Friday, 22 May 2015

Themes in Video Game Music

Let me tell you a little story. In summer 2013, a friend of mine and me were driving from Heidelberg to Cologne, to follow our duty as conference associates at GDCE. During the trip, we listened through the whole No More Heroes soundtrack on three CDs. While at first, the vibe of the music enriched our travel, when disc 2 was running, the No More Heroes theme had already been burnt into our brains. And after disc 3, we desperately tried to get the theme out of our heads again, as it is built into almost all of the tracks.

I know that No More Heroes is not the only example than can be brought up here. Especially in Japanese video games, thematic music seems to be a more common practice. I remember a friend cirticising Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack for sewing the theme music into practically every piece of music in the game, so he couldn't get it out of his head again. (I haven't played any of the FF games myself, so I can't judge here.) However, with western video game music, I have the feeling, that the exact opposite is the case. Especially in the AAA-industry, atmospheric and often rhythm centered backgroud music with very little thematic connection seems to be the current standard. But also Indie games, even those which were praised for their music, like say Hotline Miami, have good music, but little to no thematical connection except maybe for the musical genre.

I don't want to say that this 'newer' wave of music, which is also prominent in film music has no aesthetic value. I just sometimes miss the days when video games' soundtracks had some recognizable theme that connected the piece as a whole, to also bring an acoustic recognition value to all the stages and phases of the game or even connect games through installment of a franchise. But wait! Didn't I just state above, that I am among those persons, who get fed up with a certain musical theme in a game, when it plays too often? Well, yes, I did. So, what does that mean? Simply put, there seem to be differences between how themes in game soundtracks can be used. I want to address a few and what I think makes good and not so good usage of themes.

Before we dig deeper into the understanding, let's clear up what's a theme anyway? The term "theme" in musical context describes a musical thought that is recognizable through its melody and/or rhythm. There were some differences what a theme is and where it appears throughout music history and how it differs from the much smaller motif, but we will stick with that definition for now, as it is perfectly enough for what I want to explain here.

Since I love bringing up my gaming experiences from my childhood, here - provided you can read music - is a theme that accompanied me for a long time and serves as a good example:

Theme to both Wario Land and Wario Land 2
Music by Ryoji Yoshitomi and Kozue Ishikawa

Mario games are very good examples for usage of themes and variation. Looking only at the GameBoy installments, what started with Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was continued in Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. I chose the Wario Land theme for never getting on my nerves despite being present in not one, but two follow up titles. In the very first stage of Wario Land, you will hear the most true form of the theme seen above (I simplified it even more). As seen, it has the most typical characteristics of a theme, i.e. consisting of eight bars, which can be split up into 4+4, and can then be further split up into (2+2)+(2+2) as motives being a-b-a'-c. The good thing about such a simplistic theme is, that there are many possibilities for variation in melody, harmony and rhythm. And that's exactly, what was done throughout the first two installments of the Wario Land series (not counting the Virtual Boy here).

Even though, I played both of the games to death and got 100% in both of them - yes, I had the planet in Wario Land and beaten the time attack level in Wario Land II - I don't remember the music as annoying. Quite the opposite! I dare to say, that Wario Lands' soundtracks influenced me in my work as a composer myself. Another thing which I find noteworthy is how well their music kept the connection of the games, while the graphical style didn't. When I picked up Wario Land II I found the graphics to look kind of odd, especially since I was used to the style of its predecessor. However, hearing the familiar theme through the speaker of my GameBoy Pocket, the graphical strangeness was soon overcome and I found myself back in the game universe I lover again. If you have some free time, I invite you to listen to some of the tracks of Wario Land or Wario Land II and appreciate their music.

Theme to No More Heroes by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda

Now, looking - and listening - to our negative example No More Heroes, the problem seems to be the theme, whenever it is played, having little to no variation in melody or rhythm. That way a specific sequence of notes will get burned into your ears until you don't want to hear it any longer. Or, visually speaking, the sheet music of the Wario Land theme up there looks vastly different through the game while No More Heroes's will not change much. Fortunately, in game the theme is not played in between passages where it is not present in the music at all. It even got carried over to No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle.

