You might think that there would be more video games based on songs, and yet, there really aren't. At least, I can't think of any, but then again, I am writing this at 10am on a rainy Friday morning, so my brain isn't exactly at its peak.
But Fire Tonight, named after Information Society's 1990 synthy single, is exactly that: A story that's pulled directly from someone else's lyrics.
As lead vocalist and band co-founder Kurt Harland Larson croons in the chorus, "there's a fire tonight on your side of town" — and what a set-up for a puzzle game that is. Maya and Devin, lovers separated by a raging fire across the city, will have to overcome the flames, the police, and many locked doors in order to get back together again.
We had the chance to speak to both the developers of Fire Tonight, and Kurt Harland Larson himself, about how the game came together — and what it's like to have a game based on a song you wrote decades ago.
How did Information Society get involved with the game?
Simon Paquette (Reptoid Games, developer of Fire Tonight): From the outset we knew we wanted to make a game about a love story, something that would feel a bit introspective and thoughtful. I found that the lyrics for Fire Tonight really painted a vivid picture of this couple trying to reconnect and the uncertainty of what’s going on with the other person, which felt like a really natural place to start designing the game.
Rajen Savjani (Way Down Deep, publisher of Fire Tonight): Back in 2018 when Simon and I were discussing what kind of game to do together, I'd mentioned that I thought it would be cool to do a game based on Fire Tonight, from my favorite band Information Society. Simon and his team came up with some gameplay ideas and we decided this was a game we wanted to do. After that I reached out to Paul Robb from the band to see if they were cool with me doing a game based on one of their songs.
Kurt Harland Larson (lead vocals, Information Society): To be clear, our involvement was casual. One of our fans, Rajen Savjani, who has been in touch since IRC in the 90's, reached out to me about the game he and his partners were making; he wanted to loosely theme it off our song 'Fire Tonight' from the 'HACK' album. Of course I told him that was fine...
I think there was originally a hope that they could license the song itself, but when I explained what that would entail, he wisely decided it was probably not the best use of their man-hours and funds. But after that, he kept me informed about the project's progress, and earlier this year I beta-tested and gave a friendly nod to the InSoc-related Easter-eggs contained therein.
Can you tell us about some of the '90s/'80s music references in the game?
Rajen: Besides the general technology of the time we wanted to reference - pay phones, VHS, cassettes, CDs, 16-bit games, etc., I wanted to put an emphasis on Information Society references from the era. So there are a few good Information Society references that fans of theirs may recognize.
I also wanted to expand the references to include some other synth-pop and electronic bands that I was listening to back then. My favorite reference from the game is still the CD+G reference in the game system in Devin's apartment. InSoc fans who owned their first album on CD may get that obscure reference.
How has music (and especially soundtracks for games!) changed in the years since Information Society was founded?
Kurt: Omg, how has it NOT? Still, I think there has been less change between say, 1941 and 1981 than there has been in the 40 years since then. I say this because, looking back on it, in 1981 I was listening to DEVO and Gary Numan and Fad Gadget and Kraftwerk, etc. ... And 40 years earlier music was mostly crooners, blues, and big-band. I can't imagine any of my peers at that time listening to Mitch Miller or Bing Crosby, for example. But kids today are not unlikely to be listening to early Gary Numan, or early OMD, or what have you. It isn't as much of a chasm to bridge between 2021 and 1981 as it was to bridge between 1981 and 1941.
kids today are not unlikely to be listening to early Gary Numan, or early OMD. It isn't as much of a chasm to bridge between 2021 and 1981 as it was to bridge between 1981 and 1941
The big changes in any artform are usually due to changes in technology. Between '41 and '81 you had the advent of electrical amplification and synthesizers. Between '81 and '21 you had the near-disappearance of physical media, and the rise of the Internet. Huge changes in both cases, of course.
So what effect has all that had on the music? Between '41 and '81 we saw an increasing freedom to explore the dark and the wild sides of musician's creative power. We also saw a de-stigmatization of music coming from the African diaspora in the U.S. (meaning it became ok for white people to listen to (and imitate) blues, jazz, funk, and related genres), and a huge increase in the commercialization of music as a product. Between '81 and '21, I think the most significant change was the near-elimination of barriers to entry.
