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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. and NAVGTR 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.
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.
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.
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.
Stefan is a PhD student in music theory & cognition and affiliate of the Interdisciplinary Program in Critical Theory at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the intersection(s) of music, myth, and media, especially through the concertization and “classifying” of video game and film scores. He has presented papers at various conferences, including meetings of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, the Royal Musical Association, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music.
Here, Stefan is in conversation with the world-ranking gamer Norris Joosakunwijitas Norris competes in a global competitive event in the rhythm game BanG Dream!
Content Warning: This post includes some strong language.
Towards the end of 2019, I was fortunate enough to have an on-and-off informal interview with globally ranked mobile gamer Norris Joosakunwijit over the course of about a week. During this time, he was trying to rank within the top 10 (and eventually top 3) players of the mobile rhythm game BanG Dream! during its “Steadfast Pride Piercing Sunset” event. In the game, players tap the scrolling rhythms of the played song, akin to the mechanics of games such as Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution (an example of Joosakunwijit playing is embedded within the body of the interview). During the week, Joosakunwijit kept me updated on his rank as well as his thoughts on how the event was progressing. Noting that this is (in theory) a so-called “casual” game—a genre in which players can play on-and-off at their leisure across a day—it may surprise some readers how intense the strain was on Joosakunwijit. He took off from work for the week to entirely devote his time to the game, playing around 15 hours a day for the majority of the event.
Joosakunwijit’s weekly Screen Time results during the event.
By the event’s end, however, Joosakunwijit noted that he couldn’t keep up anymore and that he didn’t play at all for the last day of the event in order to recuperate. As shown in his Screen Time capture above, Joosakunwijit played almost 110 hours of BanG Dream! across the week of the event, averaging about 15.4 hours a day on the game. This directly challenges the idea that BanG Dream! is simply a casual game.
To frame this interview, I consider the potential contradictions of casual games and the time (and monetary investment) top players will spend on them. In particular, I extend Aubrey Anable’s writings on the “rhythms” of life that casual games engender to consider what happens in extreme cases that Anable does not take into account—that is, when the games actually disrupt the rhythms of life. Further still, I consider what role a game based around music and rhythm plays in this kind of disruption. In other words, is the fact that BanG Dream! is a rhythm game part of what allows it to take over the rhythms of life?
In Aubrey Anable’s 2018 monograph, Playing with Feelings, she suggests that casual games (and mobile games in particular) provide a punctuating rhythm to our lives, organizing the larger, work-based cycles of the day to include short, quasi-escapist interludes of play. And yet, Joosakunwijit’s experience in ranking among the top players in BanG Dream! demonstrates an extreme which complicates Anable’s rhythmic analysis. With Joosakunwijit and these other top-tiering players, the schema is inverted such that play takes over the majority of their respective lives (at least for a time), and other elements of life instead provide brief moments of time away from the game. This isn’t even necessarily accomplished within the idealized state of what Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi has famously termed “flow,” as Joosakunwijit noted at one point that he was “pretty fucking braindead” most of the time he was playing. This is not to say that I believe Anable’s rhythmic reading is incorrect, but rather that I am pushing her theory to also consider extreme affective states of play—extremes, I might add, which are not at all uncommon in gamer culture.
Indeed, mobile games the world over incite more extremes than might be expected for “casual” and “free to play” games. While this has been covered in detail on the “free to play” side of things in detail (see the links in the previous sentence), less attention has been given to the time and energy players will invest in these “casual” games. Joosakunwijit is a prime example of this. Even though he was able to avoid “whaling” and spending huge amounts of money on the game to rank as well as he did, the level of commitment the game required to rank within the top 3 players was so strenuous that Joosakunwijit physically couldn’t play the final day of the event. In a follow-up conversation, Joosakunwijit noted that by about five days in to the event he was no longer eating full meals and speculated that this was one large part he was physically and mentally unable to play on the last day of the event. What is striking to me is that, even after the event had ended, Joosakunwijit indicated he was considering trying to tier in a forthcoming event as well. This is even after he had stated multiple times across the week that he would never try to tier this high again. This extreme rhythm, then, is pleasurable (or at least worthwhile) in some capacity. Whether or not such an extreme is sustainable and for how long, however, is a different story.
