Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Surveying Literature: Thematic Unity Across a Video Game Series (Jason Brame)

For the last week and a bit, I've been travelling all over the eastern US visiting friends and family.  Tomorrow I arrive in Lenox for six weeks of summer teaching. I'm hoping to get into a good routine there that allows me a little time each day for video game music studies, although my schedule is crazy with that work. I'm especially planning to work through various articles and books I've brought along for the summer.  Aaron Marks' book has me enrapt right now.  All this is to say I'm sorry I haven't been able to do daily updates recently, but I've still been working, thinking and talking with others about game music and my game music class, and imagining future blog topics. If only time and energy were infinite!

An article I've been really excited to read is Jason Brame's "Thematic Unity Across a Video Game Series."  My insomniac night gave me the perfect chance last night. Koji Kondo is simply one of the greatest living game composers and will undoubtedly be a historical giant in the field. I love not just the music of the Zelda series, but also the importance music making has during gameplay. In any case, an article that presents a musical analysis of Zelda themes was an incredible find and I've been excited to read this article since I found it a few weeks ago.

Perhaps the best thing about this article is that it presents a serious, musical theoretical, Schenkerian analysis of Zelda themes, particularly the Overworld Themes in several games in the series.  It's interesting to see these themes explored in such a classical method.  While this kind of analysis suffers, in my opinion, when appearing in a printed medium (it works much better as an audio or visual recording where the material can be presented more interactively and most importantly heard), for the classically trained musician, this paper is familiar, comfortable, and easily understood.  Bravo to Jason for treating this music in such an esteemed, classical way with no apologies! It's well deserved.

I really took away two main ideas from this article.  The first was the idea of Jason's game score graph.  I love seeing this brilliant visual representation of the way that inactive music can work.  He's developed a system of representing the music as looping or non-looping with boxes or circles, and what music can lead to other music within the game world with arrows.  I'd not considered this kind of analysis and it's a simple one that's easily comprehended.  I'm not sure if composers think of these relationships this explicitly such that they map them out, but I do know from my readings that they do consider these relationships at least some of the time.  I can't wait to show this kind of thing to my students.

The second idea I really appreciated in this paper was the systematic method by which Jason compares musical themes across the various games.  I've been looking forward to exploring game music through a game series as I continue My Gaming Audio History series on this blog (both in series with the same composer (Zelda, FF), the same series of games with different composers (Mega Man, Castlevania), and the same composers in completely different games (David Wise, etc)), but haven't made it far enough to have had those relationships develop yet.  The Schenkerian method is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate these comparisons of compositional structures, and for classical musicians, easy to comprehend.  Jason's simple table summary clearly represents the musical similarities and differences between the game themes.  Plus putting this music into standard notation helps the classical musician to better visualize it.  I also appreciate that he takes time to tie the music to its in game meaning.  Certainly this is a critical step in game music analysis, since the music is tied so strongly to game action.

I'm certain I'll present this as a possible reading in my game music class. While the target audience is clearly classically trained musicians and I doubt many in the class will be drawn to it, I've got a handful of music students in the class.  It gives me an almost Dali-like feel to see game music treated so classically and methodically.  This article really got my mind going!


  1. One of the more interesting examples of looping I think can be found in FF6's final boss theme, Dancing Mad. Here's the video so you don't have to search:

    I know you're familiar with it, but what I'm saying is that the transitions from one boss to another seem effortless and smooth, yet timely. I think I have an idea on how it's done, but regardless, it's impressive. It seems like the next boss song starts right when the previous one ends. And there is no way of predicting that. If I was more musically knowledgable, I'd be able to explain what I mean further. But regardless, even when I was younger, I remember being impressed with how the music changed and how I didn't even notice it. Thought it was a cool example of a complex, flawless transition from one looping song to another. Anyway, keep up the good work!

  2. I'm reading more about how this is done. Often the transition between looping tracks is covered by a sound effect (think Mario going down the pipe or the noise of the flag pole). In early days (watch some arcade gameplay of Frogger) certain in game states can initiate a music change (you get the frog across the road) or the music loop can simply end and the next one begins. In other more modern cases, composers write various transitions that can be jumped to musically at certain points and a certain action (a fatal blow, for instance) initiates the movement to new music so that the audio is a bit more seamless. In even more recent cases, I believe the game almost predicts when the jump should prepare based on your gameplay-- pretty crazy AI! Modern games often employ a certain number of loops that can be added or subtracted depending on how you're doing... Skyward Sword does this-- there's one music that plays if you're batting well and more dire music enters if you get hit, versus if you're doing well, etc. I definitely want to learn more about this topic as I go through My Gaming Audio History, but some of these techniques are part of the proprietary audio engine properties and I'm sure I won't be able to find out much about the more modern cases. I'm not actually sure exactly how this one works, but think I'll have a better understanding once I move into a more thorough assessment of SNES capabilities. Hope you're well, and as always, thanks for reading!