Peritextual Game Music (Writing Music for Games, Part 1)

This essay is based on lecture notes for my Video Game Music Composition class I’ve been teaching at SAIC.

For this essay, I want to look at approaches towards title screen, pause/save menu music, and motivations for these approaches. This essay does not go into music theoretical breakdowns of the mentioned songs.

Peritext, Paratext, Epitext…

In the recent 2016 collection, Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, Michiel Kamp wrote a paper called “Suture and Peritexts: Music Beyond Gameplay and Diegesis”. In it, Kamp proposes :

“that there are two primary ways of understanding music beyond diegetic gameplay sequences: as peritexts (Genette, 1997; Summers, 2012) and as a structuring device that relates different situations to each other in time.” (Source)

A peritext is part of a model of viewing an  Artwork. The model posits that a work can be viewed as two separate parts, the text and paratext. The text is the work itself, in the case of a game – roughly, the gameplay. The paratext consists of other things a consumer encounters on their way to playing the game. Reviews, fan theories, marketing, the title screen, all of which color the experience of playing the game.

A paratext is further broken down into two parts, epitext and peritext. Peritext consists of “materials that surround and are attached to the text itself:  a book’s cover and index…” (Ludomusicology, 75). Epitext is everything else: marketing, trailers, fan theories, criticism, hype.

So, in the case of a game, the peritext is often things like: the title screen, save menu, loading screens, credits, main menus. They are ‘part of the game’, yet not in the same way the moment-to-moment gameplay is. This definition doesn’t generalize perfectly over all games, but it will do for now.

Peritexts seem to exist on a spectrum of distance from the ‘text’ of the game. What is peritext and what is not depends on the game, but can be determined by considering how a particular moment in the game moves our experience with it to and from the text of the game. Kamp created a helpful chart (distortion is mine, whoops.). What is peritextual here is debatable, but you can tell that the non-gameplay+nondiegetic elements are clearly more peritextual than say, the gameplay+diegetic elements. Of course, you may have a game like OneShot or Metal Gear Solid that play with peritext in a 4th-wall-breaking way, by asking you to unplug controllers or look on your computer desktop.

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.26.43 PM.png

 

Okay So What Does This Have To Do With Music

What was exciting about reading this paper (and this essay) was that it finally gave a name, ‘peritextual music’, to music that appears in title screens, credits, intro sequences.

On an intuitive level, a good game composer will know what this music is supposed to sound like, but it was nice to find that how this music operates can partially be explained by a model used to analyze other creative artworks.

Peritextual game music can be broken into a few categories:

  • “Diegetic Break-Smoothing”
    • Location: Pause Menus. Inventory Menus. Death Music.
    • Preserve a player’s engagement with the game that may be reduced by the diegetic breaks caused the above situations. “Smooths over” these breaks. Help stabilize the ‘temporal ebb and flow‘ (Ludomusicology, 78) of intensity in engagement with a game’s text.
  • “Preparation to Enter the game”
    • Location: Title screens, pre-title cutscenes, Character Creation music, menus taking place before entering the game.
    • This music helps the player enter the world of the game, hints at what is to come, or, “primes” the player to engage with the text. The main distinction from the above.
  • Overlapping cases:
    • Location: Loading screens (the loading screen from the title screen of Dragon Quest XI is the same as the one that shows when we fast travel.)
    • Rare cases when the title screen is the same as a pause menu (As Kamp mentions, this happens in Max Payne).
    • Settings and Save menus can vary in presentation and music depending on the game.

Title Screen Music

A good title screen theme draws you in to the fiction of the game. It understands that it is the first piece that cuts you off from the audio of your immediate physical surroundings, and that is offering a preview or taste of the game. Songs here may draw upon important melodic motifs or instruments used throughout the game’s soundtrack. Or, they may conjure up images and feelings representative of the game. The energy of the song – whether on the slower/calmer side, or more intense/upbeat side, is dictated by the game.

Take the title screen of Final Fantasy 13, which contains the main theme. While FF13 is not the strongest game, the song hints at the game’s narrative themes and conceits of trying to save friends and siblings and maintaining hope. It does this in a gentle way, with light piano, and quiet orchestral accompaniments. This method works well in games with strong casts of characters and a well-written main theme, when the game is dramatic enough to merit these sorts of grand title themes. Final Fantasy 15 takes a similar approach.

The title theme from my game Even the Ocean, “A Streak of Lavender”, slowly fades in the atmosphere of the game. The melody played by the lead synth incorporates the main Even the Ocean motif, but is recontextualized in a more melancholic, mysterious manner (than say, the credits theme, or introductory story theme, or orchestral-like overworld song.) However, the game isn’t all just that sort of semi-dark fantastical mystery, and so the 2nd half of the song is an ethereal mix of a string-like sound and piano (I was actually riffing off the end of the FF13 theme here, which does a similar job of using more ethereal sounds in order to suggest you to begin and enter the game.) The title screen of Even the Ocean focuses on an image of a cabin in the woods – and my focus with the song was to try and transport you into this mysterious setting, before the Storyteller brings you into the game proper.

An example of a weak title theme would be Donkey Kong Country 2. This is bizarre because of the high quality of its songs, including the excellent Stickerbrush Symphony. The issue here is not a poorly written song (though it does cut out sort of suddenly), but more that it fails to encompass the overall feel of the game. The title theme sounds quite dark and forboding, and while it does play with ‘pirate’ motifs present in the games’ levels and songs, I wouldn’t call this characteristic of the game, which has an interesting mix of thick atmospheres and subtle humor. Weirder is the very happy file select music and then the again, forboding level select music that follow. The title in DKC2 feels like something that wasn’t as hardly thought about. Either way, it seems fine because the file select music is catchy and sort of overrides the short title screen.

 

Introductory Menu Music

Some games, when re-using the title screen song is inappropriate, will have separate songs for important title/main menu stuff. A strong example is Phantasy Star Online’s main menu music, “Prenotion”, and character creation music, “Image A Hero”. The main menu music immediately sets the general tone of the game – futuristic synths, a sense of flying through space.

(I would argue that PSO fails to live up to this title screen, which, based on FF15 and 13’s failures, I can only chalk up to that it’s much easier to write a song encompassing a theoretical ideal game, vs. pulling off a ‘perfect’ game worked on with financial expectations and many workers. I’m not complaining, title screen music is interesting in that it gives us a view into an ideal, perfected game.)

PSO has a mission structure where you accept quests from a spaceship, and then beam down to the planet to explore. But I think the story felt a little light, which goes against the interesting grandeur of the main menu music.

Likewise, this happens with the character creation music, which serves to almost prepare you for the bright lights of the game’s main hub world spaceships.

Pause Screen Music

Some games add music to the pause menus. Some game just leave the current environment’s music looping, optionally lowering the volume or filtering out higher frequencies. These approaches function differently in terms of how they preserve or interrupt the game’s diegesis. I don’t find one or the other to be stronger, as they have different effects. So it’s worth noting that interruption of the game’s diegesis is not necessarily a bad thing.

Upbeat, Preparatory Approach

Final Fantasy 15 has an upbeat pause theme. The pause menu has information about the game and shows the main characters standing, hanging out. I wonder why they chose to add a pause menu theme – my guess is it would be odd to pause the game in a battle, and have the music keep playing, and then see my four main characters hanging out in some blue, empty space, acting relaxed and chill, while their ‘in-game’ selves are fighting a giant dragon. The song helps to cover up the intrusive pause menu, with music that focuses on the game’s main musical motifs, and allows the player to focus on memories of the journey so far.

Pokemon TCG has a great theme. What’s weird is this pause theme tends to interrupt this overworld theme. In addition, the pause menu is a short loop, and you usually spend minutes rearranging your deck and strategizing. So it makes less sense to me to have a potentially irritating song there, though the pause theme has much more of a ‘let’s prepare for a fight!” feel to it.

This NBA Live 97 theme is similar to Pokemon TCG in terms of function, presumably.

Quiet Ambience Approach

I’m not sure how far this dates back. But in a lot of AAA games, the game will go nearly silent when pausing the game, though still have some light ambience. See Assassin’s Creed IV. This theme from The Wolf Among Us is a more brooding and present.

I think, in the case of Assassin’s Creed, the effect here is to remind you of the game’s narrative framing device – the game being a simulation of an ancestor’s memory. So while the game audio may be interrupted, in some sense, the near silence makes sense narratively.  The pause menu is transporting you to a new space, just like the FF15 pause menu, rather than overlaying a UI.

In GTA V, there’s a lightly melodic, ambient drone piece for the pause menu. The feeling here is one of rest/reflection. It’s strange – why not just keep the music playing in game? I haven’t played in a while, but you can listen to music while driving, and presumably while walking around. In a game that focuses on personalizing one’s musical experience, it feels odd to cut that off with some Tangerine Dream piece.

Melodic Rest Approach

Kirby: Planet Robobot. Somewhat close to the “upbeat” approach, but with more of a muzak/elevator music feel to it. This reminds me of music that plays on a handheld when you get up to do something, and you end up forgetting about the game for a few minutes while the song loops. It kind of inspires reflection on the game, because the music is transporting you slightly out of whatever you were doing in-game.

The Banjo-Kazooie theme, while irritating with its horns and banjo, functions similarly. Somehow, it’s a little endearing (likely because of it echoing the game’s main musical themes.)

And, Mother 3.

Nothing Else Approach

Some games do nothing, like Even the Ocean, which just loops the current area’s music. I did this partly out of not thinking much about the idea of music while paused. My earlier game, Anodyne, also has no special music for the pause menu. My intuition is this approach works well when the UI is clearly just an overlay, rather than an entire different space (like Assassin’s creed or FF15). That is, no matter what’s in the pause menu (within reason), it won’t be too big of an interruption. Of course, what you sacrifice is the possibility of conjuring feelings of preparation (like in Pokemon TCG or FF15). But, it’s possible that narrative diegesis is better preserved as there are no cuts in a level’s audio.


