Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bridging the Gap: When Video Game Music and Popular Music Collide

Sometimes it's hard to explain what appeal video game music has. Part of it is its versatility: video game music can come from any genre, and it often creates its own genre to enhance the experience. In this way, it emulates popular music and its continuous evolution. Sometimes, though, both of them overlap; composers for video games use pieces of popular music to add a deeper significance to the moment, or songs originally composed for video games become so popular that they permeate our culture.

Oh, hush. We'll get to you.

This first example comes from one of my favorite games, Mother 3. Although this game was never released in the states, a group of dedicated fans took the original Japanese ROM and translated the entire game into English so American gamers could enjoy it. It has an incredibly powerful storyline, and its characterization is a strong point as well. People who are not fans of SPOILERS might want to skip straight to the video.

Near the end of the game, a man by the name of Leder, who had remained a silent bell ringer in the main character's home town, explains that the entire world had been destroyed when a dragon sleeping inside the earth rose up and wrought destruction. He was one of the few that survived, and when the survivors sailed to the Nowhere Islands, everyone's memories were erased except for his. Leder remained knowledgeable of the world's devastation so that he could pass the story on if the world were threatened once again. While he imparts this knowledge on the main character, this song plays in the background:

"Leder's Gymnopedie" - Mother 3

This song, although arranged with the technology of the Game Boy Advance, is actually an excerpt from Eric Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1." Satie composed a total of three gymnopédies, each as an attempt to break away from the music popular in early nineteenth century France. With the almost constant undertone of alternating major 7th chords and a simple, flowing 3/4 time signature, this song evokes a strong sense of ambience; it is calm, yet pervasive. 

The choice to use this song was, I believe, well informed. The relatively simple melody and mostly major mode (completely major in Leder's version) convey a sense of wistful longing for the world as it used to be. However, by using Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1," composer Shogo Sakai evokes an even more powerful message. Leder's song, in fact, is one of the only surviving vestiges of the old world, the world that only he remembers. It is an indication that there truly was a world that was destroyed before the main character was even born. Most importantly, it draws a parallel between the themes found in the game and the current state of our own society. Whether or not you agree with all of the messages of Mother 3, small moments like this, that make you think about your own life and what you're doing for the world, make this game stand out.

This second example comes from the Gamecube game Pikmin. However, it requires some qualification. This song is not actually in the game, but it was composed as part of the marketing campaign for the game. It was eventually so popular that the band that composed it released it as a single, and the song sold more copies than the game it advertised. It was even one of the most recognizable songs in Japan for a few months. It's entitled "Ai no Uta," or "Love Song" by the band Strawberry Flower:

"Ai no Uta" (with English subtitles) - Pikmin

(As a side note, one of the great things about studying Japanese is actually being able to understand good chunks of songs like this without English subtitles. I was proud when I was able to decipher what they were singing. But I digress.)

As you can probably tell, this song is pretty touching. The simple melody and instrumentation seem to represent the Pikmin's silent, seemingly mindless obedience to the whims of Captain Olimar. However, the lyrics reveal that, although the Pikmin dearly love their leader and would gladly give up their lives for his well being, they refuse to demand anything from him, not even his love. Anyone who has played the game can attest to the fact that many, many Pikmin die over the course of the game; it's not desirable, but it's almost inevitable. For a band to finally give a voice to the previously silent denizens of the Distant Planet was an incredible concept, which is why the marketing campaign worked so well. In fact, the song was so popular, that the developers included an Easter Egg where the Pikmin start singing a clip from it from time to time (which just adds a whole other layer of meaning, so I'll leave it at that).

There have been other instances in which popular music has been used in video games, such as the credits theme for Mass Effect and the final battle theme for LoomHowever, I feel like I'm not qualified to speak on the effects these songs have on the games due to the fact that I haven't actually played either of them. If anyone who has played either game would like to weigh in, please leave a comment in the comments section. I'd love to learn more!

Then, of course, there are the songs that become a phenomenon across the country because of how absurdly catchy they are. It has very simple melody, and it is not incredibly difficult to sing, which add to its catchiness. The delightful sarcasm within the song (as well as the somewhat macabre lyrics contrasting with the cheery tune) have only added to this song's popularity. It's been performed by choirs across the nation, including my sister's arrangement for Berklee College of Music's Video Game Choir. Here, in its original form, is Jonathan Coulton's "Still Alive."

"Still Alive" - Portal

The melody is simple, although there are several complexities hidden within the rest of the music; the cynical lyrics of the scorned GLaDOS contrast with the major melody, changing the entire intent of what would normally be a pretty standard ending theme. On an even simpler level, though, it's very attractive that the developers would take the time to compose an entire song for the credits, especially when the song so closely fits the mood of the rest of the game. It's a fantastic cap stone for a fantastic game, and its popularity has spread like wildfire, inspiring renditions from children, instrumentalists, and even a cappella choirs.

It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, but this blurred boundary between popular music and video game music has the added significance of slowly integrating video games into the world of mainstream media. Do you have any other examples? If you do, just comment on the article; I definitely want to hear them.

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