The question, then, becomes how music specifically affects this experience. In his famed video essay Sans Soleil (1983), director Chris Marker notes that video game music helps contribute to the “score” of Tokyo, perhaps in-part alluding to the city symphonies of earlier in the century. He continues on, suggesting that “By listening to them , you can play them from memory.” This speaks to Joosakunwijit’s experience playing the game, even when he was “braindead.” For Marker, video games and their music are ultimately redemptive, offering “the inseparable philosophy of our time.” He finds this philosophy in the arcade: both with Pac-Man and with the white-collar worker playing an anti-corporate variant of whack-a-mole. And yet, that Marker begins his discussion of video games based on their music, I think, is telling. If, as Anable suggests, casual, mobile games provide moments of reprieve from the capitalist cycle of work (and, I might add, the neoliberal sense of selfhood constituted through rhythms of productivity), then—returning to BanG Dream!—it makes sense that a game fundamentally about (not only) music, but about musical rhythms more specifically, might so thoroughly disrupt the neoliberal work paradigm. This is not to say that other casual games (or any other types of games for that matter!), might not also disrupt systems of work or rhythms of life. But to root this discussion in music and memory, as Marker suggests and as I argue Joosakunwijit demonstrates with his “braindead” virtuosity, rhythm games at some level inherently support, or perhaps even afford such disruptions. For Marker, the locus of his ludomusical philosophy was in the arcade. In the second decade of the 21st century, however, we find this philosophy readily available to us in our pockets.
Joosakunwijit’s (AKA “PKMN Trainer Sayo”) final event ranking.
What follows is an annotated and edited transcription of our conversation:
I’ve been playing nonstop since 7 PM. Time for sleep.
[11/10/2019; 3:19 PM]
I’ve gotta get those numbers up.
[11/10/2019; 5:18 PM]
Stefan Greenfield-Casas: You’re catching up!
NJ: Probably not. Their team is better than mine and I don’t think I want to keep doing 15-hour days.
SGC: Yeah, I believe it.
[11/11/2019; 7:47 PM]
SGC: Good job!
[11/10/2019; 9:14 PM]
“I don’t think I want to keep doing 15-hour days lol” –me, yesterday
SGC: I mean it was “only” 14 hours this time.
NJ: Nah, it ended up actually being 17 hours 😅 I’m never fucking doing this again.
SGC: It’s gotta be brutal.
NJ: My sleep schedule is messed up.
SGC: I believe it.
NJ: Aside from that, I’m still getting my meals in and drinking a shit ton of water.
SGC: Good, good.
[11/12/2019; 11:05 AM]
SSGC: So how exactly does it work? Do you just spam the same song over and over again? Do you need to whale at all?
NJ: So ideally you wanna play songs that are meta since they earn you the most points. But I’ve been playing with randoms, so getting a meta song depends on what other people pick. But yeah, I just play the same song over and over again, from the time I wake up till the time I sleep. Also, I haven’t had to spend any money since I’m using saved resources/gems from over time.
SGC: Do you even pay attention to it [the music] at this point? Or just do it automatically?
I’m pretty fucking braindead half the time I’m playing.
SGC: I believe it. Do you have background noise on or nah?
NJ: I’ve been watching b99 [Brooklyn Nine-Nine] again. Or I’m on X-box talking to my friends.
NJ: So I’m pretty sure I’m gonna lose my top 3 spot because this guy is catching up relatively quick. Once he does, I can probably stop doing these 15-hour days and just aim for the top 10 like I wanted.
SGC: I’m still super impressed you kept this up as long as you did.
NJ: Tbh same.
[11/13/2019; 10:11 AM]
NJ: This person needs to mind their own business lol.
SGC: What’s “kzn”?
NJ: One of the meta songs. It’s not the best meta [song,] but it’s not the worst.
Also, free advertisement.
NJ: I got the idea from when I played with a random streamer.
SGC: How’s your rank doing, Norris? Are you still doing the 15-hour days?
NJ: Yeah, but I fear once the weekend comes I’ll lose my [spot in the] top 3.
SGC: Weekends always mess rankings up.
NJ: Plus, some of the other top 10 players are playing with each other so their efficiency is better than mine by a long shot. And their teams are better than mine. I low-key want t4 to take t3 from me so I can stop playing and focus on Pokémon [Pokémon: Sword and Shield] when it comes out. Until then, I’m gonna make it a bitch to take t3. I’m also pretty low on resources and don’t know if I should drop 100 [USD] to get more stars.
SGC: I know you hadn’t last I asked, but have you whaled at all yet?
NJ: Luckily no. But I’m pretty sure I’m guaranteed top 10 which was my original goal, so I’ll be happy with whatever the end results are.
SGC: That’s awesome. Gratz!
NJ: Wait, never mind. I’m only 2 mil[lion] points above t10 and the weekend is approaching and these people might go nuts because Roselia fans are wild lol. I should’ve picked a band with the least amount of fans.
