Author: Contributor

Narrative and Audiovisual Interactivity

Kyle Edward Roderick (Texas Christian University, Editor-in-chief of Musicology Memes)

It seems to me that all of art, at its core, is a link between the imaginations of the author and the reader. With modern film making techniques, virtually any set of images and sounds, which I refer to as the “audiovisual landscape,” can be presented to the reader. The film, therefore, represents the epitome of authorial authoritarianism. The intent of the film is to invade the imagination of the viewer and immerse them in its rigid narrative.

The modern video game finds itself in a similar situation. With increasing levels of “realism” in the visuals, and functional equivalency of the sounds, the audiovisual palette available to the game designer is, for all intents and purposes, the same as that of the film director. The notion of interactivity is of course that which distinguishes games from films. At the most basic level, the player takes the reins as the protagonist, moving the narrative along at his or her own pace. At the highest level are those games where the designer hands over as much authorial power over to the player as possible.

In the purest form of these so-called “sandbox” games, the narrative is whatever the player makes it. In a sense, there is no story, but that which exists in the imagination of the player. But the audiovisual landscape remains under the control of the designer. Minecraft, for example, forces the player to see the world through “blocky” goggles. The player is not so free as to see the world as made of pyramids rather than cubes.

So if film is high narrative and high audiovision, and video games are medium-to-no narrative and high audiovision, literature is, in a sense, the opposite of video games, that is, high narrative and medium-to-no audiovision.

By high and low here I mean influence of the author. In sandbox games, there is still narrative, it is simply supplied by the player. Likewise in literature, there is still audiovision, it is simply found in the imagination of the reader. The greatest influence an author can have over the audiovisual landscape of their medium is found in picture books and in avant-garde literature such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Some sandbox game designers have expressed their desire to loosen their grip on the audiovisual landscapes of their games. In the case of Will Wright’s Spore, the player is given vast license to design many aspects of the audiovisual landscape themselves, such as the appearance and sound of their aliens, and their civilization’s buildings, vehicles, and clothing. Ironically, in the case of Spore many players found the rigid transitions between levels of play to be incongruous with the purported sandbox nature of play. While players looked forward to a game with medium audivision and medium narrative, they actually found a game with medium audiovision (they were on the whole happy with the design aspect) but with high narrative. Every species created in Spore followed the same path, whether peaceful or warmongering, from bacteria to galactic domination.

Games with high narrative that wish to appeal to the sandbox audience often throw in these false dichotomies, moral dilemmas that hardly affect the overall narrative of the game in order to afford an illusion of control. As a friend of mine put it, in many games you have the choice of either being a “saint [or an] asshole.”

An interesting case is Linden Lab’s Second Life where the “player” (if you could call him that) can not only write their own narrative and design game mechanics, but also become the painter of the audiovisual landscape by using in-game tools and by uploading images, 3D models, and audio files. Where Second Life is lacking, is that the author is divorced from the medium, and the virtual world can hardly be called a game any longer, as there is no link between an author and a reader. From this emerges many games within a virtual world, where users of Second Life are often both designers and players of games not written by the developer of the virtual world.

As this is a Ludomusicology blog, I feel compelled to mention how this all relates specifically to music in video games. When games have low narrative, that is, narrative in the hands of the player, music becomes problematic for the same reason that many other aspects of the game become problematic, and that is because the game cannot predict what the player will do. This is, perhaps, why in many games with narrative freedom, there is also musical freedom, e.g. the Fallout and GTA series. Other attempts have been made at accommodating this issue, such as the ambient scoring of Minecraft.

Time-Shift Crystals in Skyward Sword

I know I’m always goddess-harping on about Zelda but here is a really good example of dynamic musical layering.

[Spoiler Alert]

In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the level design for the third temple centers around a timeshift mechanic where link can hit crystals that shift the immediate vicinity to a time where the Lanayru Mining Facility flourished. In the present time the land is a desert inhabited by crustaceans and the remains of the old mining robots. In the past it was a working industrial facility.

When in the present the music has a much blander texture and is as arid and desolate as the desert for which this music is representing. When link moves into the area that is timeshifted the music takes on a much richer texture gaining new instruments and more details.

Although this is not a new feature it is really done to the highest standard I have yet seen in a videogame.

You can check out the musical differences ingame on any one of the links on this page:

Osmos Time-Shift

Osmos has been around for a little while but I only just managed to give it a good play (Yes, it is a slow day in the library).

The game is a nice standard eat ‘em up taking place in an ambiant space-style pond.

The game features a solid ambient soundtrack to match and with one particularly interesting dynamic feature: The player has the ability to slow the level of play down which makes every action take longer to complete and the competition life-forms move slower. With this the soundtrack is time-shifted to match the new speed of game. This musical immersion in a game mechanic designed to make the game easier (or harder) really makes the slower movement of play stand out.

Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony London

Last night [Tuesday] I went to the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary concert.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a video games concert with better production value that worked to my sometimes overly awkward classical ear. This was something else! The quality of the sound was phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that the sound engineer managed to mic up the full orchestra and still get them to sound balanced with such consistency throughout the performance. Nailed it!

For those of you who didn’t manage to see the Tokyo, LA or London showing I’ll just mention that the CD will be well worth the buy when it comes out. All I’m going to say about the music is the obvious: it brought up so many memories from my child(adult)hood that at times I was very moved. By far my favourite of the night was the Wind Waker Medley, so look out for it!

Another great feature of this night was the host, Zelda Williams. For those of you that don’t know the story, she is the daughter of the actor Robin Williams, who named his daughter after [Princess] Zelda in 1989. At most video-game concerts I’ve seen, the host has usually been someone hired for their looks rather than for their knowledge about games. This girl knew her stuff!, and even admitted to being moved by the music as much as any other member of the audience there that night. She later posted on twitter that the London crowd were awesome, so well done team-UK!

I must say that as a trained classical musician I’ve never ever, ever seen a crowd get more behind, and emotionally involved in the music as I saw last night. So much cheering, so much applause, so much silence when the music required it! In fact, the sheer gravity of Koji Kondo himself coming out to play had the entire crowd holding their breath so as to let the master do his work. He commanded so much respect in that room that he literally could have played ‘chopsticks’ and everyone would have stopped their breathing to hear better.

In closing the concert, the orchestra played us the new theme from Skyward Sword. This piece uses the retrograde of the well known Zelda theme Zelda’s Lullaby as its main melody. Check it out on youtube.

Although I had the special edition of the game ordered a while ago I almost felt like I should order another copy just to metaphorically kneel before the new heir to the throne; the king of all games series: The Legend of Zelda.

May you reign for another 25 years.

%d bloggers like this: