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Locations as Context

January 9, 2011

Video Games are a digital medium that centers around the creation and interaction of digital environments.  I believe the ‘locations’ and environments inside video games are as much a defining part of context as real-world locations can be.

For example, a desert inside a video game can provide the same contextual issues as a real world desert would, in terms of it being a location and context to write music for.

I think we can (and video games composers do) treat in-game locations as much as a context as real world locations, be it a city, castle, rain forest, airport, cathedral or sports stadium – all of which give and imply an added context for any music that would be written for such locales.

Music for video game locations is rife with cliché. Deserts tend to have some quasi-Arabic/Egyptian/African music with ethnic instruments, depending on the actual location of the desert, or even if it’s a generic, unspecified desert. Popular instrumentation for churches and cathedrals are organs and choirs. Locations set in the Wild West will no doubt feature guitars, harmonicas and whistling. These clichés are not unique to video game music and play in part to what most people would expect to hear if they saw a certain location. (I think most of these stylistic cliches have been brought over from film and television scoring)

Importantly, I don’t view the term cliché to have a negative connotation in this sense. By making use of these expectations and clichés composers can more fully enhance and adhere to the context of the location more fully. To go against this could confuse the player and be unauthentic. For example, scoring for the Wild West electronically with synthesizers would not be authentic to that location (synthesizers hadn’t been invented at the time of the Wild West) and would be detrimental to the game-play experience, and players would spot straight away that this wouldn’t feel ‘right’.

Because of these elements of cliché, there are definitely trends when it comes to music for locations in video games. Some of which I’ll look at. The first location I want to look at, where elements of cliché or a certain trend is used, are towns/villages in RPGs (Role Playing Games). Typically these kind of games are set in a medievalstyle world with fantasy elements, like monsters and magic.

Here is ‘Crysta’ from Terranigma (which is rendered in midi)

‘Home’ from Chrono Cross

These pieces are from two different games, from different generations of game’s consoles (One from the Super Nintendo, the other the Playstation). But because of their context – being used in a town/village situation in Role Playing Games, they share many similarities.

Both of the pieces contain acoustic guitar, which takes more of a background role in ‘Crysta’ and is more prominently featured in ‘Home’. Both pieces also contain flutes in lead roles. And beyond their use of instrumentation, both pieces are stylistically similar. They’re both easy-listening, pleasant pieces that function while the player walks around the village. The calmness of the pieces highlights that these towns are safe places and the player will be under no threat or danger while in them.

I think this is a good example that shows how some locations in video games have an inherent, or commonly used style of music to portray them.

But often, video games use and consist of fictional locations that the player has no association or point of reference with. I found that, in this case, music was instrumental in giving these locations an added identity, as well as helping the player be immersed inside these ‘fictional’ locations.

This became most apparent when I was looking at the game Bioshock. The game is set in a fictional underwater city called Rapture. Now, because there are no real-world ‘citys under water’, the players and the composer have no frame of reference to draw from.

This gives the composer a lot of freedom compositionally because there are not restricted by instrumentation, genre or style or preconceived notions on what a underwater city should ‘sound like’.

As a composer myself, I find the prospect of scoring for locations that don’t exist in real life to be a much more appealing proposition than scoring for real-world locations. The prospect of bringing new locations to life and making them more real for the player is a different challenge than scoring for a location that might have preconceived stylistic limitations.

In conclusion, video games contain a mixture of real world and fictional locations. These locations no doubt play a large part in setting the overall context of the game and the music used to portray these locations is very important. I don’t think it matters so much the nature of the location as long as the composer adheres to the spirit and authenticity of it, which will largely be determined and governed by the game developer when it comes to scoring for fictional locations, as it was they who invented the location in the first place and it is up to the composer to help them realise it with music.

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