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Game Music

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Game Music Mishegoss: An Interview with Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander

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Welcome to Game Music Mishegoss! This is the first in a series of interviews with famous faces in the video game and video game journalism industry about their thoughts on gaming music. Our first victim entrant to this series is Gamasutra News Editor, Leigh Alexander. She is the writer of the very popular blog, SEXY VIDEOGAMELAND, and is one of the most accessible and present voices in the industry. We are very excited to have her aboard for this and think you’ll enjoy it, as well!

What soundtracks have resonated with Leigh? Which have been a bust? And is game music an under-appreciated artform? Find out the answer to these and other questions after the jump!

OSV: As a lifelong gamer and avid music fan, I’m sure you’ve found yourself replaying a level, looking at a menu screen a little longer, or doing something else to prolong a musical experience in a game. What are some of your earliest memories doing this?

LA: Oh, man. I was kind of a melodramatic little girl and very taken with crescendos. I have a very strong memory of playing Monster Lair on TurboGrafx 16, and I believe it’s the fourth level that has little castles floating in the air. The music starts out kind of twangy, but it has this middle section that was all sweeping-like and piano-rich and I actually used to routinely stop playing and put the controller down so I could just listen to that part, clutch my chest and sigh, gazing at the floating castles..

OSV: I recently had an interview with Martin Filipp, a head developer at Deep Silver (formerly Rockstar Vienna), and he believes strongly that the feeling of “missing something” while playing a game is almost always a result of music/sound that is not up to par. Do you agree/disagree?

LA: I’m sure it depends on the game, but I could agree with that, sure.

OSV: Has there ever been a game experience for you that was saved because of its music?

LA: Flower is what comes to mind first. I actually like Flower a lot, but I did feel its depth and emotionality were a little bit overrated. I think it’s the music in that game that gave so many players the impression of such a transcendental experience – the music is perfect, creating these swollen and sensory, naturalistic-feeling environments out of levels that would have felt very “game-designey” or even tedious otherwise. I also think the little bell sounds of opening flowers were a major part of enjoying the core gameplay.

OSV: Has there ever been a game experience for you that was ruined because of its music?

LA: Xenosaga. To be fair, I was hating that game anyway for a ton of reasons, but felt compelled to stick on with it. But I eventually got to this level – Proto Merkaba, maybe? And the background theme was just this sort of repetitive, intentionally flat choral note and it drove me so crazy that it was the final straw that forced me to ditch the playthrough.

OSV: In a recent post of yours on SexyVideoGameLand, you mentioned getting to the heart of “what creates emotional attachment to games”. How big or small a role does the game’s music play for you personally, and do you feel that is the sentiment of most gamers?

LA: It depends, I think. I really think emotional attachment, or immersion or what have you, comes down to how numerous elements combine to support one another, rather than the strength of one single element or another. That being said, music is very powerful – people in general, not just gamers, can have entire waves of poignant memories brought back just by one particular song. So I think good music is a way to nurture and sustain emotional attachment – something like Aeris’ theme can attain cultural permanence because of what it represents to players, and in turn the longevity of a song like that can strengthen a game’s place in culture.

OSV: As a follow-up, do you feel game music receives the attention and credit that it deserves?

LA: Yes and no. On one hand, there aren’t many places where you can read in-depth interviews or discussions on video game music; you don’t get to hear game composers discuss very often their inspirations, influences and process. That’s definitely a bit disappointing, but at the same time, there isn’t quite a lot of attention to the artistic aspect of games in general (you don’t see interviews with people who are strictly artists or character designers about these kinds of things oten enough, either).

I also think the role that music plays in games these days doesn’t really lend itself well to media coverage – it’s the kind of thing that loses something when it’s put into words, maybe? Or perhaps it’s that many people really enjoy game music but don’t necessarily enjoy reading text about it.

But ‘Sound Current’ interviews that our friend Jeriaska does for GameSetWatch? Love ‘em.

