(Video) Game (Music) Studies: I am excite!

So the latest article I’ve come across in my quest to know all about game studies was actually about an academic approach to videogame music.

:0 (le gasp)

This rocks hardcore for a number of reasons. For one, videogame music is an amazing phenomenon that is even less-widely studied than videogames themselves, so its awesome that critical approaches are underway. For two, lots of people love videogame music, and a game studies approach to VG music would allows us to interrogate the “what, where, how and why” of this powerfully gripping aspect of games.

Personally, when people ask me what kind of music I listen to, I usually say, “videogame music” (no shame). I’m actually listening to VG music as I’m writing this, I was listening to it when I read the article, I could go on…but anyway, VG music does so much for games, and it’s hard (for me at least) to examine and discuss exactly what it is doing. I’ve  been curious about what a rigorous approach would look like, but I figured too much music theory would be required, and it just seemed really inaccessible for someone with no musical training. Aside from discussion how the music makes feel during and after gameplay, which would actually be a valid approach, I don’t really think I could say much, and because my formal (undergrad) training is in literature, I really didn’t have any theoretical concepts or approaches that I could appropriate to game studies (books don’t play music =\).

Luckily, game studies relies heavily on interdisciplinary scholars, and these scholars have successfully appropriated concepts used in music, film, psychology, etc., to examine and discuss game music. In regards to the article I read, all of the concepts and claims were super accessible, backed up by research, and any potentially confusing terminology is rendered comprehensible. This is particularly important because the author does use music terminology, but it was all thoroughly described and exemplified in the form of audio-files, so you can actually hear what the author is referring to.

One of my favorite things about this article is that the author is cognizant of the infancy and uncertainty of his approach, and he’s aware and of the potential bastardization of game studies that comes from (mis)appropriation of interdisciplinary approaches. So although he makes and backs up some great claims, he’s clearly open to criticism and the possible inadequacy of his approach.

But anyway, all I’ve been doing is harping about how wonderfully written this article is without mentioning any of the content. Basically, the author begins by grounding his point of departure on previous studies done on different kinds of music. This section is kind of lengthy but extremely helpful for understanding how his work fits in with overlapping bodies of research. Next, he describes the concepts he wants to focus on and modify, and then he demonstrates how the concepts can be applied to 1/ Super Mario Brothers 2/ Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time 3/ Silent Hill.

Yes, this is a must read!

Now it is time for my customary awesome quotables. One of the main arguments the author makes is that VG “music works across a game’s structure to encourage the user’s continued play. The game’s sequence is dependent on user input, so music that engages further participation can be said to function toward the continuity of the game play experience.” This can be a hard argument to make because of the diverse type of videogames, but it’s exciting to see someone credit VG music with more than simply setting the mood. And he backs up this argument with numerous examples. In the case of Super Mario, he states, “‘Dying'” in Super Mario Brothers (Figure 5) produces a staccato pulse followed by a conciliatory musical cadence[12] … The music is a descending figure, mimicking Mario’s ejection from the playing field. The music is a coded message of failure reinforcing the consequence of having to replay the level one more time, but similar messages of success reinforce the successful completion of levels in the game…the satisfying ‘ching’ of collecting gold coins reinforces that behaviour which is strategically advantageous to advancing in the game.” I don’t know what staccato pulses or a conciliatory musical cadences are, but the author provided a link to an audio file that let me hear exactly what he was referring to (not that I didn’t know anyway).

Another interesting aspect of VG music he points out is that it can shift from diegetic to non-diegetic. Diegetic refers to music that is produced and audible in the game world by game characters. For example, when Link plays the ocarina, this is considered diegetic music as it is occurring in game world. Non-diegetic refers to theme songs and ambient music that accompanies gameplay but is not produced in the gameworld. Players can hear non-diegetic music, but characters can’t. The author uses Ocarina of Time as an example of how both types of music can be used to communicate with players on a number of levels. He refers specifically to “the melody that must be played to perform “Saria’s Song” which permits teleportation to the Lost Woods area of Hyrule. In the Lost Woods, the looping theme music (Object 9) extends and elaborates Saria’s song in a straightforward “theme and variations” structure. Thus, the musical heuristic merges with the fictional space of the Lost Woods’ theme…so the atmosphere music also acts as melodic foreshadowing to the extent that often goes unrecognized, and as a result, players report feelings of déjàvu as the melodies they must learn have an eerie familiarity.” Basically, the non-diegetic ambient music of the Lost Woods is later introduced as the diegetic melody of Saria’s song, and this creates an emotional response in the player towards the newly acquired, melodic tools.

Another awesome example of how diegetic and non-diegetic music work together in videogames is the radio in Silent Hill “since this is also a strategic device built into the game and because it merges with the soundtrack though its source is visibly present in the game environment, the radio’s sounds again blend a motivational cue with atmospheric sounds of the fictional space.”

cool beans. I’m starting to feel that afternoon slump right about now, so without anymore gilding the lily, and without any further ado…

Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music

by Zach Whalen


About Alphabet1

always already is
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