Game Score: Not The Number Kind, The Music Kind

Let’s talk about my two favourite things: Games and Music!!!!

In film, music provides scenes with deeper meaning by establishing things like setting, environment, mood, or character. Game music is analogous to film music; in games music is used to give deeper meaning to scenery in addition to game experiences. Let’s first take a look at how music affects film, and then see how those concepts can also apply to game music.

Professor Anahid Kassabian, Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool, gives film music three purposes:

1. Identification

2. Mood

3. Commentary

The musical score in a film has the ability to identify the characters, places, objects, events, plots, and cultural influences in a film through theme, melody, and motifs. The music’s ability to evoke mood is an equally important factor in film music and the ability to provide commentary helps us to properly understand the significance of a character’s actions, or the events that take place within a storyline. Commentary music is similar in effect to mood music; the difference however, as Kassabian notes, is that, “mood is more often associated with [unconscious] identification processes, while commentary often requests reflective evaluation.”

The Cantina Scene from Star Wars is a great example of these three principles. The music, interacting with the scene, identifies the bar as a type of western saloon, where shady and sketchy people may congregate. The mood implied is relaxed; it is a bar after all. The music stops when the band ceases to play, reacting to Ben killing the murderer during the confrontation between it and Luke. When it starts again, the music seems almost uninterrupted, commenting on the type of place the Cantina is, and that this violent behaviour is normal.

With these three processes one can see the purposes of film music.

These concepts easily transfer over to the game world by identifying characters, locations, and environments; and establishing moods and applying commentary in the same way.

Now that we have a purpose, how can designers go about implementing music into games?

There are two broad sources of music in games; and also in film. Music that comes from within the world of the game; things that the characters are aware of and can hear, is called diegetic. Generally, the source of diegetic music comes from a character or an object in the scene. Remember the cantina band from Star Wars (see above)? Or the radios from Portal? Those are perfect examples of diegetic music. Music that characters in the game cannot hear, and that doesn’t live inside the sphere of the game world is referred to as non-diegetic. You can generally think of non-diegetic music as background music.

These terms come from the word diegesis:

The sphere or world in which these narrated events and other elements occur.

But, as I mentioned, these are very broad.

Thankfully Professor of Film Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, Claudia Gorbman, outlines 7 Principles for us which we can apply to games music:

1. Invisibility:

The technical apparatus of nondiegietic music must not be visible.

2. Inaudibility:

Music is not meant to be heard consciously; as such, it should subordinate itself to dialogue, to visuals, (i.e., to the primary vehicles of the narrative)

3. Signifier of Emotion:

Sound track music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions suggested in the narrative (See #4 below), but first and foremost, it is a signifier of emotion itself.

4. Narrative cueing:

Referential/narrative: music gives referential and narrative cues, (e.g., indicating points of view, supplying formal demarcations, and establishing setting and character.)

5. Connotative:

Music “interprets” and “illustrates” narrative events.

6. Continuity:

Music provides formal and rhythmic continuity — between shots, in transitions between scenes, by filling “gaps.”

7. Unity:

Via repetition and variation of musical material and instrumentation, music aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity.

Gorbman goes on to say “A given film score may violate any of the principles above, providing its violation is at the service of the other principles.” That is to say that a composer can forgo one principle, such as Inaudibility, if that will enforce the others. To carry on the inaudibility example, music can be prominent to the viewer/player in order to further convey mood and emotion. Music can also act as a referential cue to a character or place if it has a leitmotiv or a theme (more on that later).

Now that we have purposes and principles, we turn to film composer Earle Hagen who has conveniently outlined three categories in which we can implement our game scores.

Source music pretty much sums up what we discussed about diegetic music. Source music comes from within the world of the game. A band in a bar, a radio on the table, an ocarina in a temple. The players and/or characters hear it and interact with it.

A great example of source music comes from the bards in Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011). These character inhabit the taverns of Skyrim regaling its citizens in song. The characters are the source and interact with it using their instruments, and the player interacts by requesting songs. Another great example comes to us from Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008). The player controls a radio on their Pip-Boy, a device bound to their wrist. These examples identify the political tension in the world, the moods of the various environments, and comments on the world around the player’s character.

Dramatic scoring is your non-diegetic music; it is heard by the player only and used to enhance the emotional experience of the player’s game experience. These typically include background mood music, or more prominent pieces that illicit fear or excitement when an enemy is near.

Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011) has some amazing dramatic scoring, composed by Darren Korb. I found that his score emphasized the atmosphere of the environment. If you make it to the 4 min of this play through video (thank you CoffeeHolic93) you can hear the music change as The Kid transitions into an old saloon, and the music reflecting a sort of western movie vibe.

We can find more amazing examples of dramatic scoring in Jeremey Soule’s atmospheric in The Elder Scrolls IV (Bethesda, 2006) and V (Bethesda, 2011):

Hagen also provides a third category of music, and honestly it was difficult for me to find a gameplay example instead of a cutscene because this one is best related to scripted events, rather than fluid gameplay. The third category is source scoring. This kind of music can jump between diegetic and nondiegetic. Hagen explains, “It follows the framework of the scene more critically and matches the nuances of the scene musically.”

The best example I could find is from The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002). In this excerpt you can see that although the music is non-diegetic the melody progresses along with the action in the scene. Additionally, each time Link makes a successful strike chords move along a progression. This can also be referred to as Mickey Mousing.

Our friend, Professor Kassabian, gives us three MORE categories to use in our designs: quotations, allusions, and leitmotivs.

She describes a quotation as, “importing a song or musical text, in part or in whole, into a film’s score.” A composer can quote a piece of music in a film to identify time, setting, and even the culture within a scene.

Kassabian describes allusion as, “a quotation used to evoke another narrative.” That is to say, a piece of music is quoted to inflict a certain mood or commentary by using a tune familiar to the viewer. The radio on the Pip-Boy from Fallout 3, and the car radio stations in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002) are both examples of allusion and quotation.

A leitmotiv is basically a short melody used to refer a film viewer’s attention back to a certain character or a certain scene in a film. Some examples in Star Wars are Luke’s Theme, Leia’s Theme, and the infamous Death Star Chord; played each time the Death Star is seen on screen. These themes identify these parts of the film as important and key to the plot line. A leitmotiv can also identify an aspect as good or evil. Jeremy Soule makes use of leitmotiv in his score for Skyrim, where the same leitmotif is found in the track “Dragonborn” and “The One They Fear.”

Both Hagen’s and Kassabian’s ideas, in addition to Gorbman’s principles, about film music provide deeper meaning in movie scenes by identifying environments and characters, establishing mood, and commenting on the events happening in the narrative. These can come from both inside and outside the world of the film. These concepts are transferrable to the game music world, seeing as so much about video games is analogous to film.


 

What are your favourite scores from games? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy

References:

Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music byAnahid Kassabian
Unheard Melodies by Claudia Gorbman
Scoring for Films: A Complete Text by Earle 
Hagen 

Shoutout to Jeremey Soule and Darren Korb; you guys do awesome work.

Disclaimer(s):

Referenced YouTube videos were not made by me and footage wasn’t me. It was:

MadRefsa
CoffeeHolic93
CityXVII
Dan Tharp
ThePowermedia

Check out their channels, there’s some fun stuff there.

I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games and their respective scores.

 

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Adam Recommends: SteamOS Sale

Hey all! As you may already know there’s a STEAM SALE!!! Okay, so it’s not like the Spring or Winter sales but it is pretty good! I already have a few of the titles on the sale, and there are two games that I think have some great design concepts that you might enjoy.

Kerbal Space Program (In Beta 2015, Squad)

In my opinion, “Kerbal Space Program” is hands down one of the best games that’s in this sale. Kerbal is one of those games that stands on its own as far as uniqueness, ingenuity, and just plain fun.

KSP

Players engineer rockets and spaceplanes with the goal of sending little green men (and soon women) into space. Do you need more than that? Are you downloading it right now? You play in 3 different ways: take on contracts to buy new rocket parts and upgrade your space centre in “career mode”, explore the solar system and unlock parts strictly through scientific research in “science mode”, or just build and fly with access to all the parts in “sandbox mode.” I really like how much variety one can experience through the different modes; and seeing as I am a fan of self paced and personal goal oriented games the sandbox mode is my favourite. Through their well thought out economics system and nearly real to life physics players can attempt a multitude of missions and a myriad of difficulties.