That’s it for this time, see everyone in Part 2! Not sure what it will be about – maybe complaints about overused instruments in ‘fire/hot/lava’ levels and their stereotyping effect on some cultures.

Advertisements

Perfect OST (2016) – Song Descriptions

Here are some thoughts on the songs on the unfinished OST for my abandoned 2016 game, Perfect. You can buy the album here for $3 and you are free to use the music as you wish in projects, as long as you make < $50k a year. Otherwise contact me about licensing fees!

As always, follow me on Twitter for more news, and join my studio’s newsletter my latest games and music news. Or, like my “MUSICIAN FACEBOOK PAGE”.

Prelude – 2016-2-8

I believe I wasn’t going to use this for the final game – it was one of the first (the first?) song written, with an early version of Perfect in mind, and ended up being a little too “orchestral” and dramatic… perhaps even a little cheesy (1:29, lol).
Metallic drums are neat, though. The concept of the song is not bad, but poorly executed. I may have been riffing off “Ballad” by Vangelis. The over-attentions to chords in the bassline seem to indicate that maybe I was trying to go for ‘anime opening’, too.

Song Select – 3/1/2016
Originally, the game would present sort of a carousel of squares, each corresponding to an interview and song. This song plays while you pick the song to use. If Perfect were to be finished, I don’t think this song would be in the final game. (Maybe a save menu?)
I didn’t finish this until December 2016, for a ‘live show’ I played, I used this song as the opener.

Computer Desktop – 2/23/2016 – April 2017
Possibly my favorite song here – one of the earliest I started, but I never finished it past 0:45 until using it in a live set in April 2017. You know the green hill in the default Windows XP background? Maybe this song represents flying and soaring through those hills, with the swooping motion of the notes. Even a string quartet shows up, followed by some impossible passages.
I really do like orchestral instruments (I grew up playing the violin and piano!), but the ways in which composers tend to use them are often bland and predictable. I know this isn’t a sentiment only I share – like any sound, a composer doesn’t need to limit themselves to the use of orchestral sounds in 20th century classical traditions or film music cliches. Oh well, here we are. I’m working on something that highlights these kinds of sounds…

Taiwantown Governance – 5/9/2016 – 5/27/2016
This was supposed to represent the process of governing a body of people… maybe from the serious orderly nature of the rhythms. Either way, I ended up using it in a short game, “HIROSHIMA 2016: SEAN HOGAN VISITS JAPAN”. The ending is a Hisaishi Joe nod…I don’t really like it how I used it, now, hehe.
I was probably ripping off Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’s metal melody sounds, too.

ACK – 2/22/2016 – Dec 2016

Again I used this in a liveset and finished it. I was thinking about the TCP algorithm and the “ACK” signal, which is a fundamental algorithm for making the internet work. You could think of this song as travelling through the inside of computers or transcontinental cables. Dark, electricity, encrypted data, etc. I really like the weird synth thing at 0:24 and how it transposes over time. The song, however, moves from an intense image to a more traditional song over time – probably because of using it in a liveset I had to transition somehow. I like how the song has 3 parts w/ different but related ideas.

Dancing Club – 2/14/2016 – Dec 2016

Another liveset song. Was meant for a place inside of a nightclub, while people were dancing. Of course, you would never hear this sort of song in a nightclub, at least not today, the song is more the impression of a nightclub. Maybe it sounds a little too dark though, and in my experience clubs are usually pretty happy places. The darkness probably comes from the context of the game. Weird voice-like samples near the end, a silly time signature, etc.

Music Studio – 4/17/2016 – Apr 2017

I used the 2nd half of this in a liveset in April 2017. Playing with some dance hall music motifs… single big bass, sound effects. The first half of the song was trying to re-use that guitar sound I used a lot in Anodyne’s OST. As well as the ‘brightness‘ synth from the Megadrive soundfont (which is just some sort of sine-wave timbre)

Dim Lake Cavern – 2/12/2016 – Apr 2017

I finished this song for a April 2017 liveset. Originally it was part of one big song…I think with the “Caves” outtake. Somehow in the second half, when that drum beat comes in, reminds me of Angel or Teardrop by Massive Attack. Might have been riffing on that…

I used a lot of those deeper, warm and reverbed synths in the start to simulate the feeling of lit hotel pools. Think that, at night, but in a giant cavern with warm water – that’s the idea I was going for. The image changes, though, as the “Massive Attack” section starts, I guess.

And oops, I guess the song doesn’t have an ending.

Exterior Surface of Perfect – 7/13/2016

Since Perfect was this megastructure, it had an exterior made of metal or something protective. I had imagined who would have to clean this, like a window washer. I mean, clearly in this kind of future a robot would… but imagine if a human had to do maintenance in such cold and windy conditions? I guess there are people with jobs like that today. So the imagery of the song, kind of mysterious, windy, lonesome.

