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.

All this without instructions. Zoombinis has its roots in an experimental data visualisation system developed by Technical Education Research Centres (TERC). It takes an unusual pedagogical approach, avoiding on-screen numbers and words in favour of abstract symbols (not unlike The Witness (Thekla Inc., 2016)). Trying to convey game rules and state without any of the usual abstractions is ambitious, but the game succeeds with evocative imagery and crisp UX.

Aesthetic: Alien music for an alien world

The setting of Zoombinis is alien. Although it borrows from the tropes of European folklore (dense pine forests and trolls guarding valley passes), this only extends as far as the surface layer.

The game’s terra incognita is not a frontier to be conquered or mined for riches; rather, the world the Zoombinis stumble into is alien and foreboding. There are gargantuan faces in the cliff walls, wordless and powerful. Unintelligible machinery lies abandoned throughout the mountains, hinting of a more advanced civilization laid waste by forces unknown. Level after level, the camera establishes that the world around the Zoombinis is much, much larger than them. Other characters are many times their height. In the frog-and-lilypad level, the Zoombinis are so tiny compared to the animals and river that they are nearly impossible to find on-screen. (The only close-up view we get of our heroes is in the pre-escape “character creation” screen that begins their journey. The very next scene, they are tiny and nigh invisible against a foreign shoreline.)

A river full of lilypads. On one bank is a row of giant frogs, many times the size of the Zoombinis (who appear miniscule in comparison).
The Titanic Tattooed Toads minigame, in which Zoombinis ride giant frogs according to certain rules to traverse a great river. (The Zoombinis are in frame: they’re the tiny blue dots in the top-left corner.)

The world itself serves as antagonist. It represents, of course, the original Other: grown-ups1To quote the creators: “The kids shouldn’t have to sort themselves by feature — they don’t believe in that. But the world is full of these big people who tell them to sort.”.

Progress and complexity: Key motifs

The soundtrack for this game builds upon this atmosphere of inscrutability, whilst delineating the waystones of the Zoombinis’ “epic quest”.

An official version can be found here.

Let’s begin with the following little chime, played whenever a level is fully cleared:

Musical notation for the main "progress" leitmotif.

I’ll refer to this as the “progress” leitmotif. Although it may not be the main theme per se, the progress leitmotif directly appears frequently in gameplay, and borrows from / is referenced by the main theme and most of the secondary interstitial music. With many of the levels themselves having subdued background music (if any at all), the progress leitmotif comes to be the player’s main point of familiarity with the score.

I was considering calling it the “success leitmotif”, but I find that doesn’t match the mood of the music. The chime correlates with success, and with sufficient conditioning can evoke a feeling of success in the player. But that doesn’t make “success” any less odd of a label. That would be like calling the secret chime from Ocarina of Time “happy”2The secret chime in OoT is intriguing or mysterious, the unresolved vibe of augmented chords just does that, there’s a reason the Metroid Prime series co-opted that sound, look I have feelings about adjectives okay. The leitmotif is not happy; it is intriguing. It connotes progress and complexity.

Progress and complexity form an excellent emotional backbone for the soundtrack. Zoombinis is a slow, contemplative game. Victories are subdued; defeats, mundane.

Closely related to this is the main theme (see track 1, “Opening Storyline”):

Musical notation for the main theme.

The track itself is otherworldly, plunging the player straight into foreign lands. Opening echoes of the main theme call out with pan flutes evocative of the Andes. The disparate notes evoke the alternation of Indonesian gamelan, while the transposed woodwind echoes call out to The Big the Bad and the Ugly (an allusion not lost upon the game creators, judging by the name of the game’s first zone).