KSP

Building spacecraft is fun and fairly intuitive and is based mostly on connecting fuselages and fuel tanks to hard points. Flying them is even more fun, and is the meat and potatoes of the game. Once you figure out how to get a craft into orbit properly it’ll pretty much change your life. Kidding aside, KSP makes learning about physics super fulfilling. The Kerbals (remember the little green men?) are very well designed, constantly showing off their hilarious expressions and individual personalities as you subject them to super fast rockets, crashes, and zero gravity which very much adds to the reward of successfully landing them on the Mun. The art and visuals are done very well, and you don’t need a super powerful computer to get a lot out of this game.

But don’t take my word for it! I say pick it up!

The Banner Saga (2013, Stoic)

The other game that I highly recommend is Stoic’s “The Banner Saga.” The main thing I want to touch upon is how much emergent story comes into play in this game. Throughout the story the player is faced with tough decisions that will ultimately affect major plot events. As the stories unfold players come to several different types of encounters, ranging from economic decisions, character interactions, and turn-based combat; each one affecting how the epic story will play out. Not to mention that the story itself is very well thought out and very well written. I couldn’t wait to get home from work to get to the next chapter.

The Banner Saga

The art style of this game reminds me of a modern take on the art style from “The Hobbit” animated movie from 1977; and I couldn’t love it more. The landscapes are breathtaking, and the characters are expressive and soulful, which really undercuts the amount of reading. I will also say not a pixel was wasted on my monitor. The art, in my opinion, in combination with the story leads to an immersive player experience.

I won’t ramble on any longer; I think these two reasons alone are enough to give this game a play!

In Conclusion

There are a bunch of great games on sale, but these two have to be my favourite as far as design goes. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do!

 


Can you recommend other games in the sale? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for stopping by!

 

Disclaimer: All images come from each game’s respective website and link back to such. These are not screenshots from me. I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games.

What do games do?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday which challenged me to really think about why I love games, beyond “they’re a lot of fun!” It lead me to take a step back away from myself and seriously analyze what I do and what I feel when I play games (video or otherwise) and I felt that it lead to some interesting ideas and I wanted to share them with you.

It should be noted that everything here is, in some form or another, something I already knew about games and things I already applied to my designing/developing; the thing is I didn’t know I knew it yet (yay self discovery!). It should also be noted that these design goals and play experiences may not be the ultimate truth for all; I like to think that we all experience games differently and uniquely. Here’s some ideas about how I experience them:

1 – Games can provide an escape

This is the first thing that came to mind when I was posed the question “what do you use games for?” and I think that this is true for many. Games provide an opportunity to remove oneself from the stresses (or boredoms even) of everyday life and step into a whole new situation for a little while; a situation with its own goals, values, characters, and outcomes. This is particularly apparent in video gaming. In design and game reviews we see words like immersive or enveloping a lot. This means to describe the player’s total and deep mental involvement in the experience that is gameplay.

And this idea of an immersive play experience isn’t limited to video games. Any game can be immersive. I remember over Christmas my family was gathered around the dining room table playing Munchkin Adventure Time. During the game we were entirely engulfed in what we were playing; gleefully participating in the unfolding emergent story that was our dungeon adventure (time). For awhile, we escaped into the dungeons of Ooo and cooperatively, and sometime un-cooperatively, made our way to Level 10.

I think it’s fair to say that most game designers strive to create an immersive experience for their players. I know I do.

This idea that one can escape through game and play lead me to my second thought:

2 – A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be

RPGs are the best example of this idea. In many RPGs the very first thing a player does is create their character; their representation of themselves in this new world. Through these representatives players move through these worlds interacting with NPCs, environments, enemies, and even other player’s representatives. This provides us with the unique opportunity to become someone else.

Have you ever wanted to be a medieval military general? Here’s a strategy game. Ever wanted to be the ruler of a civilization? Here’s a Sid Meier game! Want to be an astronaut? You can totally do that. Gangster? Thug? Bank Robber? You can be all these things. Not only can we escape into other worlds, we can become other people in those worlds.

But we can also be ourselves. Or better yet, the person we want to be. When I am playing an RPG I often find that I am imposing my own personality and values onto my in-game representative. When presented with a dialogue option I frequently say to myself “I would never say or do that kind of thing!” Or, I will perform grandiose actions based on my own personality.

