(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.
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.
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.
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 bluegrass tune withers, the pop ballad fades, but videogame background music will last forever.” -mangled version of Isaiah 40:8
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.
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.
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.