Outskirts of Perfect – 2/14/2016 – April 2017

Finished for a live set. I liked to imagine these large gates with a dusty path leading to them, as the main entrance to Perfect. Sort of a desert wasteland, but with occasional plants and trees still. Some of the sounds imitate birds. But mostly going for that feeling of walking around an empty or unknown place by yourself. At night…

The song transitions into a new section near the end, but I never finished it. It seems a little out of place, like you walked by some odd sight. It’s sort of iffy to me, but whatever.

Freezing Desert Night – 7/27/2016

A few other songs on here do this, but similar to some of the thinking in Even the Ocean, I was playing with mixing textures and short melodic phrases. Using some electronic static samples to build texture. I wanted this to be longer but couldn’t at the time figure out what to do. I like that the background texture kind of reminds me of a hospital ICU… it’s an interesting image on top of the other sounds, which are more like ghostly images appearing as you walk around a cold desert.

Dusty Wasteland – 5/28/2016

Another ambient song for travelling wastelands/deserts. Like some of the other songs this uses a technique of trying to score images in a certain space and arranging those together, one after another. This is a useful technique for songs where something too rhythmic or melody-focused would be inappropriate, and when you don’t just want to slap together an ambient drone.

Evening Balcony – 2/17/2016 – 5/2/2016

First, I have to say, there is a really nice and subtle delay feedback tail around 0:17 that I really like. Like magical steam… somehow, I really like how this song transitions into the part with the bassline. It’s kind of meditative… I really recommend listening to Cave Story’s Balcony, which I think might have been an inspiration for this. The chords are a little too forward in the mix for me, though. I’m not sure why I never finished this one since it seems easy-ish to complete.

Worker Caves

The plain sine-wave sound is because a plug-in broke and I didn’t bother to try to fix whatever patch I had originally on the synth. But it was pretty close to a sine wave so this is close-ish to the original. Again, here, more of those metal drums, and synths with some kind of pitch envelope on them… I like how there’s a lot of steady-walking-pace melody lines overlapping in the end. Gives a sense of constant labor and movement.

Dormitory Halls

I was trying to capture the eeriness of empty apartment hallways here, maybe even hotel hallways? How they can loop and twist and feel eerie at night. As this one goes on, it becomes less successful, though. Probably the bassline would have needed to become less prominent and something else taking its place to continue the song.

Double Bedroom

Honestly, this seems to have nothing to do with a bedroom, or the digital. If anything, it sounds a bit like an occult clown dance ritual, with all the detuned honking synths. The bassline is kind of tight and fun, I don’t often write stuff like that. The part at 0:33… how odd. This song probably needed more direction and tethering to some imagined space, if anything, but I could see it being finished and having an interesting 2-minute piece.

Day Trader

Ask me how I feel about the stock market! The really crude beat and harsh synths remind me of stock trade orders zooming around really fast, people trying to short and beat each other out to make money out of someone else’s faith or greed.

Forest Game Level

This was basically a rip-off of uh… Pat Metheny’s ‘Minuano’. This song sort of feels like a theatrical score to someone travelling through an MMORPG’s redwood forest, while they hunt someone else down. It would have been neat to finish this… I especially like the upright bass part. One weird thing is the lack of electronic instrumentation here.

Personal Brand Machine

I was thinking about the steady, factory like process of which social media websites shape get us to try and optimize some process to best exploit and win clout within that website’s system. It’s kind of funny to me, personal brands. Everyone has them, just some are more absurd and extreme than others… think of some game YouTubers. Etc. I mean, I have some of my own, too. Making a living on the internet requires cultivating one, at least a little. So that’s why this song is a little more playful vs. dark.

Online Shopping Carts

Another playful one! I really like how this builds up from a funny blippy bass to maybe something you’d hear in one of those absurdist mid-2000s internet videos, like Lonely Island stuff… Hm, the sawtooth wave synth part comes strangely close to “Don’t Stop Believing”, one of the worst songs known to mankind (only outclassed by the Chocobo Theme). But it works here.

I was trying to represent someone who spends a lot of time just shopping, living in a little bubble of their own. Someone to whom the world is just sales, bubbles, rainbows, etc.

I’d love to finish this song at some point!

Data Sea Server Room

What does a Server Room sound like? Well, physically, it is just loud fans, blaring. Quiet rows of black towers, maybe a footstep or two. I was thinking about the steady march and creeping of personal data into massive server rooms, or “Data Seas/Oceans”

The Data Sea

This takes the server room song one step further, jumping straight into the concept of the Cloud, or when online storage becomes more consolidated, redirected, confusing – maybe the “Data Ocean”. I like the imagery of the ocean more, though it’s more dystopic. A cloud can be mysterious, but it still feels more knowable than the vast ocean. Most of us have flown through clouds, after all.

This is a pretty slow-churning ambient piece, but I think it rewards with the textures that appear. (Soundcloud fans didn’t seem to think so…)

Random Number Generator

Pretty much an experiment. What does a random number generator sound like? Well, you’d get something much worse if the frequencies were totally random… so I limited things to be at least a little pleasant. Maybe this RNG only produces integers…

Vector

N-dimensional, 3-dimensional vectors! This is what they sound like, maybe…

I really love the 2nd part of this! I want to finish this, too. The first part is kind of a strange intro. It’s the kind of intro that someone would hear and then immediately skip, no doubt. The second half – when the bleeps turn into more normal arpeggiations, I think would be a cool background to some kind of avant garde pop song.

