By David Federman
As a form of interactive new media art, video games in general represent a significant expansion in the world of digital entertainment. Over the past decade, while the study of computer and video games has become a burgeoning field for international scholarship, its music has concurrently grown into a recognized and celebrated repertoire in its own right. Although regarded with derision during its formative years, particularly in North America, its demonstrable connection to tradition, popularity, innovation, and flexibility as a musical genre suggests the emergence of video game music as a mainstream unto itself. Although video game music design is meant to enhance the immersive experience of gameplay, by examining it in terms of its historical, cultural, and social contexts, it is apparent that the music transcends the realm of the game-world into the common cultural repertoire.
Western Traditions, Eastern Synthesis
Although American arcade games started to incorporate digital background music in 1983, it was the Nintendo Family Computer, or Famicom, which introduced a sound design incorporating professionally composed scoring for the entirety of the Super Mario Bros. video game in 1985. Kōji Kondō’s composition provided appropriate ambient music to establish the mood of each segment of the game, as described by Matthew Belinkie: “When Mario was in the bright outdoors, the music was upbeat and chipper. When he was underground, the music was ominous bass riffs played in what felt like free time. In the enemy’s castle, the music was frenetic, dissonant 16th note runs up and down over a slow bass line” (Belinkie 1999). Working within the technical limitations of the hardware, “one sine, one noise, and two pulse-wave voices, with one voice channel of 7-bit delta-modulated sample playback,” Kondō developed original music that recalled the style and techniques of vaudeville and early cartoon music. This method, where “the music provides a synchronized, aural imitation of what is happening on the screen” is the technique known as “Mickey Mousing,” (Whalen 2004, Belinkie 1999). The similarities between early animation and video games are especially strong. When animation is synchronized with sound effects and music, the exaggerated effect results in a more credible, lifelike sequence than would otherwise occur (Whalen 2004). After all, we always “boing” when we jump, whistle when we fall, or go “bling!” when we pick up something shiny.
In 1986, Kōichi Sugiyama, an experienced orchestral composer, made his video game debut with the score to the inaugural Dragon Quest game. In the same year, he would set an additional milestone, the first of many orchestral recordings of video game music with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and begin holding public concerts featuring video game music in 1987 (Belinkie 1999). One year after Dragon Quest, a role-playing game by the name of Final Fantasy, “so called because it was the last game the company had money to make,” made its appearance with a memorable score by Nobuo Uematsu, whose work was directly influenced by that of Sugiyama to compose in the Western classical idiom (Belinkie 1999). Although this practice had only been present in Japan since the turn of the twentieth century, these Japanese composers remain notable for their adroit emulation of European-style orchestral music.
The conventions that these Japanese composers were establishing were strongly rooted in nineteenth-century programmatic music and reinforced by the twentieth-century stream of symphonic film score. These video game composers were doubtlessly influenced by contemporary culture; with the Wagnerian impulse in Star Wars, beginning in 1977, video game music was coming of age in the shadow of the Hollywood resurgence of epic, programmatic music, the likes of which characterized classical cinema: dramatic, adaptive scoring based on nineteenth-century orchestral music, with a primarily extra-diegetic role (Donnelly 2001). This film model was particularly well suited to adaptation for video games because of several pertinent elements, as enumerated by film studies professor Katheryn Kalinak (1992):
The use of music to sustain unity; a high degree of correspondence between narrative content and musical accompaniment; the use of music in the creation of mood, emotion, and character; the privileging of music in moments of spectacle; a dependence on expressive melody and the use of leitmotifs; and the careful placement of music in relation to the dialogue.
The understanding that our culture collectively ascribes to “musical meanings” depends largely on our experience with cinema (Frith 1986). Composer George Antheil compares film score to radio, insofar as it “is very nearly a public communication” which causes one’s “musical tastes [to] become molded by these scores, heard without knowing it. You see love, and you hear it. Simultaneously. It makes sense” (Frith 1986). Film studies professor Claudia Gorbman presents three categories of musical codes: “pure,” “cultural,” and “cinematic” (Frith 1986). Professor Simon Frith, in defining the origin of these emotional codes, states that “to have meaning, emotions must be shaped, and this is as much a public as a private process, one in which music (and music making) seems central” (Frith 1986). For instance, the compilation of cue sheets for use in the accompaniment of silent films, as pioneered by Max Winkler, undoubtedly served to create bonds between classical music and certain emotions or situations, ingraining the associations between theme and circumstance into the common cultural consciousness (Frith 1986).
Nineteenth-century orchestral representations of a fantastic vision of a Medieval environment, as represented by Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz and Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, and even Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” to a certain extent, have engendered a cultural trope that eschews most vestiges of historical accuracy. That is to say, it has become a cliché that the sound of a folk-inspired, faux-Medieval realm, replete with joyful peasants, stalwart heroes, and supernatural elements is that of a lush, full orchestra with a sumptuous harmonic vocabulary. In the case of modern film and video game scores composed in a similar vein, the orchestral backdrop may be highlighted with a smattering of period or ethnic instruments appropriate to the reality of the setting. However, none go so far as to completely divorce the nineteenth-century impulse. This indeed raises the question of whether this is appropriate to the genre, but perhaps can be considered appropriate because we have become culturally conditioned to accept it as such.
