Video Games and Music


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Lecture slides from session on music in games. Draws heavily on William Gibbons' article:

Updated April 2013

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  • Nowhere to run … Nowhere to hide
  • Starting at about 40 seconds into the launch trailer, notice the up-down-up-down-up-down as the speech pops in and out. It's distracting and annoying.Creating audio space is like arranging a bunch of 3D bubbles. Whatever is in the center on the X- and Y-axes and at the front of the Z (depth) axis is going to grab the most attention, and that should always be the vocals. Ducking is a cheap way of pushing the music back on the Z-axis, but that constant shifting is noticeable; the much preferable method is to make space on the front plane of X and Y around the dialogue. It is quite possible to write around dialogue, as thousands upon thousands of hours of Opera and film scoring will attest. Why shouldn't video games do this, as well?
  • A beat, in scoring terms, refers to a particular visual point of action that should be accented. This can be a hard cut in the footage, a punch, just about anything. This can be accented in the music in many ways, typically depending on the requirements of the visuals. Here's a quick example that runs the gamut:The low percussion (likely an udu) as the dragonfly lands on her nose is a beat. The sitar note as it flies away is another. The harp gliss for the reveal of Wonderland is another. The cymbal roll for discovering the caterpillar is yet another; the harsh low brass almost immediately after as his expression sours another still. 25 seconds in and we've hit five beats already. This is a fairly common pace for higher-energy sections and trailers. Notice that each of these has a different effect, but all come together to add interest and impact to what's happening on screen.
  • It is possible to create music for a beat-heavy visual without using beats, but then it's up to the foley and sound designers to pick up your slack. See here for a quintessential example:The opposite effect, hard transitions and visual beats without any aural punch at all, feels so unnatural that I can't even find good examples of it, because no one does it.
  • Lack of music can also build tension, especially when it is released properly. Here's a great example from the first Gears of War (NSFW language)There is no music at all until a full minute in, and when it comes in it's a barely-perceptible string pad to simply build the tension a little more. And then, 20 seconds later, release. The score continues its minimalism after that, but it's a good example of how very few lines can be used to good effect.
  • Video Games and Music