SGC: It wouldn’t have been as satisfying though.
NJ: Nah, it would’ve just been as satisfying, especially knowing that I got the same rank with less effort.
SGC: Fair, fair.
[11/15/2019; 11:14 AM]
NJ: Wow. How dare they call me a whale?
[11/15/2019; 3:11 PM]
NJ: My lead has increased by a lot but weekend is approaching so anything can happen. I did make a new friend though which is pretty cool.
SGC: Very nice! How’d they find you? (Or you them?)
NJ: His Twitter handle is in his Bandori profile. I looked him up and he was talking about how he was struggling to stay above t10. I messaged him offering to form a small party since it would benefit the both of us. We might try to get this third guy to join since he was also a solo player. I’m honestly surprised us three solos made it this far. [pause] Damn it. Now I gotta worry about [one of these players] taking my t3.
[11/16/2019; 9:06 AM]
NJ: Random, but don’t ever drink energy drinks.
SGC: They’re awful. Haven’t had one in years.
NJ: I had one yesterday when tiering and the aftereffects were horrible. But then again maybe it’s because my current state of body shouldn’t be drinking them lol.
SGC: Yeah, wouldn’t surprise me!
Only two and a half more days left to go. Maybe tonight or even tomorrow in the evening the rankings should be set in stone.
SGC: Ridiculous. What’s your name about? “New Staff”?
NJ: So when I was playing with randoms as “PKMN Trainer Sayo” [his previous name], people would troll me because they knew I was [in the top 10]. They would pick hella non-meta songs that are long and earn no points. Or they would just leave because they didn’t want to lose. So I changed it to “new staff” because that’s the name the game gives you when you first start to play.
SGC: Ahhh, clever clever.
NJ: But it doesn’t matter now because I’m playing with a clan now.
[11/17/2019; 1:33 AM]
NJ: This new t4 is annoying.
[11/17/2019; 8:46 AM]
[11/17/2019; 10:37 AM]
NJ: The dude below me [t4] keeps playing and earning points even though I can out-pace him. But if I stop then I give him a slight chance to catch up to me. Normally I could’ve stopped playing [this event] because people understand their limits. But this person’s not listening to their limits
SGC: I see, I see.
[At this point I formally asked Joosakunwijit if I could use our conversation thus far and following for research, as well as ask him if he can somehow record himself playing the song he’s been playing.]
NJ: Yeah, I can do that for you.
NJ: Surprisingly, that video is the ideal perfect run when soloing.
SGC: How so?
NJ: The song selection and my song actually getting picked.
SGC: Ah, right right. So everyone chooses a song they want to do and then it chooses one of those randomly?
NJ: Yeah, but if someone picks “random” then it chooses one of the other songs. Like the song I play is 1:35 long. Actually, 1:32 is the actual length.
SGC: So it makes it worth playing, pointwise, as opposed to other songs?
NJ: Yeah. That and some songs give better scores for whatever reason. If I play any other song, it adds either a second or up to even a minute.
SGC: Point efficiency at its finest then.
NJ: Maybe wait to write the paper when I’m confirmed top 3 lol. Unless you just want a POV from top 10. Like right now sucks because everyone keeps choosing the new song that just came out. It’s a 1:57 [long] song and I get about 400 points less than I normally would [playing a meta song].
SGC: I’m surprised they released a new song during the event? Or is it technically the event song?
NJ: It’s just a new song. This game is just doing what JP [the Japanese server/version of the game] does but with a one-year delay.
[11/17/2019; 9:02 PM]
NJ: I think I might give up on t3. My body is too exhausted and I’m only up by 900k.
SGC: How many hours are left?
NJ: About 24 hours.
SGC: Ganbatte! You’ve kept up the 15-hour days?
NJ: Apparently I’ve been doing 16-hour days.
SGC: That’s real rough.
NJ: Being up by 900k is only like 8 hours of straight playing too.
SGC: “Only.” That’s still a ton in my book. I’ve never been that high late in an event. Even when I was in the top 3k or so, I could usually play for maybe 1-2 hours and jump anywhere from 500-1000 people in rank. The top is terrifying though.
NJ: I say only because it’s not impossible to do, especially since they seem to earn more points than me.
SGC: Do they have a better team?
NJ: They’re just in a tier lobby.
[11/18/2019; 12:21 AM]
NJ: Yeah, he managed to get 300k points in 2 hours. It’s GG for me.
[11/18/2019; 7:53 AM]
SGC: How’s it going? Where do the rankings stand?
[11/18/2019; 9:10 AM]
NJ: I’ve stopped playing so I’ll either end in 4th or 5th.
