What is video game music? A question with a fairly obvious answer you might think, and rightly so. It is any music written for use in a video game, so why did I ask it? Because I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, as complete and correct as it is. The suggestion that the only common factor any two game music soundtracks have is something external to the music itself seemed absurd. It doesn’t tell me why I like game music; it doesn’t tell me what it is that sets it apart from other music; it doesn’t even help provide a suitable collective term for game music (‘genre’ is unquestionably inappropriate). Classical and popular music are vague terms in themselves but they have distinct essences that make them easily identifiable even if in practice these genres can be very indistinct round the edges. The question leaves a musically enigmatic but undoubtedly accurate conclusion that disillusioned me for a while.
Thankfully I had an epiphany that slowly began to make the frustratingly murky water at least a little clearer for me. The loop! A device that has gone criminally overlooked in the game music appreciation community. It is the missing link that was right under my nose. A musical device that seemed to come as part of the package with the first game music and the fact that the gamer has ultimate control over events compelled it to be invented. It satisfied the need for pieces of music to match the length of time a gamer spent in a location or battle which could be anything from ten seconds to several hours. Without it there would be no game music.
But wait! Not all game music loops! It can’t be a satisfactory way of defining game music.
Well what else is there? If you remove all tracks that loop (or were designed to loop in game) what are we left with? Cinematic tracks, which are essentially movie music at heart, and tracks from soundtracks such as SimCity, Animal Crossing, and Echochrome. The former are easily dealt with; their origin is from movie soundtracks and they are used as such in game. The latter are a bit trickier to put in a box but do form their own sub-category. In game they are used almost like a randomized playlist where there is no definite track order. I like to think of it as the radio in the car whilst driving and perhaps has its origins in muzak and sometimes even automatic music generation software. An effective alternative to the loop due to the fact that, in these sorts of games, the user spends long periods of time in the same area so the same piece repeated over and over would get very irritating. So there are at least categories within game music — looped, cinematic, and semi-adaptive. I reckon that covers all bases although please discuss at the forum if you feel I have left any gaping holes in my coverage. I would like to put forward that distinctive game music is the looped kind rather than the other two considering the structures of those are garnered from other musical disciplines.
I would like now to investigate how composers use loops and make their pieces flow logically in this circular format. As examples I will use some of Nobuo Uematsu’s battle themes from his soundtrack to Final Fantasy VIII due to the fact I feel they show some of the best examples of loops in action.
Starting with the main boss battle theme “Force Your Way”, a phenomenally energetic track that bounces from idea to idea with a peculiarly natural flow, Uematsu uses the catchy and distinctive opening organ motif to good use in his loop. He subtly slips it in amongst the main melodic line as the track modulates back towards the starting key after its many meanderings. It reduces the shock of the return to the spiky chords from the lyrical section that directly precedes the loop and also gives the feeling that the motif is slowly rising from underneath all the chaotic movements rather than just being dropped senselessly. The fact that the organ maintains an almost constant presence in the track also makes this shift easier to execute. “Maybe I’m a Lion” uses a similar technique but uses the opening percussion section before the loop; the percussion quickly switches from the fast-paced drum kit back to the original tribal ensemble while keeping the melody going over the top in order to make the loop seamless.
In “Premonition” we have an added bonus of a brief introduction in order to provide more material with which to make an effective loop. The main melody of the introduction is referenced at a faster pace in line with the tempo of the main body of the track followed by the loss of the accompanying hemiola rhythmic motif. This sudden drop mimics the opening’s lack of a percussion undercurrent as well as providing suitable drama. The same method of referencing the introduction is used in “The Extreme” where the piano melody is played after the release of tension in the previous bars guiding the track back to its starting point. By using distinctive fragments of the openings Uematsu allows the tracks to flow naturally back to the start without making it obvious.
However loops can be more subtle than the ones shown above. I have struggled to find exactly what it is that makes the loop in “The Legendary Beast” so effective but I believe there are few small devices that Uematsu uses to make the impending arrival of the loop dramatic. First there is the mirroring of the main melody by slipping in a descending motif as the piece nears the loop which reflects the ascending nature of the main theme. Then there is a little harmonic suggestion by allowing the final descents to land on A, which is the home key of the opening, but then it recoils back to the B which is the principal key of the descent. They may be nothing but seem to make sense to me at least.
Though the loop makes game music distinctive, it introduces some consequent pitfalls when enjoying game music. One fairly obvious point is that, if a track goes round in circles, it can’t go anywhere overall. It is true that the loop makes tracks unable to tell particular stories due to the fact that they always end up back where they started. A game music soundtrack is more of a collection of snapshots compiled to make a story for which we fill in the gaps. This is not necessarily a negative quality. I decided that game music should be appreciated more like a painting than a song. Most pieces have distinct beginnings and ends with structures to enable logical progression in between. However, game music does not necessarily. It is essentially static music and the development of a track can be likened to moving your eyes to different areas of a painting in order to appreciate the whole message the painting presents. This seems sensible as the music is inextricably tied to the graphics in order to set a mood for a particular scene or location.
But if the music and graphics are inextricably tied can we truly appreciate one without the other? I think not. Perhaps it is true that you need to have played the game first in order to appreciate some tracks. I came across this particular problem when reviewing the ICO soundtrack. On its own it is very dull consisting almost entirely of very minimalist ambiance but, partnered with the game, it creates an atmosphere so magnificent it felt wrong to give the soundtrack such a low score. However, all is not bad. As a consequence of the music being almost like a painting, it is one of the most satisfying spheres of music for creating images and feelings as well as setting specific moods. The sheer variety of game music, which was a bit of a stumbling block when it came to putting it in a box, means that there is a whole wealth of different images, feeling, and moods out there to be appreciated. There’s plenty of it, so get stuck in! I still haven’t settled on a suitable collective term for game music, but oh well… we can’t have everything. Maybe something for the next editorial!
Posted on January 20, 2011 by James Timperley. Last modified on March 11, 2014.