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!

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