The Evolution of a Story-loving Gamer: A Musical Journey (part 3)

Time to bring to a close the very first tl;dr article series on this blog. Are you as excited as I am? No? Ok then, on with the show. ūüėõ

When I look back on my gaming history, I realize that I was very rpg focused. When I think back on the titles that influenced me, I don’t think of just the Super Mario Bros., the Metroids, or the Mortal Kombats — I think of more obscure titles, like Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, and Earthbound.

When I think back on those titles, I immediately bring back to mind the great music that I heard while playing them (surprise surprise, considering this series’ focus). Each of those games had excellent music for my taste, and not even just for their heroic qualities.

Sometimes a game’s music, for all the heroism, and grand exploration involved, just needs to be fun. Believe it or not, many games forget this fact.

Everything is fist-pumping, action packed, pulsing music. That’s fine for action sequences, but a story should always have more facets to it than simply fighting and heroic deeds. Laughter and humor are what give stories their lifeblood. There should always be scenarios that deviate from a serious narrative, if only for a short while, to show you that the world is not just black and white — it can also be a little bit goofy gray.

I mean, seriously, if you were in the midst of a journey to save the world from the threat of an evil intergalactic being who wants to enslave your entire race, would you expect to hear something like this?

Earthbound – Hi Hi Hi

This was the music you heard upon reaching Saturn Valley in the rpg Earthbound. Home to one of the strangest, but oddly charming, races I have ever seen in a video game: the armless Saturns.

"I aM hELpInG yOu, bOiNG!."

Seriously, the caption is a pretty spot on example of how they spoke ingame. These things were a race of, allegedly, genderless extraterrestrials whom you meet on your travels through the game. They are a peace-loving people, who sell a wicked form of psychedelic coffee in their shops that trip you out when you drink it (I don’t know what substances the developers were on when they designed the game, but I want some).

Does this fit in with a narrative whose focus is kids saving the world? Actually, yes. It fits quite well in a game where a photographer pops up out of nowhere to take a pic of you with your group, beckoning you all to say “Fuzzy pickles!” before taking the shot, and a game where you meet a slob kid inventor who creates brilliant devices, like a giant eraser that erases giant pencil sculptures that block your way (seriously, I want some of what the devs were on).

I think part of the reason that game stood out to me, despite the fact that it wasn’t a huge moneymaker in America at the time of release, was the fact that they tried to blend humor and a serious narrative, and it worked. Somehow they found a way to make that piece above, and this–

Earthbound – Snowman (Snow Wood Boarding School)

–fit within the context of the same narrative.

In my opinion, that is always how it should be. Stories should never get so serious that they forget to inject a little bit of humor into them. At least not rpgs.

It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure. If your narrative has more of a grand focus, then humor should be there as an accent piece. It should not dominate the landscape, or else you risk diminishing the impact of your dramatic focus. Nevertheless, I can think of very few instances where a story was made better by the absence of humor, and many, many instances were a story was enhanced by its addition.

This same philosophy (injecting a subtle amount of humor into a grand narrative) can be seen prominently featured in the best rpgs of the past 15-20 years. Moreover, the music associated with these humorous moments help to make the light-hearted moments stand out even more.

For instance: Lali Ho!

Final Fantasy IV – King Giott’s Castle

*Kweh*

Final Fantasy – Chocobo Themes

Have a nice stay!

Earthbound – Enjoy Your Stay (In my opinion, THE best inn theme in an rpg. It just has a friggin sweet “Spanish villa” feel to it.)

Anyone for some Pazaak?

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – Iziz Cantina

That last one has me expectant for some good light-hearted music in Star Wars: The Old Republic, because its composer, Mark Griskey, also composed that little catchy “Star-Wars-meets-1920’s-speakeasy” theme for the Iziz Cantina in KotOR II. I look forward to some nice easy listening in SWTOR cantinas (and based on the limited amount of cantina music I’ve heard from the game, I would say I won’t be disappointed).

