Composers are like gamers. Our setting is imaginary, our actions limited by constraints we intuit but cannot see. Nested systems screen off swathes of possibility. We offer ourselves up to these harsh structures because they in turn offer a pathway to meaning.
In music, meaning is housed within styles, formed and maintained in dialogue with constraints. If music speaks, it does so by moving within patterns already intelligible to us. Though the outer limits of such patterns may be determined by physiology, their immediate manifestation is anything but. Nowhere in nature is it decreed that a minor key is tragic, yet an experience of tragedy elicited by minor-key music is no less real for being contingent upon history, culture, and education. Likewise, a composer’s constraints are as binding and inescapable as they are local and particular – that is, if we composers wish to participate in history and culture.
Nowhere in nature is it decreed that a minor key is tragic.
Constraints collide in video game music, subjecting composers to further strictures. Like films, we approach games by genre. Short of irony, it will not do to underscore a romance with horror music. But gameplay makes additional demands on musical expression. The most soaring, lush fantasy score of all time will not pass muster by sweeping along heedless of the player’s situation and choices. Fantasy music in a roguelike will play out very differently to fantasy music in a turn-based RPG, if it is to achieve elegance. Lagging behind the latest innovation, video game music must always find a new grammar, constrained as never before by moment-to-moment experience.
Given the contingency of expression on gameplay, how are musical styles to maintain a continuous identity – their pathway to meaning – across franchises whose constraints are radically reimagined with each instalment? Taken as a whole, what is it that defines, say, Resident Evil music as Resident Evil Music, or Zelda Music as unmistakeably Zelda? Take Breath of the Wild, hailed by players, critics and Nintendo themselves as a radical departure from tradition. The same can be said of its music. Gone is the strident valour of Twilight Princess’ Hyrule Field, vanished too the blazing fanfares that herald A Link to the Past. The hero’s journey and all its manifest content nowhere to be found, it is whim rather than will that animates Breath of the Wild. Hyrule’s landscape, lone and level, echoes with fragments and half-forgotten tunes as changeable as the wind. A mere listener, straining to identify structural and rhetorical similarities, could be forgiven for finding zero relationship between heroic past and dissolute present.
But players are not mere listeners, and Breath of the Wild – gameplay, music and all – was immediately recognised as heir to the true spirit of the franchise. To understand this paradox, we must accept that for video game music, style is more than manifest content. For music to participate in the Legend of Zelda, it no more has to contain heroic themes than Link has to wear a green tunic (which, non-trivially, he doesn’t in Breath of the Wild). However, to doubt that any one manifest feature, musical or otherwise, is essential to Zelda is not to deny that Zelda has a style – a set of constraints determining what is and isn’t appropriate in a Zelda game.
Make no mistake, the music of Breath of the Wild is defined by heroism. A relationship of absence is nonetheless a relationship. Link’s setting is a Hyrule blown to pieces by calamity, a land scarred by the utter failure of its hero. Not merely compromised as in previous titles, Hyrule is a total ruin, destroyed (spoilers) as a direct result of its rulers’ efforts to save it. In such a land, whose greatness has faded from living memory, what is there to restore or defend? What place is there for a hero?
Music situates the player within this central problem. Themes, if heard at all, are fleeting and incomplete. The Temple of Time chant, once a ritual prayer to permanence, is recast in ironic lamentation. Forgetting itself, it trails away to a question mark, and falls silent. In place of massed voices is a lone piano, an image of solitary experience to replace the communal. This sense of fracture extends to the game’s towns and villages, where a preference for non-orchestral instruments emphasises the local over the archetypal; anthems are absurd in a world with no centre. Fun though it is to speculate in this way about music and its narrative implications, doing so puts the cart before the horse and masks a deeper coherence between content and constraints. Breath of the Wild’s fragmented score was far from a deliberate allegory for its story and setting. As sound designer Hajime Wakai stated in a 2019 interview:
There was a logic behind having no music in the open world. In the trial and error process I even tried having the music from Twilight Princess playing in the world. But because this game is open on a much grander scale than previous games, I thought that even if we had a piece of music in there, it wouldn’t be able to match that sense of inspiration the player already finds in that world. When a composer makes a piece of music he has a plan and idea of how he wants to player to feel, but if this insistence is too strong it can have an effect on the actual game. We would end up forcing a feeling of intensity onto players. – nintendoeverything.com
In video games, ideas are explored first through participation and play. In the wake of Twilight Princess (2006) and Skyward Sword (2011), fans increasingly voiced dissatisfaction with the direction the series was taking. Hemmed in by narrow corridors, forced to tackle dungeons in strict sequence, harangued at every turn by patronising tutorials, many felt Zelda was losing the spirit of adventure, weighed down by expectation and rote formula – a perception no doubt exacerbated by the tremendous openness of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released within a week of Skyward Sword. Breath of the Wild – its title promising freedom and fresh air – was produced by a collective imagination weary of directed play and predetermined action.
Should have produced a music and a narrative deeply critical of heroic problem solving.
Little wonder then that its gameplay, a combination of experiment and discovery uninhibited by destiny, should have produced a music and a narrative deeply critical of heroic problem solving. For if heroism is an answer to questions already hanging, Breath of the Wild forces us to pose our own. Reordering the priorities of experience in this way requires a musical language broken open to possibility. That music created under such constraints can be interpreted so readily as a challenge to its heroic inheritance is evidence that the spirit of Zelda resides in its gameplay, for the new expression arises by necessity from the new experience.
Composers of video game music can take heart from Breath of the Wild’s example. Wakai and his colleagues had no need to impose a rhetorical relationship between past and the present. Instead, they trusted in the deep logic of experience. In doing so, they found a music tied up intimately with its forbears, borne of three decades’ participation in the Legend of Zelda.