That is to say, themes can help the acoustic appearance of video games a lot and shape it into a coherent experience. However it should not be overdone and enough variation should be integrated into the recurring themes. I am a huge fan of the leitmotif especially, where a musical theme or thought is connected to a certain person or place, especially if done over the course of many games, like the King Dedede Battle theme in the Kirby franchise, or Frank Klepacki's No Mercy, which represented Kane (until Tiberium Wars messed the music up). We are beings that easily attach emotions to music or any acoustic stimuli, so, dear developers, use this knowledge wisely. Did I mention, that I almost cried in nostalgasm when I heard the music of Yuga Ganon in A Link Between Worlds?

However, the more and more themeless music composition, while having their justification, prevents development such an emotional connection throughout a game series. While I am a huge fan of the totally underrated Darksiders series, I couldn't connect these games musically at all. Not that Jesper Kyd wouldn't know how to compose game music, I claim it was practically impossible to tie musical connections to the first Darksiders. So maybe we shouldn't abandon the art of themes in our video game music compositions yet. As I wrote about adaptive music two weeks ago, maybe one could combine the concept of a leitmotif and adaptive soundtrack in an RPG? Imagine fighting with a party and while you switch characters, melody and/or instrumentation of the background music shifts into different, recognizable parts that belong to each character.

Fortunately, especially in the indie world, thematic composition is still a thing. This is why next time, I will take a look at one of the, in my humble opinion, most outstanding indie game soundtracks of the past years. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

I Am the Only Person in the World Who Holds the Controller This Way

Now, this post is a funny one but I want to express my wonders why nobody else does this. Let's have a look at this:

I'm the bloke to the left, chilling on the bed.

The - horrendously nerdy - photograph above was taken in March 2010, when I met some online friends to have a good time and play video games. We were all in our late teens or early 20s. While my hair and sense for clothing has changed quite a bit by now, one thing remained the same: The way I hold the controller.

Just look at my excited expression!

Now, why would I dedicate a blog entry to this matter? One of the most obvious reasons is: Because I haven't met anybody else - except for one person - who holds their controller like that. This wouldn't surprise me at all, if it were a very uncomfortable way. Yet, I honestly see more good than bad in it. It's like everybody assumes, you hold the controller the exact same way as them and as such you can complain about controls, which might feel uncomfortable for this, standardized holding. Like here: that there were more than two different kinds of monster per realm and if It didn't have to hold down the left trigger to target things and press the left shoulder button to cast magic because trying to press both those buttons at the same time is a manoeuvre not terribly considerate of the average number of fingers on a hand. So you can either leave yourself at the mercy of a camera system that would have you eternally menace the area slightly to the left of the guy you're trying to hit or you staple a chipolata to your index finger. (Croshaw 2012)

You do realize, that you have a middle finger, Yahtzee, don't you? Well, I didn't have that problem when playing Darksiders 2.

Having been a Nintendoboy in my youth, I started using this "technique", when I got a Gamecube. This was my first console, where the controller had more than one shoulder button. On one side at least. And yes, my left index finger didn't even rest on a button, as I held it symmetrical. This wasn't at all a conscious decision, it just kind of happened and felt natural to me. One possible explanation I can come up with is that I got lazy, switching the finger over from R to Z all the time and hence decided to just rest fingers on both buttons permanently. This carried over to the Nunchuck controller of the Wii, and eventual other, non-Nintendo controllers.

Until now, I didn't encounter a single problem deriving from this habit. Quite the opposite! My right index finger is now in reach for some occasional usage I have for it, like when my thumb is using the right stick for the camera, but I need to press a face button. This is, in fact, a technique I ironically learned while playing Darksiders. I simply let my index finger slide down and use it to press the required button. Feels a bit strange at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Or, my thumb has to hold down one of the face buttons, but I want to adjust the camera without stopping to walk. In this case, the right index finger comes down again, crosses the thumb and moves the right stick. Feels very strange at first, but eventually I got used to this, as well.