I think the point of this last part was to emphasize the importance of having all sides of musical atmosphere represented. Yes, it is important for you to know how heroic your characters are in an rpg, but you should also have musical indicators that let you know your character is not tasteless, and neither is the world in which they roam.

On a selfish level, I hope — and even expect — that there will be music that emphasizes the humor of the situations in SWTOR, just as there will be music to emphasize the romance, or heroic action. I always look for this same thing in any movies I watch, or video games I play. I hate when media neglects humor in an effort to be taken deadly serious. Granted, there are stories where such music would detract from the message (for instance, I don’t think Schindler’s List would benefit favorably from a Cantina Band-esque little ditty), but I can hardly think of one rpg that has ever benefited from ignoring humor.

In the end, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a story endearing. Some love their stories to be dark, full of complexity, with humor nowhere in sight. For me, I prefer stories that find some way to balance drama, humor, and romance. It is not an easy feat to achieve, but it can be done effectively. I’m positive of that fact. It’s one of the reasons I love rpgs over any other genre.

My sincerest wish for the future of rpgs is, I don’t want them to ever lose their flavor.

Part of what makes an rpg worth playing is the total package. It isn’t just being a hero/heroine, it isn’t just saving kingdoms, or romancing companions. It is not just bombastic leitmotifs over grand boss fights that emphasize how awesome you are. Creating a tangible, flavorful world — that’s what makes rpgs worth playing.

–It’s watching an old wizard beat a “spoony bard” over the head with a staff while slinging spells at him (Tellah, R.I.P., you magnificent old bastard).

–It’s drinking a psychedelic cup of coffee with your grade school-age friend, in a village populated by armless, bow-wearing, androgenous beings that speak as if they have ADD (please someone from the dev team get back to me).

–It’s going off to fight a boss who wants to destroy the world riding on the back of a chicken — with a silly theme to match (jk, I love you chocobos).

–It’s about teasing the hell out of that ice queen Bastila just because you can, or jumping into a threesome with Isabella & Zevran on a whim (I love you, BioWare).

Most importantly, it’s about creating memorable musical cues to accent these great moments.

As one member of the orchestra working on SWTOR stated so perfectly, “The music leads the experience. Always. Emotionally.”

Music is universal. It forms the backbone of any form of media in which it is present. It pushes any story forward, makes you care for the characters, and it makes you feel the full breadth of a situation.

Music also gives you a tangible bookmark for your memories. Show me one person who doesn’t have a deep memory associated with music, and I’ll show you a poor, unfortunate bastard.

In video games, it is even more apparent how integral an aural identity, a musical identity is to the essence of a video game. I’ve long ago stopped thinking of video game music as some niche medium that has no artistic merit. For me, music in video games is as important to my identity as a story lover as books were to people from my grandparent’s generation, or films were to people from my parents’ generation.

Video games — some of them — have every right to be considered worthy for consideration as a valid form of artistic work. Rpgs stand at the very front of this line.

I’ve played video games with narratives that rival novels. Hell, it is not even surprising to find a game with a story written by a novelist, anymore (shout out to Drew K and the talented writers at BioWare).

The music associated with these works are equally as deserving of accreditation as serious works of art. Many video game pieces have even been played by symphonies, and inspired people to pursue careers as composers, or musicians. As video games have grown more intricate with the technology that allows them to do so, music in video games has also grown and matured. In all honesty, what makes–

–so different from–

–? Nothing. Yasunori Mitsuda was trying to interpret the feelings of a boy who had traveled to another world; Bach was driven, arguably, by his desire to interpret music as a testament to the glory of God. Each was driven by a different inspiration — but both are deserving of their artistic merit.

Video games exist to give gamers an escape into a fantastical world which we can mold and shape to our liking. Music is there to give that world color, and vibrancy.

In conclusion, here’s hoping that as video games age, composers continue to improve the audible landscape of them for the better.

I really believe that Warren Spector was right on the money when he said “video games are the medium of the 21st century.”

Video game music will be the flavor of that medium.

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The Evolution of a Story-loving Gamer: A Musical Journey (part 2)

As I looked over what I wrote in the last part, I realized something: every single one of those music samples was from an SNES game.