SGC: Wait you’re done playing?
[11/18/2019; 10:55 AM]
NJ: Yeah, my body is just way too exhausted and I’m down 400k. My goal of getting top 10 was met, going for t3 was just for the hell of it.
SGC: Gratz. That’s a ton.
NJ: This will definitely be my last attempt at a top 10 title unless they make another tsugusayo event. Then I’ll be going through this hell all over again. But I know what to expect and how to do things better. I could do that Re:Zero event but that will probably be a bloodbath.
SGC: Regardless, I’m still impressed you did as well as you did. And yeah, I imagine collab[oration]s are especially bad in terms of ranking.
[11/20/2019; 11:30 AM]
SGC: What’d you end up ranking? t4?
NJ: Yeah, I ended up 4th. My body couldn’t do the last day stretch. It was physically and mentally shutting down on me.
SGC: I believe it.
NJ: I actually lost about 10 pounds too.
SGC: How’d you lose that much weight?? Were you not eating? Or was it stress-based?
NJ: I was eating little meals. There might have been a small amount of stress but nothing too big tbh. I think I was intaking only 600 calories a day.
SGC: 600 is nothing.
NJ: Yeah, you don’t get much calories from tuna/crackers and beef jerky lol. But the protein is there. I’m also lowkey thinking about [trying to rank] again when that Re:Zero collab comes out. 👀
SGC: You’re a glutton for punishment…
 Part of BanG Dream!’s novelty as a rhythm game lies in its corpus: anime cover songs.
 Aubrey Anable, Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ch. 3 (71-102). Anable complicates this idea, arguing that we partake in these games partially to have mastery over the schedule within the game itself and thus suggesting they work as a kind of proxy for our everyday working lives.
 I’ve also discussed the “free to play” (and “pay to do better than others”) element of mobile games elsewhere. See Stefan Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds: Musical Allegory in Final Fantasy X” (MM Report, The University of Texas at Austin, 2017), 33-34.
 As our conversation took place over the course of a week, I try the best I can to note when new sets of messages were sent. Timestamps are written in the MM/DD/YYYY format and are noted in CST (the time zone in which Joosakunwijit was playing).
 Whale in its adjectival form (“to whale”) means to spend a vast amount of money on something. Originally used in casinos to designate big-spenders, it has been taken up by mobile game players as a way of noting when players spend vast amounts of money on a game, generally in order to rank in an event (as is the case for Joosakunwijit here), or to try and pull a choice card or item from a randomized in-game gacha machine. See n16 below.
 Random players across the global server of the game.
 Here, Joosakunwijit notes his strategy of saving materials and items that allow him to play for longer than the allotted time normally would allow.
 As is apparent in the embedded video below, even though Joosakunwijit is “braindead” for most of the day and attending to other things as well, he still makes perfect or almost perfect runs of the songs he plays.
 Here, Joosakunwijit used his platform as a top 10 player to advertise one of his friend’s Twitch channels by changing his username and in-game message to direct attention to her channel.
 Teams here refers to the virtual band members players collect (in the form of virtual cards) in order to boost their scores per the effect of each respective card’s ability.
 This is the first point in the conversation Joosakunwijit mentions that the event is starting to physically affect him.
 頑張って. A Japanese term meaning “do your best” or “good luck.”
 I should note that my experience is relegated to other mobile games, most prominently in the now defunct Ayakashi: Ghost Guild and Kingdom Hearts Union χ [Cross].
 Tsugusayo relates to a coupling of two of the characters within the game: Hazawa “Tsugu” Tsugumi (the keyboardist of the in-game band Afterglow) and Hikawa Sayo (the guitarist of the in-game band Roselia). Joosakunwijit’s original in-game name, “PKMN Trainer Sayo,” is in reference to the latter.
Re:Zero is a popular novel series originally released in 2012 with an anime adaptation that was released in 2016. In the context of this upcoming event, the BanG Dream! characters are dressed in the attire of some of the characters from Re:Zero.
Continuing our series of posts about game music research around the world, Ariel Grez gives us an insight into the activities of our friends in South America.
At first glance, the ludomusicological research in Chile is as recent as the foundation of the Chilean’s Research Group of Video game music (LUDUM), at least when it comes to the use of the term ludomusicología (the self-proclaimed translation of the term ludomusicology). LUDUM is formed by musicians and researchers who met at University of Chile. Daniel Miranda is a pianist, composer, producer and researcher, Joaquin Gutiérrez is an electric guitarist and composition student, Guillermo Jarpa is a bassist, researcher and cultural manager, with formal training on audiovisual communication, Ariel Grez is a clarinetist, singer and songwriter, researcher and adjunct professor at the Music Department of University of Chile and Sean Moscoso is a percussionist and artist, and professor at the Sound Studies Department of the same university. We started this group in February 2018, and although we were the first to centralize research and documentation, the work from agents outside LUDUM before and after its beginnings must not be ignored.