It cost us all the money we could beg, borrow, or steal in 1983 to make a 5-song EP, and over $200,000 (not counting marketing) to make our first Warner-Brothers album. Now anyone with a laptop, a decent mic, and some decent software can make an entire album essentially for free, and they can publish it without a label. That creates, of course, both bad and good results, but I'm all for it. There is definitely more crappy music flying around out there now, but vastly more interesting, creative, and music which is individually-tailored to specific listeners. It's great!
The levels are named after lyrics from Fire Tonight. Did that come easily? Did it help with making the game?
Rajen: That was a brilliant idea by Simon. The lyrics on the cassettes don't tightly correspond to the levels but are just there for progression and poetry. As for helping make the game, the lyrics were the blueprint upon which the game was designed. The progression of the levels, the details in the levels, dialogue, etc. were all inspired by the lyrics.
Simon: Throughout development we have always been on the lookout for places to sneak in references and easter eggs like this, so when we were designing the level select screen it seemed like a bit more fun than just calling them Level 1, Level 2 etc…
Did you have to get the whole team on board with the music, or was everyone already into synth-pop?
Simon: I had actually never heard of InSoc before starting this project, but we all got hooked as soon as we started listening. I grew up in the 90s and this felt like a hit of nostalgia, but at the same time something fresh and new I hadn’t heard before.
Why did you pick "Fire Tonight" specifically as the inspiration for making a game?
Rajen: I've always loved narrative songs, songs that tell a complete story. Knowing the lyrics to Fire Tonight told a good story, we had a roadmap of the progression of the game and the little details we could put in. Since the song is from 1990, it meant we could set the game in 1990 and have references to 80's and 90's things we loved back then. Also, who makes games based on song lyrics? This would be a cool thing to do.
Is there a story behind the song "Fire Tonight"?
Kurt: Not a real-life story, no, but... This is one of the songs for which Paul [Robb, co-founder] wrote and recorded the music tracks, and then gave it to me for lyrics and melody. The lyrics are a story-portrait of that oft-repeated vehicle for love stories: separation due to events beyond one's control. War and disaster are the usual themes; this one is civil unrest.
As in the game, the idea is that someone is expressing their anxiety and longing as they find they can't communicate or get to their loved one due to fires and general upheaval in a city. In the game, the protagonist decides to try to do something about it; to see if they can take the risk and get to the other person.
What was it like to find out that your music from decades ago had inspired a game?
Kurt: It was fun! I work in the games industry myself, doing music and sound effects for games, starting in 1994. However, that closeness to the process of game development may have blunted my excitement, to some extent. When Rajen wrote me about their project, I kinda felt like it was another game-design-prototyping meeting, heh...
But yeah, it was great and really fun to see other people doing their own creative work, and echoing back a few of the things we've done. I love that. I did the theme song for Soul Reaver 1, a song which was also on our album 'Don't Be Afraid', and now there are a bunch of YouTube videos of people playing their own covers of the song; that is really really enjoyable. Love it.
Would you like to make more games based on songs? Which ones inspire you?
Rajen: I'd love to! I've been thinking a lot about Gary Numan's early work and using some of the themes of his songs as inspiration for game experiences. For example, his song "Are 'Friends' Electric?" seems like it could be a good loose base for a game dealing with restoring power, if I wanted to create an eco-conscious game about green energy or our reliance on tech.
Granted, these early ideas aren't really related to the actual meaning of the song, but it's fun to think of lyrics in songs you love and how it might take shape in some kind of playable experience. Also, I'm not sure many people know this, but Way Down Deep's game Some Distant Memory was named after a song by the band Electronic. The game doesn't really have anything to do with the lyrics of that song, but it's my favorite song by Electronic and the name seemed to fit well. I often try to name Way Down Deep games after songs I like.
Simon: Definitely! I haven’t heard of many games that are based on music like this, but a song just offers so much inspiration for pacing, style and story. Game development can get very complex with a lot of moving parts, so it’s really helpful to be able to refer back to a piece of music as an anchor for all the other elements.
Many thanks to Simon, Rajen and Kurt for speaking with us. Fire Tonight is available now on Switch eShop — you can check out our review of the game, and be sure to peruse the other Nintendo Life VGM Fest articles in our season of music-focused interviews and features.