Of course, these are exceptional cases but it got me thinking: "Are our current controllers the end of the evolution of controllers?" Not being in total control of all the available buttons in any combination you could wish to make doesn't sound like absolutely flawless to me. In fact, game developers even have to adapt to game controller holding habits just so players don't have to bend their fingers awkwardly in their game. And don't get me started on disabled players, who lost a finger or more or were born with deformed hands! Maybe we got stuck into this design for a way too long time. I mean, it hasn't changed very much since the original DualShock. A d-pad left, a control stick on each side, four face buttons right, two shoulder buttons, whereas the one behind is analogue. I am not a designer, but I assume this design can be optimized in a lot of ways we haven't even thought about yet. The closest thing to a current generation revamp attempt resembles the Steam controller, but that has was changed back to a more conventional design last year. According to the photographs, I should be able to continue my holding habit there without any trouble though.

In the end, the only disadvantage I see, is that it feels even less authentic to pull a trigger of a virtual gun with the controller, whereas I always use keyboard and mouse for fps controls anyway. Otherwise, I feel more comfortable to have more control over the controller (as you should have, because it's called a controller) which might derive from my existence as an instrumentalist. I mean, flutists for example use almost all of their fingers for buttons and they don't complain, right?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Music Games and the Future of Adaptive Soundtracks
Bonus: 140 Giveaway

Video game soundtracks aren't what they used to be. Oh, you have heard this before? Probably not the way I mean it. Which is - mostly - in a good way. What I am referring to are the technical advances that have come up and that are going to keep coming. They have been used in very unique and creative ways so far, when I think of what is probably going to come, I get pretty excited.

I don't want to go too deeply into game studies here, but I have to explain a few things to clarify which properties make a good game soundtrack to me. Just awesome music isn't enough. Due to the ergodic nature of video games, their music must be produced with way different parameters in mind than, say, a movie soundtrack. The game ultimately doesn't happen on the screen, but in the consciousness of the player. As such, the music plays a crucial role, adjusting and enhancing, sometimes even complementing the experience. Game music should not just support what is on screen, but also tell the player what is not (yet) on the screen.

For example,  in Super Mario World's soundtrack by Koji Kondo, there exists this athletic theme. I played this game a lot as a kid, together with my older sister, and I remember, quite clearly, whenever we entered a new level and I heard this tune in the background, I immediately knew "Oh no, this is going to have a lot of precise jumping and I will probably die a lot." I didn't realize at the time, that my brain had connected the tune with actual, well, athletic stages. SMW is actually a good example for what I am going to be talking about here, as it is also the earliest game I remember, that had an adaptive soundtrack. While very rudimentary, whenever you rode Yoshi, the music seamlessly switched to a version, that had bongos in it (you can hear them come in at about 1:13 in the youtube video, I linked above). I am under the impression, that Nintendo in general has been one of the most important innovators regarding adaptive soundtracks. For further information about, what exactly adaptive (or sometimes interactive) soundtrack means, you can check out this video by Mark Brown, it does a great summary.

Adaptive soundtracks are common practice now, and I think that's a good thing. While it makes the tracks harder to listen to outside of the game, the overall game experience is greatly supported. It also brings new challenges for composers to solve creatively. One set of games constantly tries to bring new music mechanics into their gameplay, and these are obviously music games. First of all, what is a music game? Very vaguely, it is a game that uses music as some kind of mechanic in its gameplay. (I have a steam curator page up, where I recommend such games, both good and bad.) My own categories will differ a bit from the wikipedia page. Very roughly, many games are autoscrollers of some sorts, where certain movements have to be placed on certain beats. These include games like Audiosurf, where you import your own mp3s, Bit.Trip Runner or even rhythm games, like Dance Dance Revolution. Even the music levels in Rayman Legends can be sorted into this category.

Then, there's different games, where your movements aren't restricted by the music, but you are part of a much larger, acoustic world and have a direct influence on the sound. Games like this include the very experimental and minimalistic Proteus or the first person puzzler Fract OSC. There's a lot of games "in between", but this quick overview should be enough for where I'm going here. In preparation for this post, I played some Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians and Crypt of the Necrodancer, which I both hadn't really tried until now - shame on me. Both of these games fall in-between, whereas Necrodancer is more of an autoscroller, as it is bound to the length of the tracks. Beatbuddy however, feels more like a normal exploration puzzler, where the background music is an essential part of the level mechanics.

