“To Love and Learn Game Music in the South”

Crest of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In this chapter of our ludomusicological journey around the world we hear from Barnabas Smith, the founder and President of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia. Smith prefaces his commentary on the LSA, developments within the Australasian academic community, and game music culture projects with a brief assessment of the reason we are all here – the compositional landscape itself.

Composing for Games

Despite enduring a distinctly strict digital game classification regime for many years – or perhaps because of it – Australia’s most vibrant and successful development models are found in the indie game sector. One of the earliest games to receive industry recognition was The Hobbit, a 1982 game developed for the ZX Spectrum. This recognition has continued through to today, with several recent indie titles receiving notable acclaim. Untitled Goose Game (2019) won Golden Joystick, D.I.C.E.[1] and NAVGTR[2] awards, while Hollow Knight (2017) was added to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in 2019. The scores for these two games were created by Dan Golding (Melbourne) and Chris Larkin (Adelaide) respectively. Both continue to work and live in Australia, as do composers Amy Bastow and Belinda Coomes. Along with Jeff van Dyck (Total War series), Mick Gordon is perhaps the most internationally recognised Australian game composer, known for his signature scores and sound design on titles in the DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Destroy All Humans series.

On the pedagogical side, there now exist a number of game composition, recording, and engineering study opportunities across the tertiary and vocational education sectors. Courses at the University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, James Cook University, and the Queensland University of Technology are enhanced by a regular series of game culture events. Melbourne, in particular, is a national game music industry leader and education hub. Each year the city hosts the Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), which is the largest games festival in Southeast Asia, and hosts the only PAX festival held outside of the USA. Since 2017, music rights body APRA AMCOS has presented High Score, an event hosted in Melbourne and yoked to the MIGW. Part conference, part showcase, and part Q&A session, High Score offers a superlative opportunity to engage with game composers, producers, and audio designers. International guests such as Neal Acree, Manami Matsumae, and Takahiro Izutani have been featured guests, in addition to some of the aforementioned Australian composers.

Valuable as these events are, they are not structured to foster scholarly endeavours relating to game music. Such early forays can be found in independently published dissertations and occasional computer culture conference programmes. An instructive example is “Game/Music Interaction”, featured in the Eighth Australasian User Interface Conference (2007), and whose second author, Burkhard Wünsche, remains at the University of Auckland. However, it is within the last five to ten years that a corpus of journal articles focusing critically on video game music has emerged.

Academic Research

Articles such as Iain Hart’s 2014 “Meaningful Play” in Musicology Australia and 2015 critique of L.A. Noire’s soundtrack in Screen Sound Journal heralded a more ‘ludomusical’ approach. There followed more articles offering distinctly varied avenues of inquiry, in tandem with a broadening appreciation of the subject matter. In 2017, Jessica Crowe analysed Nintendo Music by Australian composer Matthew Hindson through a postmodernist lens, while the same year saw New Zealand scholar Ivan Mouraviev’s syncretic evaluation of music, narrative, and emotion in Journey published. Sebastian Diaz-Gasca, whose 2013 PhD was concerned with the consumption of video game soundtrack, continued this line in 2018 with “Super Smash Covers! Performance and audience engagement in Australian videogame music cover bands” in Perfect Beat. “From Skyrim to Skellige” saw Musicology Australia once again showcase game music scholarship, and this 2019 evaluation of RPG and fantasy music’s neo-Mediaevalist aesthetic was co-authored by Brendan Lamb and Barnabas Smith.

Many of these authors have also been active proponents of sharing game music research within different professional groups. Evidence of this can be found in conference proceedings that see publication, such as a paper on the soundtrack for DOOM (2016) featured in the 2017 Australasian Computer Music Conference. Yet like so many other fields of music research, papers on game music delivered at musicology, music education, popular music, and computer music conferences on both sides of the Tasman Sea have tended to be experienced only by those ‘in the room’, as it were.

Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In response to this need for a single and dedicated group, the LSA was launched in 2017 at the conclusion of the Ludomusicology Easter conference in Bath, UK. Indeed, the LSA’s genesis was inspired by the activities and ethos of the Ludomusicology Research Group. It was founded with the aims of unifying isolated study groups, communicating individual scholars’ research, and connecting academics and enthusiasts within Australasia.

The LSA’s Inaugural Winter Symposium in 2018 provided an opportunity for delegates to share their research through the Society for the first time. This event saw scholars travel from across Australia to congregate in Adelaide, with remote papers also delivered from the UK and US. A panoply of topics ranged from cut-scene narratives and participant agency in music games, to non-Western notation analysis and thematic nostalgia, through to evaluations of fantasy game and RPG scores. Acclaimed composer Neal Acree delivered the event’s keynote presentation and Q&A session, offering insight into his composition process and creative stimuli. The final programme can be viewed and downloaded here.

The roundtable discussion session was a particularly memorable opportunity for delegates to exchange views freely on concepts and challenges associated with ludomusicology. This activity will now be programmed during every LSA conference as a counterpoint to the primary formal paper delivery process. Its recapitulation at LSA Symposium 2019 was similarly positive and informative. Held within the castellated Sydney Conservatorium of Music, this event saw a marked increase in attendee numbers and remote delegate involvement from across Australia and the US. Among the distinguished attendees was Scottish expatriate and field leader Kenny McAlpine, who delivered the symposium’s keynote. This event’s programme can also be viewed and downloaded.

Delegates a the 2019 LSA Symposium

The intention to build on such positive progress remains an exciting priority for the Society. Of course, along with most other groups across the world, the current global health climate and subsequent restrictions of movement and congregation are predominant determining factors.

Next Steps

The future is bright for the LSA and ludomusicology more broadly in the Australasian region, despite the uncertainty of these times. This significant sub-discipline continues to be not only accepted but also embraced by those in established popular music research fields and conventional musicology spheres. This might manifest in a Musicological Society of Australia award, an article in the popular and contemporary music journal Perfect Beat, or a conference hosted by Music EDnet, the premiere music technology education group across Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, as game music studies undergo natural field maturation, the LSA continues to forge and nurture connections with non-academic game music enthusiasts, professionals, and groups. The Society’s President was featured recently on Game Composure, a podcast run by South Australian musician Angelo Valdivia. Valdivia’s cover outfit 17-Bit Band is also one of many popular groups performing game music live throughout the country. Another of Valdivia’s guests is composer Meena Shamalay who hosts Game Show, a weekly national ABC Classic radio program broadcast out of Melbourne and featuring an extensive game music catalogue.

The LSA is exploring collaboration options with many of these outfits, and exciting Society publication projects will be announced soon. Hosting composers will also always remain part of future conference activities.

As a proud member body of the SSSMG, the LSA aims to continue offering scholars, composers, and enthusiasts from Australia, New Zealand, and across globe, a unifying home for connecting, communicating, and celebrating game music research – that is, AMARE ET COGNOSCERE LUDUM MUSICA AD MERIDIANAM – to love and learn game music in the south.

[1] Design Innovate Communicate Entertain

[2] National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers

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