Composers Lena Raine and Austin Wintory share a giddy enthusiasm for elegance – a term invoked by both during their recent discussion on Game Maker’s Notebook. The notion of elegance has usages across the arts and the sciences. Uniting them is a sense of underlying coherence, the feeling that a common source or outcome binds together many divergent elements; elegance brings details into relationship. In physics, this means a model that combines simplicity with extensive explanatory power. An elegant drawing expresses form and motion with relatively few lines. A good engineer achieves elegance by meeting a complex set of problems with a single, encompassing solution.

The notion of elegance has usages across the arts and the sciences.

But what does elegance mean for video game music? For Wintory, the problem of elegance goes back to the early days of the industry. Recalling the RPGs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Wintory characterises the abrupt musical changes from screen to screen as ‘crude’, ‘brutal’, ‘hard-[edged]’. Comparing early interactive music systems unfavourably with sophisticated film scores, he comments, exasperatedly, ‘we can’t call those music systems elegant.’ Raine affirms with an impersonation; ‘This screen has this music; you go to the next screen –Pffrk – next music’. Nostalgic and clunky in equal measure. Elegance, by inference, expresses continuity, coherence, flow. No wonder then, that Wintory reaches for Film, which makes an art form of our very knack for perceiving continuity – story – in an arrangement of events.

The present and future of the adaptive music in action, adventure and role playing video games

Mysterious is the process that makes a film out of footage, and music plays perhaps the decisive role. Music is film’s binding agent. It bridges the distance between events, their meaning, and their interrelationship. The completion of household chores can signify, with the right music, a life turned around for the better. The tidying montage, the dramatic flashback, the long-held lovers’ gaze; iconic cultural artefacts pale to mere documents without music to guide them towards meaning. Is a kiss heartfelt, or are darker motives at play? How can a humdrum of daily habits – say, making the bed, waving to a neighbour, putting the bins out – be brought together into a single dramatic expression, signifying the protagonist’s heroic comeback? In the former case, music draws upon its own expressive conventions, providing assurance of the lovers’ pure intentions or inviting us to doubt them. In the latter, a well-chosen chart hit can lend its own inner coherence to any series of events, suffusing an otherwise banal sequence with the inexorable gravity of intro, verse, chorus, and climax.

Of course, in any given example, the emotional and structural always go hand-in hand. Indeed, it has arguably been the unique task of film composers to reconcile both, within a historically novel and highly restrictive visual scheme; the picture limiting the score as rhyme restricts verse. Practices like ‘Mickey-Mousing’, now largely defunct, reflect an early tendency of the rushed composer to subordinate music to the role of imitator, collapsing emotion and structure into a kind of blow-by-blow commentary. Jerky, heavy-handed, and subject to rapid shifts of mood and tempo, the approach has fallen out of favour precisely because it sacrifices musical elegance, replacing it with a slavish adherence to the image. But music, if it is to be truly elegant, must follow its own logic unhindered by visual boundaries. The camera, a lone eye darting about, angling, craning for a view, finds always what is partial. In contrast, sound reaches us from sources seen or unseen, pointing to the unknown as well as the known. Likewise, film music, its point of origin as invisible as its effect is palpable, is somehow felt to press inwards from beyond the borders of the screen and the awareness of its inhabitants.

Experimental 3D music-focussed video game in progress

Inventing and then inhabiting this ‘extra-diegetic’ space, film music gains a peculiar autonomy. For even as it develops unhurried amid a brisk parade of shots, scenes and characters, we experience it as tightly bound up with each moment. Needless to say, this is the essence of elegance in film music. But why were such feats of artistic and technical accomplishment not readily matched by early video game composers? Pointing to hardware limitations or a lack of in-house talent tells an incomplete story. Fundamental to the effectiveness of film music is timing. Film composers are masters of ‘spotting’, feeling out the decisive moments of a scene and plotting their music accordingly. A film score is bespoke in design so as to be seamless in execution, proceeding from start to finish like clockwork – always hitting the right notes at the right moment, never straying from its predetermined path.

Mechanical precision is impossible in video game music. A film does not vary with repetition, but variation and growth over time are fundamental to video games. That this single contrast makes video games radically different from films is a truth often overlooked; perhaps because the transmission of narrative through screens is common to both, creating a superficial resemblance. Comparisons aside, where films are rendered complete at premiere, video games become all the more unstable on release. The day one patch, far from a mark of incompetence, is here to stay; an inevitable result of flooding a system only dimly understood by its makers with a million eccentric choices. It is the presence of interactive choice itself, setting video games apart from all traditional narrative media, that makes wholesale imitation of film scores impossible. A film score is one solution to one problem. Only introduce a fork in the road, and the choice between left and right cleaves one problem into two. Add further forks down each path, and you quickly hit a level of complexity that defies any single interpretation.