Eviction Algorithm

I was thinking about the systems people obey when they choose to go and evict people. It’s pretty dark! Mostly to make money or under pressure from external, heartless developers. Preying upon the least fortunate in our society. The slight pitch shifting in this song is creepy.

Indirect Violence

The things people do to make money, that ultimately result in violence. The blind optimizer of a soda company whose products cause disease. Harmless-sounding national policy… etc. I like how this song has this ‘approaching wall of CHORD’ that just cuts out quickly. The second, upbeat part of this, I wonder where it would have went. Not sure if it’s the best ‘solution’ for this song.

Desert Dancing

Strange beat here… interesting drums, though. And those sparkling piano runs are interesting fluorishes. Maybe this could evolve into a dance song.

Commercial

This sounds like music for a bad candy commercial. Occasionally I’ll try to write some kind of pop like this… and then get bored or frustrated and quit. In the ending part, I may have been ripping off the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu song “Tokyo Highway” or the ostinato in Kidorikko’s song “流行通信簿”. Upon listening to that KPP Song, definitely the KPP song.

Cool Cold Club

Interesting beat. Not a ton going on, though… but this would be a nice background ambience for something.

Pop Joke

This was a joke. However, there is something kind of fun about taking a musical structure you Really hate and then writing something to that structure and seeing how it turns out. I copied this weird ‘breakdown’ from some pop song, though my memory has protected me from remembering which song.

Swamp Dance

Why is this a swamp? I don’t know. Maybe from the low bass drums and odd guitar plucks. It reminds me of something Nobuo Uematsu might write, and that I would skip whenever hearing it in the OST… eh heh. The weird sound effect at 0:43 is really nice, though. And in a few other places. Also there’s a dog woof too (a high pitch Cuica)

Edgy Dance

This synth sound is kind of cheesy. Also there’s glide on it, which makes it worse. Still, there’s something appealing, or fierce, about it..

Untitled

??? Why did I include this at all? I like the guitar riff though. It reminds me of some Vampire Weekend riff – I think Giving Up The Gun.

Taiwantown Governor

Clear piano arrangement rip-off of Plains of Rowahl from Lost Kingdoms. That’s an amazing song.

Library

Classical and cute I guess. Could’ve been something.

 

Deios II : Deidia (Game Music Review)

My gamedev/musician college BARCHboi recently finished his game, Deidia. It had one of the better soundtracks of any 2D game to come out in 2016 (or ever, really), and so I wanted to jot down a few notes about why I found that to be the case. BARCHboi is part of an interesting (small) trend of solo game designers who also have a large background music production, and thus, their solo musical work and musical work for games often overlaps.

You can watch some footage below:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

The Intro

The game starts with a shareware-like intro, reminiscent of the 90s, even featuring what sounds like general MIDI instruments (or synths and samples close to or complementing that aesthetic). Intros are an important thing within games – not necessarily from a narrative standpoint, but they do preview and and help prepare the player for playing the game, sort of like dimming the lights in a theatre before the movie – asking you to focus on the game.

In Part 1, around 1:30 the game fakes a loading screen, adding a lovely pad sound before the game action starts, reminding me a bit of short melodic line at the beginning of this character creation song from PSO 1/2.

The sound effect is important – it mimics the process of logging into early web services like AOL or even login noises for desktop computers, giving us some hints as to how to interpret the game ahead. In that vein, so far the sounds of Deidia have given a similar feel to ‘viewing the future’ from the perspective of the booming internet in the 1990s, though I would like to distinguish this from the sounds of vaporwave or 80s pop and the like.

And then… silence!

In the game

Mostly silence, at least. Silence can be as effective as music in games. It draws your attention to what you’re doing rather than as a background to what you’re doing. Eventually, though, you can forget about it (or it can be very awkward depending on the situation). Wind, a buzzing noise sound, water drops in a cave, the human grunt of the character jumping, and soon, the clicking of your deitycoin miners.

Deidia has what is called ‘dynamic game music’ – its music shifts and changes at a finer grain than that of normal games that only use single loops. Around 3:35 of Part 2, as I approach the cave, a pad synth fades in, as well as louder rain noises. Later around 4:45, up to three layers of rain (each with progressively more low end content) fades in, to simulate walking into a rainstorm. These techniques can emphasize the contrasts between different areas within games by changing their sounds. This idea, emphasizing contrasts, is fundamental to making game music, and traditional single-loop music can do it too (like if the interior and exterior of a building have different sounds). However when making a game with dynamic music it can be easier to do this on a finer-grained level.

