In this 6 part series, I will explore the common techniques used by game music composers to write effective, pleasing, and ultimately non-repetitive game music. Each part will highlight one specific technique utilized by composers and provide numerous examples.
Part 1: Introduction / Cue soundtrack technique (CST)
Part 2: Story Soundtrack Technique (SST)
Part 3: Utilizing track length
Part 4: Variation by sheer force
Part 5: Atmospheric and minimalist soundtracks
Part 6: User choice
An introduction of sorts:
When I was much younger, I used to play video games on a spare TV that I would wheel out of my parents’ room and into my room. My mom, who is not a video gamer (though she plays Dr. Mario and Luxor frequently), would always get annoyed by the music coming from the games I played and question me. “How the heck can you keep listening to this? It just keeps repeating over and over. [sings the Final Fantasy VI‘s “Battle Theme”] It’s soooooo annoying!” My mom couldn’t understand the context of the game because she wasn’t playing, so her attribution of the game’s music being “annoying” is more that it’s “making noise”, rather than the music ITSELF is annoying.
To me, though, as the player, this music made sense. The “Battle Theme” was for when I battled monsters, the “World Map Theme” was for when I wandered the world, and the “Sleep Theme” was for when my characters stayed overnight at an Inn. The music was interactive and innovative. It was dynamic! It changed how I changed. Even though the music itself was no longer than 50 seconds of actual varied material at any given time, I never found myself bored or annoyed. Games with good soundtracks got stuck in my brain and games that had awful soundtracks, well, I didn’t play them often or at all.
What is often forgotten is that game music is static (with a few exceptions). When I load up Final Fantasy VI, the music programmed to the ROM on the cartridge loads up. This music cannot be changed and plays at set intervals.
In most cases, a game’s total gameplay hours is longer than its complete soundtrack. For example, Final Fantasy VI‘s gameplay is about 35-40 hours long (shorter if you’ve played it many times). The complete Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack to the game is 90 minutes long. If we are to play a game for over 35 hours and we only have roughly 1.5 hours of material from which to draw, how can we keep the music fresh? I guess the big question here is: how can a composer, using limited resources, under time constraints, create a static set of music that is so effective that we do not notice its repetitive nature? How can the music augment the experience of the gameplay without ultimately becoming annoying?
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how a game interacts with its music and vice versa I broke that down and explored our own experiences as gamers. The result is a list of six different categories of game music variation. Each of these categories describes a technique utilized by a game to make a static, unchanging amount of music turn into music that pleases the audience for the entire duration of gameplay. Today we’ll talk cue soundtrack technique.
Part I: Using game mechanics to drive variation-
Some games, by design, cannot have repetitive music. The gameplay itself dictates when and how we hear the background music (BGM) and thus manages to mask the repetition. For our first example, let’s take a look at an iconic theme:
The theme that started it all. It’s instantly recognizable and will always be memorable… but what about the actual music presented here?
If we were to break this theme up into sections of melodic development, Koji Kondo’s “Ground Theme” would look something like this (markers in seconds):
Part A 0:00 – 0:11 | Part B 0:12 – 0:31 | “coda” 0:31 – 0:39 | Part A 0:39 – 0:50 | Part C 0:50 – 1:09 | “coda” 1:09 – 1:17 | Part C 1:17 – 1:28 |: repeat
Using this sketch of the form, we can really see what material is presented melodically in “Ground Theme”. While there really isn’t more than 10~ seconds of new material presented at any given time, Kondo does a great job of varying each individual section’s melodic intention and feel. Varying the order of the “parts” creates the illusion that there is more material, as he did from 1:09 to 1:28. We expect “Part A” after the “coda” but instead the BGM goes back to “Part C”. And while Kondo only really generated about 30~ seconds of musical material (accounting for all the “cut and pastes” in each part, etc), he was able transform it into 1:28 of non-repetitive, fun music. . These are all smart moves by Kondo.
So think about it- how long have you spent playing “ground” levels of Super Mario Bros. with this familiar theme? Did you know the theme was actually 1:28 long?
Chances are you had NO CLUE how long it was because the gameplay itself hid the actual length of the piece. Using the gameplay to manipulate when and how the music is utilized is what I like to call cue soundtrack technique (CST).
When using CST, the gameplay forces the current BGM to stop and change to something else. By breaking up the BGM so that it coincides with gameplay events, a soundtrack can be stretched and cut into smaller pieces. The pieces of the soundtrack, in different positions, SERVE as a brand new soundtrack created by the events in the game. This creates completely dynamic soundtrack from material that is completely static.
Many games use CST, even today. Common uses include everything from pressing start on the title screen to go to the actual game, changing levels/zone, collecting a special power-up, heck- even when dying! Really, it’s any event that cues a change in the music.
For a simple example, let’s examine Super Mario Bros. further.
When we interact with the gameplay for Super Mario Bros., we find that there are six total “events” that can occur and change the music. (Note: there are also various sound effects provided by user input that change the overall sound of the game- jumping, squashing Goombas, shooting fireballs, etc. These events, however, do not change the BGM, which is the main focus of CST.)
- We can enter a pipe. Entering a pipe cues different music. Also note that if the pipe’s music is the same as our level BGM, it resets the current BGM. Upon exiting the pipe, the level BGM starts over.
- We can use a vine and climb to a new area. This usually cues the “Star Theme“, a hyper repetitive melody that just modulates back and forth between the same two keys roughly every second. The theme is short so it is assumed that we will not spend much time in the vine area. Once we drop out of this area and re-enters the other area, the BGM for our stage restarts.
- We can grab a “Star” power-up. This will cue the “Star Theme“. The “Star Theme”, again, presents very little musical material but the power-up only lasts for about 10-12 seconds so it does not become annoying. Once the power-up finishes, the stage music will restart.
- We die. This can happen by falling into a gap, getting hit by an enemy, running out of time, or maybe other creative ways, depending on the scenario and level of skill. Once we die, a death fanfare plays, we view how many lives we have left, and we’re transported back to level with the stage music reset. If we die too much, we are treated to a “Game Over” jingle/screen and then the title screen.
- We finish the stage. Finishing the stage plays the “Stage Complete” fanfare. Score is tabulated, current lives are displayed, and, if need be, a small cutscene is played with our character entering a pipe, talking to Toad, or talking to The Princess (followed by Ending Credit). Provided there’s more levels, the game displays how many lives we have and the next stage’s music begins.
- We start to run out of time. A fanfare announces we are running out of time and the level theme is presented a much faster pace. We most likely will not hear this for very long, as “running out of time” means there is less 100 units on our Timer. There are only two outcomes – we reach the end of the stage or we die. This will end our fast paced BGM.
The process is repeated level by level until “Game Over”, which is either running out of lives or the game’s ending. By grabbing items, climbing vines, going down pipes, or completing levels, we can manipulate the static, pre-programmed soundtrack through these events to create a BGM that is accompanies our actions.
The soundtrack to Super Mario Bros., with all of the material separated so that it only plays each individual track’s form once, is just about under 4 minutes. A no-death, perfect tool assisted run of Super Mario Bros. from level 1-1 to 8-4 takes approximately 30 minutes. Our interaction with gameplay manages to cut and paste this tiny little soundtrack so effectively that it keep us entertained, in the absolute best case scenario, for over 30 minutes. That’s very impressive.
Many composers and programmers realize that proper treatment of BGM requires some creative thinking, especially due to limited resources. By utilizing cue soundtrack technique (CST), game music composers are able to stretch out and combine small amounts of material to allow us, the players, to create longer, more dynamic BGM that adapts to our play style and actions.
Part II will look at how expert composition can combine with CST to create memorable melodic themes that carry out through entire games. To do so, we’ll explore Final Fantasy VI and Nobuo Uematsu’s mastery of themes and referencing them at the right points. We’ll also talk about how themes can be completely driven by a story rather than user input. Until then! Thanks for reading.