Step Back and Take a Listen – Music in Games #6

Welcome back to another Music Monday, I hope you have had a pleasant weekend. Today I want to discuss a story told almost as much by the music as by the gameplay. Darren Korb has been composing for Supergiant Games since Bastion, and the soundtrack was one of the best video game soundtracks of the year. His second title, Transistor, was even more astounding.

Korb has described the genre of the soundtrack as “old-world electronic post-rock”. I simplify that to blues ‘n’ bass, less for the accuracy for that precise set of words, and more for the fusion of overarching genres. The music is evocative, and mirrors the world around it with a precision I can only hope to aspire for. The world of Transistor is a technologically advanced dystopia, set within a tron-like city where the ruling council can change the city with a keystroke and your enemy is a rogue computer system.

You play as protagonist Red, female vocalist, activist, and victim of the ruling council’s censorship. Much of the game’s music utilizes passages of humming to reinforce this imagery. However, in a flashback early in the game, we hear her voice for the first time in We All Become as we reach a lone microphone within an empty theater. Ashley Barrett performs the role of Red, and her vocals in this piece are haunting and beautiful. A soulful blues melody sung over liquid drums and a hall piano’s arpeggios plays over a cutscene telling the tale of the night prior and how we got “Here”. While the lyrics are most definitely written for the game, they are striking and thought provoking even in the real world.

Korb has said that one of the goals for Transistor was to have a more integrated design. He speaks of the same concept I have focused my discussions on. I could talk about how pop game tunes are solid songs, I could talk about how the Mario theme is one of the most universally recognized eight notes, but as good as these compositions are, they don’t reflect the game in the same way as those I have discussed. Integration takes good to great, and excellence to outstanding, and Supergiant Games sees that.

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STEP BACK AND TAKE A LISTEN – MUSIC IN GAMES #5

Another Monday, another music blog. I hope everyone has had a splendid week! I have spoken at length about how instrumentation matters in a composition and I can think of no better example of this in a video game than Click Clock Wood from Banjo-Kazooie. Four seasons each play a variation of the main theme of the zone, and with the dynamic and tempo changes alongside the instrumentation, each unique variance captures the essence of the season.

Click Clock Wood revolves around a giant tree and the life that is sustained by it. Throughout the seasons you repeatedly encounter a number of characters, watch the stages of a tree house under construction, and witness the cycle of life as the level design takes on the aspects of the seasons.

We start the level with Spring. A swung melody of flutes overlays clarinets, trombones and tuned drums greets us as we enter the zone. The high energy created by a moderate tempo and active melody defines this area, as the game shows us a growing world full of vibrant colors. Grant Kirkhope shows off his music theory knowledge with a jazzy twelve-tone melodic fall back into the main theme, and cleverly ties the piece directly into the zone with the use of tuned bird sounds.

As we progress, a door is opened to take us to Summer. The tempo has been slowed slightly, and a time adjustment has reconfigured the melody into a waltz. The melody is now shared by flutes and violins, and bee buzzing synths support the harmonic movements with a countermelody. This variation is still colorful and moving, but subdued, much like a lazy summer afternoon.

Another door, another season. Fall returns to the swung melody of spring, though a few octaves lower. The instrumentation has changed to low strings, synth low brass, woodpecker and frog noises, and percussion. As the tune builds into the full chorus, it brings back flutes several octaves lower to reprise their melody. Th energy is back up with this variation, but with everything being significantly lower pitched, it isn’t as lively. The tune is winding down, it has all of the essences of spring, but none of the pep.

The final door opens upon winter, a quiet set of jingling bells sets the tempo as a marimba plays the melody solo over bell chords and a wind track. Quiet, high pizzicato strings, a walking bass and more bells join as the track builds. Finally, a palm-muted crunch guitar begins playing over snaps. All in all, its like a tune straight out of The Ventures’ Christmas Album. The use of a wooden percussion instrument subtly suggests of the giant tree the level revolves around, while the remaining instrumentation takes advantage of a few dozen decades worth of musical mind control telling us that these instruments are related to Christmas and snow and chestnuts over an open fire.

Instrumentation matters, a snowy mountain sounds different that a snow-dusted forest, just as a sunny beach and a coal mine at dusk sound different. Click Clock Wood’s melody remains the same over each season, but with some minor adjustments, you can hear four distinct tunes loosely held together only by that shared melody. Very few other game soundtracks offer a selection of music that make looking at this as easy as Banjo-Kazooie has, and just goes to show the extent of Kirkhope’s talent.

