Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Videogame Music: The Ambience of Gaming

Because of various circumstances in my life right now, I'm in the midst of a break from playing videogames.  What with work and family and friends and personal projects, I just can't devote the time I feel is necessary to fully enjoy all aspects of the gaming experience. I was never the kind of person who played games casually or just to pass the time - I prefer to make my way through slowly, appreciate every detail, and give my respect to the time and energy it took to create the game.

I like to think of people's relationships with their interests as a pair of feet walking on a well-manicured lawn, and I think it applies directly to gaming as well.  Most people wear sneakers: they provide good support and leave a firm footprint.  These gamers will play through a game once, sticking with it until the end credits, and then put it on the shelf.  Others wear snowshoes, which cover a wider area with the pressure evenly distributed.  Snowshoeing gamers have interest in a wide variety of titles, playing many of them at the same time, until they get bored or something cooler comes out.  And still others walk while wearing lawn aerator shoes, which penetrate down past the surface to the cool, refreshing, nutrition-packed dirt underneath.  I consider myself one of these gamers.

One aspect of the games to which I pay specific deep attention is the music.  I think it's fascinating to see how the feel of a particular game is impacted by what you hear as well as how you control the action onscreen.  And since my current break only covers the playing of videogames - and not the reading about, writing about, or listening to the music from videogames - I'd like to say a few words about the music from the two games I'm currently playing/aerating: Mortal Kombat and L.A. Noire.

L.A. Noire
music by Andrew Hale

In my experience, sounds have always left a much stronger impression on my memory than visuals.  This explains my infatuation with movie scores and dramatic readings and music from videogames - and why I easily get bored at art museums.  For example, nothing can call a particular scene from a movie into my mind better than hearing the music that played during that scene, which is why I own more recordings of soundtracks than I do DVDs.  None of this explains why my brain is wired this way, but that's a story for another day.

One reason I gravitate to the score of L.A. Noire is because of its cinematic qualities.  The whole game is based on the films noir of the 1940s, and the game's score appropriately takes on the feel of the orchestral music that accompanied those movies.  The score itself consists of several different themes, each with a different feel, that play on loop in the game during different situations.  There's the "investigating the crime scene" theme, the "chatting with your partner as you drive to the next location" theme, the "chasing after the suspect on foot" theme, the "sneaking away for an illicit rendezvous" theme, etc.  All of these feature catchy tunes and skillful arrangements, and fit the mood of the action perfectly.

The fully-orchestrated music captures the film noir feel so well that it brought to my mind a fault in the actual game: the lack of voiceover narration.  When I hear the muted trumpets and sighing saxophones flowing from my car stereo late at night, I can hardly stifle the urge to burst into a rousing Philip Marlowe/Tracer Bullet-esque play-by-play of my actions and thought processes.  And yet nothing of the sort accompanies Cole Phelps's adventures in L.A. Noire.  But then again the game does play out in full color, so it must have been a choice to sacrifice some of the authentic feel in favor of realism.

Mortal Kombat
music by Dan Forden

I played Mortals Kombat 1 - 3 religiously on my Sega Genesis, but didn't fully appreciate the music until I found recordings of it via the magic of the Internet.  I didn't even remember how much impact the music had on me until I heard the Genesis version of the MK1 music in an isolated setting, and all these vivid memories started flooding back.  I didn't have the same reaction to the MKII music I found online, because I was only able to find the arcade soundtrack, which is slightly different than that of the home system ports.  (See the subtle differences?)  But thankfully YouTube helped me fill in the gaps.

The new Mortal Kombat features updated versions of our old favorite themes - much more true to the originals than in sequels past.  Furthermore, thanks to the story mode, it places each arena firmly in the Mortal Kombat timeline, not just in terms of the games in which they first appeared, but making them settings for actual, specific events in the plot.  So now when I hear the music from The Pit stage, I don't just think of it as the site of Reptile's secret appearance in the first game, I also get a flash to when Johnny Cage first makes a pass at Sonya Blade, and almost pays dearly for it.

The new game also includes classic music cues for the arenas that appear in the older games.  So in addition to the soundtrack acting as an emotional tool to invest players in the story, it also serves as an historical database showcasing the evolution of the talents of sound designer/composer Dan Forden (Mr. "Toasty!" himself).

I would cite the thought and care that goes into the musical side of games these days as a mark in favor of the "Games are Art" side of the debate - if I wasn't already at the end of this post.  I hope the samples I provided will help you arrive at the same conclusions.  Until then, happy listening!