Sound of deitycoin

The deitycoin miners – things I can buy through an in-game menu in order to gain more money – are an interesting design choice. Deitycoins are essentially useless outside of opening a few doors in the game, in that sense they seem like an underdeveloped game system. But their signature clicking, which fades in whenever you open the game menu, I would argue serves as reminding us that this game is intended as some sort of strange post-apocalypse – a game taking place in the decaying remains of some sort of online space. That is the sound effect signals back to the player that there’s some kind of strange programmed, internet architecture at play in the game’s world. The user interface of the game does this, as well – allowing you to glitch things – resizing the player, moving around collidable objects, changing colors.

But it’s this idea of a post-apocalypse that is interesting: Deidia’s post-apocalypse is not after the end of our physical Earth, but an abstraction of what would remain after the end of some kind of common internet social space, perhaps what an MMORPG looks and sounds like when everything has crashed and become corrupted, or a social network when everyone’s left. Endless, rainy, cloudy mountains, vast seas and networks of caves, little direction and forlorn music. While playing Deidia, we’re treated to what this may sound like.

Traditional Music

Deidia does contain “normal” music. 6:20 features signature sounds of BARCHboi – some synth from the 80s (which I always ask about and forget the name of), using a brassy swelling pad. To me these often sound like music “leftover” in the world of Deidia – coincidentally appearing at places. As if, the coding scripts gluing together the world have been falling apart slowly.

There’s even a strange musical moment at 6:40 when I’m warped into some cloudy ambience zone – inexplicable movements through space which further reinforce the game’s aesthetic.

Another sound I like  -appearing around 7:20 – is the fake animal noise. These synth squeals simulate some kind of lifeform, but we only ever see birds in the game and it’s not clear the birds are making the noise. It gives the sense that the world of Deidia is slowly repopulating with animals, alien life.

The sequence around 9:20 is one of the more brilliant points of the game, utilizing interesting camera work, sound design, visual aesthetics of a crashing shore, and the assumption of players to just run to the right in platforming games.

The drama of Deidia jumps all over the place. Music will cut out at random times, fade in suddenly. For minutes at a stretch you might be stuck hearing bird and rain noises, to be treated to a traditionally composed track by BARCHboi. I like this aspect of personality and depth to Deidia, and it’s been inspiring to me for learning to compose dynamic game music, much like some of the work of David Kanaga (like on Oikospiel – highly recommended).

Regular looping music has its place – and so does dynamic – and so why not explore both as a composer? Perhaps game composers can bring these ideas into the world of standalone music. Experimental and game composers have a lot of common ground to learn from each other, in writing for the spaces of clubs, homes, commutes, writing about systems of power and oppression, writing for the digital spaces of games, websites, videos, and so on.


Buy here: https://barch.itch.io/deiosiideidia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Album Review: rio8 – 🐹 OST (11/2016)

This is a review of the OST from the game 🐹 by carpetbones. Also written as “u1f439”, or for this review, HAMSTER. (The game name is officially just the emoji but sometimes it doesn’t render, so.)

Listen along and support the composer here – https://rio8.bandcamp.com/album/u1f439-ost

No commentary playthrough of the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nw_uswPTai8

a2011094442_16

This game comes from a lineage of 2D, top-down dreamscape exploration games where the places you explore and inhabit are often of a surreal nature. Thus the music often doesn’t follow traditional structures.

Music for these settings can draw from a range of influences, the least interesting way to discuss them is writing them off as ambient, it is more interesting to create descriptions of textures, materials, atmospheres – that the music draws upon.

The sort of style for many of these types of games, Hamster included, is a short ambient loop – which is constructed as a combination of moods, textures, ‘shapes’. It’s not so much the notes that matter in particular here (you can often just slap on random notes and it will work for this style of composition) but the sorts of textures of the sounds.

 

 

Track-by-track

1) Credits

Objectively the most cheery piece in the album – perhaps the simplest as well, with some added complexity in the quieter harmony notes of the rhodes-like lead, which add a nice layer of depth to help accentuate the cuteness of the piece.

What sticks out to me, in context of this album, is just how cheery this piece is.  It’s here I need to bring up the context of the game – and that it seems to stake a divide between dream and reality, as the music does, too. As we’ll see in later tracks, the music seems to suggest particular connotations about dreams.

For the unfamiliar, this song falls has the locational context (not a genre!) of”Title Screen”, as in it joins a group of diverse music that plays on the Title Screens of video games.

It’s music that plays when you open a video game up to play it, but before the game itself starts. Sort of like a title card or intro credits to a movie.

I find it helpful to ask, how does the title screen music in a game frame the game or foreshadow it, how does it sound once I’ve played the game?

2) Garden

This song is one instrument as well (though with three separate voice lines), similar but warmer to the one in Credits. It is a short, straightforwardly positive loop – each voice working in the same key and accentuating the same mood, with that a sort of ‘yearning’ or nostalgic nature  brought upon by the chosen chord structures, most apparent when the middle voice holds a sustain note on a chord.

In some ways it reminds me of noodling on a Casio in my college dorm room – sort of a sheltered, quiet and friendly place.

It sets an interesting tone for the rest of the album – this occupies a completely different mind-space than anything else, that of a cheery garden or nostalgic place. And fittingly, it is set in such a place in-game – the outdoors garden of the protagonist hamster, in the hamster’s waking world.