Step Back and Take a Listen – Music in Games #4

Boss_rundas1

Happy Monday, friends! The month of Metroid has come to a close and we have one last work I want to discuss. We haven’t spent any time talking about Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and while I personally think that it fell short compared to the other Primes, it has some exceptional music. One of my personal favorite tracks from the entire series hails from this game, and it accompanies my favorite boss: Rundas, our fallen hunter brother in arms.

This piece is an amalgamation of pretty much everything we have seen up to this point in the Prime trilogy, utilizing instruments and motifs representing a number of themes. The boss fight starts with choral Ahh’s, which we established refers to the Chozo within the prime series, and as the work progresses there are instrumental references to Phazon with the high-mid synth chords and modulated synth rhythm emulating the title themes. These references, I believe, are less about the Chozo and Phazon in concrete terms, and more about the war inside Rundas’ head; the Chozo represent the forces of “Good” while Phazon fights for “Evil”.

This fight is epic. It is the first time in the series where you fight a friend – and I feel like I am probably not alone in saying that Rundas was the most beloved of the fellow hunters – and for that there is a lot of emotional value in the music. The main theme of the piece is rather sad, a descending minor line over a minor progression, however there is hope in there as the highest point in the line rings out over a major chord. The duality of the encounter is told in the music in this way. Just as Rundas is experiencing his own internal war, we as the player (and Samus, of course) are experiencing our own struggles as we fight an ally to the death.

The piece ends on what I can only describe as the corruption of Rundas’ soul. The prominent use of the Dark Samus theme and distorted metal guitar heavily imply the loss of control and concludes the tale told by the music. This piece is a story, and its tale of sorrow and loss ends with the utter corruption and loss of self, fitting for this truly outstanding fight.

For as much as there is in this wonderful work of art, much of it boils down to the themes of good and evil and the fight therein. I wish I had more to say on this piece, I really do, but I am also glad that I was able to keep this one short and concise. There is a lot of amazing music in Metroid, and I love a few songs more for their nostalgia, but Rundas and his theme was the first time I felt an actual connection to a character in the series. There are a few remixes of this work that go above and beyond, so if remixes are your thing I highly suggest looking them up. But that will do it for me for today, I hope you all have enjoyed this look back through Metroid!

Step Back and Take a Listen – Music in Games #3

Happy Monday. Today we return to Metroid, this time with a look at Prime 2 and its duality of Sanctuary Fortress and Ing Hive, as well as their relation of the area boss, Quadraxis.

Starting off, I think we need to take a look at what came prior to really understand whats going on here. In 1986, Metroid was release, scored by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka. He revolutionized the music of gaming overnight with his atmospheric tracks and lack of melodic structure. This score wasn’t just a game score, it was a modern work of art. Or more accurately, post-modern. In the latter half of the 20th century, “classical” composition techniques moved from post-modern to minimalism and ambiance (among other things that don’t pertain to today’s discussion, like punctualism and the entirety of post-tonal theory).Works like those of Brian Eno, with their walls of sonorous tones and lack of melodies, propelled the ambiance movement forward. These audio paintings don’t tell stories, they show feelings; feelings the mind then uses to make its own landscapes, and populated with stray thoughts inspired by equally stray tones. This is the direction Mr. Tanaka chose to take with the soundtrack, and it was an astounding success as the series continues to produce at least one track per game that is purely ambient.

Now, with that understanding, we can delve into the penultimate locale of Echoes. The majority of the Sanctuary Fortress Main Theme is ambient in nature, though it does swell to include a pair of passable melodic lines. The high, airy flute line reminisces of a line played throughout the game, and could be called The Luminoth Motif, as a permutation of it exists in some form or another in most of the light world main themes. The low choral Ahh’s on the other hand are distinctly of Sanctuary’s theme, however, especially after the original Prime, choral Ahh’s are associated with the Chozo and could be attributed to their guidance of the young Luminoth race. Both of these motifs play a vital role in the piece as they cement the lore that Sanctuary was both the Luminoth’s greatest temple, as well as their final bastion against the Ing horde. Aside from these two lines, the instrumentation is purely synthetic, ambient, and chaotic. This paints the picture of Sanctuary just as well as the concept art, with the falling lines of data and hard-light creatures that inhabit its neon blue lit halls.

As with the other areas of the game, Sanctuary has a Dark Aetherian equivalent in the Ing Hive. Using the same Dark Aetherian haunting ambiance, staccato hits and metallic sweeps, Ing hive creates a terrifying atmosphere accented by the blood red lighting and infested husks of the machines that live in Sanctuary. The cool thing that the Ing Hive does with its music that isn’t captured as well anywhere else in the game is the direct relation to its light world equivalent. Ing Hive takes the arpeggio line from Sanctuary, slows it down considerably, then warps the notes and fades it in and out as if the line itself were affected by the fluctuations of the planet.