I guess that was because I grew up a child of the SNES age, when rpg titles like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Lufia & the Fortress of Doom ruled my playtime. Each of those titles influenced my¬†preferences in rpg video game narratives (all but Lufia & the Fortress of Doom—which was more of a personal favorite—had critically acclaimed narratives attached to them), and left a hefty imprint on my musical tastes.¬†

Every one of those titles listed have musical pieces that just left me utterly enthralled as a young gamer, and some still do:

Secret of Mana – Fear of the Heavens

Secret of Mana, composed by the talented Hiroki Kikuta, will always have one of the greatest opening theme songs of any game, in my opinion. This tune really set the mood for the game’s story, filled with¬†an incredible overarching¬†plot, awesome characters, each with their own reasons for undergoing the game’s incredible journey—plus, one of the most effective self sacrifices I had seen to that point in an rpg (matched only by the Sage Tellah in Final Fantasy IV [You’re the fucking man, you old bastard!]).

Final Fantasy VI (III in America) – Awakening

There is a considerable amount of debate about which game in the Final Fantasy series is, in fact, “the best.” However, in my opinion, Final Fantasy VI deserves to always be in contention for that title.

With some of the most unique characters I’ve ever played in an rpg (Celes, Terra, Locke, Cyan, Sabin, Relm, Strago, Shadow, Gau, Setzer, Umaro, Mog, Gogo, Edgar—that’s right, they all made such an impression I can remember them all by heart), along with¬†THE most iconic¬†(or at least effective) villain in the entire series (Kefka, who, unlike most villains who merely¬†TRY to¬†wreak havoc, actually tore the world asunder and ruled atop it for some time before the heroes¬†finally regrouped to face him), FFVI remains in my top 3 of rpgs that I have played.¬†

Breath of Fire II – Nightmare

I’ll never forget the feeling I felt when I heard this music for the first time. Awe, wonder, dread, all rolled up in one.

This is the tune that plays while you descend into “Infinity”, the inner sanctum of the dark God Deathevn in BoFII. This place was so different from the other areas you traverse in Breath of Fire II, it actually caught me off guard the first time I ventured in. The difficulty level ramps up the second you enter, making it feel like a dimensional portal crawling with horrific monsters just waiting to spill forth into the world. For the MMO players out there, I liken it to exploring the world fighting monsters, then suddenly walking into an endgame raid. It felt like another world; it was definitely something you had to experience for yourself to truly grasp the magnitude of it.

And for all your toil, for all the turmoil you endure to reach the bottom of this chaotic abyss, what do you get for a thank you?

Death

I didn't know Cthulhu had a brother...

 

Final Fantasy VII – Main Theme

Now, I know I said above that I consider FFVI one of the very best games in the Final Fantasy franchise, but that is like saying $1million is better than $999,999—the important thing is, you’re rich as fuck either way.

Final Fantasy VII is easily in the top 3 for the franchise in my book, right up there with Final Fantasy IV (#1 for me) & Final Fantasy VI (sometimes #2 for me, sometimes #3). With a pretty complex plot, several twists along the way, cutting edge cutscenes for the time, and a truly iconic villain (Sephiroth), FFVII really led the charge for console rpgs out of the SNES era and into the Playstation era. 

 

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium – Various

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium was not the only Genesis rpg that I enjoyed, but it was the one that had the biggest impact on me as my rpg tastes grew.

I’m not sure what exactly sparked my love of this game. Partly, it was because the character I thought was the main protagonist, the huntress Alys, dies fairly early in the game’s narrative. This leaves¬†only her young assistant Chaz to continue forward into a story that ends up spanning the entire galaxy. (I also think my love of snow worlds in games may have begun on Phantasy Star IV’s “Dezolis”, an ice world where the adventurers crash land.)

This game featured comic book style cutscenes, an excellent soundtrack, a pretty layered story for the time, incredible environments, and funny enough it introduced me to a staple of MMOs that I would experience much later (a macro system for queueing up spells and actions—a first for a console¬†rpg that I can recall).