 

3) White

This is the most violent rupture in mood continuity in the album (and game) – immediately I get some calls back to Yume Nikki’s OST and very likely other games and spin-offs related to it which I’ve never listened to the music from.

In this case we only have two: a droning, downsampled buzzy synth with a sine-LFO on its amplitude. The LFO is important in not wearing out the listener’s ear, it also helps with accentuating a feeling of uncertainty and anticipation (though those feelings would exist WITHOUT the LFO, I’d argue). We also hear the volume of the drone voice being automated with its volume to grow and recede in intensity, further accentuating this feeling.

The second important element to break up the pace of the drone is the delayed synth which seems to have the same or similar timbre as the drone, just it’s not sustained, but bounces around the song.

Overall I’d say this serves as a good transition to the rest of the album – where moods continue to vary but stick to the same format of a more textural music.

4) Puddle

For me, sometimes it can help – either while composing or listening to music that does not follow the structure of popular music – to imagine it as a progression through a particular landscape, where in place of a landmark passing your vision, the song brings in particular elements.

This is one of the longest songs on the album. The background of the entire song is the delayed bell synths, secondarily, the more melodic ones that come in at a lower register.

The most interesting ‘sight’ here would be the traditionally dissonant sound that comes in around 0:50 – contributing even further to the clipping of the music, transitioning from a simple sound to a wobbly one by means of an extreme sine-LFO on the pitch of the sound.

Composing something like this is fun – one fun thing is to change up what the most melodic element of the song is, which happens throughout. (I like 1:44, though it fades into the mix rather quickly, it provides an interesting point of contrast that departs from the general ‘uncertainty ambience’ of this piece.

As for the game context, this takes place in a rainy tennis court. Interesting to read the delayed bells as ‘rain’ and the misty/cloudy-like optimism of the song as being used to color in an ambiguous, yet slightly positive and cloudy day.

5) Highway

Highway is interesting – the scene in the game it is from is a highway, and I think takes influence from one of my games, Anodyne. Dark road, yellow lane markings and skid marks.

The song itself conjures a demonic, bumpy car ride through a dark underpass. The clipping, water-wet-sounding blips that surround the ‘engine growl’ synth add a nice widening to the song.

This kind of textural music tends to create an unsettling feeling – letting you tap into darker places or ideas in your mind.

6) Office

This is one of the trickier songs to critique off the album – listening to it now, outside of the game, it strikes me as a bit annoyingly random and weak, the bassline randomly meandering at a constant pace.

It makes a lot more sense, within the context of the game, though, where you navigate a series of small, square-shaped office rooms. With the game, the song is complete – calling upon a tone of disorientation and confusion that’s conjured by the strangeness of uniform office spaces across the world. Office spaces – confined, orderly rooms with water coolers and cubicles.

7) Train

Alone, this is one of the weaker songs on the album.

The volume LFO around 0:40 is a nice twist on the constant timbre of the synth, as well as the steam-y breathing synth that plays in parallel with the more pronounced wobbly bass synth. These two ideas seem like they could have led to more, but instead this song choose to randomly jump around with the pitch of its main synth. Things become a bit more interesting near the end of the song, but never enough to really cohere into a more interesting atmosphere or image – the song comes off as a little rushed or noodled into the keyboard.

Taken a little further, in some way – more layers, effects, or compositional changes, I think this could work for some kind of empty and sprawling space, or a quieter confined and subdued space.

For some reason this song plays in a later part of the game than it does in the album. It plays in a realistic-ish looking city where you can walk over train tracks and watch trains going by. In this context the song makes more sense, the meandering synth serving more as a point of creating tension within the game’s atmosphere.

8) Jelly

I can kind of understand this track – but I think some mixing might have helped with reducing the bass frequencies, which seem to overpower the pleasant bubbling mid-range synth that pops up now and then.

Still, I like the song at a more abstract level – this barely audible rumbling contrasting against  a louder bubbling.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think this fits the area it plays in particularly well, where you walk through a black field filled with sugar cubes and a spoon. I imagine more of some kind of place where you are in transit.

9) Phone

I almost want the meandering bassline here to be a little less random – or more consistently confined to one range, maybe interspersed with silence or gaps. The repetition here sounds more grating – like putting a randomizer on the pitch for a donky xylophone synth and calling it a day. To some extent, this does seem to describe the dial tones of a phone, which I would chalk up as a positive for the song. The area in-game also features scissors and telephones in its landscape.

10) Underwater

This takes a similar approach to previous songs – building up the sound with meandering notes, except each note is sustained longer and has a longer attack. In this way, the effect of the random notes is more bearable to the listener, because the randomness of the notes is not as apparent, thanks to the timbre of the notes being sort of a growing drone.

It’s interesting – on its own this song feels hot, warm. Kind of a gritty/fire texture to it, but in-game it’s used in an underwater area where you walk very slowly! Works well as an example in where an environment and the song may have some contrast to them that creates something interesting together.

11) Doors

This song goes alongside one of the more surreal spaces inside of Hamster, a black space with doors scattered around with blue skies and white clouds showing through them, reminding me a bit of the painter Magritte’s Surrealist work.

