways throughout the 1990s and early 2000s). The game, loosely based on Myst the previous year, let players explore an eerily rendered version of Paisley Park, listen to songs (including the unreleased “Interactive” and “Endorphin Machine”), watch music videos and interviews with artists like George Clinton and Miles Davis, peek into Prince’s wardrobe, and even go into his bedroom. The game lay mostly forgotten in the years since its release, but after Prince’s death earlier this year a journalist at Mashable dug out an old copy and recorded the experience.
Outside of your Kanyes and your Princes, plenty of underground musicians have got involved in video gaming. Hudson Mohawke and Rustie (both signed to Warp) have released games to tie into their albums, and more recently Helado Negro released a Pac-Man clone to peg to a new compilation. Generally speaking these are smaller scale ventures, often made as part a larger album marketing campaign rather than as something that should stand on its own merits, but they definitely add to the musician’s wider universe. Butterstar Galactica, a tie-in for Hudson Mohawke’s debut album Butter, was a browser game where players guide a block of butter around a fantastical pinball machine set to HudMo’s colourful electronic music.
Michael Jackson was a huge gamer, and has had his name attached to at least eight games in the past. The most famous is the Sega arcade game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker: co-developed with Jackson, the game featured stunning graphics and saw players control Jackson to save kidnapped children (yes, really) from an evil villain while synthesized versions of his hits played in the background. For years Jackson was also rumoured to have composed some of the music for Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (a rumour that might well be true), while after his death there were attempts to develop an MMORPG called Planet Michael based on his music which, to be fair, probably would have been dire.
There are a surprising amount of rap crossovers in video gaming, from the beat ‘em up Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style to the ludicrous shooter 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand, but Def Jam’s forays into gaming stand out as the best thanks to their absurd storylines, A-list casts, and genuine playability. Rappers from the label’s roster all feature in the fighter series, either by providing their voices or by providing their likenesses. Who doesn’t want to play as Lil’ Kim, Ice T, or Ludacris in a series of brutal street brawls on Def Jam: Fight For New York?