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Joys in writing game music, frustrations of the place of games in society, and the potential of games that convey experiences
by Sean Hogan on 10/26/12 11:06:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This post is a smattering of sorts. I'll be writing about a few things:

  • First I'll be talking a bit about my frustration with gaming's reception among my friends and the general public, but how and why hope is not all lost
  • My goal with game development, and also a large reason of why I'm so interested- allowing players to understand emotions and experiences  felt by others (contrast with games that evoke emotions in players)
  • A bit about why I find a subset of game music so enjoyable to create and listen to

Frustrations

Video games (henceforth "games") can be thought of the combination of a few creative mediums - music, art, literature, and the slightly established art of programming, in order to create something interactive for one or more people. Game development is the process of using those mediums and combining them in a special way, with special decisions, to create something people can play.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that, and definitions aren't absolute, but it'll do for this post. Anyways:

I'm occasionally frustrated at some of the apathy of the general public and my friends around games. Some friends can act a little dismissive of the idea that games can be used as a legitimate creative medium.

By dismissive, I mean that the person is satisfied in thinking games have no legitimate place as a creative medium, having played only a few. At worst, they've only played the very casual - solitaire, some brick-breaker, tetris, bejeweled, angry birds, temple run, doodle jump, etc. On the bright side, those who have only played the very casual of games have not necessarily turned their head away from games entirely - there is some intersection in the groups, but they are not one and the same.

Almost everyone has at least seen/read/heard some "great" work of one of the constituent mediums of games - art, music, etc. Certainly we'd find the following absurd: 

  • Bob saying "I've only listened to the new Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Kanye West singles, and no other music EVER", and Alice finding that perfectly okay.

Worse:

  • - "I've listened to a song or two by Beethoven, some jazz greats, Justin Bieber, ... , etc., but I'm going to go ahead and dismiss music as largely a waste of time and barely listen to any genre ever again"

Others:

  • - "I've read Harry Potter, Crime and Punishment...they had some good parts, but I think they're mostly just a waste of time!"
  • - "Yes, I've seen pictures by Picasso and Van Gogh. They looked kind of nice but in general, art is sort of meaningless entertainment."

...and so forth. It almost seems ridiculous to claim that someone could only have experienced the most popular of the above mediums, moreso dismiss the mediums based on a sampling of various "flavors" of the medium. Yet, this is exactly what happens with the sphere of games. There are many games of the same caliber as the famous paintings and books and films, yet they mostly go unnoticed except by those closely related with games.

It's not even hard to get your hands on a game nowadays, but people choose to not spend any time on them at all. Friends can easily spend 2 hours re-watching episodes of a TV series or some movie, yet asking them to download the free game, "Cave Story" - a game made by one man over 5 years - and play it for even half an hour, borders on an impossible task.

And it's not entirely surprising. Games have not been around as long as any of the aforementioned mediums. Just recently has it become a viable medium for people on empty budgets to pick up, thanks to the existence of many free software tools and the relative cheapness of computing power. As a result, most people have only been exposed to older games, or the very well-marketed ones. It's hard, and even exhausting, to get a close friend to give games a second chance.

While in different ways, all games are forms of creative expressions, they are often large studios, so you cannot associate one or two faces with the creation of the game - a barrier which I think is part of why people have trouble seeing games as a creative medium. There do exist games created by larger studios that are exceptions to the rule, but they are relatively rare.

Now, small teams of ~2-3 are creating great games with very well-put-together aesthetics, and are slowly becoming noticed by the media - so I can only hope that in the future, the set of games played by the average person will contain more games developed by small groups. Certainly the Marios, Halos, etc. are important to the game ecosystem, but it's important that people play games that are capable of emotionally and intellectually moving them in ways they haven't experienced before.
And speaking of moving the players (see what I did there)..

Games - a new way we can convey personal experiences

One of the main things I like about games is their potential in allowing players to understand emotions and ideas that the creators have, expressed in a way that is not possible in other mediums.

A prime example is the game Gravitation by Jason Rohrer - through the discovery of its simple mechanics, the player can almost feel some of the frustration Jason has with managing his creative output (among many other things) - it's a balance between being in the clouds and in reality, and often mental issues become an obstacle in reaching his creative potential.

A more theoretical example: instead of inducing fear in the player (Silent Hill, early Resident Evils, etc), a developer (say "bob") could make a game that is very much a traditional game, but also constructed in such a way that allows the players to understand some of the fears that Bob has, and how they relate to his life, and perhaps learn more about themselves in the process.