The form of doors may be a reference to Yume Nikki or other sorts of games (LSD Dream Emulator). Which feature doors prominently as passageways between spaces.

How should the passageways between one room and another be delineated in an abstract setting?

Well… you can use the most literal choice, of doors. Which has an interesting effect.

I think this song uses silence well. Silence is a tool that is easy to forget we have, as musicians. Creating anticipation for the next note, confusion as why music cut out, contemplation of what’s to come…

In some way this song points more to anxiety, I think due to the dial-tone like synth that pervades the song in between staticy synth that appears from time to time.

12) Kid

This is a ‘sad’ song –  fitting into the locational context of a ‘game over’ song, or ‘sad cutscene’ song. A more melodic song in the middle of a bunch of more textural work always hints at some narrative meaning. The area in the game this song takes place in features toybox-like shapes, clown heads, fried eggs, childrens’ blocks. Even without the game, the word “Kid” gives us some connections to sadder or nostalgic moments of someone’s childhood.

I find this song nice, but since it covers well-treaded musical ground I find it less interesting than others. I do like it as it kind of calls back some of more melodic songs on the album (like #2 Garden).

13) Candle

The breathy ambience here seems a little too quiet relative to the rest of the OST. Reminds me of times at night when walking alone through the city – hearing air conditioners echo through streets surrounded by tall buildings.

These kinds of textures summon images and ideas related to vast, mechanical and oppressive spaces, devoid of any living creatures.

In the game it’s put to use in a sort of ruined, grey cobblestone city with unlit candles.

14) Radio

Goopy, bubbling black textures make up the lower end of this song’s frequency range. This part establishes the general mood of the song, the higher notes are used to create the feeling of walking through a dark place, and quickly darting your head at what seemed to be a passing light or sound.

In a more taste way, I thought the higher notes may have been too much, at least at ~0:40. Perhaps a better way could have been to reduce the delay feedback, or just lower the volume of those sounds? I was hoping for something that made those moments of sounds darting around to be much quicker. The lower-frequency sound at ~1:30 works a lot better for this kind of goal since it doesn’t separate itself too far from the general sound palette of the song.

I like this song a lot – especially in game, as you traverse a dark space, only able to see in a small circle around yourself. As you walk around you reveal the red glowing tips of radio towers, eventually leading you to the exit of the area.

15) In Death

A far stronger ‘ending’ track than #16 Stars, the notes here call back to the feeling of #2 Garden – almost as if the song is trying to recall or wake up to the atmosphere created through Garden. I like this sort of intra-album linkage, as well as how it works in-game, as you travel through a cemetery/forest-like place. It creates some nostalgia for the beginning of the game.

16) Stars

Sort of like #12 Kid, I found the musical territory this treads to not be particularly new. It’s an oddly sad way to end the album – I liked the tonal change in #15 In Death and thought it would have worked well as a replacement for this song.

Worse, it felt out of place in the game – a short walk on clouds through a starry background, back home to end the game.

Whereas many of the tracks sound neutrally or sometimes ‘negatively’ ominous, this song goes for a more sad, piano lullaby vibe, which struck me as a bit off considering the progression of the narrative as a whole didn’t point towards this kind of ending, nor was this describing a particularly sad/lullaby sort of space/scene.

Overall

That covers my thoughts – I liked this album! Again, you can purchase it and support the composer here.

I hope to write more reviews later and figure out more interesting ways of writing about music. This review got a little formal at times, but I think it’s useful to break music down to figure out why it gives us the feelings it does. “Disassembly” work also makes it easier to incorporate aspects of a song into work as a composer.

Feel free to leave comments below!

Sean

A note on music found in Games… maybe I’ll expand on this later.

The value I find for this sort of short-textural music, or more generally music in games – or More Generally experimental music, as a composer, is how it expands my vocabulary for describing spaces (hospital, driveway, store, etc). I can see how a composer envisioned a particular place sounding – or, I can ignore the game context entirely, and see what images the music conjures. This format of music makes it easy to incorporate elements of all genres of music, for various effects.

A game plants the seeds for a composer to envision new sounds, likewise, a song can plant the seeds for a game designer to envision new spaces and systems and interactions.

As a listener, this sort of music is interesting in its effect to transport one to unknown and new places – places you can stand still and observe in.

As a critic, this music is important to talk about and signal boost, as a part of the wide variety of experimental music that can be listened and used as-is, or as a base for creating more music, as part of political statements in albums, games, or other media. This kind of music is easily overlooked and ignored from the critical sphere.

Music in games can often be a sort of experimental music. By way of being for games, its roots can sometimes be hard to trace back culturally, at least not in the clear paths often defined in popular musics. But, it’s wrong to say that creators of music in games are not influenced by other music, nor does their music fail to influence future composers (just look at all the popular composers who love 90s game music!).

Further, since there’s not really popular game music (except for some obvious nintendo/final fantasy etc stuff), it can be hard to categorize many game composers into easily-defined movements or buckets.