The second day of Ludo2017 followed the same format as the first day, and I had the chance to speak to more people and listen to some even more interesting talks. I got the impression that music conferences rarely have such a friendly atmosphere, and I feel that this has something to do with the subject matter. Most of us are gamers ourselves and as well as a vested interest in musicology there’s also a lot of nostalgia and emotional feelings surrounding the games and game genres mentioned over the three days. I noticed that many of the ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s came when recognising a piece of music from a game beloved in our childhood, or a particularly memorable scene either for its sense of heartbreak, an iconic reveal, or simply for its comedy value. I personally felt a deep tug when I saw the aerial shot of the Imperial Palace from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, accompanied by Jeremy Soule’s famously dramatic theme.
I arrived at the conference slightly late on Friday 21st, and so unfortunately missed James Tate’s paper on the video game music canon. Some interesting points are raised in the questions, however, that so called ‘AAA’ games (pronounced ‘triple A’ and meaning games that have the highest budgets and levels of production) have trouble becoming canonised because of the sheer number of them. For example, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is now exceptionally well known and has many titles under its name, but the games themselves perhaps have less sentimental value as more sequels appear. For me personally, the classic AC games are the first one (Assassin’s Creed) and the second ones (Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed Revelations). After that, I believe the developers sacrificed plot and script quality for gimmicks and sensationalism. The video game business is, after all, a business, and they obviously saw a formula that worked. The controls also became simpler in Assassin’s Creed III, and after that the plot became so convoluted and far away from the original game that I have trouble connecting with the characters. I miss Desmond. Certainly the AC franchise as a whole is part of the video game canon, but not the individual games themselves and this, I believe, is partly due to the number of them.
James Cook’s paper, ‘Sonic Medievalism and Cultural Identity in Fantasy Videogame’, was particularly engaging as the fantasy genre is one I have identified with for a long time. I’ve enjoyed hours and hours of Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls series has a special place in my heart, but James speaks about a game I haven’t played: The Witcher III. He talked about how the fantasy genre takes influence from the medieval in both sound and aesthetic, such as architecture and mythical beings. Some of the musical techniques used in the game come in the form of layering; for example, the same battle music will play when faced with an enemy, but if the enemy is small only the first level of music will play. I assume that more layers are added on according to the difficulty of the enemy. James also highlighted some stereotypes within the fantasy genre, such as northernmost parts of the game being associated with hardiness and deep-rooted traditions, whereas southern countries are known for their wealth, lavishness and comparative femininity. Characters from rural areas often have west country accents, and characters from the north will often have accents from Yorkshire. Wealthy characters, if they have a British accent, will often use received pronunciation found in the home counties of England. This contrast between wealthy and not can be seen in the cities of Oxenfurt and Novigrad which, although the two cities are situated in the north, are two of the most affluent cities in the game and this shows through their architecture. While the rest of the game takes influence from the medieval, Oxenfurt and Novigrad clearly represent the beginning of the Renaissance and the dawn of science, art, philosophy, music, and other intellectual pursuits. The choice to give Oxenfurt and Novigrad this Renaissance aesthetic separates them from the rest of the game, giving them a perceived ‘higher’ status. I’m interested to play this game and see these contrasts for myself.
A highlight of the Friday was listening to British game composer Rob Hubbard giving advice to aspiring composers. I’m not really a composer myself but it was interesting to listen to an expert in the field on the do’s and do not’s of video game composing. He criticised the composers who have no musical knowledge, saying that while you do have to be experimental with your music, you also have to make musical sense. Music theory must make up the foundation of your work, otherwise you risk writing weak pieces. Arguing further for the practice of theory, Hubbard stated that having theory to back up your creativity was important for motivation, as trying to keep momentum without any knowledge is a bit like trying to get a car to its destination by rolling it down a hill with the engine off. The nature of video game music is repetitive; players hear the music time and time again, loop after loop (which is probably why so many of us have such emotional ties to certain music), so the least the composer can do is make it interesting. Again, this comes from having musical knowledge and being able to vary the key, rhythms, and tonal areas around. No one wants to hear annoying video game music over and over and annoying music that uses terrible clichés is even worse. Immersing yourself in the video game music world is also an essential part of being a composer; by simply listening to video game music all the time you will absorb the style and rules of the trade, and the more you write the better you will become at decision making and the faster you will compose. It really was a privilege to hear Rob talk about his work from a realistic but encouraging standpoint.
It was another successful and enlightening day at Ludo2017 and I’ve heard many varied and fascinating perspectives, from analysing the sensory overload ‘brostep’ music of the Major League Gaming videos and their parodies to the Elvis-obsessed Kings of Fallout: New Vegas. The third day was just as exciting and I wish I could write about it all here.
For more information about the Ludomusicology Research Group, visit ludomusicology.org, where you can sign up for email updates and find contact information. If you’re a musicologist with an interest in video game music, I’d encourage you to have a look at the SSSMG (Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games), a new society with the aim of connecting researchers and professionals in the field for the understanding of music within video games, at www.sssmg.org,