* * *

Looking at what I just wrote, it could be said I’ve been creating a¬†“best of” list for¬†rpgs, but that is not my intention. Each of those¬†games listed above added something¬†else to the list of reasons¬†why I have come to¬†love incredible narratives in video games.

Secret of Mana taught me that it is okay, and sometimes even more effective, to have a clear plot from beginning to end. I don’t often love the stories without too many twists and turns (it is pretty clear all throughout the game who the villain is, and that the hero will likely turn into one of the “destined hero” archetypes), but the plot is so crisp and well-crafted, it hardly matters. This story definitely taught me that¬†creating a¬†story based on a¬†familiar formula is not a curse.¬†It’s all in the execution.¬†

Final Fantasy VI had one of the most effective villain ascensions that I can recall in a video game. I’ve seen a 2nd-in-command suddenly turn ambitious and attempt to strike down his/her master, and I’ve seen a clear cut villain rise to become something unspeakable, but until FFVI, I can’t say I ever saw someone I thought was nothing more than a clown turn into a legitimate villain.

Kefka, the main villain of FFVI, begins the game as what appears to be a neurotic more than¬†a psychotic. Even as he shows signs of his true madness, it still doesn’t prepare you for the unimaginably awe inspiring villainy he wreaks later.

By the end, he has literally turned the world inside out, burns whole cities simply for pleasure, and has created a massive tower made of the ruined scraps of the world, drawn together by his twisted magic. So yeah, this guy turns out to be one fucked up villain.

Plus, he has a wicked theme—and probably the most legendary laugh in all of video games:

Breath of Fire II started off in¬†a way that I can hardly recall any videogame beginning. You begin as a child who wanders off and falls asleep near a dragon who died years ago¬†to protect the village where you live.¬†But when you wake up and wander back to town, nobody there recalls you, your father, or your sister EVER having lived there.¬†Needless to say, it started off trippy, and only got more strange after meeting another¬†“orphan” named Bow, a dog person (this an rpg, after all), who is also a child, who convinces you to leave the town with him.¬†Which only seemed like the right thing to do since nobody¬†there had any memory of you.¬†The two of you leave town and eventually wander into a cave where some giant behemoth demon worm is waiting…¬†Then you wake up as if from a dream, a young adult.

What I learned from BoFII is, creating a tasty mystery at the beginning of a story can be quite satisfying when you get to see it unveiled, little by little, as the story progresses. I learned this from books and films, too, but it was awesome to get to have such an interactive experience with the story that only a video game can really provide.

Final Fantasy VII let me play a character who was living as if his slain best friend’s memories were his own. All the while, the main character Cloud uncovers more about his true past, delves into the pasts of the people he is traveling with, and features one of the most well-executed death scenes in the history of rpgs. If anything, FFVII taught me that the death of a main character isn’t always merely for sensationalist purposes; sometimes, it is what needs to happen for a story to advance in a real way. Death has as much of a rightful place in story as love, pain, glory, or any other emotion—perhaps even moreso.

That said, it also made me realize that a meaningful death in a story can’t be too obvious. It has to be handled delicately.

Phantasy Star: The End of the Millenium let me start the game out with a clear idea of who the main protagonist was, who was the sidekick, and who was the main villain. Fast forward about 2/5ths of the way through the game and, suddenly, the “main character” is dead, the sidekick turns out to be the true hero, and the “main villain” was merely¬†a pawn for some dark God chained up in a neverending void plane that wanted to break free of its prison. Add to that the fact that there is little to no hint your story will even leave the planet you start¬†on, and it makes for an excellent entry to a galaxy wide saga.

Later, you wind up traveling to¬†other worlds, learning more about the great evil that plagues these places, and you also learn more about the history of¬†the Phantasy Star series. Despite this, you never lose the sense that this is¬†your character, your story, and the concerns of the galaxy¬†are just a well-connected set piece that enhances the overall story. I think the most important thing I learned from this game is: don’t¬†be afraid to get grandiose in your¬†vision for a narrative. If you work it just right, it is possible to create something¬†that spans¬†worlds,¬†yet¬†still feels kind of insular in its own way. ¬†

* * *

There are a number of different things that affect how you are going to react to a story. Narrative is only one part. Music is another one, but just as important as the music and the narrative, a story’s setting informs how the rest of the story is going to feel. If the world feels dead, why should you give a rat’s ass about it?