As the progression of the zone draws to a close, you enter combat with the titanic Quadraxis. This fight is epic, in every non-ironic sense of the term, lasting three long phases and requiring almost every single trick at your disposal. With this fight comes the natural progression of the music as well, and it is just as epic. Immediately, the theme starts with Sanctuary’s bass rhythm played on a massive and distant bass drum, with choral Ahh chords, harsh synths and metallic scrapes. I wouldn’t describe it as a “wall of sound” like Bohemian Rhapsody’s literal skyscraper of harmonies, however, the term works despite the lack of instruments. It is a vast expanse of rhythm and somewhat dissonant harmonies where the quiet can be called its own instrument. The use of anvil hits to accent the minimalistic rhythm are another good touch, reminding us audibly of the hulking metal foe before us. The piece doesn’t go so far as to inspire fear or panic with all of this, but the stress of the gameplay is more than apparent in the music, and it is quite effective at producing that stress without the context of the game on its own.

While Metroid Prime 2: Echoes doesn’t have quite the powerhouse of a soundtrack as the original Prime, there are a couple tracks that go above and beyond to do things right. I fell in love with Sanctuary Fortress the moment I stepped out onto the bridge for the first time, almost as fast as my first steps into Phendrana, and it likely had a hand in sending my down the path of musical study i chose. There are a lot of truly amazing pieces of music in gaming, but rarely are there those that transcend simple background music and become works of art such as this.

Step back and take a listen- Music in games #2

Jet is back with another Music Monday segment, hope you enjoy!


It’s Monday again, hope everyone has had a fantastic week! My last post was about Super Metroid and I said I would do individual music discussions on the music of Metroid, well its time. I’m going to spend the next several weeks talking about what makes the music of the series as memorable and effective as it is. For today I want to start with the water zones, and the instrumentation and melodies of Maridia, Torvus, Sector 4 and the crashed frigate.

 

While red soil Brinstar of Super Metroid and lower Torvus Bog of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes have the same theme, there is a distinct instrumentation difference and it changes the purpose of the piece. Red soil Brinstar uses piano, flute, and choral Ahhs, while the Torvus version uses soft pads, strings, and wind- and water-related named patches on synths (at least my patches that sound similar have names like Solar Wind, and Teardrops). These patches help solidify the relation of the music to the underwater zone with their leaky faucet plops of synths against strings and pads that have been used for other water levels since Aquatic Ambiance. The rhythm and melody lend themselves entirely to the water theme easily, as well, as the repeated scale ebbs and flows over a motionless two note bass all under a half time melody that uses subtle dynamic shifts to continue the flowing movement. I’m not saying that the Super Metroid version is bad, or doesn’t work as well, but I find the Echoes version is far more in touch with its environment and that makes it feel like a better piece to the composer in me.

 

Maridia does much the same thing with instrumentation, using plinky glockenspiel, low string pads, and a flute melody. Its a dark and haunting piece, and I think that it pulls off isolation and paranoia better than water. It’s a great piece of music, but I think it doesn’t meld with the area as well as other pieces do in their respective zones. Whereas Sector 4 from Fusion has the same general idea, using low strings again, soft pads, and a harp. The piece is far less busy, focusing on a slow melody with a stepwise bass. It’s use of harp arpeggios serves much the same purpose as the plinking synths from the Torvus version of red Brinstar, and in conjunction with the rest of the aspects of the piece creates a decidedly familiar feeling of aquatic music that we have grown accustomed to over the years of gaming.

 

I had played the Metroid series prior to Prime, but it was Prime that made me fall in love with the series, and it was Prime that led me down the path of music theory and composition. Phendrana may be my favorite tune, but it was crashed frigate that set me on that path, so I may be biased in saying how great this piece is. However, from as unbiased an opinion as I can share, based purely off my theory knowledge and my work with the piece, I can say that this track is a great track and one of the best at telling the story of its zone in the game. Once again, using the soft string pads and plinking high notes, it begins painting the picture of a water world. The slow paced ambiance fits the relative calm of the zone as, with only a few select exceptions, the area is mostly creatures rather than baddies. The use of harder synths suggest of a powered environment, or technology or some such effect with the short lived and fading effect giving the vibes of failed technology, which fits well with the zone as the crashed frigate is a bashed and battered underwater version of the introduction stage. Personally, after having experienced this work in game, I find the high piano runs to be an auditory emulation of bubbles, and while I don’t know whether that was intended or not, it resonates with my inner composer as a technique to use for my own water worlds.

 

I hope a tiny bit of insight from a composer is inspiring you all to take a deeper look into your music, it is as much a part of the game as any npc or item, and deserves to be seen on a deeper level. If you enjoy these discussions, or have a suggestion, please comment.