Poet and playwright Ross Sutherland's story takes inspiration from the most unexpected place - the 8-bit electronic theme tune to an impossibly difficult GameBoy game - and reveals how it's hidden depth made him into a writer.
Here's his story:
The song that I've liked to talk about tonight is the theme tune to Robocop on the Game Boy. I'm not being facile. I want to talk about this song because it is very important to me. And its not just important as an element of nostalgia - I don't want to just stand here to you guys and go "Robocop, Robocop, Game Boys", because there's a lot of that sort of stuff out there already. But I want to all about this particular song because it taught me an important lesson on how I should make art, and by extension it also taught me how to be a human being. And I know that's a big thing to lay at the door of Robocop on the Game Boy. But in order to get there, I jut need to set some context. So...
Robocop came out on the Game Boy in 1990, when I was 10 years old. My friend Rich Evans had a Game Boy that he'd bring into school, and sometimes if we were called into different lunch groups Rich would let me play on his Game Boy, while he ate his lunch. Now, usually I'd just have to accept whatever cartridge was in the Game Boy and usually, at that time in 1990, that would be Robocop. Robocop the film was an 18 certificate, so I hadn't seen the film when I actually first played the video game - not that it mattered, because I loved video games regardless, and, also, what kind of back story is really required to enjoy a video game in the 1990s? The rules are;
- walk to the right
- keys open doors;
- kill everyone.
That's all you needed to know.
But, Robocop on the Game Boy is fucking... well, it's impossible. The game opens on a city street in Detroit. You are controlling the particular Robot Cop. You walk about four steps down the street. A punk appears in the window above you. He shoots you. You die. And that is the story of Robocop.
In my school days I don't think I was able to last more than ten seconds as Robocop before being shot in the head. And it feels like you should be able to shot diagonally up to the window. But you can't - you can either shoot along ways or up. So you end up doing this jig until the punk who appears at the window puts you out of your misery.
In my peak in 1990, I'm killing Robocop eighty to a hundred times a day. What could make someone keep playing a game like that - what possible rewards could there be, for staying at that Sisyphean coal face? Failing and failing, and failing and failing. Day after day after day...
Only the theme tune. Only that.
Jonathan Dunn's original composition that plays over the game's opening credits - thus the music you return to every single time you die - that's what. This beautiful piece of 8-bit electronica, so beautiful and uplifting and yet tinged with this deep, deep melancholy. Ah... It sounds like... Well, I'll tell you what it doesn't sound like, it doesn't sound like it should be the theme music for Robocop.
The official score, produced by Basil Poledouris - the one that he wrote for the motion picture - that is appropriately dark and brooding; it actually sounds a lot like the Terminator theme tune. It's kind of cold and metallic and ominous. Jonathan Dunn's GameBoy version on the other hand - a completely different composition - Dunn's version feels more like a love theme. It's more like the song that would play at Robocop's wedding. Not the song you would use to gee him up for going on the beat.
And so personally, I think that this song was designed with a completely different purpose. It's not being designed to set the scene. Its not introducing you to the mean streets of Detroit. It's not meant to be heard as a beginning at all.
Now of course, as a I said, the song looped back around every single time that you died, but I don't think it was meant to be heard as an ending either. Ending songs are usually funeral dirges - those sad little ditties to roll over the "Game Over" credits. What Jonathan Dunn has given us is a theme - I think it's actually the piece of music that you tend to hear in a film between the end of act two and the start of act three. This is the moment in the film when you've got a group of heroes, and they've been through just about as much as they can take, and every single one of them has been broken, they've all had the things that define them stripped away from them, one by one, but it's still not over yet - there's still one last task ahead of them. Something uncertain still lies at wait in the shadows, the future so terrifying and unknowable that every single instinct is telling the group to turn back. But then, one by one, each member of the group stands and says,
"You know what, if you guys are in, I'm in too".
And they stand together as friends, because they realise that together they have the strength that each of them lacks alone, and they will sacrifice everything to protect that bond.
