Musical allusions to Studio Ghibli in Zelda: Breath of the Wild TL;DR they exist.

(Note: Discussion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. No major story spoilers. Vague reference to some side quests.)

Today, we’re talking waltzes! Specifically, we’re talking about waltzes in 21st century Japanese soundtracks, the kind of waltzes that manage to be moving and heart-stirring while still staying true to the melancholy of the greater works they embody.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017) sets the player adrift in a vast and often lonely world. The kingdom of Hyrule has fallen; the countryside is scattered with the ruins of garrisons and towns.

As you wander from snowy peak to storm-swept marsh, you may hear the distant strains of an accordion. Follow the music to its source, and you meet Kass, a wandering minstrel. It’s rare to see another face out here in the wilderness, and the two of you strike up a conversation. He misses his wife and children, back home in Rito Village. He fondly remembers his late teacher, who taught him ancient songs. Perhaps you’d like to hear one?

When you finally part ways, he resumes playing the same forlorn tune that led you to him:

Kass’s [main] theme, from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Loop point is at 00:15.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why this theme felt so familiar. It was stuck in my head until a few days later, when, staring out a window, I figured out what I’d been missing. Kass’s theme borrows strongly from the main theme to Howl’s Moving Castle (Studio Ghibli, 2004).
Continue reading Musical allusions to Studio Ghibli in Zelda: Breath of the Wild TL;DR they exist.

Why is looping music so hard to write? Looping music (which repeats forever) is integral to video game sound, but it has many pitfalls for the aspiring composer.

This is the first in a series about game music that loops (i.e. repeats forever). In later entries we’ll discuss different shapes and forms that work for looping music.

In this article we’ll consider why looping music is so integral to games. We’ll also explore some of the challenges (and solutions!) faced by video game composers for this kind of music.

Looping music

Most songs (and other pieces of music) have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Whether it’s the extended instrumental fadeout in The Eagles’s Hotel California, or the bombastic build-up of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, these tracks all have clear boundaries and interiors1There’s a mathematical topology joke to be made here, but it’s something of an open problem.. Not so for game music! The majority2Citation needed. of video game background music effectively runs forever, providing a non-stop score no matter whether the player takes ten seconds or ten hours to complete a gameplay section3“The bluegrass tune withers, the pop ballad fades, but videogame background music will last forever.” -mangled version of Isaiah 40:8.

Screenshot from the "Sawmill Thrill" level of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. The main character, Donkey Kong, is riding a log flume through stormy weather.
The “Sawmill Thrill” level from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Nintendo, 2014) is a rare example of background music written like a film score.

This is often a necessity. As composers and game designers, we usually can’t predict how long a player will spend on a task or in an area. There are exceptions, of course. Rhythm games (Dance Dance Revolution and its lineage, Bit.Trip Runner, etc) tightly couple gameplay to music. In other genres, highly “on-rails” gameplay sequences can be timed down to the second. Consider the “Sawmill Thrill” level of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Nintendo, 2014). David Wise’s track for this level is intense, self-contained, and timed with the precision of a film score4At 0:50 of the linked video, the score dips into a beautiful dark “water theme” with X-Files-esque synthy bells and distant piano sounds. The percussion kicks back in just after 1:20, returning to the main theme with comic intensity. Classical musicians may recognise the shape of this track as A-B-A ternary form and feel vaguely vindicated for actually seeing it used in the real world.. But most of the time, music must be written to tolerate arbitrarily long play time. Effectively, this means running forever.

The usual solution to this is with looping music: a single track that loops on repeat for as long as needed. This approach came into popularity in the mid-80s5Collins, K., (2008). Game Sound. MIT Press, p19.. It’s attractive for a number of reasons. Continue reading Why is looping music so hard to write? Looping music (which repeats forever) is integral to video game sound, but it has many pitfalls for the aspiring composer.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. There’s a mathematical topology joke to be made here, but it’s something of an open problem.
2. Citation needed.
3. “The bluegrass tune withers, the pop ballad fades, but videogame background music will last forever.” -mangled version of Isaiah 40:8
4. At 0:50 of the linked video, the score dips into a beautiful dark “water theme” with X-Files-esque synthy bells and distant piano sounds. The percussion kicks back in just after 1:20, returning to the main theme with comic intensity. Classical musicians may recognise the shape of this track as A-B-A ternary form and feel vaguely vindicated for actually seeing it used in the real world.
5. Collins, K., (2008). Game Sound. MIT Press, p19.

Music and Zoombinis Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a maths bootcamp without a single number on-screen. How does its music draw young players into its world?

In this case study we’re going to examine the soundtrack of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (Brøderbund, 1996). We’ll deep dive into a couple of specific musical features, and consider how the music lends an emotional edge to an abstract, if not downright alien, game.

Zoombinis?

The 90s were something of a golden age for “edutainment” games. (I say this with no small bias, having grown up amongst countless such titles, whose brightly packaged CD cases assured us their contents were “enriching” and “compatible with Windows 3.1 and Windows 95”.) With home computers beginning to gain traction, the genre was new enough for everything to be terra nova, but mature enough to afford dedicated studios and publishers.

CD cover for Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, 1995. The art here is honestly a little terrifying.

It was in this environment that Logical Journey of the Zoombinis was created. Published by Brøderbund (Carmen Sandiego series, Myst), Zoombinis features the adventures of the Zoombinis, a race of little blue folk with distinct nose colours, eyes, and so on. These distinctions form the basis for various minigames that build players’ inductive and deductive reasoning skills. Players learn to test hypotheses (can I safely send my one-eyed Zoombinis down this path?, does this racist hotel clerk want everyone segregated by colour or footwear?), build complex structures, and even debug computer programs. This is some cerebral craziness. One minigame is literally subgraph isomorphism. Continue reading Music and Zoombinis Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a maths bootcamp without a single number on-screen. How does its music draw young players into its world?