Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Warning! Danger! A Brief Look at Status-Indicative Music

One of the great things about video game music is that, like film orchestration, it underscores the actions that are taking place and sets the mood for the situation you're in. If you're fighting an enemy, the music often changes to something more upbeat with perhaps a darker timbre. If you're in a small town and surrounded by friendly villagers, the music is most likely calm and melodious. In addition, music cues are often triggered by one's effectiveness within the environment. For example, if you win a battle or complete a stage, a victory fanfare often plays to indicate that you've done a swell job. Conversely, if you (or a supporting character) die(s), then a lachrymose dirge may accompany you (or, you may get a "whoopsy-daisy" ditty).

As the music in video games (and the technology to support it) evolved, these soundtracks gained the ability to travel right along with the player and his or her performance. It's an experience that is unique to video games, and the assault on your ears may be what spurs you into victory.

This first example comes from a game called Tetris Attack, released in America for the Super Nintendo in 1996. This Yoshi-themed puzzle game bears little resemblance to its namesake, but it does come complete with a "Story" mode and a full cast of playable characters from the 1995 release, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. Each character comes with its own theme music, which plays when you compete against them in the story mode. This plays in Poochie's stage, the Forest World.

"Forest World"

The song opens with a fairly simple arpeggio and the sound of birds chirping. It's simple, peaceful. Note how the bass comes in with the melody at about the 0:16 mark. It's got a fairly simple beat, and although it could be characterized in a number of ways, "frantic" would not be the first term that would come to mind.

A bit of background information: in Tetris Attack, the goal is to rid colored blocks from your play area before your stack reaches the top of the screen. Blocks continually appear from the bottom of the screen, so if you keep getting rid of panels, you're in pretty good shape. If, however, your stack of blocks gets dangerously close to the top of the screen, the game takes a moment to inform you're inches away from "Game Over" by changing the entire soundtrack of the level:

"Forest World (Danger)"

The tempo is increased by several beats per minute. The previously polyphonic lines of the arpeggio and the melody are now unified in a minor melody. While sixteenth notes were scarce in the original theme, this new theme includes bass riffs of several sixteenth notes occasionally playing against the imposing durative notes of the other sound channels. The instrumentation, though, is not dissimilar to its counterpart: drums and brass-sounding tracks still accompany a melodic bass line. But something is clearly wrong, and it's up to the player to fix it before it's too late.

Fix it fix it fix it fix it fix it fix it fix it

Although this provides a good example of the topic, it's neither the first instance nor the last. I'm afraid to say that I don't know when this technique was first used, but I do know that it appeared earlier than Tetris Attack. A more recent example can be found in the battle theme for the most recent iterations of the Pokémon series, Black and White. In the older versions of the game, when your Pokémon were low on hit points, an eardrum piercing klaxon would sound from your Game Boy. This sound effect had nothing to do with the music of the battle, and while it served as a warning for the impending fainting of your Pokémon, it also was annoying enough for many players (myself included) to keep the volume turned down for long periods of time. As an audiophile, that bothers me. It also makes what Junichi Masuda did to this sound effect even more cool. 

"You're in a Pinch!"

This composition is a lot more interesting than the overwhelming alarm in the other games. Not only was Masuda able to incorporate the original siren sound into the song, but instead of an annoying reminder that your Pokémon is about to faint, the entire focus of the battle changes to highlight the imminent danger. This is a creative evolution that really draws you into the gaming experience.

While the previous examples have all dealt with music that informs the player that he or she is performing poorly, there are also games that reward you with triumphant music as you get closer to achieving your goal. The game Skies of Arcadia for the SEGA Dreamcast has a perfect example of encompassing both of these methods. The boss theme evolves with the progression of the battle: when neither side has the upper hand, the neutral boss music plays (0:00-1:23); when one of your party members has low HP or dies, the 'Danger' boss music plays (1:23-1:53); and when your party has the boss on the ropes, the jubilant boss music plays (1:53-2:36):

"Boss Theme"

The instrumentation stays basically the same, but the color of each song is very different. The first theme is serious and determined, which differs from the frightened, dissonant Danger theme, which in turn differs from the celebratory trumpets in the triumph theme. They work to characterize the scene not just as an obstacle to overcome but an actual conflict with a beginning, middle, and an end.

I know this post didn't have as much conventionally "pretty" music as my last post, but this is a subject that's always kind of interested me. And these are all great games worthy of playing. Leave a comment to let me know what you think! Any suggestions or critiques will be greatly appreciated. And if you have any requests for games or composers you'd like to hear more about, let me know!

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