I know that's a lot of drama to get out of a very short piece of music that doesn't have any lyrics.
But that's the scene I see in my head. In Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey, I think this moment gets called the 'Meeting With The Goddess'. It tends to mean a moment of spiritual unity when you're at your deepest darkest moment. On the story circle, it's the moment that is furthest away from home, but yet it's the moment when you start to learn something about who you really are. And when that music plays in Robocop on the GameBoy, it triggers a similar scene in my head. It makes me think, "Yes, I've just died - as Robocop no less - but I have not failed alone. In fact millions of other kids have definitely screwed up this video game, just as bad as I have.
"And you know what - if they're still in, then I'm in too...
"I won't let one dead Robocop drag me off this path of destiny. Because failure isn't what tears us apart. Failure is what brings us together. So, yes, Ill play again. Ill keep fighting. Together until the end..."
This is what I find so fascinating about Jonathan Dunn's composition - the song knows that the game is too cruel. So it dramatises failure into an ever repeating loop, and that makes you, the player, you're the hero. Not the short-lived robotic cop who only lives for thirty seconds and can't fire diagonally. You the player, you are the central character, you're the person whose trials we are following.
Now, I think this kind of stuff is the most interesting part of video game design. All games try and solve this problem differently. But the problem is essentially always the same - how can we use failure as a way to spur us on, instead of something that pushes us away.
Because that is not just a video game problem. That's a life problem right there. You've got teenagers in school that really struggle staying on a single task for more than a few minutes, that switch off when faced by a new challenge because they're afraid of the unknown. They're afraid of failing. And yet these same kids are going home and then playing the same level of Call of Duty for four hours solid, dying over and over and over again, in pursuit of the 100% perfect rendition.
All I'm saying is that I think that sometimes when it comes to failure, there's a lot of stuff that we can learn from games. There's a lot of stuff I learned from games.
So the message of this song remains with me, long after I was separated from its source, I held on to it. I made a mixtape, on cassette, of all my favourite video game themes. We all did, didn't we? By holding up a mic to the speaker. And what I found out was that every time I was down, whenever I was lonely, whenever I felt that I'd failed, it was the Robocop song that brought me back around. Because, I think, it stopped making things feel like endings and put an extra act in front of them - another chance to die over.
And in time I learned to apply this approach to my writing as well. Writing for me became like a game - I would set the rules to a puzzle, and I would try to solve that puzzle. Like writing a poem that only contains one vowel. Or, like writing a play that reverses half way through like a palindrome. And this is how I learned to write. And the trick I found - and I know this sounds counterintuitive - was that I needed to make my word games really really hard, like cynically and devastatingly unfair. I had to make my writing challenges just as hard as Robocop on the GameBoy. Because if I did this, then this impossible word game would push me to reveal things that I didn't really want to reveal. I would fail so many times, trying to write, that I would stop being afraid of failure, and through that endless process, I might even learn something about myself.
I might even get to meet the Goddess...
I once wrote an hour long poem that was meant to synchronise, shot for shot, with an old VHS tape that I found in my attic. And it was so hard to write that just through the process of doing it, I ended up confessing to having depression. And that was not something I'd ever even admitted to myself before that moment. I just needed a game that was hard enough to force out the truth. And by doing that it felt incredible - it felt uplifting, it felt powerful, and in a weird way it felt melancholy. Just like the song itself.
I think we're just about to listen to it, but I think I might dedicate it to my Grandad. Because the night that my Grandad died I went for a walk on my own to process what had happened. And I was living in Liverpool at the time and I went for a walk through Sefton Park and the Robocop theme came on my iPod and I just stopped in the middle of this big Victorian park in the middle of the night, and I listened to it, and absorbed it and I know how stupid this sounds, but it gave me a weird sense of strength. It helped me fold that sadness into a new beginning.
So this is for you, Alec.
Dead or alive, you're coming with me."