I really enjoy, that more concepts are being tried out, but I have the feeling, that we are not quite there yet. Not for a long time. Look at Beatbuddy for a moment. The games mechanics are fun and interesting, but the whole game feels like it is supposed to only serve this purpose and just so happens to be an exploration game at the same time. The character, enemies and surroundings are designed to represent music in some way or another, which makes it a bit too much for my taste. I don't need to be constantly reminded, that I am playing a game with an interesting music mechanic here. In the addicting Necrodancer and most auto scroller games, it feels the other way round. While I really like the feeling of performing dance moves with a partner (I took many dancing lessons back in the day... good times), the problem remains, that the game can technically be played without sound. The levels of Rayman or Bit.Trip Runner, even worse, while pretending to be music driven and probably developed with the best intentions following this claim, feel more like coincidentally going along the music track. While movement is sort of synced with the music, you can perfectly play these games without sound. Blindfolded, however, is next to impossible, which it shouldn't be.

The game 140 marks the closest thing to a milestone in this regard, in my opinion. If you haven't heard of this game yet, you should quickly watch the official trailer or - if you really want to - this video I made for the 2013 /v/GAs. This game is very dear to me and undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, inspiring music games I played so far. How does it achieve that? Firstly, it hasn't written "MUSIC" or "RHYTHM" all over its content, all the music mechanics are 'just there'. The title only vaguely hints at music with 140 beats per minute as the core element of this game and the surroundings - except for the background, which vaguely resembles a loudness meter - aren't inspired by sinewaves or clefs, but rather abstract geometric shapes. With the almost complete absence of sound effects, the music alone is totally sufficient in setting the right tone. The game is described as creating synesthesia during gameplay and as a synesthetic myself I can confirm, it does a pretty damn good job. Secondly, it is a shining example of a completely textless game. No tutorials, no explanations (except for the unity launcher), just you and the experience. The only criticism I can find is, that the idea and execution bears so much potential, I'm certain, a lot more than just its three levels could have been developed, if money and time had been at hand.

I wonder how long it will take until 140's mechanics will find their place in different games. Don't let the music just react to what's on the screen - let the screen react to what's in the music. Give hints to the player about their surroundings not just through visuals, but auditory clues. It appears to me, music games don't know yet, where their true potential lies (metaphorically speaking) and a few more breakthroughs will have to be achieved. I am convinced, the way will inevitably lead to a mix of current music game mechanics and adaptive soundtracks of 'normal' games. In other words, the music mechanics should be 'just there' and 'just work', not distract from but rather support the gameplay experience. Beatbuddy will play certain patterns in the music and relate them to enemies. But why limit mechanics like this to music games only? A certain instrument indicating the presence of a certain enemy or gameplay situation is a great example for music hinting at what can not be seen yet.

If I ever make a larger video game project, it'd probably be a textless metroidvania with a fully developed audio engine. The music would not only adapt to your location but also to the enemies in your surroundings, hinting at what to expect in your current room. However, I am aware of the amount of work you need to put into and the troubles you encounter while developing games, so this idea will not happen anytime soon.

140 giveaway:

I lately (01.05.2015) got the world record in speedrunning 140 (hurray) and Jeppe Carlsen, the developer was so generous to give me five Steam keys of the game to give away for it. Since it is free code friday, I decided to give it to anyone curious about this game and open for new mechanics in music games. If you're interested in getting a copy, post a comment where you tell me what your favourite music game or minigame is and why, and that you would like a copy. The first five to do so by the end of the month will get their key sent to them. But please don't let this game rot in your backlog, it is way too worth playing and not very long, too.

Update: I wasn't aware there is no possibility of contacting the user who commented directly. If I don't know how to reach you, you can send me a quick message on my Twitter or my Google+. If any living soul is still interested that is.