Indienalysis – Indie Game: The Music Ben Meredith January 19, 2014 Opinion Everyone loves a headline pun, I’m well funny. Ha. Ha. Ha. Puns. But seriously, it was this film which started my love affair with the music of video games, ironic I know but there you go. More specifically the music of indie games. It’s ruined most music for me and I can’t listen to any ‘normal’ music without wishing it were off a video game soundtrack. So who’s responsible for for removing ninety percent of music from my sphere of enjoyment (in a good way)? The first offender would be the composer of the afore-punned film (Indie Game: The Movie for those of you who couldn’t work out my frankly brilliant joke) Jim Guthrie. He is also responsible for the music to Capybara Games’ wonderful title Superbrothers Presents: Swords and Sworcery EP. The second is the composer to many of Edmund McMillen’s works, Danny Baranowsky. Particularly the soundtrack to The Binding of Isaac (especially this piano version). The third and final major player is Darren Korb, who created the music for Supergiant Games’ Bastion fusing spaghetti westerns and garageband to create an absolutely beautiful compliment to an excellent game. Well that’s enough gushing for one article, although honourable mentions go to both WiL Whitlark for Snapshot and Jessica Curry for Dear Esther, but they haven’t had such an effect on me, for reasons I will go into in just a moment. To expand on why I think this music has dominated my taste so much, and because I like to sound clever, I’m going to coin a phrase: ludonarrative resonance. Ludonarrative dissonance describes a jarring disconnect between story and gameplay – perhaps a situation, such as is in the linked article, where the philosophy behind the story conflicts with what the game asks you to do. Ludonarrative resonance describes a situation where gameplay and narrative compliment an experience, in this case music, and give it increased importance: because I’ve played through Bastion, Swords and Sworcery and The Binding of Isaac hearing the music doesn’t just please me in the way that more traditional music would, it also evokes the experience of playing a game I really enjoyed. The same could be applied for art style, genre, even a particular voice actor or performance. It’s quite telling that games which had good music but were themselves a bit crappy have not had the same effect on me. It also explain why, while I really enjoy the music of Whitlark and Curry, I haven’t fully played through Snapshot or Dear Esther so I tend to turn to those soundtracks less: the music lacks the meaning of the games I’ve completed or (in the case of The Binding of Isaac) sunk 200+ hours into. Blimey. When I listen to those special soundtracks a trailer runs in my head, a recap of my time with those games, it elicits the same pleasure as I get when beating a level, or discovering a secret. On top of this it also grants the pleasure of damn good music. The reason the songs hold such importance for me is simple: 2 times pleasure beats the 1 times pleasure of traditional music – music that lacks ludonarrative resonance. This segways into my next point: why these soundtracks come almost exclusively from indie titles. The music actually compliments the game. It isn’t just lobbed in because music is a thing what you must have. I’m thinking specifically about the big blockbusters that try and copy a John Williams soundtrack. Anyone care to hum the theme to any of the CoD games? Uncharted? Battlefield? Even Bioshock Infinite apart, of course, from the time-shifted pop songs. These games just seem to flick through the genre book, pick out “Epic Orchestra” and just whack it over the game, little thought, just done because that’s what you do. Big developers are able to make meaningful music it: Halo and Skyrim have absolutely wonderful themes… because when you listen to them you know you’re supposed to feel like a badass supersoldier or like you have the blood of dragons coursing through your veins, not that you should feel vaguely epic. Unfortunately these examples are few and far between – even Nintendo’s slipped in more recent generations, just rehashing the iconic themes of years past. Despite all the money that these big games will spend on their expensive orchestras and professional sound editing, they’ll never have the same impact as, say, Chipzel’s soundtrack to Super Hexagon… a soundtrack of three songs. Why? Because the music is woven into the experience, it’s been thought about. I’ve just put it on, the next paragraph will be written to those beats, I can’t even talk about it without having to play it. My fingers itch, yearning to guide a little arrow between flying walls. I’ve ranted enough for one article, but I’ll leave you with this story, ripped from my playthrough of Superbrother’s Swords and Sworcery EP. I’m wandering around as the Scythian (the game’s protagonist), trying to find spirits to send into the sky. I stumble across a fire. Next to the fire sits a man, the man has a guitar, strange music fills the air. I walk over to him, hearing nothing but the music and the crackle of the flames. I try to talk to him, but he just plays me a song. The screen lights up with strange colours and luminescent motes as the man starts to play. The man’s name is Jim Guthrie, and he sits in the game, serenading me. Whenever I play that song, I remember that moment. If I hadn’t got the soundtrack I’d boot up that game, a game I’ve completed, a game that I’m done with, just to listen to him play me that tune. Oh and do yourself a favour, play all those games I mentioned, they’re stunning.