OSV: A few gaming journalists (i.e. Garnett Lee, 1UP) have mentioned that they feel game music nowadays has “lost character” from years ago. Do you agree/disagree?

LA: I think I understand what Garnett is trying to say, but I don’t think that there’s been a “loss” of character – just a change. The role of music in games today is a bit different because games have changed so much. With a few exceptions, most of our most beloved themes and tunes evolved out of an era where music was essentially used as background accompaniment for gameplay that was either very basic or very repetitive (think of trying to time your jumps to the beat in some sidescroller or another).

And of course, these games were not only repetitive but grueling, so you’d have one cartridge last you months, maybe even years, before you ever completed it or got tired of it. You’d end up hearing some of the same songs billions and billions of times, which means they were more likely to score some kind of permanence in your consciousness.

Games just are not made that way anymore, really. Now, tech being what it is, I think there’s this holistic approach to world-building, where every element is combined to immerse the player. Music’s become something that perhaps influences the impression or emotion of a scene, but I don’t think it’s intended to be noticed per se. The emphasis on realism means that music’s become more ambient – it’s designed to give the player a mood, but the player mustn’t notice that it’s happening. That – combined with the fact that we blow through these massive AAA titles in much briefer time periods somehow these days – means that game music leaves less of an impression than it used to, I think.

Especially as many publishers are trying to build or extend franchises now, developers might be served to think about how to create and establish a singular theme that might run through all of a game’s compositions and tie different installments of the franchise together. That definitely strengthens brand!

OSV: What are you top three game soundtracks/scores? (I’m going to guess that a Metal Gear game will appear on this list)

LA: Actually, no, it won’t! I love Metal Gear and all, but the soundtrack is not in my top three, which goes like this:

1. Silent Hill 3
2. Chrono Cross
3. Ys Book I & II (the original game sound from TG16)

I’m sure I’ll remember others and slap my forehead later realizing I left stuff out, but this is what comes to mind! I still love the FF7 soundtrack, too, purely for sentimental/memory reasons, and I was torn on the third spot between Ys and Persona 3 – but as a kid I used to take the Ys disc out of the TG16 in order to play the music in my room (you could do that with those games!), so it always has a special place in my heart.

OSV: A lot of people identify their lives with music. Is there a tune or entire soundtrack in game music that you feel best identifies with your life?

LA: I’m huge into identifying my life with music (as anyone who follows my Twitter can attest), but I guess I’ve never really thought about relating to game songs. But there are a couple – I always found myself personalizing “Letter to my future self” from SH 3 (correct me if that’s not the name of it!) and “You’re Not Here”. Then there was a time in my life where I was worried about the happiness of someone I cared about, and found myself frequently listening to (and getting choked up over!) “1000 Words” from FFX-2. Yeah, I’m a little cheesy.

I used to go on long runs much more regularly than I do now, and the Katamari Damacy soundtrack practically saved my workout routine. I’d be jogging through the city of New York and exhausted, and then suddenly “Katamari On The Rock” would come on… and it’s so ridiculously grandiose and silly, that song, and I love that game so much, that I’d get this huge surge of energy. While around me people on errands were kind of shambling around on boring errands with serious faces, oblivious to what was going on in my headphones … it always gave me a huge giggle and made my run fun.

OSV: Many games have a GAME OVER fanfare or jingle of some sort. What is the ONE GAME OVER jingle that has made you nearly go postal?

LA: The first thing I can think of is that altogether too chipper (albeit dark) piano jingle for Donkey Kong Country, accompanied by depressed monkeys stomping on their hats or sadly shaking their heads. That one used to drive me a bit nuts. The old PC title The Colonel’s Bequest had this abrupt, ominous trio of organ chords which used to always make me jump in startlement – that game is kinda creepy anyway, and half the apprehension comes from the fact you can die at the drop of a hat, so I never liked to hear that tune.

I like the melancholy, soft ones that tend to play in RPGs though!

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