Nagi, a Surreal Auditory Experience Rooted in Video Games and Reconstruction


The concept of ‘gamification’, the application of game-playing elements to other activities, is a curious one. Whilst not strictly emerging conceptually from video games – rather, based primarily on the concept of a ‘game’ itself – it becomes easy for those with a significant investment in video games to eventually draw parallels between virtual actions and those in everyday life.

However, one core notion fundamental to both video games and entertainment as a whole that lacks accessibility through gamification is the presence of an auditory component to accompany visual perception – in other words, there’s no background music in real life. Nagi, an application created by Takayuki Nakamura, seeks to rectify this somewhat with an experimental, science-based premise of turning the sound around us, good or bad, into calming ambience perfect for relaxation.

Nakamura is a veteran when it comes to composing for video games, with the soundtracks of titles such as Virtua FighterLumines and most recently the upcoming Birthdays: The Beginning credited to his name. A lot of his past work is distinctly more lively than the soothing sounds created by Nagi, no doubt a direct result of a significant difference in purpose; created in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Nagi takes in all surrounding sound detected through a microphone and gradually phases it into peaceful waves (known as ‘nagi’ in Japanese, giving the software its title), with the intention being to serve as a unique auditory approach to helping victims of the disaster to recover a sense of tranquillity they may have lost. 

I stumbled across Nagi on an episode of 8-4 Play, a podcast from Tokyo-based game localisation company 8-4 that offers some fascinating insight into the Japanese games industry. The episode in question, released in 2011, was recorded at a special charity event held by Grasshopper Manufacture following the earthquake. During the recording the 8-4 team are approached by game designer Kazutoshi Iida, whose most notable works include Aquanaut’s Holiday and Doshin the Giant. Iida is credited as assisting with Nagi‘s creation and thus took the time to promote its release – not an easy feat, considering its abstract nature. Curious to try and make sense of exactly what Nagi was and how it went about fulfilling its seemingly lofty yet undeniably human intentions, I tried it for myself. You can hear a small sample of its output in the video linked above.

Nagi works, without a doubt. No matter how loud your surroundings might be, everything picked up by your microphone will eventually be absorbed into a relentless yet serene murmur. The sounds Nagi makes are ambient and experimental – an electronic vibe throughout brings to mind the parts of the deep space echoes of satellite radio company St.GIGA‘s ‘Tide of Sound‘ programs (St.GIGA are perhaps better known for putting their satellite broadcasting technology to use as the basis for Nintendo’s Super Famicom Satellaview system from 1995 to 2000). Nagi is equally smooth and atmospheric, yet perhaps taking a more warming approach where other artificial ambient sound would tend to opt towards an emphasis on emptiness with eerie, engulfing drones.

Whilst Nagi has a tendency to retain a certain inorganic feeling that the ambient genre may conjure up at times, the very nature of how it creates sound means that it’s quite the opposite. The way in which the software adapts from the world around you and attempts to introduce a sense of consistency in its calmness makes comparisons to the concept of ‘gamification’ more apparent, in spite of it being a potential stretch to describe its functionality as ‘gameplay’ – however, to return to the earlier point, it essentially can be seen to craft soothing background music in real-time, based entirely on the user’s environment and surroundings. Perhaps this association is one brought about simply by a personal connection between Nagi‘s creator and his video game legacy.

What has become of Nagi since its release, six years ago as of next month? Nakamura himself released a two track EP featuring sound created in both Nagi and its follow-up, Nagi #2, in 2013. The program even inspired a t-shirt design. Some time has passed since the incident that shook Japan and inspired the software’s creation took place – whilst we can hope that it fulfilled the positive purpose set out for it by Nakamura and everyone else involved, for now perhaps the best thing to do is to try Nagfor yourself, to see if it can bring a little more tranquility to your day. It might not work for everyone on an auditory level, but the concept, intentions and story behind its creation and creator are all worth noting.

To put it in the words of Nagi‘s web page – take your time, sit back, and play it easy.

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