Modern viewers and players may not know that the person I am dedicating this article to was the one gave, through his ouvre, rules and styles without which illustrating music we know and listen to couldn’t exist. By Wagner’s ouvre I not only mean his various works like those for opera, but his broad understanding of his craft that was reaching way beyond music. After all, he was a person wielding complete control over his own creations — it was him writing his operas and deciding all the details crucial for a successful performance (like decorations and scenography). He was not only the composer, but a director as well, and those two talents complemented each other into beautiful creations like The Ring of the Nibelung. Thus, he developed a deep understanding of audio-visual performances. Thanks to this, he laid foundations for film music and subsequently — for game music. He was the man.

Just like cinematography drew the hell out of theatre, including music, videogames drew the hell out of cinematography.

Aware of this fact were European composers migrating to USA to compose for films in rising Hollywood, and creating film music language we all know. But, to later fit it into many genres of the 1930’s, those composers had the advantage of having heard numerous operas in their youth, Wagner’s included, which gave them a better understanding of what they had to do. That musical language from concert halls was indeed what the movies were needing as well. When someone praised Max Steiner for being the father of film music, he said it’s all thanks to Wagner.

And I dare to talk about Wagner in videogame’s context, because not that much is separating those two spheres. Just like cinematography drew the hell out of theatre, including music, videogames drew the hell out of cinematography. It’s a natural cycle of culture: it’s modifying itself to new purposes and requirements and shapes itself into something new. I’ve never felt that much obliged to fight for game music independence from movies, because those two arts often are blended and — especially in terms of videogames — are still evolving. I mention this because Wagner was thinking beyond music itself, he wasn’t always writing it to hold a central place, but to balance it with other elements of stage-play, to illustrate grand plays of his own. In the end, it’s the music’s function in a creation and the techniques of using it that’s at the centre of this thinking, not who claims the right to be doing it better.

He thought beyond his art, knowing that music is not everything and balancing everything is key to great art.

That thinking was very functional, which is why first talkies jumped straight into Wagner. First important thing to know from his theories is leitmotiv. A short phrase, often repeated, to signify the same meaning or a character through a similar theme. Both video games and movies implemented it to their discourse and terminology, often using musical themes that are synonymous with entire works of art, not only separate elements of it. Speaking video games, it’s one of the most important functions that music serve there. They often rely on characterizing characters, recurring situations, locations with distinguishable themes. Take the Last of Us for example — Gustavo Santaolalla basically split themes into Last of Us, All Gone, The Path and so on (Fleeting for the DLC). The flute played during the ending of each act (tragic and traumatic moments) strongly indicates a major shift in Joel and Ellie’s journey, the sad circumstances around it and a new challenge that will define the next chapter. It’s not all, though. One thing is to repeat a theme, a second to rearrange it. That’s why the third shift (winter to spring) is played jaggedly on somewhat distorted electric guitar, telling us this time is worse and that change, even when sharing a traumatic event with others, really messed with the character. That’s why spring begins with Ellie not talking, something not seen previously in the game. Same thing, yet somehow different as signified by the music.

Main theme:
Theme’s variation:

Second big word is gesamkunstwerk  a total piece of art, mixing different ones into one. His operas were rich, from music to decorations, and he balanced many ways of expression inside one work, knowing all has a place and nothing should remain unrefined. Cinematography and first film composers had a lot of discussions regarding the „proper” place of music in the cinema, with some claiming that music that is too noticeable is bad movie music. In the end, however, totality found its way into cinema and gave us golden moments like, for example, Rohan charge at Minas Thirith with Howard Shore exceptional score. Games use the exact same technique of creating and directing art that uses acting, scenography, sound, music — everything with what we express. Take Ludwig, the Holy Blade from Bloodborne. It is one of the best bossfights FromSoftware has ever put out. Wonderfully dramatized, with intro and transition to second phase, the music takes a shift from macabre to sacral tone as the choreography of dodges and slashes goes on on a dramatic stage full of bodies devoured by once-great hunter. It’s one theatre you partake in as a performer, directing your own fight, with everything affecting you to form one, quite thrilling experience. And music is there to close the experience, without even sounding like background music. Nobuyoshi Suzuki’s piece is more than worth of a concert hall listen.

Mickeymousing may not be a term to associate with one of the most renown composers in the history of music, but technique, obviously used by Disney, actually draws from his theories, although not as strictly as previous terms. It means to synchronize a character’s movements with music, stressing them. Even though Max Steiner, for this instance, was defending that technique as a one separate from theatre (you can’t synchronize actors movements with orchestra that precisely), he admits that to some extent it was possible (giving an example of playing a march of soldier). Arts that came later perfected it as they could pre-recorder and synchronized perfectly. Music simulators like Guitar Hero or musical levels from Rayman Legends are indirectly related. There, music matches the movements character make (each jump, punch, swing has a sound) and subsequently — the movements the player make while playing (pressing buttons). It can go beyond the work of art.

That said, Wagner is…still valid and important. His ideas and techniques hold up both in cienema and videogames and they shaped illustrative music. Even though I am a fan of more minimalistic scores and genres, I can’t help to admit that Wagner was right about many things back in XIXth century and still is (in a presence of his ideas). What’s worth adding, even though his music was made to serve a function and had to somewhat compromise, it was by no means less artistic or less significant, what I think is crucial in those soundtrack-celebrating times of ours. What I love about Wagner are his plentiful interests. He was a composer, sure, but wanted to present his music in complex stageworks, taking interest in all aspects of creating a piece of media with both sound and visuals. He thought beyond his art, knowing that music is not everything and balancing everything is key to great art.


Jan Szafraniec

Fasicinated by everything that is noisy, minimal and industrial. He spends most of the time writing and floating around in ambient. He's been loyally professing videogame music for a decade and won't ever stop.