Another example: we have lots of games about love between fictional characters, but what about a game strongly inspired about the rise and fall of one person's love for another? It would be an extremely personal creation, but also an opportunity for many people to understand and learn from that person's experience. Many of the best things I've learned have been transferred by conversations with close friends, but if there was some way to transfer their experiences into games, many details that are lost in words would go into the game's mechanics, its art, music, etc...and those details hold a lot that we can learn to introspect and grow.

Or perhaps the process of playing these games can grow empathy in players, allowing them to better communicate with and understand their friends. Or maybe, in playing a game that is very much a part of the creator, they will better be able to understand humanity. And that's what's exciting about games - the possibility to create games people can gain this much from. I wonder where it will all lead...

Why creating and listening to "Game Music" is exciting

On a...sort of related note, I recently had a small insight about music from games. I recently became amazed when I realized that game music is entirely something new, spawned and existent only due to the medium of games. I'm going to use the words "game music", although I don't like the use of genres - game music has many, many different sorts of music. It's just a convenience thing, much like "rock" or "classical music", etc.

Certainly, game music has influence from all types of music. There's a specific set of game music that I'm particularly a fan of - they tend to paint images of places and convey a specific experience - more on that in a bit. Not sure what to call it. "Moment Video Game Music"? I'll call it MVGM for now.  Again, it's a rough definition, and lots of music in games borders being inside the set of MVGM, and lots of it falls way outside...certainly all game music is "fitting", but some evoke certain feelings stronger than others.

Here's a good example of "MVGM".

 

I may be totally wrong, but I find it hard to see a way in a piece such as this could have been created by anything other than the setting of the game, where the song takes place, and Yasunori Mitsuda's life experiences. It's different, it's unique, and perhaps even a little uncomfortable, compared to genres of music lying outside of the game sphere. It perhaps gives us insight into the composer's mind, or maybe the game designers' minds, at the very least it does a nice job of taking us to another place in our minds. Lots of music can do that, of course! But MVGM has something special because it lies within the interactive medium of a game.

I feel one reason why MVGM is special is that a game can sometimes attempt to convey many things - perhaps:

  • an intended emotion or feel of an area to go along with a story event
  • maybe it must match the art aesthetic
  • perhaps the part of the game it's in is where you must tread quietly, and it must match the interactions the player makes.

These other factors in a game are very much "constraints" on what music can be made and actually fit, but specific constraints can lead to great things when it comes to creative mediums.

And all of those constraints and evoked feelings are parts of why I find MVGM  so exciting, and why I find it very exciting to write. I could write a song about a calm autumn day, or I could write a song for a part of a game where the player must walk down a hill on an autumn day, leaves falling, with a gentle breeze, to convey a sense of calmness, which fits the visual aesthetics (the autumn day), the gameplay (just walking down a hill, for some reason), and perhaps the part of the game (a calm area). Perhaps it's a form of escapism because it all happens while I'm sitting in my shuttered room. Who knows.

To plug something I'm working on and give a more personal example, here's a piece I wrote for my game, Anodyne. It takes place on a cliff/mountain area, with clear skies and clouds in the distance, in a part of the game that is very calm, relaxed, confident, compared to other areas. I do not think I could have written the song in any other way unless I had a specific vision for the art and gameplay. As a musician, this is why I like to continue making games. Because games are so new, and the medium is evolving very fast, there are always new situations that require music for them, and I do feel like I'm on some adventure in the land of unknown music, and writing songs for games is like discovering a new land - especially MVGM, which is particularly the subset of game music that I am very interested in.

 

Well, fancy metaphors aside, it's time to wrap everything up.

As the technological and financial barriers for game creation goes down, more people will be more easily able to express their thoughts in ways that aren't possible through film, art, music, and so forth. Things are currently a little bleak with the general opinion and perception of games, but it might get better, as people realize that games are an opportunity to learn and interact in a brand new way.

What should you do now? Go play a game! Can't decide? Well, go play Cave Story, if you haven't! In both, try to notice the aesthetics, notice the gameplay, think about all of the work and thought that went into creating it. Cave Story took Daisuke Amaya 5 years to create on his own - every character, every song, every level - was created entirely by one man. An appreciation for this may lead to an increased willingness to explore other games. Hopefully, you will better be equipped to understand the occasional game you do play.

Follow me on Twitter for more updates on blog posts!

(and check out my game, Anodyne, too!)


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