One thing about all the games I’ve played that really stuck with me, maybe even more than the overall narrative, was how the setting felt. For me, setting is maybe the most important part of a good story. Just a change of scenery can have a drastic effect on the feel of¬†a story. You might even say a profound effect. But even deeper still, the marriage of music and setting is probably the aspect of video games I enjoy most. It’s what often makes the game for me.

All the games I’ve played have incredible settings, and incredible themes to support them. As I type this¬†a couple¬†come to mind:

 

City of the Ancients (Final Fantasy VII)

There was something about being in this city for the first time that really grabbed me. The music was a big part of it.

This piece was so different from the other pieces in this game’s soundtrack, I think that was one reason why it felt like stepping into another world. The architecture of the city—the empty, archaic buildings—definitely sold the rest. I remember wandering through this place just to hear the music and take in the feel. I can even recall¬†leaving my character standing idle in the city just so I could sleep to this music once.lol

The City of the Ancients in this game became the archetype for me on how an olden city should feel. When I play new games with a similar setting, this is the game and theme I always return to for a comparison.

Dezolis (Phantasy Star IV)

Field #1

Town #1

Town #2

Field #2

I can say with 100% certainty, Dezolis is the¬†setting that began my love of ice worlds in video games. There were so many things about it that I enjoyed, the ice caves, the¬†indigenous animals with snow themes that you couldn’t find¬†on any other world, the towns with¬†bonfires all about filled with parka-adorned people milling around—and people inside the buildings remarking on how¬†bitterly cold¬†the weather had gotten outside. ¬†

Then you had the ice and snow drifts that made travel on the world a nightmare for normal citizens—including walls of ice that could only be broken through with a vehicle called the “Ice Digger”. PSIV really went the distance to make you FEEL like you were on an ice world, and I have nothing but respect¬†for them for that.

When it comes to ice worlds, I find the most effective music has a “crystalline” quality to it, similar to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”¬†from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (which is still, to me, the archetypal “inviting” winter song that¬†can be¬†heard in many winter-themed musical pieces even more than a century after it was written).

There are two ways to really portray winter: inviting or oppressive.

Do you focus on the beauty of winter, or the bitter cold? The clear ice, or the blinding blizzard?

This is why in a game like the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, Alderaan is my favorite ice world and not Hoth. While both are technically “winter worlds”, Alderaan comes across as more of an “inviting” winter, while Hoth just feels like it will be more “oppressive”. The same could be said of zones like Winterspring (inviting) and Dragonblight (oppressive) in World of Warcraft. Both have their good sides, but my tastes tend to shift toward inviting.

Dezolis managed to give you both. When you first reach the planet, they are in the grip of a terrible blizzard that doesn’t cease. Even on a natural snow world, this blizzard begins to threaten the lives of the people. Early Dezolis is what I would call an oppressive winter world. Later, after you have destroyed the creature causing the blizzard, Dezolis becomes more of an inviting winter world. The music above reflects the change: Dezolis Field #1 is the oppressive¬†world map¬†theme when you first arrive on the planet, while Dezolis Field #2 is what plays on the world map after you’ve halted the blizzard.

Dezolis was the archetype for a good winter environment, on both sides of the inviting/oppressive divide, for me. It was a world that I loved, and anytime I go into a new game with winter environments, I hope to see at least one winter place that is inviting.

* * *

This seems like a good stopping point. I feel like my nostalgia needs to die down for the moment.

I hope this was somewhat entertaining to anyone who happens to come across this piece. I certainly had a good stroll down memory lane while I was writing it.

Part 3—the final part—will be incoming in the next week or so. With PAX East on the way tomorrow, I don’t dare promise more (even if I’m not going, I would hate to miss the coverage).

Take care.