    1. 1. Games & 1
    2. 2. Overview1. In praise of aural2. Technological developments3. Taxonomy of game music archetypes– Adaptive music– Rhythm-based– Drama2
    3. 3. Key reading3
    4. 4. Visual culture4
    5. 5. Aural culture?5
    6. 6. 6
    7. 7. 7
    8. 8. sensory experience of the environment is amultimedia one-TrevorWishart, 1986: 498
    9. 9. 9
    10. 10. Recorded sound waves are perceived in the exact sameway as non-recorded sound waves10
    11. 11. Technological developments11
    12. 12. Technological developmentsWhen CD- and later DVD-based games first allowedsoundtracks to include popular tracks precisely as they wouldsound on a CD, game designers leapt at the opportunity toinclude a song or two (though seldom much more, due to spacerestrictions).-- Gibbons, 201112
    13. 13. 13Format Size PlatformROM cartridge 16 Mb Sega Mega Drive, SNES3.5” diskette 1.44 MB PC,Amiga, Atari STCD 650 MB PC, Sega Mega CD, Sony PS1, AtariJaguarDVD 4.7 GB (single layer) PC, Sony PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360,WiiBluray 25 GB (single layer) Sony PS3
    14. 14. Xenon 2: Megablast14Bitmap Brothers1989BombThe Bass1988
    15. 15. Call of Duty: Black Ops15Activision,Treyarch, 2010
    16. 16. Call of Duty: Black Ops16Activision,Treyarch, 2010Non-diegetic use ofThe Rolling Stones – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’Reference to Apocalypse Now’s use of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
    17. 17. Spec Ops:The Line17
    18. 18. Spec Ops:The Line18
    19. 19. Diegetic vs Mimetic19For the benefit of the audienceIn the narrative world of the characters
    20. 20. Taxonomy of game musicarchetypes20
    21. 21. Adaptive musicAka ‘dynamic’ musicWill adapt to the drama, often increasing intempo, pitch or volume depending on the action.21
    22. 22. Licensed linearity“there is limited adaptability inherent in mostpopular music, whereas games require songs thatmay need to adapt to gameplay states or playerinteraction. Licensed songs are (for the most part)designed as linear music, and therefore theplacement of this music in a game is is the genre of the game where suchmusic may be appropriate....”--Karen Collins, 2008: 11922
    23. 23. Non-linear game scoring23Paul Haslinger, score composer
    24. 24. The inadequacy of loopingNot only have you eliminated the emotionaleffectiveness of the music by generalizing it and notapplying it to a context, but by looping it over andover, you’ve completely detached the player from evenregistering it altogether-- Scott Morton, 200524
    25. 25. The inadequacy of loopingWhat’s worse, it usually becomes annoying after atime. Now weve moved down from "why should weeven have music playing here" to "why shouldnt weturn off the music altogether and listen to MP3s?"-- Scott Morton, 200525
    26. 26. popular music in games became less afunction of the narrative and more anelement of the ludic game mechanics26
    27. 27. There’s always exceptions…Final Fantasy X-2Square Enix, 200327
    28. 28. Rhythm-based music games2820072005
    29. 29. [They] created a model in which music is not only removed fromthe narrative, it is in effect a replacement for it - the music is thegame, and no (or almost no) overarching narrative exists outsideof it-- Gibbons, 201129
    30. 30. 30
    31. 31. DJ Hero31
    32. 32. Rez32
    33. 33. Child of Eden33
    34. 34. Audiosurf34
    35. 35. The weird and the wonderful35
    36. 36. The weird and the wonderful36
    37. 37. It fills the gaps…37“The new MTV”? (Tessler, 2008)
    38. 38. Narrative-based games38
    39. 39. GrandTheft Auto III39
    40. 40. GrandTheft Auto:Vice City40
    41. 41. 41Fallout 3
    42. 42. Radio stations…This clever strategy relieves game designers from theonus of relating the music to the onscreen action. Aradio, after all, can hardly be expected to change itstune to fit individual circumstances …-- Gibbons, 201142
    43. 43. Radio stations…A significant downside, however, is that althoughplayers can customize the soundscape of their ownexperiences, the songs cannot function in a narrativeway.-- Gibbons, 201143
    44. 44. BioshockEmploys licensed music into the narrativeEvents trigger key uses of music44
    45. 45. Blues,Twentieth-century blues, theyre gettin medown.
Blues, escape those weary twentieth-centuryblues.
Why, if theres a god in the sky, why shouldnt hegrin
High above this dreary twentieth-century din?

Inthis strange illusion, chaos and confusion,
People seemto lose their way.
What is there to strive for, love or keepalive for?
Say hey hey, call it a day.

Blues, nothing towin or to lose, its getting me down.
Blues, escape thoseweary twentieth-century blues.

Why is it that civilizedhumanity can make this world so wrong?
In this hurly-burly of insanity, our dreams cannot last long.
Wevereached a deadline, a press headline, everysorrow;
Blues value is news value tomorrow.45Noël Coward"Twentieth-Century Blues”(1932)The lyrics comment directly upon thefailure of Rapture?
    46. 46. It had to be you…46
    47. 47. How much is that doggie in thewindow?47
    48. 48. La mer … Beyond the sea…48
    49. 49. • Acousmatic sound• Active onscreen sound; often in a different room;beckons the attention• Michel Chion (1994, p85)• Immersion?49
    50. 50. “La Mer (Beyond the Sea)”- Django Reinhardt &StéphaneGrappelli- Bobby Darin (1959)Original ‘La Mer’ byCharlesTrénet (1946)Quite different lyricsSomewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waitingfor me
My lover stands on golden sands
Andwatches the ships that go sailin

Somewherebeyond the sea
Shes there watching for me
If Icould fly like birds on high
Then straight to herarms 
Id go sailin

Its far beyond the stars
Itsnear beyond the moon
I know beyond adoubt
My heart will lead me there soon

