February 8, 2012 by cchung9
Article Report: Zach Whalen’s Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music
Zach Whalen’s Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music article peaked my interest because I find music to be a vital component in many sources of media, especially in films and videogames. Zach Whalen attempts to create a theory on the effects of the soundtrack’s role in the narrative of gameplay. He begins by mentioning that particular music assumes specific narrative roles from previous media exposure. In the case of “mickey-mousing,” many cartoons “rel[ied] on music to reinforce the impact of their visuals” (Whalen 5). Whalen finds that similar executions are done in the videogames, Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Silent Hill. Through these games, he finds that music acts as a setting and “motivating agent” to play and finish a videogame.
As music emphasizes the actions in cartoons to make the illusion more alluring, music in videogames “expand[s] the concept of a game’s fictional world or to draw the player forward through the sequence of gameplay” (Whalen 3). Salen and Zimmerman would also agree that a “narrative descriptor” can include soundtracks as a “representation… [or] depiction of one or more aspects of the game world” (Egenfeldt-Nielson 203). Mickey-mousing essentially is musical accompaniment that mimics the cartoon scenes. He gives the example of Mickey throwing a cigarette in the air and then proceeding to catch it. The accompanied music is in a major or diatonic scale with a pleasant feeling (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj2.wav). For a more somber feeling, minor or diminished scales are used. These early examples of mickey-mousing sets the expectations for certain sounds in specific settings. If a happy, calm, or safe mood is wanted, a videogame can use the major key and if a somber, heightened or endangered mood is desired, a videogame can use the minor key.
I am most familiar with Super Mario Brothers, so although Whalen uses Zelda and Silent Hill, I will focus on the soundtrack’s effect on the gameplay with Super Mario Brothers (SMB). Background music was not an original standard for videogames. In a few of the Atari 2600 games we played during lab, there was a constant silence, except for the surprising bursts of sounds when there were shots fired. SMB establishes a mood for each setting. For standard “level-up” platforms, the Overworld music plays “bright” sounds to give the player a sense of safety and opportunity (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj6.wav). While in the Underworld, there are minor clusters for the music to emit danger (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj7.wav). As an ultimatum in the Underworld with the “castle” level to Bowser, the music has two more flats and has a quickened tempo to translate to immediate danger and ultimate risk (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj8.wav). These various environment tracks set the mood for what is to be expected in the gameplay and the mood of the player.
SMB’s Mario has his own particular sounds to reinforce the gameplay. As little Mario, his jumps are reinforced with a high D sharp glissando (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj3.wav). This goes back to our original concept of mickey-mousing. Mario’s original state has a jump in a major key, giving the player a sense of relevance and familiarity. With a “power-up” and a bigger Mario, the same jump has the same D sharp glissando but in a lower octave (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj4.wav). Although we still have the same positive feelings with Mario, we have a sense of his growth and weight gain, from the “heavier” glissando of the lower octave. Even the death of Mario maintains a major key, only with the addition of minor staccato to indicate his death (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/issue-art/whalen/obj5.wav). The maintenance of the major key gives the player motivation to continue the “happy” adventure even though Mario has died and probably will die another numerous number of times.
Besides settings, agents of motivation push the player to continue his/her quest to the end. One of the most positive and reinforcing sounds of motivation is the infamous “ching” sound from collecting coins. There are also opportunities to be rewarded with multiple “ching” sounds if the player collects multiple coins in succession. Collecting the coins rewards the player with multiple “ching” sounds and also major points for the progression of the game. Leveling-up and down rewards and punishes the player for minor successes and failures within the level. With these smaller obstacles, the player is further motivated to finish the platform with the range of “full success” to “barely making it.” Nonetheless, the player wishes to succeed. Another reinforcing track to push the player to finish the round of playing is the faster tempo in setting music, indicating the diminishing amount of time. This urgency motivates the player to get to the end/goal quicker, which ultimately pushes the player to continue more levels and to progress more in the game.
The music for each setting in SMB presents the player with the type of environment they will have to deal with to attempt success and a sense of relative familiarity with the character’s illusive “realism.” This makes the environment and Mario’s relative physical appearance and actions more believable. With a “believable” setting, the actions for the progression of the narrative are motivated by accompanying sounds like coin “chings,” level-up and level-down sounds, and especially by the setting’s tempo. “The game’s sequence is dependent on user input, so music that engages further participation can be said to function toward the continuity of the game play experience” (Whalen 12). Music is no longer an obscure function to gameplay. It is essential to the narrative motives of the videogame and to the goals of the player.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide. Smith, and Susana Pajares. Tosca. “Chapter 8: Narrative.” Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. 203.
Whalen, Zach. “Game Studies – Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music.” Game Studies – Issue 1103, 2011. Nov. 2004. 08 Feb. 2012. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/whalen/>.