On Games Music and Criticism

(Originally published 28/06/2013. My views on this have changed, but I include this post for completeness.)

Most art-music bloggers treat the publication Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame’ lists as opportunities to vent about ‘declining’ (read: ‘changing’) musical appreciation, and this year did not fail to provide these aged curators of decency with plenty of opportunities to opine. Chief among gripes was the inclusion of Jeremy Soule’s scores to The Elder Scrolls series of video games in the Top 10, with objection focussed purely on the fact that it was music for a ‘game’, and thus ‘not art’.

 A disclaimer is necessary at this point: I do not like this list either, but my objections are more than adequately covered by other articles. On the point of video-game music, however, I would argue that its inclusion is one of the list’s stronger aspects. If we momentarily ignore the list’s numerical ranking, and instead consider it as simply a selection of 300 pieces that are all equally worth listening to, inclusivity is especially important  — in the reified world of ‘classical’ listening, any broadening of the repertoire should be encouraged. Soundtracks occupy an odd place in this canon, as people will often be familiar with their host material; in this case, putting such music on the radio might encourage more active listening, as the music is given total prominence.

These arguments have been played out since soundtracks were first presented as music apart from their original context, and many of the same arguments applied to film music are applicable to games, yet I am more concerned with the challenges faced specifically by game music in this supposed quest for musical legitimacy.

Roger Ebert’s arguments for why games cannot be art are a good starting point for a discussion of what makes their music problematic. Ebert sees the interactivity of the medium–an interaction between an outside agent, the player, and a world that by necessity has a set of rules–as proof of ‘not-art’; you cannot ‘win’ your interpretation of the Mona Lisa, just as a game of chess, no matter how well played, will never be on display at the Louvre. The fact that games function by providing an environment created from a limited amount of pre-generated material within which a human agent has a degree of free interaction is also the principal reason why game music doesn’t fit nicely with conventions of how art music should behave. Music of the sort labeled ‘art’ is seen as unchanging, a work with physical manifestation (i.e. in a score, or on a CD) that is more-or-less the same from performance to performance, in accordance with some notion of authorial intent. Even a film score (the previous target of the ‘not-art’ brigade) fits these requirements, as does a programme symphony or tone poem, as although there is reference to extra-musical detail, the substance of the music is still unchanging.

The relative non-linearity of video games breaks down this seemingly fundamental quality of art music. When a player can control (on the most basic level) the speed of their progression through the narrative, a through-composed score becomes pretty useless, and thus the music must be free to adapt. As games, in their current iteration, derive much of their aesthetic from cinema, certain musical conventions also follow, such as quickening of tempo and shifts of instrumentation for action-heavy sequences. When the music, consisting of pre-prepared segments, must dynamically conform to the player’s actions, this inevitably leads to moments of disjuncture in the soundtrack. A composer is thus faced with the challenges of preparing music in chunks that can easily segue from one into another, which leads to a degree of repetition, as these modules must often repeat if the player performs a series of similar actions.

In the context of actually playing a game, therefore, music is (at the moment) slightly dissatisfying. That does not mean, however, that the music is not good. Soule’s epic Kullervo-esque score to Skyrim is, arguably, better heard in its full iteration, unencumbered by the mechanics of the game’s music-matching system (a system that is frequently ineffective–in my own experience, the most powerful music rarely coincides with narrative action; far too frequently is mundane walking around town/shopping for new items accompanied by massed choirs singing songs of battle). Including Soule’s music on this list, therefore, is a way of allowing people who have enjoyed the bastardised chunks heard through the course of the game a chance to appreciate it freed from mechanical constraints, as well as allowing games as a medium, through their music, to reach a wider audience.

Understanding the difficulties of the medium will not prevent people from making value judgements, though the restrictive nature of the medium shouldn’t necessarily figure amongst them. Some of the greatest art music of the twentieth century was composed within deliberately restrictive systems, and arguably the constraints of writing for either the precise timecode of a film, or the mutable events of a game, are just other forms of art emerging through prescribed formal patterns.

Game music is thus in a tricky aesthetic space; flanked on one side by perceptions of games as a childish form of entertainment (the ‘not-art’ crowd), and on the other by the practical limitations of the medium itself. Something has to give, and at the moment changing game mechanics seems a lot easier than changing people’s opinions. Conveniently, the answer might lie in another area of technological development that has riled the conservative musical commentariat: the programming of computers to recompose music in real-time based on external stimuli. If this technology were to be adapted into games, composers would be able to supply musico-thematic raw materials (almost in the same way they do now) yet the difficulty of matching music to gameplay could be handled by algorithms that reconfigure this material in tandem with player’s actions. Certainly current consoles/computers don’t have the processing power to allow this, and current standards of sampled orchestras are still somewhat dissatisfying, but at least the technology to idiomatically rework existing music now exists; all there is left to do is downsize.

This, more than anything, makes me optimistic for the future of game music. If changing technologies of composition can provide an escape from its current double-bind, it might provide what inclusion on a Hall of Fame list can not–freedom from judgement on the same arbitrary criteria that continue to haunt music criticism. Perhaps in time, criticism itself will change, but until that point, I’ll be somewhere else, listening to this, because it’s awesome.

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