The opening notes of the main theme (0:43) mirror the success motif3Can we really say a main theme borrows from a leitmotif, rather than the other way round? Sure! After all, (1) the “borrows” notion is loose and informs our interpretive framework without proscribing it; (2) like titles, main themes can be created last, drawing from the body of the work, as Jeff Beal did in composing the House of Cards theme.. The theme sits dourly in Aeolian mode (with the notable exception of the very start of the opening track (0:28), which mirrors the theme transposed a fifth down and hits an E natural; this is about as happy as the soundtrack gets). It leans heavily on Asian pentatonic notes (D Eb G A Bb) — you can just picture it being plucked out on a koto. As it develops (over the track and over the course of the game), it mixes with strings, jazzy-ish saxophones and wind chimes to create a distinctive character.

Consider track 8 of the linked soundtrack4https://archive.org/details/ZoombinisOriginalSoundtrack, “Deep Dark Forest – Track 2″, at 00:15-00:34. Here the saxophones take up a variation of the main theme, with the progress motif playing percussively in the background. The little trills in the melody add a delightful element of sass without breaking the dour mood; it’s sardonic, not playful. Most of the interstitial music in the game takes this form, playing with the main theme and adding subtle emotional shading to its existing feel.

The abyss: Writing for individual minigames

Most of the minigames in Zoombinis are free of background music, opting instead for sound effects of rustling leaves and rolling waters. The last two minigames are the exception. The penultimate, “The Mirror Machine”, sees the Zoombinis deep in the heart of a mountain, wresting with a contraption that modifies their reflections, twisting their images into that of other Zoombinis5Unfortunately, you don’t get the poncy ten thousand word essay on how this captures the loss of individual identity in a globalised world. It would have been glorious, mind you.. The score to this6Ibid., track 5,  “Mountains of Despair – Track 1”, 1:24-2:11; track 17, “Mountains of Despair – Track 4”, 1:01-1:59 is set to a pensive whole-tone scale, which if the zone themes in Majora’s Mask have taught me anything, is the musical scale of unsettled dreams. It plays out with a deep marimba, which complements this mood with a solid, earthen feel. It is minimalist as anything and it fits in place perfectly.

Screenshot of Bubble Wonder Abyss, a minigame from Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (1995). Multiple Zoombinis are suspended in bubbles above a chasm, with a faint grid full of symbols marking their positions.
The Bubble Wonder Abyss minigame, in which Zoombinis must float in bubbles across a chasm in a way that suspiciously resembles embedded circuitry.

My favourite music, though, is from the final minigame. “Bubble Wonder Abyss” has the Zoombinis float over a gaping chasm, cocooned in giant bubbles. The narrative stakes are raised with the threat of falling miles into oblivion, but the mood is even more patient and contemplative than ever: decisions are slow and deeply consequential, and once they’ve been made, it can take up to a whole minute for a single Zoombini to cross the screen. You can see someone do a full minigame playthrough here, clocking in at nearly fifteen minutes. (Computer programmers may find this minigame particularly interesting; it is almost an exercise in debugging.)

The background music here7Ibid., track 5, “Mountains of Despair – Track 1”, 2:38-4:00; track 9, “Mountains of Despair – Track 2”, 4:03-4:40, etc. is sublime. The game’s ever-present pan flutes draw out note after note with mournful patience. The time signature is 7/4, but where septuple meter is typically used to convey urgency (think Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Temple”/”Lepers”, Doctor Who’s “I am The Doctor”, etc.), here the slow pace and fragmentary melody turns the metre into something almost meditative. (This is utterly fascinating.) Of the different variations on the theme that may play, I’m quite fond of the one in track 9 of the linked soundtrack8Ibid., track 9, “Mountains of Despair – Track 2”, 4:03-4:40, which admittedly leans on parallel fourths even more than a French impressionist trying to invent minimalism, but also does some beautifully subtle harmony.

Musical notation for a fragment from the "Bubble Wonder Abyss" background music.

In the above snippet, a secondary voice darts in and out. In bar 1, it mirrors the lead voice, deviating only for the occasional note (highlighted in purple above). This deviation creates harmonic movement, giving a sense of underlying chords. Similarly, at bar 3 it plays counterpoint, underlining a few key notes before disappearing to let the lead voice borrow its rhythm.