That’s why our first assignment was to identify the state of academic video game music and sound research, including the social and cultural reach of its music, and the advances of Chile’s video game music industry.
In 2014 Gerardo Marcoleta, an academic member of the Autonomous Center of Musical Research (CIMA) of University of Valparaiso, presented “Music for Video Games” and other papers about the matter in different instances, including academic ones like the “1st Meeting of Contemporary Music” in Rengo or the “1st International Instance of Music and Audio” in ARCOS’s institute.
The Chilean videogame industry is in an adolescent, but evolving, condition. The Chilean Association of Video Game Development Companies (VG Chile) is a guild of 38 companies (representing more than the 85% of games companies operating in Chile). In regards to the video game music that these companies make, we have observed that the composers of the games with the higher reach, are Chileans who graduated from music-related programs from colleges or academic institutes. Among them we have Francisco “Foco”, Patricio Meneses, Ronny Antares, and others. Since 2015 the 101 Training School of Creative Technologies has offered the diploma of music production for video games, the only program in our country that specializes in music for this media, with “Foco” as their main teacher.
In Chile, Video Game Music is also experienced as a collective cultural experience taken from its original designed setting (video games) to – literally – the streets and festivals. There are many video game music bands and groups of different levels of professionalization that play music of (or inspired by) video games. Ludópatas and Jazztick make regular concerts in the capital Santiago de Chile, with the latter having performed weekly in different streets and venues. The Plasmas have been sporadically playing game music for more than 10 years in Valparaíso. Pokérus and Thennecan have smaller, but growing audiences. The Popular Music Orchestra in Concepción and the Student’s Orchestra of Federico Santa María’s Technical University in Valparaíso have included video game music in their repertoire.
As in other parts of the world, the chiptune scene has developed in our country since the mid-2000s with different waves of artists. First with Una Niña Malvada and Noobelesia, later from 2008 to 2012 with H#xz, Analog and Foco, then from 2012 to 2016 we have Kbt, Utsuho, Clsource and YZYX, and in recent years Jota Capsula and Bluu whose point of reunion in Santiago was the Once Super Portable/Mutante, a regular music festival (‘circlo’) in which chiptune musicians gathered and played among peers and fans. These events are on hold since March 2019, because their point of reunion Casa Ruido recently closed.
These musicians have been building
networks of social interchange to promote their music and create financial
opportunities of collaboration between each other, as seen with the chiptune scene, the collective of game
music “Pixel Quemado” and the Ñoño Party (the word ñoño is used colloquially to describe
someone who pertains to geek culture). This last event aspires to congregate
players, who want to have fun while listening to the video game bands of the
capital. After a successful first Ñoño Party,
that took place in April 2017 in Santiago de Chile, there was a second
version of this event in October 2018, and the Ñoño Party 3 will be held in November
2019. But, that was not the first time that this kind of event was held in our
country, as in May of 2014 the Festival
of Video Game Music was held in our capital.
Three international video game
music ensembles have come to our country: Symphony of the Goddesses (2015),
Distant Worlds (2014) and Video Games Live (2012), all of them with excellent
Chile is a highly centralized
country, both in politics and economy. Our work as game music scholars is
dedicated mostly to uncover the state of video game music in our close
environment: the capital, Santiago de Chile. This is because our members are students,
graduates and/or workers of the University of Chile and are all living in
Santiago. But, there is still a lot to unravel in other areas of our country.
Our research group started with
seminar activities that consisted of getting an overview on the state of the
art of the discipline by assigning readings and making summaries on each
reading. Here, we read some of the seminal works on video game music, and came
to realize the first and most important challenge to disseminating our interest
in video game music research: the lack of research in Spanish on the topic.
So, in an attempt to activate the academic community, we organized our first public event. We held the 1st National Meeting of Ludomusicology in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile in November of 2018, with the sponsorship of its Music Department, and the Latin American Aesthetics Research Centre, with the support of the “Espacio Elefante” Cultural Center. Even though LUDUM is an independent research group, we are working to strengthen our bonds with different institutions, such as the University of Santiago de Chile or the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso.
The meeting’s program consisted of
three days with academic, artistic, formative and musical activities open to
the public: A daily session consisted of seminars, where papers were presented,
and different activities with artists and video game music producers. A forum
of productive experiences was held the first day, with the Creative Director of
Niebla Games Nicolás Valdivia and
Composer René Romo. A Workshop on interactive music was held the second day
with the composer Francisco “Foco”. Musical performances were realized every
day, with arrangements of video game music made by students of musical
composition David Bustamante and Joaquín Gutiérrez, the latter being a member
of our group and also director of the ensemble composed by students of the
University of Chile. Foco also performed his chiptune project and Ludópatas
closed the last day with a concert, where a full Sala Elefante danced and jumped to some classic video game tunes. A
review of this concert? was published in the Chilean Musical
Also, LUDUM members have presented
papers at academic conferences. Ariel Grez has presented papers both at the
Ludo2018 and Ludo2019 conferences, using different analytic approaches to video
game music, aesthetic, semiotic, ludic and ethics fields, bringing the input of
Latin American thinkers like Katya Mandoki and Enrique Dussel to the
ludomusicological field, to deepen our understanding of the reception of video
game music, aiming to finally being able to characterize the specificity of
Latin-American gamers experience in the complexity of the geopolitical problem
of distribution of video games. On the other hand. Daniel Miranda presented a
paper in the Third Chilean Congress of Popular Music in Alberto Hurtado
University. In this paper entitled A
Contained Princess: a Vocal Analysis of Super Mario 3D World’s Characters
he proposes a methodology to analyze these voices comparing the pitches and
sentences used by each character, doing a gender performance reading inspired
by Butler (1990) and also studying the reception of Princess Peach’s voice,
categorizing popular comments of an online viral video. He concludes that the
Princess’ voice responds to a voice direction that overcaricaturizes her among
other characters through a process of infantilization that is increased over
time in the games she appears in and by using a template of an already
caricatured version of a sexualized woman (Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe). A
continuation of this research was presented at Ludo 2019, in which the
reception of Peach’s voice was studied through Philip Tagg’s methodology of
semiotic analysis, categorizing different profiles of gamers that responded in
different ways to her voice, suggesting that experienced male gamers were more
likely to refrain from playing with her character because of her voice.
Our objective is to consolidate a
space of debate and knowledge building on video game music, articulating the
Spanish-speaking community, while also connecting with the academic and
professional field and the public in general. To that effect, we are preparing
several investigation projects, ranging from characterizing the local video
game bands scene, to analysing the Chilean production of video game music, and
continuing to test different analytical methods to investigate the experience
of listening while gaming. Last but not least, we are currently preparing our
second academic event, the Second National Ludomusicology Gathering, here in
Santiago de Chile.
This is a guest post from Vivaswath Rao. Viva is a postgraduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London. He recently hosted and chaired William Gibbons’s guest talk at Royal Holloway, which was part of the inspiration for this essay. Here, he investigates how classical music interacts with the idea of ‘The Grotesque’ in games.
Content warning: violent images.
The Save Room in the horror video game Evil Within, is a place of contradictions. A washroom within a mental asylum, the safe haven of the game, the room is crawling with cockroaches and pullulating flies. In the midst of the grungy and decrepit enclosure, a large grandiose mirror gleams out with extravagant beams of white light, leaving the protagonist Sebastian silhouetted. What stands out about this mirror is that its prophetic light is accompanied by a looped version of Debussy’s Clair De lune. The situation brings up an interesting prospect, one that extends far out into the real world. Video games have long attempted to push boundaries towards increased player engagement, along with greater intellectual and emotional reward. As illustrated by Michele Dickey, a careful blend of physical, environmental, temporal, ethical and emotional dimensions enable “…a sense of suspended disbelief and provides players with a sense of immersive engagement in the gameplay environment”.
One of the ways by which games have done so is to utilize real world subjects and objects to create intertextual systems. The above scene is one such example. In a world torn apart by bloody conflict, supernatural forces, and exaggerated violence, Classical music is an uncanny misfit. It stands at odds with its surrounding predilection for death, symbolizing on the contrary serenity, virtue and peace. It is this fascinating co-existence of the ‘grotesque’ with ‘Classical music’ in video games that I seek to understand further. Given that terms such as ‘grotesque’, ‘classical music’ and ‘video games’ rest on a shared cultural definition, it is worth investigating what its reactionary cognitive dissonance might suggest about us, or our relationship with the game on a psychological level.
The term ‘grotesque’ has for very long elucidated various explanations and definitions. An idea emergent from European Renaissance interest in antiquity, the term has itself drifted along etymological tides from era to era.
Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915) begins with the main character, Gregor Samsa, waking up to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect. The book is at once surreal in its premise, yet set in an otherwise apparently realistic world. Kafka’s creation is often judged as a benchmark of the modern ‘grotesque’. Describing Samsa’s transformation as ‘grotesque’ reveals not only what the term approximates but also where it is ambiguous. This story that takes place in a strange world that for the most part, appears natural, Kafka’s subject of mutation displays tensions that mingle together horror with humor. While the protagonist insect represents an amalgam of unsaid fears, nightmares and biological deviations, it remains unclear (perhaps intentionally) as to what definitively marks out the grotesque. While some argue that the grotesque lies in the construction of the symbol itself, i.e. ‘the grotesque’ (giant insect), others argue that the identification of ‘grotesque-ness’ depends on its affective response. Following Kafka’s odd and unsettling combination of fantastic and realistic elements, we might consider grotesque to be partly a result of our psychological reactions to juxtaposed, ‘dissonant’ elements.
Cognitive Dissonance in Video Games
A new field of empirical psychological research (VGTx) has begun to explore the potential of commercial video games as therapy, resulting in a growing body of literature that studies relationships between gamers and how they view the game themselves. Anthony M. Bean’s book Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy looks into this area of study with the primary theoretical framework being that of a Humanistic and Jungian/Archetypal paradigm.
In this tradition, we can consider video games as a medium of a controlled confrontation of the unknown, which involves frequent instantiations of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as a psychological state where an individual’s cognitions—beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are at odds. This is immediately followed by a motivation to resolve inconsistencies between disparate cognitions. Marc Prensky explains, “Electronic games require active engagement in environments, which supports discovery, observation, trial and error, and problem solving.” While video games have constantly strived towards greater artistic realism and narrative nuance, the importance of ‘accomplishing the challenge’ and ‘undertaking the task’ make for its psychological currency and a medium of positive reinforcement. Research reveals that part of the appeal of video games may be attributed to its relatively risk-free goal-oriented tasks. Thus games might offer grounds for studies on affective responses, not only in psycho-therapeutic endeavors but also ludology and game designing experiments. Where video games align with the grotesque in this sense, is best summarized in Wolfgang Kayser’s view of the grotesque, “The grotesque is a game with the absurd, in the sense that the grotesque artist plays, half laughingly, half horrified, with the deep absurdities of existence. The grotesque is an attempt to control and exorcise the demonic elements in the world”. As discussed by Rune Graulund, the grotesque in some way rests in opposition to sophistication. Sophistication lies in the intellectual validation of the ‘known’, symbolized by knowledge, order, control, balance, life. The Grotesque, however, is the demon from the ‘unknown’ that leaps through the cracks of existence, threatening to topple it, i.e. chaos, disorder, or even death.
Classical Music in Video Games
Classical music has long been frequently invoked as an agent of sophistication in video games. While most commonly Classical music and video games have occupied opposing ends on the cultural spectrum of high art and low art, the relationship between the two is by no means a simple one. To evoke the term ‘Western Classical’, brings along with it the suggestion of a canonic body of works. Most often referred to as works by highly regarded European composers between the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. These works retain a status in popular culture as unquestioned artworks. In this regard, collaborations between video games and classical music through the last few decades have revealed a multitude of consequences. A recent resurgence in the game Assassin’s Creed due to its representation of the historical Parisian cathedral Notre Dame in the aftermath of its destruction, gives an insight into one such collaboration between video games and a monument of the ‘classical’.
A news report on the story claimed, “With so much details poured into the game, it’s hard not to see the benefits of video games in how they can also preserve history, even in its own way”.
Below, I look at a few examples of popular single player video games where Classical music acts as a propeller of cognitive dissonance in order to intensify player experience of ‘the grotesque’. In all the examples below, Classical music is used as an agent of the civilized, the peaceful, and the victorious. As such, it serves to enhance and articulate the ‘grotesque’ when this emblem of civility is put in tension with other horrific or otherwise dissonant elements. Like Kafka’s juxtaposition and the self-other psychological confrontation that underpins games as therapy, Classical music is here used as a potent agent for forging a grotesque aesthetic experience by representing a symbolic anchor against which horror and irrationality can be contrasted.
The involvement of Classical music in the game is best demonstrated by the above sound disk and artbook cover of the game score.