Wellmeet beyond the shore
Well kiss just asbefore
Happy well be beyond the sea
Andnever again Ill go sailin

I know beyond adoubt
My heart will lead me there soon
Wellmeet (I know well meet) beyond the shore
Wellkiss just as before
Happy well be beyond thesea
And never again Ill go sailin’50
    51. 51. Original “La Mer” byCharlesTrénet (1946)Quite different lyrics51La merQuon voit danser le long desgolfes clairsA des reflets dargentLa merDes reflets changeantsSous la pluieLa merAu ciel dété confondSes blancs moutonsAvec les anges si pursLa mer bergère dazur InfinieVoyez
Près des étangs
Cesgrands roseauxmouillés
Ces oiseauxblancs
Et ces maisons rouilléesLa merLes a bercésLe long des golfes clairsEt dune chanson damourLa merA bercé mon cœur pour la vieThe seaSeen dancing along the cleargulfsto gleams of silver.The seaOf changing reflectionsUnder the rain.The seaConfuses the summer skyssheepWith angels so pure,The seaShepherd of blue infinity.Look!Next to the pondsThose tall wet reeds.Look!Those white birdsAnd those rustyhousesThe SeaHas cradled themAlong the clear gulfs.The SeaHas cradled my heart for life.
    52. 52. SummaryMusic can play an integral and varied part of thegaming experienceImperceptible design decisions employed to add to theoverall ambienceImproved immersion?52
    53. 53. Work cited & further reading• KarenCollins (ed.) (2008) Game Sound: An Introduction to the History,Theory, and Practice ofVideo Game Music and SoundDesign. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press• WilliamGibbons (2011), ‘WrapYourTroubles in Dreams: Popular Music, Narrative, and Dystopia in Bioshock, in GamesStudies:The international journal of computer game research,Vol 11, Iss 3.• ClaudiaGorbman (1987). Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.• Scott Morton (2005) ‘Enhancing the Impact of Music in Drama-OrientedGames’, Gamasutra• Rod Munday (2007). “Music inVideoGames.” In Jamie Sexton (Ed.), Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to theVirtual (pp. 51-67). Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press.• HollyTessler (2008) ‘The new MTV?: ElectronicArts and “playing” music’ in Karen Collins (ed.) From Pac-Man to Pop Music:Interactive Audio in Games and New Media.Aldershot:Ashgat,e• ZachWalen (2007) “Film Music vs. Game Music:TheCase of Silent Hill.” In Jamie Sexton (Ed.), Music, Sound and Multimedia:From the Live to theVirtual (pp. 68-81). Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press.• ZachWhalen (2004). “PlayAlong:An Approach toVideogame Music.” Games Studies:The international journal of computergame research,Vol 4 No 1• TrevorWishart (1986) ‘Sound Symbols and Landscapes’ in Simon Emmerson (ed.) The Language ElectroacousticMusic, London: Macmillan• Resource mapping articles on game music: 53
    54. 54. Images• #4 Sam Bald (2008) ‘Eyeball’• #5 MarkWhale (2010) ‘ Apple iPhone White’• #8 tantrum_dan (2008) ‘Machesney Alarm Clock’• #11 robjewitt (2011) ‘Aural sex’• #13 robjewitt (2011) ‘Street Fighter 2 Sega Mega Drive’• #19 oc fernando (2011) ‘Pac Man’• #44 Kaleanderson (2011) ‘Creative Commons’54
    55. 55. Diegetic vs Mimetic• In the narrative world ofthe characters• For the benefit of theaudience55
    56. 56. Uncharted 356
    57. 57. Alice: Madness Returns57
    58. 58. Dead Island58
    59. 59. Taking a cinematic approach59
    60. 60. Getting it wrong• “There are entire movies contained inside todays games …Unfortunately, video game developers and the playersthemselves dont often see this connection. Corners arecut, sacrifices made, flat-out wrong practices are repeatedtime and again, and the gaming media looks upon it andproclaims it good”– Andrew High (composer), 2012, Gamasutra60
    61. 61. Getting it wrong61
    62. 62. Getting it right62
    63. 63. Saints Row:TheThird63