(This next paragraph may contain a light spoiler, but I’ll try to be as general as possible)

There is a particular moment that comes to mind when I was playing Bethesda’s pos-apocalyptic romp Fallout 3. I had just escaped the Vault and made my way into a nearby town. While chilling at the local tavern, trying to grasp this wasted world around me, I talked to a well dressed gentleman who offered me a large sum of money to do a very bad thing. Here, I was provided the chance to be myself, another person, or something I wanted to be. And I wanted do be a strong altruistic “chaotic good” hero; values I wish to see in myself in the real world. So I shot the well dressed gentleman dead. In the face; so he couldn’t harm anyone ever again. And honestly, it felt good to be good.

I should really clarify that I don’t actually want to shoot people in the face, and if I ever found myself in a similar situation in real life I would probably call the police. The point here isn’t that I want to be a violent person, but I want to be a good person.

My next point kind of stems from the whole shooting people in the face bit:

3 – Games let us make decisions that are, in general, inconsequential

If I shoot a bad guy in the face in a game, nothing is really going to happen to me in real life. That choice was generally inconsequential. That isn’t to say that the choice didn’t have any consequence; there were in-game events that happened. Generally speaking I was presented with a hypothetical situation, which stimulated my mind and value systems, and I made a hypothetical decision. The difference between games and thought-experiments is that in games we get to take “hypothetical actions.” More than just making a decision in our minds, we take action with our game controller (or keyboard or play a card etc) which can lead to visual and audible responses, and “hypothetical consequences” which lead to whole new hypotheticals! And at the end of the day, nobody really got shot in the face.

The best part of these hypotheticals is the fact that these sort of things probably won’t ever happen in my real life, which brings me to my last point

4 – Games put us in situations of our choosing that we generally won’t experience in real life

“Games are a series of interesting decisions” – Sid Meier (Creator of the Civilization series)

I know, I know. There is a lot of contention and debate about this quote (or misquote as some would say). Rather than get into the quote itself (I could probably write a whole post about it) I would actually like to paraphrase it a bit and say:

“Games are a series of interesting [experiences]” – Adam Carriere (Creator of this blog you’re reading)

I’m probably never going to experience the opportunity to fight a dragon with my loud voice, design and fly a space rocket, thwart an alien invasion, or command the elements as a geomancer in real life. But I can certainly experience these things as a player. And that’s awesome.

That’s why I love games.


 

Why do you love games? Feel free to share your thoughts here in the comments or over on Twitter (@adamthegameguy)!

Thanks for reading! Please note: I did my best to link my game references to their official webpages, but other than Adventure Time Munchkin they should all be available through Steam for you to enjoy (and experience)!

In The Beginning, Adam Started A Blog

Hi there! I am Adam! As the title of this website suggests, I am a game guy!

Winter AdamPlease enjoy this photo of me enjoying a Canadian winter.

I love games. I love reading about them, thinking about them, talking about them, and most of all I love playing them. Board, card, word, video I love them all. That’s why I make them. My dream is to make games that make us think, ponder, shudder, squeak, scream, shout, pout and expand our imaginations to wonderful and immeasurable heights.

I think the game that has influenced my life the most is “The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time” for the N64 console. That game really opened my eyes and ears to the kind of magic and wonder that music can have; to this day I want to play an ocarina to unlock my front door or make a treasure chest appear out of thin air. It blew my 9 year old mind. Not only was the music score written amazingly (thank you Kōji Kondō!), music as a game mechanic felt inspired. Think about it, Link saves the world using music; how cool is that?

But I digress.

Thanks for coming to adamthegameguy.ca! I look forward to talking about games and game design in all sorts of ways! Basically if there’s something about games that makes me feel feelings, you bet I’ll talk about it here. For now we’ll start with written posts, but I hope to evolve into some ‘Let’s Play’ sessions.

Here’s a short list of the kinds of things I’m going to talk about:

  • Ideas and themes around game genres and design concepts by comparing and contrasting examples
  • Game reviews, focusing on certain game design themes
  • Play Journals, journaling experiences I’ve had while playing games (particularly of genres I am unfamiliar with)
  • Explorations of design principles from all types of games, ranging from card, table, mobile, AAA, FPS, MMORPG; regardless of their release date.

I hope you’ll join in! Wanna reach me? You can find me on Twitter at @adamthegameguy, and of course you can comment on my posts!

Thanks for stopping by, this is gonna be fun,

A