The game is set around protagonist Vincent Brooks, who is caught between an emotionally dormant long-term relationship with his girlfriend Katherine, and a second new relationship with young, attractive Catherine. He must confront in his dreams the demonic manifestations of his real-life insecurities and win over them in order to wake up alive the next day. As William Gibbons has described, remixes of famous Classical pieces are prominent features of the nightmare stages of the game. A combination of normal life depicted through cut scenes, and nightmare in the form of gameplay, it is the latter in which complete manifestations of the grotesque are revealed. Classical music in the nightmare scenes are marked out through an action-film style of scoring. While the rest of the game features music in a piano based smooth jazz-style, the nightmare remixes feature strings and brass — rock-style arrangements. Irrespective of player knowledge of the repertoire, the element of the ‘Classical’ is made unavoidable through the repeated recurrence of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and extensive use of orchestral instruments.
The game’s narrative teems with allusions to psychological theories in its observation of dreams being a mediation ground between conscious, subconscious and unconscious, and in Jungian terms, the dwelling ground for archetypes. Dreams become the playground where the Freudian id, ego and superego must resolve Vincent’s insecurities. The unconscious impulse, the id, is clearly manifested through demons, with Vincent playing the part of the ego, or the decision maker, while the superego, or the moral center remains un-manifested in material form. This void is filled by Classical Music. Remixed nonetheless, it represents that part of Vincent associated with reality, conscience, order, balance and victory. On completion of each challenge, Vincent opens the ‘door of faith’ to the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus. Each demonic form represents a twisted representation of the central subjects of the Vincent’s fears, sexuality, marriage and child bearing. While each of the three form essential symbols of life, joy and pleasure, in other words sources of positive emotions; in Vincent’s dreams they are manifested as enlarged disembodied forces of destruction, capable here, of taking a life. They emerge from within the darkness of the unknown below the surface of reality and wield not only an instinct but weapons to slay – sharp teeth and sharp knives. With contradicting ideas of the sophisticated and grotesque, battling it out, the player is left guard-less in the line of fire, reaping in return maximum psychological rewards.
The Evil Within
On few occasions in the game The Evil
Within, the player witnesses chilling occasions when famous pieces of
Classical Music not only meta-diegetically underscore the scene but add to what
would have otherwise been intensely cognitively dissonant.
In Chapter 1, hanging upside down from the ceiling, the lead character
Sebastian is about to be hacked to death by serial killer Sadist. Sadist is a
large and muscular man with a metallic mask, bloody outfit and gory appearance.
Sadist, much like Catherine, represents a human form of a demon except this
time, the weapon is a chainsaw. While Sebastian hangs alongside rotting hacked
bodies and putrid carcasses, a nearby gramophones resonates with an orchestra,
the tune of Bach’s Air in G. Playing on the pun with the name Sebastian, the
music itself has nothing more to do with the narrative than to intensify the
already horrific and disgusting visuals into an articulation of artistic irony.
The music in the scene symbolizes the death of civilization itself. The game
takes place in Sebastian’s home town where all inhabitants have either
perished, mutated or have turned into evil monsters.
In The Evil Within, we see
another common theme across a multitude of video games, including GTA, Fallout,
Bioshock Infinite and the Far Cry series. This is the old radio
machine or gramophone that is the mouthpiece for Classical music. The two
symbolize not only the ‘archaic’ but also something of the prophetic. Seen
across both futurist and historical period games, the radio is something of an
artificial conjunction of human machine and transcendental classical music, in
other words it is the object of grotesque, often tattered in appearance and
giving the sound a distorted and desolate quality.
The grotesque is a term that defies a clear definition. It bears a place
in common usage that stretches across object and subject, noun and adjective,
video game stimulant and human respondent. What may be observed throughout
these cases is that even ‘the grotesque’, exists on a spectrum of
‘grotesqueness’. Outside the question of intention and authorship, lie strong
reasons to suggest that any combination of Classical Music and video games is
in itself something of a “grotesque” and places it on this spectrum of grotesqueness.
Games like Catherine and The Evil Within exploit this triumvirate,
to place themselves higher on the grotesque spectrum. As audiences for video
games continue to grow, with more individuals voluntarily engaging with video
games at deeper levels of emotional involvement; as the influence and usage of
Classical music in/on video games continue to grow; cognitive dissonance
becomes an increasingly important factor in putting each video game on the
spectrum of grotesqueness and thus, putting Classical music itself on various
spectrums of modern human experiences.
Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp. 76
Geoffrey Harpam, ‘The Grotesque’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp.461
Matthias Jaeger, ‘Commercial Video Games As Therapy: A New Research Agenda to Unlock the Potential of a Global Pastime’, frontiers in Psychiatry 8:300 (2018)
Anthony M. Bean, Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2018), pp. 2
Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp. 78
Philip Thomson, ‘The Grotesque’ (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1972), pp. 18
William Gibbons, ‘Ultimate Replays: Video Games and Classical Music’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 4