In the example of creating a fictitious realm, the onus is on the composer, in conjunction with the director or game designer, to determine an appropriate sound design. Chance Thomas, in composing his original themes for the Lord of the Rings video games, including the Lord of the Rings Online role-playing game, created a Tolkien Music Style Guide in order to assist his co-composers for the multi-game series, delineating “harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic guidelines inferred from references in the text”. Instrumentation as well was included in this guide, leading to the inclusion of “antique acoustic instruments” in the score in an attempt to preserve a “higher degree of authenticity” (Thomas 2003). Nonetheless, the period instruments are still supported by a modern orchestra. While the quest for authenticity and resultant instrumentation are not without merit, the score preserves instead the effect of mixing historicism with romanticism.
Although video game music can claim its musicological heritage from the Western Romantic tradition of nineteenth-century programmatic and theatrical music, Eric Gwynn of the Chicago Tribune observes that “while video games can have operatic themes, opera is created for spectators; video games require participation” (Gwynn 2005). Indeed, this perception holds true, as the video game, much like film, is used as a vehicle for drama, but is admittedly challenged when the video game happens to feature an original opera occupying some twenty minutes of gameplay. The game in question is Final Fantasy VI, notable for its ambitious score; the opera is “The Dream Oath”, in which the player is suddenly cast as a last-minute replacement for the star. The result is an immersive experience that sets new expectations for interactive music.
This episode initially appears to be designed as a cut-scene, granting the player the opportunity to enjoy the performance as a spectator, alongside the in-game audience. The player is then prompted to review the libretto to prepare for the challenge of performing “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” – itself a noteworthy emulation of Italian opera of the 1830s – by selecting the correct lyrics at the appropriate moment and following simple stage directions. Later, a staged combat scene ensues with its own diegetic music. Concurrently, the protagonists scramble up to the flies to avert disaster against a real, recurring villain; in the subsequent battle sequences, the expected non-diegetic combat music is replaced by that supplied by the in-game pit orchestra. When the lead, portrayed by one of the player’s characters, is kidnapped, the orchestra suddenly plays the theme of the kidnapper as diegetic music in a humorous, albeit slightly meta-game moment; the soundtrack customarily privileges the main characters by playing their respective themes or motifs at key moments. This entire sequence blurs the boundaries of the diegesis, masterfully immersing the player as the characters themselves assume roles in the in-game operatic production.
Illusions of Grandeur
“The notion that a game is a complete cultural artifact, a gesamtkunstwerk… in that its music, sound, performances, and visual style are all part of the experience has yet to be seen” (Bridgett 2005). Sound director Rob Bridgett suggests that this may result from the fact that “the very interactivity of a video game encourages a variety of individual playing styles, problem solving techniques, tastes, and is in direct contradiction to the experiencing of a story being told in ‘one way’” (Bridgett 2005). The player, assuming the role of a character within the diegesis of the game-world, is a participant in an exercise in interactive storytelling. With the overall experience itself being an integral component of the game design, there is an interdependent relationship between the game designer and the audience.
Interactivity can be linked to the concept of non-linearity. In a ‘non-linear’ game, the plot is characterized by a series of chronological events in which the outcome is not necessarily guaranteed; some degree of input is required on the part of the player in order to progress the storyline toward a particular outcome. In reality, however, according to Professor Torben Grodal (2003), “because a given effect cannot have an unlimited amount of different causes, there can only be a limited amount of such causally-motivated crossing paths.” As a result, “complex hypertext-like networks do not afford those narrative actions well that rely on causality, a certain time direction, and some irreversibility” (Grodal 2003). Since the number of logical options in a video game is nominally dependent on that which pertains to the overall storyline, “‘interactive storytelling’ becomes a matter of providing that authorship while giving a player the illusion of choice” (Herz 1997). A fundamental role of video game music is to enhance that illusion.
One approach that supports the gameplay in this regard is to adapt the soundtrack to reflect the choices made by the player within the context of the interactive narrative. According to Clint Bajakian, a composer for LucasArts, the concept of adaptability within the score is a “key difference between scoring for linear media versus interactive media” (McLaughlan 2005). He explains that “rather than an edifice that unfolds in linear time, music is more of a set of segments or ideas that are assembled in real-time in response to the in-game dramatic twists and turns, yet unfolds smoothly as though composed that way from the start” (McLaughlan 2005). In the Neverwinter Nights role-playing game, for example, Jeremy Soule’s score features sudden changes of state: as the hero’s journey through a given area is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of enemies, so too is the ambient background music by a combat theme. The effectiveness of such a jarring transition is dependent on the timing. The combat music is programmed to end, complete with a final cadence, within a few seconds of the final threat in a given encounter being neutralized. This is done primarily for practical reasons: the cadence is tied to a certain in-game mechanic that signals the end of the battle and reopens exclusively non-combat options for the player, but it is done so musically, occurring at the end of a phrase, demonstrating the adaptability of the music (Clark 2001). This model was also notably employed in the soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption, with music cues triggered to respond to the presence of certain in-game events. The idea of modular composition, featuring “‘cells’ of music a few bars long that are then algorithmically combined into longer episodes by the processing engine” recalls techniques of the twentieth-century avant-garde composers, such as Boulez and Lutosławski, who experimented with non-linear composition (Bessell 2002, Poole 2000).
