From the archives: Game music

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Tales of Prolongia

Sunday, 8 March 2009 — 6:11am | Game music, Music

Some of you may be aware that a number of years ago, I dabbled in rearranging melodies from various electronic games, primarily those for Nintendo (entertainment) systems. In 2005, a gentleman in the community by the name of Kyle Crouse approached me about submitting a track to his album-length project, a compilation of rearranged versions of virtually every cue on the soundtracks to Namco’s Tales of Phantasia (SNES) and Tales of Symphonia (GameCube).

They are silly games, but good ones, especially once you get over how the writers and localizers apparently drew names from Norse mythology out of a hat and pinned them on characters, mountains, and magical cities at random like tails on paper donkeys. I put my name up for one of the rather incidental but catchy tracks from the Symphonia score, partly because all the good ones were taken, and whipped something up on my Clavinova one evening in July. As I recall, I skipped a Shakespeare play to do it.

Four years later, Mr Crouse has finally released his project—which I suspect is literally the work of his whole adult life—as Summoning of Spirits: An Arrangement of Music from Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Symphonia. It is fifty-three tracks in length, which I’m told amounts to over five hours of music.

Here’s the YouTube announcement video, with ten minutes of audio samples. (Try not to think about how this project was conceived before anyone knew what YouTube was.)

My contribution is “Continental Divide”—Disc 4, Track 2. I selected the title because the original track comes from a point in the game where the characters cross between two symbiotic worlds that are rapidly drifting apart. A continental divide, in geography, is the border that lies between two watersheds; if you take the Continental Divide of the Americas, for example, the water flows to the Pacific on one side, and the Atlantic on the other. Symphonia-trained ears will pick up on some of the character motifs that I tried to weave in contrapuntally.

Please excuse my sloppy clarinet technique—I was out of practice for years at the time, and I would have re-recorded it had I not lost my raw audio data along with everything else on my old computer. And do enjoy the rest of the album; I should too, eventually.

Related reading:

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Runaway fifths

Tuesday, 6 January 2009 — 10:17am | Game music, Jazz, Music, Video games

My dedicated readers may be aware that one thing I used to follow quite closely, on this journal and elsewhere, was the composition and arrangement of video game music. I haven’t attended to it in some time, and am in no way up to date on what’s been going on with it apart from the occasional press releases that land in my inbox about how (to pick one example) contributors to OC ReMix provided the official soundtrack to a high-definition remake of Street Fighter II.

So I was surprised to discover that a video game band—and a jazz band, no less—had sprung up in my very own a mare usque ad mare backyard under the name of The Runaway Five, after the Blues Brothers spoof band that lets you hop on their tour bus in the oddball Super Nintendo classic EarthBound. I saw them live at the Beat Niq on Saturday, and walked away pleased with a lot of what I heard.

I am careful to say “what I heard” because, in a bungled cross-product of the sound engineering and where I was sitting (but mostly, I conjecture, the former), there were serious acoustic issues that worked against the band. Never mind the unfortunate trend of miking and amping everyone in sight in tight basement clubs where a live sound would serve them better—there were fundamental EQ problems with what was coming out the other end, as if the treble had entirely dropped out. A lot of what the band was trying to do harmonically got lost in the midrange mud-crunching.

As for the band itself—a guitar-piano quartet in the first set and an octet with four horns in the second set—it is the very archetype of the young 2000s band that draws on a potpourri of stylistic influences without necessarily committing to one or another. If their point was to illustrate the versatility of their source material, I’d say they got it across. I jotted down their whole set list but I won’t bother reproducing it here; instead, here are a few performance notes.

Continued »

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Dancing with the stars

Sunday, 18 November 2007 — 6:29pm | Game music, Music, Video games

With 120 stars in hand, I’ve seen most (but not all) of what Super Mario Galaxy has to offer—and my favourite thing about this wholly remarkable game has to be the Comet Observatory waltz. In the many hours I spent with the game, I expended no small measure of time hopping and bopping about in those plumber’s overalls and immersing myself in the rhythm of the piece, which exhibits the sweet, stately lilt of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Like the level selection music in Yoshi’s Island, the instrumentation changes as you progress through the game, building from a lighthearted melodic statement by the flute to a fleshed-out lullaby of Straussian violins befitting a midnight hour with a Disney princess.

Galaxy is the first Mario title to feature live orchestral music, as opposed to music generated by the game system’s MIDI instruments. While most video games have been moving towards scores on par with movies in sound quality and composition—two of the most promising film composers of the past decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, come from a background in games—Nintendo has traditionally been reluctant to move away from programmed music, mostly because of its adherence to the philosophy that interface is always the highest priority (something we similarly observe in their attitude towards story). For instance, they insisted on programmed music in The Wind Waker so it could change dynamically in response to the actions of the player, such as consecutive hits with the sword, and to indicate changes in the environment like the presence of unseen enemies.

In the Mario series, the music serves an even subtler function: it determines the rhythm of the game. It’s there to push the player towards a natural tendency to activate sound effects associated with certain actions—jumping, hitting blocks, collecting power-ups—on the beat.

That’s what the composers claimed, anyhow—and that’s the kind of claim I just had to verify.

Continued »

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Friday, 7 September 2007 — 12:17am | Game music, Music, Video games

Amidst all of the distractions in my immediate local orbit, I almost neglected to mention a certain item that made it to the U of A’s ExpressNews feed: a piece about Guillaume Laroche’s summer research project, which had something to do with variation theory as it pertains to the development of Koji Kondo’s musical compositions over the course of the Legend of Zelda series. (I’ll not go into it further, as I do not wish to misrepresent the argument.)

The article was originally filed under the Faculty of Arts news page (here). For some reason, the ExpressNews version adds this somewhat awkward lede:

September 4, 2007 – Edmonton – New university students will hear warnings that they won’t get much studying done if their room mate has a video games. But the opposite would be true if you roomed with Guillaume Laroche.

Having actually roomed with Mr. Laroche on one occasion, I seriously beg to differ. But I digress.

I was directed to the original article upon its publication on the Arts page about a fortnight ago, and I remember thinking exactly two things: a) “Well, that’s some good publicity,” and b) “I can’t believe he convinced them to print the word ludomusicology.” Ludo-what? Perhaps I should explain.

Continued »

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »