Video Game Musicology

This part of the site is devoted to the analysis and appreciation of video game music. A great soundtrack gives a life, a vividness to a game that elevates it to a form of high art. Far more than simple background noise, a game’s music has a unique power to elaborate and emphasize plot elements, making the action more explosive, the villain more diabolical, and the sacrifice more tragic. Properly used, it can even tell you things about the world and the characters that you might not otherwise know. I’ve spent a great deal of time studying game soundtracks and the artistry that goes into making them; these are my findings.




Castle Music and Why it Matters

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Castles, man.  It might seem like I threw a dart at the topic board while blindfolded, but seriously, they’re REALLY important in RPG world-building.  In a fantasy setting, a castle is typically the seat of government, the center of military activity, and the people in it tend to be important to the plot.  How we feel about a castle and its inhabitants has a big impact on the how we look at the rest of the fictional kingdom and the story therein, and music is one of our primary cues for this.

In Mario 64, we’re surprisingly comfortable in the Mushroom Castle in spite of the disappearance of Princess Peach (and almost every other living soul, actually).  The music tells us not to worry, that everything is ok and if we persevere and take each level one by one, eventually she will return to us.  By contrast, when Commander Shepard arrives on the Citadel for the first time in Mass Effect (hey, it’s basically a big castle in space), the music instructs us to feel awe but also unease and a touch of disdain from the other space-faring species, reflecting the humans’ role in galactic politics which will shape our experiences in the game.  These are very deliberate choices made by the composer for our benefit.  Let’s take a closer look at the themes of a few different castles and what they have to say about their respective worlds.

Courage and Pride (B Major)
Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo) ~ Yasunori Mitsuda

The music for Guardia Castle is very classic: militant rolling snare riffs, trumpet fanfares, jubilant flutes, and booming timpani; it’s almost a caricature of itself.  The whole piece gushes “Courage and Pride” and this is appropriate to its role in the game.  The king is good, prosperity reigns, the land is at peace — in fact, they’re celebrating 1000 years of rule with a huge fair.  We’re intended to feel good about Guardia Castle and the people in it.  Even though Marle has a strained relationship with her father, even though the royal guards capture Crono and throw him in prison, Guardia is never really the “bad guys” (it was the evil chancellor’s fault anyway!).  The king is well-intentioned but poorly informed; a case could even be made that Courage and Pride represents the kingdom’s blissful ignorance of the Lavos-related catastrophe to come.

Anyway, the goodness of Guardia Castle basically sets the tone of the Chrono Trigger world in 1000AD.  It’s a safe place, we are not afraid to wander the overworld, nor are we suspicious of the surrounding towns or what they might encounter there.  Even in 600AD (same castle, same music) when there is a war on with Magus, we never feel anxious or hopeless about the fate of Guardia, probably because we just came from the future and have already seen that the kingdom ultimately prevails.  The upbeat castle music reflects a stalwart resolution to persevere against the forces of the dark mage.

Hyrule Castle (G Minor)
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo) ~ Koji Kondo

Like many castle pieces, this one begins with a crash and a fanfare, but that’s where the similarities stop.  After that the piece eschews all percussion other than a heavily muted timpani, creating a murky, oppressive backdrop.  The first theme features a lowered supertonic which gives it a Phrygian mode feel, and the whole piece revolves a lot around the diminished 4th interval between F♯ and B♭ (labeled explicitly in the video annotations).  There’s also that gaudy downward bend in the string melody that really spells something rotten in Hyrule Castle.  The staccato accompaniment in the brass feels curt which is appropriate given that the player is not welcome in this place.  This is a castle, and therefore kingdom, without its ruler.

The King has been abducted or killed or banished or something; it’s not made completely clear.  The point is, a usurper sits on the throne, and the kingdom of Hyrule is a lawless, dangerous place.  Link is framed for kidnapping the princess and the castle soldiers pursue him for most of the game, even in the ostensibly peaceful and somewhat distant village of Kakariko where at least one of the citizens attempts to turn him in.  If you’re like me, you felt that “nowhere to run” feeling dogging you the for the entire game, and it all began with that damned castle.

Dignity and Pride (E Minor)
Shining Force 3 (Sega Saturn) ~ Motoi Sakuraba

Oh boy oh boy! Shining Force 3’s mega-scary castle music, from which most of my inspiration for this article comes. It’s in minor key, yes, but it also punches you in the face with strong low strings and blaring brass. The heavy, plodding melody sits atop open parallel fifths in the lower voices that often disagree with it harmonically, and this gives it a monstrous threatening sound that looms over the player. It’s a theme of power, and in a story filled with treachery and intrigue, it warns us to be on guard for powerful friends unexpectedly becoming powerful enemies, even in friendly castles. Yeah, that’s right, in a game largely focused on an all-out war between the Empire and the Republic, they use the same music for the castles on both sides.

This is just one of the ways many subtle ways that ambivalence creeps into the tone of the game.  Who are we supposed to be rooting for?  It seems pretty clear before the numerous betrayals and plot twists.  They’re not quite equal; Emperor Domaric is presented as pretty unambiguously evil while the wise King Benetram of the Republic is the constant voice of reason.  Still, by the end of the first scenario, half the Republican generals have turned traitor, the Bulzome Sect is pulling strings behind the scenes, and there’s an impostor king running around stirring up trouble; there’s plenty of reason for the player to remain suspicious of the “good guys”.  One of the game’s main themes is that regardless of who is in power, it is the people who suffer and Dignity and Pride presses down on us with that message.




Misused Music

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Let’s start with something basic:  Badly-placed music. Here are a couple of my favorite tracks which are inventive, well-composed, catchy even, but simply aren’t used at the right time in the game. Or maybe they aren’t even in the right game.

East Shrine
Shining the Holy Ark (Sega Saturn) ~ Motoi Sakuraba

As was his habit for STHA, Sakuraba wrote a clever, ballsy, exciting piece in an irregular meter that really makes you want to get out there and kick some ass… but it’s for a shrine.  A SHRINE.  Let’s review the definition of a shrine for a moment.

shrine noun:
1. A building or other shelter, often of a stately or sumptuous character, enclosing the remains or relics of a saint or other holy person and forming an object of religious veneration and pilgrimage.

There is no veneration happening in this piece, only ass-kicking.

Life of Harmony
Shining Force III (Sega Saturn) ~ Motoi Sakuraba

This is the theme of the city of Saraband, a neutral site chosen to host the peace conference been the Republic and the Empire.  It is breezy, cheerful, and heartwarming, and I find myself whistling it idly all the time.  What’s problematic about it?


That’s A Tiger of Honesty and Affection, the theme of the Republican general Synbios (silent protagonist of SF3 Scenario 1).  The melody is inappropriately identical to that of Saraband.  The neutral city.  This might seem trivial, but the political setting of this world is central to the plot, and the whole exposition of the game hinges on Saraband’s neutrality in the conflict between the Republic and the Empire.  To musically align it with the Republican hero (who has no personal connection to the city himself) is greatly misleading to the player, who is just being introduced to the complex politics of the game.

Weapon Raid
Final Fantasy VII (PS1) ~ Nobuo Uematsu

A devastating Leviathan-beast of geological origins deserves a menacing and catastrophic-sounding theme.  And it got one; the Weapon attack on Junon is one of the most tense and exciting sequences of the game.  The problem lies in climax of the piece at 1:02 which quotes Sephiroth’s theme verbatim.  To my ear this implies some kind of collusion between the two that doesn’t exist in the plot.  Weapon is supposedly a defensive mechanism of the planet, to be unleashed in times of crisis (in this case, the delivery of the Black Materia to Sephiroth and the subsequent summoning of Meteor).  This would make them bitter foes, not allies.

A case could be made that this quotation instead signifies the Weapon’s pursuit of Sephiroth, but I’m not getting that from its usage in the piece (or Weapon’s own appearance in the game for that matter, as it spends most of its time terrorizing cities instead of hunting its would-be rival).  The theme appears in its entirety, and with such force and grandeur that it really feels like an alignment of the two forces, not a dissonance.

Spring Yard Zone
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis) ~ Masato Nakamura

I’m not tremendously fond of the music from the first Sonic game anyway, but this particular track has always bothered me.  Spring Yard is the first of what would become the archetypical “Fun Zone” of the Sonic series: a colorful obstacle course with lots of bumpers, spring boards, bright lights, and a lot more rings than usual (see Casino Night, Carnival Night, Chaos Collision, Spring Stadium, Casino Paradise, etc).  The music however…..doesn’t strike me as all that fun, springy, or bright.  There are two themes in the loop, the first of which has very sparse instrumentation and a “fifth-y” hollowness, lacking middle support in the harmony.  This gives it a downright harrowing sound, evoking a sense of terrifying height (which is at least partially appropriate, as the zone features some very deep chasms to roll down).  The second is more comfortably in major key, but this doesn’t sufficiently counterbalance the coldness established by the first.  It also doesn’t help that the whole track is only 100bpm, the slowest in the game by a wide margin.

Compare this with what I consider to  be the best of the “Fun Zone” themes: Balloon Park, one of the 2-Player split screen stages from Sonic 3.

Raucous, madcap, and effusive. Fun.

Ok, that’s probably enough for now; this is already longer than I intended. More on the topic later!