One goal of video games, in general, is not only to create a reactive environment for the player, but to provide an immersive experience as well. Professor Janet Murray explains that when making the transition into a fictional realm, “[we] do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (Perron 2003). Whalen explains that: “immersion is the act of relying on learned behavioral scripts at a level of instinct – being ‘in the moment’ without having to be aware of what it takes to be in the moment” (Whalen 2004). The challenge surrounding music in video games, then, is that as an integral part of the narrative structure, it has a duty to contribute to the promotion of the immersive environment while avoiding detracting from it.
There are many methods of attempting this goal, the oldest of which being a constant loop of ambient background music that changes depending on the area being explored, a precedent established by Kondō in his scores for Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and The Legend of Zelda in 1986. As this has become a mainstay of the genre, composer and sound designer Scott Morton adopts an air of derision when considering that such practices are still in common use today. He echoes the notion that the less saturated a game is with music, the more effective its selective use becomes. While others postulate that the repetition of a theme draws the participant into a “lull of immersion” that can be broken by a “motivational device” such as a sudden increase in tempo, Morton suggests that the repetition of a theme only breaks the illusion of the immersive environment. He says, “Not only have you eliminated the emotional effectiveness of the music by generalizing it and not applying it to a context, but by looping it over and over, you’ve completely detached the player from even registering it altogether” (Morton 2005, Whalen 2004). With the advancements made in digital audio technology, sound designers can now make better use of the effects of environmental audio. Designers, in conjunction with the score, in order to sculpt a more immersive sonic background that mirrors the actions of the player – even if, at times, it requires the absence of music to enhance the emotional impact of the next musical moment.
When the conditioned expectation of musical saturation is challenged, the score elicits a mixed reaction (Bessell 2002). In the soundtrack for the Tomb Raider series, for example, orchestral cues are reserved for moments of intensity and substantial portions of the game are carried by sound effects alone. Whereas composer David Bessell finds that this technique of sparse scoring “leaves the game rather bare musically speaking and bereft of the potential for [the] heightened emotional impact that Hollywood has long exploited,” video game analyst Steven Poole lauds it as contributing to producing the “best video game scores” by evoking a sudden emotional response (Poole 2000). Although “music’s appearance is much rarer than it is in your average film, when the speakers burst into a fast cello motif or a clatter of electronic percussion, you know that something exciting is going to happen” (Poole 2000). Regardless of the effect on the participants, the choice of a given sound design depends on the overall desired effect and the perceived appropriateness to the genre.
As twenty-five years have elapsed since the genre of video game music began to emerge as a repertoire of its own, prospective directions for its continued development have yet to be explored, substantiated by both its own growth and its relation to other cultural phenomena. Far from being merely a commodity, there is a distinct impulse within the game industry to regard its product as having merit as an art form. This is analogous to the scenario faced in the early days of cinema; Henry Jenkins reminds us that in much the same way in which “contemporary critics dismiss games,” cinema once aroused suspicion with its “commercial motivations and technological origins” and raised concern regarding its “appeals to violence and eroticism” (Jenkins 2005). To that end, Bridgett observes that “game sound and… video games in general” are adopting a “Hollywood action genre model, both in terms of content and marketing,” whereas Morton urges game composers to begin “breaking out of old traditions and comfort zones” and distance themselves from merely imitating the programmatic impulse borrowed from film (Bridgett 2011, Morton 2005). Alexander Brandon suggests that technology affords composers the opportunity to explore innovative instrumentation and incorporate licensed music, while Rob Ross asserts that the video game industry “[owes] it to our audience and ourselves to move in [the] direction” of the “exciting frontier” of improved interactive audio (Brandon 2004, Ross 2001).
Video game music exerts an influence upon popular culture that extends beyond its immediate audience and function. Borrowing cultural capital from Western classical theatre and cinema, the Japanese composers who pioneered complete underscores for their video games have ultimately repaid Western popular culture with interest. Distinct from film, however, fame composers face the challenge of providing music to a nominally non-linear storyline that aims to adapt to the interaction of the player while maintaining the illusion of immersion. As the video game industry continues to gain momentum in its contributions to contemporary culture, its music will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the cultural lexicon of the twenty-first century.
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David Federman is a graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music with honours standing, where he majored in music history and theory and minored in East Asian studies, often finding opportunities to combine the two fields of study in his research. His independent studies have included the historical, cultural, and social contexts of video game music and the influence of Western music on Japan and China during the period of modernization. He has a professional interest in conducting and composition, particularly in the fields of video game and film scores.