Gaming music, more than just background noise?

Alright, I promised I post something on gaming music, and here I am. I’ve noted few trends in the past month or so, that involve music in the industry. 1) Ask any gamer and he’ll most likely give you some music from an RPG. 2) The majority of responses that you will get will often be Japanese composers.

While it’s not as easy to explain the second trend to a point where everybody is satisfied the first trend is interesting and I feel sort of deceptive. If you ask somebody why RPG music is often more remembered than any other genre, they’ll most likely stare at you like you’re an idiot and say something along the lines of "Because it sets the mood and the tone of the game, and is therefore made to be evocative. Duh." Examples of this are plenty to find even if you’re not into your standard fantasy type music. Persona 4 has a beautiful sound track, which seems a bit off the wall from most other RPG’s you’ve probably played.

Persona 4 - I'll Face Myself -Battle- (via Slayer0)

A great example of what I'm talking about. Try playing Persona with the sound off. It feels empty.

One of the reasons I felt Persona 3 was worse than for was because I felt the music sometimes did not fit the tone of what was going on. Often times this sort of analysis is opinion based, so I’m sure a lot of you will agree with me there (though that is a digression I’ll gladly take in the comments). There is a verity of other games that cover this point well and not all of them are from the RPG genre. Ace Combat is another one that has at least 5 or 6 songs that are well known to its fans for being not only unbelievably beautiful; but also incredibly evocative.

I can spend all day talking about beautiful pieces on gaming music but again; I digress. My main point is this: gaming music has often yet to grasp the spirit of games. I am of course, talking about dynamic music.I have often stated that Wind Waker is the best Zelda design wise, and that every design and composition student should play it through, even if you don’t like it at the end of the day. It does a lot of things right in both departments, though let’s specifically look at the music in this case.

Zelda: The Wind Waker - Mid-Boss (via andrew7654)

Specifically compare the standard section to the point after 1:08. Even without seeing the visuals, you can kind of tell what the altered chords represent (Hit's of course).

"I like that old time rock and roll..."

Any first year game design student (or CS student for that matter) will tell you that the whole game loop is based around input and feedback, cause and reaction. Often times in the past Zeldas, and other games for that matter, enemies would often flash red as they died. If you take a few moments to ask yourself why, you’ll quickly come up with the logical answer of "because they wanted to give hit feedback". Technology limited what you could do back then, and enemy health bars were either impractical or did not fit the theme of the game (exempting RTS’s as is somewhat does fit the theme of those games). Yet developers had to give feedback that the player’s attacks were working. For example; how many times do you press the button for the walk sign? There’s no feedback so people often repeatedly press the button as they are unsure of the state of the button.

Technology has improved yet there is only little change in this area, rather than flashing red, enemies will often be stunned, reel back, limp around, etc.; we’re still relying on the visual. This is also where I feel that music should share in the response.

"Ebony and Ivory"

There is nothing wrong with a visual response in game, often I would encourage it. In games that try to emulate a sense of realism, it’s pretty much expected in some form at this point. However, that’s only one dimension of feedback. Consider a scenario where I had a few different weapons available to dispatch a foe; they all had some effect on the foe. However in an animation all you would be able to figure out is that you’re doing damage on the foe, not which weapon is how effective. Without an explicit chart, you most likely won’t know. This is where music comes in.

Games have experimented with dynamic music for a long time now. In old games, boss music’s tempo would often increase as the fight went on, with the intent of speeding up the rhythm on the fight. However we can use this in a different way. Take the example in the previous paragraph. Perhaps if we gave weapon effectiveness level a different tempo or pitch; we would be able to tell the user without giving them explicit values. Not only does this increase the experimentation factor (which I’m sure there are more qualified people to talk about), but it stays within the theme of the game. Often times in games the main character will immediately know the weakness of his foes for the sake of explicitness, something that can be remedied with this dual dimensional input system.

Another interesting point to consider by the use of this system is explicit weak points. Consider the case where the tempo changes, but the enemy does not get stunned. You can gather that you did not do any damage, yet you know that your weapon is effective against the enemy. I’m sure you guys can come up with multitudes of other ways to use this dimension innovatively.

"Under Pressure"

I’ve heard a lot of complaints these days that games are too easy, and many of us hold the firm belief that this is due to the explicitness. The fact that games have to hold our hands, I feel, is that while our inputs may have evolved with technology, our responses have not. In gaming theory (not the math course), there is a field of study which is about teaching the players leading the players through a space using implicit architectural design.

Warning: Strong language

Sequelitis - Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X (via egoraptor)
Consider some things that egoraptor (despite him being egoraptor) says about Mega Man X. He bring up some very good points on level design.

Music can lead players just as well as any visual clue, but is often overlooked. I’m hoping that in the future, that will change. Both games and music are things humanity enjoys, and at its best a video game raises both to new potentials. Games can use music as a much need sensory input device, and music can use games to reinforce the story it tells. I just feel that we aren’t quite at the level of Chocolate and Peanut butter yet.