Small details like this matter, especially in a soundscape this sparse. The typical listener may never be able to pick out the choice to deviate the purple notes above, yet it still changes their perception of the passage. Even with the technical limitations of the game (read: 90’s MIDI), the music here is polished.

Lessons and further journeys

The techniques used in the Zoombinis soundtrack are nothing groundbreaking, but nonetheless, the soundtrack shows a mastery of the basic craftsmanship that goes into scoring a game. The core leitmotifs reinforce the narrative mood given by the game’s dynamic. Each track builds and varies upon this without falling into monotony. The primarily musicless gameplay fosters tension and focus, and affords more weight to the soundtrack when it does eventually re-emerge.

We can borrow these ideas and others in scoring our own games:

  • Build the score around a mood. This is a must for leitmotif-based composition: aim to associate your key themes around emotional hooks like “victory” or “worry”, rather than “character X is in the room”. The latter is useful, too, but it takes more work to resonate, and sometimes it can drag you right out of the gameplay experience9I am irked by The Legend of Zelda‘s recent tendency to lean on character motifs like this  for their comic characters..
  • Embrace silence for thinking moments. A looping background track (or its more sophisticated cousins) isn’t always appropriate for a gameplay section. If a player is going to be on the one screen for ten or more minutes, trying to solve a single puzzle, even the sweetest hook can get grating pretty fast. When Zoombinis‘s minigames do have music, it’s slow and arhythmic/polyrhythmic, and deliberately un-catchy.
  • Pair music to mood, not just setting. Zoombinis could have assigned each area cliched “tropical music”, “forest music”, and so on, but it didn’t. Instead, variations on the background music suit the mood of the area — triumphant, forlorn, creepy, etc. — and use that to decide which instruments and rhythms to emphasise.
  • Have a narrating VO actor say “Hip hip, ZOOMBINI!” whenever the player does well. This is solid advice that works for every game ever, no exceptions. It’s not even patented!

At the end of every Zoombinis runthrough, the player successfully guides another handful of Zoombinis to refuge (a promised land full of green fields and cute cartoony municipal buildings). The story never ends here, though. There are more Zoombinis waiting back home to be guided to safety, and increasingly thorny obstacles and puzzles to face once again. The great project continues, with the distant end ticking nearer one little success at a time. Here Zoombinis imparts another important lesson upon its young players: each victory is sweet and worth savouring, but there is still work to do.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. To quote the creators: “The kids shouldn’t have to sort themselves by feature — they don’t believe in that. But the world is full of these big people who tell them to sort.”
2. The secret chime in OoT is intriguing or mysterious, the unresolved vibe of augmented chords just does that, there’s a reason the Metroid Prime series co-opted that sound, look I have feelings about adjectives okay
3. Can we really say a main theme borrows from a leitmotif, rather than the other way round? Sure! After all, (1) the “borrows” notion is loose and informs our interpretive framework without proscribing it; (2) like titles, main themes can be created last, drawing from the body of the work, as Jeff Beal did in composing the House of Cards theme.
4. https://archive.org/details/ZoombinisOriginalSoundtrack, “Deep Dark Forest – Track 2″
5. Unfortunately, you don’t get the poncy ten thousand word essay on how this captures the loss of individual identity in a globalised world. It would have been glorious, mind you.
6. Ibid., track 5,  “Mountains of Despair – Track 1”, 1:24-2:11; track 17, “Mountains of Despair – Track 4”, 1:01-1:59
7. Ibid., track 5, “Mountains of Despair – Track 1”, 2:38-4:00; track 9, “Mountains of Despair – Track 2”, 4:03-4:40, etc.
8. Ibid., track 9, “Mountains of Despair – Track 2”, 4:03-4:40
9. I am irked by The Legend of Zelda‘s recent tendency to lean on character motifs like this  for their comic characters.

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