A film score is one solution to one problem.

The Psychonauts 2 soundtrack in the 6-minute ‘Musical Tour’ video

A film score in a video game is a fish out of water; what was previously considered graceful, fluid, elegant, is drained of life and becomes static, absurdly rigid, alienating. This was already understood in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Crude and brutal in hindsight, the short loops and instant cuts characterising early RPGs at least acknowledged the demands of non-linear, interactive storytelling – and indeed, had the hardware and memory budgets of the time been less restrictive, then perhaps the edges might have been smoother. That Wintory refers to these early efforts as ‘music systems’ rather than scores points to the prescience of their approach, if not their elegance.

When A can move just as easily to B as to C, D, E or any number of destinations, music that labours stoically in one direction, that has a beginning and an end, is more than unsuitable. A complex medium requires complex music, or rather, a complex of musical ideas; distinct yet interrelated, flexible, capable of substitution, variation and recombination within a system that responds in real time to the player’s choices. Where the film composer merely colours a prefigured transformation, the video game composer must build into each moment the potential for transformation itself. However, since the terms of any in-game transformation – the when, where and how – are determined in part by the player, music that connects meaningfully with play must, by default, forestall transformation indefinitely. It is for this reason that the loop is the primary unit of video game music.

Background loops for ‘Zelda-like… screen-to-screen exploration.

Will Nintendo get on with publishing its soundtracks?(!)

So it will remain, until AI is developed that can stream variation on the fly, and all that remains for the composer is to define the musical ruleset and hit go. But every solution creates its own problems. A Loop, circular and self-referential, resists relationship with its neighbour by design. In order for a succession of loops to pattern coherently, each must contain in its fabric a thread of its predecessor, so that together they form a continuous tapestry. A music system, therefore, is nothing more than a set of implicit relationships – harmonic, melodic or rhythmic commonalities that bridge the distance between musical states. For video game composers, the search for elegance is the search for just this; a system capable at any moment of ushering transformation without fracture.

Conforming to the structure of the medium by necessity, examples of this transformation playing out are as numerous and unlike as video games themselves. Luckily, Raine – a composer gifted in audio implementation as well as music – provides a model in her intricate music system for Chicory: A Colorful Tale, recently released. Raine describes wanting to write classic-style background loops for ‘Zelda-like… screen-to-screen exploration’, but ‘in a slightly more elegant way’. The player travels to various core areas of the map in order to explore, paint and solve puzzles. Each core area has its own distinct background loop, and as the player leaves one area, the music will transition to a ‘low-key’ version by removing layers. Entering a new core area will cause the next loop to come in. Here, the ‘low-key’ version of the previous loop acts as an intermediary. Its loosened identity opens up a space for the new idea, yet the new is framed by the old and felt to be its natural consequence.

Elegant enough, but there’s more. Raine describes the screens in between core areas as ‘area agnostic, so depending on where you’ve come from, it’s a different piece of music that’s leaving.’ This means that the game’s in-between spaces, having no concrete musical identity of their own, come to house the very contours of the player’s unfolding story – where they have been, where they are, and where they are going. Once again, it is music that bridges the gap between events and narrative; a new kind of music for a new kind of storytelling, its direction as inexorable as its structure is equivocal.

From JOURNEY to ERICA – A primer on interactive music

In other words, Raine’s music is dynamically receptive to the player’s choices, but retains its own inner cohesion; In Raine’s system, each new musical experience emerges seamlessly out of a context created by the player’s interaction with the game world. Wintory immediately recognises the implications of this approach; ‘These were essentially conceived of as linear statements, but they’re part of a spider web of possibilities in all directions.’ This hits the nail on the head. Seeking elegance, Raine has discovered unlimited story in the play of limited material. For a video game composer, these are one and the same; to write elegant video game music is not to account for every possible outcome with a musical equivalent, but to set up conditions in which musical meaning can emerge organically. No less than the developer or the end user, what guides the video game composer is an instinct for play.

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Pearch Charlie

I wanted to write symphonies, now I design music systems. As a composer, my interest lies where music meets narrative; video games take this meeting point to the next level.