Saturday, August 18, 2012

Surverying Literature: Zach Wahlen's Play Along-- An Approach to Videogame Music

I'm first and foremost a classically trained, scholarly musician, so the idea of studying anything evokes in me the desire to survey printed literature.  Therefore, as I continue my quest of video game music study, it only makes sense to take note of what's already been written on the subject.  Thus, today I'm introducing a series that will be a staple of this blog: Surveying Literature.  Blogs under this label will follow my study of any printed (and occasionally visual) literature on game music, detailing what I've read and my reaction to it.

I've been perusing scholarly journals for articles on the topic, but sources are limited.  Of course, the modern scholar must scan the internet-- as it's undoubtedly a playground for research.  Perhaps this is even more true in the case of video game music because of the similarities between the internet/computer use and video gaming.  In any case, a google search of "video game music" has a reading list that I'm progressing through.  First on it, Zach Wahlen's article in The International Journal of Computer Game Research, "Play Along--An Approach to Videogame Music."  While this article is particularly scholarly in tone, with an undoubtedly complex lexicon for non-musicians, as well as being lengthy for the casual reader, it's definitely a worthwhile read if you're a nerd about video game music like me!

Though the target audience is not the casual player, Wahlen's article is a good introduction in some ways because it presents presents a formal argument for what to me seems intuitive: the right to compare video game music and film music.  Surely we must, no?  Both involve moving images interplay with music.  That said, video game music possesses unique qualities that make it different from film music, necessitating a different analytical lens... something more to think about.

An interesting point this film music/video game music comparison brings up is a reminder to carry over the distinction found in film music between diegetic and non-diegetic music-- that is, music that only we as audience members are aware of versus music that characters in the game hear.  Similarly, Wahlen also emphasizes a distinction between "sounds" (sound effects) and "music" in video games. 

For me, the most interesting writing is in Wahlen's analyses of different Super Mario Bros and Ocarina of Time video game music and sounds.  These are two games I've played many times and whose soundtracks I can recall on demand.  Here, Wahlen presents his main point: that the aural experience of video games makes them more compelling and helps to draw the player more vividly into them.  He supports this with examples of both music and sounds.  For instance, the mimetics of Super Mario's jump making an octave lower sound when he's large versus the higher octave when he's small Mario.  Or the effect that the "hurry up" music has in the final minute of the level-- a warning siren before the music doubles in tempo-- a sound that can make me feel more anxious just by thinking about it!

In Ocarina of Time, I've felt, but never formed into conscious thought, the effect of hearing the background music playing themes before you learn them on your Ocarina, so that when the game point becomes learning the melody on the Ocarina, "players experience feelings of déjàvu as the melodies they must learn have an eerie familiarity."  On the other hand, even the casual gamer relies on the blatant "danger" music to announce monsters in this game as well as the most recent Zelda game that's still got my arm sore, Skyward Sword.  If I'd played Silent Hill, I'm sure that section would have resonated more with me, but it's not a game I know. 

The bibliography and mentioned authors are people to investigate further.  I've put this info into my reading list and I'll have more on them as I peruse them.