Unheard Valve melodies

I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been not-noticing something, and it surprised me quite a lot. I’ve been not-noticing the music in Valve games — in Half-Life 2 and Portal 2 specifically.

This surprised me, because these games are excellent. Perhaps excellent enough to make me concentrate on the gameplay and forget about the music. The theory on film music is that when it’s doing its job you shouldn’t notice it much. Its job is to make you feel what’s on the screen, so if it draws attention to itself, it’s doing it wrong (massive generalisation, but fairly accurate for mainstream cinema). I understand Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1987) discusses this, and the concept has passed into common film music parlance. I guess we assume this is also the case for video game music, though that might just be another left-over assumption from film music studies (should look into this… thesis chapter potential?). Whatever was going on, I’d certainly overlooked the music in these games—perhaps I was too busy being entertained by a talking potato.

My moment of realisation came when, as I do about once a year, I loaded up my second play-through of Half-Life 2. For some reason I decided to play through the game again before attempting the Episodes, and I still haven’t got through it. Anyway, I was fanging the hovercraft around a bend and the music started up and I thought “Wow, how on earth haven’t I noticed that music before?” It’s incredibly subtle, electronically precise like most of the Half-Life sound experience, and rather emotive. The Half-Life game world is one of the more sparse and ambient worlds in gaming I feel, and the music suited it exactly, giving its usual emotional direction without hindering the player’s ability to usefully employ their sense of hearing.

Perhaps as a result of my Half-Life 2 revelation, I began to pay more attention while playing Portal 2 and was similarly surprised. The obvious points of musical interest in the game are finding “Exile Vilify” by The National playing in a side room and the game’s credits song (which could only disappoint after “Still Alive” in Portal, but is still pretty good). But the score is both eerie and crisp, often showing a similar precision to Half-Life 2 but haunted and a little disturbed. I think it matches the game’s myriad tensions: Aperture’s past(s) and post-apocalyptic present, an awe of discovery (testing!!) muted by nervousness, two antagonistic and psychotic artificial intelligences, and of course the interplay between intelligence and movement upon which gameplay relies. Even the multiplayer has a more light-hearted, sociable treatment of the same musical mentality. But all of this is very subtle, and more so given that the score is juxtaposed with un-subtle music—”Exile Vilify” is a prime example, as is the jazz version of “Still Alive” that plays over the radios, but even the “sound effects” for using Gels and Aerial Faith Plates (and probably other things) are actually musical cues that actively modulate to match the current background music (even mid-cue!). All in all, its an intensely musical game, but it’s just rather quiet about it.

I’m a little ashamed I didn’t pay attention to these excellent scores on my first play-throughs. Both Half-Life 2 and Portal 2 have a multitude of innovative or just plain excellent elements that usurp players’ attentions, so it’s not my fault; and besides, who isn’t distracted by the surprise of a good sequel?  But maybe Valve has silently found the formula for that holy grail of video games — music that works so well and so subtly that it never gets boring, and thus avoids being indelibly stamped upon your consciousness in a bad way.

Reflections on the MSA/NZMS 2013 conference and my own place in the world

I’m in Brisbane at the moment, having attended the joint annual conference of the Musicological Society of Australia together with the New Zealand Musicological Society this week. It’s been an intellectually stimulating week of papers from a truly diverse range of disciplines. As I usually do after a conference, I’m coming away with a head full of ideas and an inexplicable desire to start composing again. But that will definitely have to remain a hobby (at best) for the time being since, as I might mention a bit further down, things been hella busy.

I mentioned a diverse range of disciplines, and I wasn’t kidding. Highlights included a set of papers suggesting that certain composers should be considered as modernists, a paper on “the cup game” and its role in high school musical culture, a paper on the metal scene and underground sub-scene of Adelaide, a paper on remodernism in the work of a Georgian composer, a paper denouncing the labelling of Reich’s “Different Trains” as documentary, a paper on the inaccuracies (and otherwise) of an amateur scribe, a paper on child soldier musicians in Australia and England, and another set of papers on creativity in the recording/producing processes. My favourite thing about conferences like this is that your mind is stretched in so many different directions. Quite beyond just being interesting, it helps me think about my own work in new ways.

Also thought-provoking was the discussion around music and musicology’s place in Australian university culture and the nation’s culture at large. What I heard, and what resonated with me, was that there’s a certain sense of entitlement among musical practitioners, educators and theorists regarding access to the public purse which stands in direct opposition to the uniquely anti-intellectual, anti-academic rhetoric and mentality found in Australia. The call was to be responsible and to be able to justify your place—this is something I struggle with frequently, and I suspect that’s because I don’t fully expect people would accept my justification, even if I had a good argument prepared. I think I can justify my research to someone who’s sold on the notion that the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is beneficial to society, but people (and even universities) these days don’t seem to buy that without significant discounts. But quite apart from my puny little PhD, I find it disturbing that music itself is falling under the same ire. I guess when Spotify etc. let you access music ad nauseum, musical practitioners seem as abstract and irrelevant as a cow does to a supermarket-bought scotch fillet. Super sad.

The presentation of my own paper on L.A. Noire‘s place in the noir tradition went well. I had a chance in the week leading up to the conference to re-do some of the video examples, and I think it paid off. Removing the part where I crash a car into a power pole certainly made me look more professional. The questions I received afterwards were helpful, as always—I often feel as though I learn more from the questions than I impart in the presentation. But it’s particularly good to have had another chance to discuss ludomusicology on the national stage. I’m slowly getting more of an idea of who’s interested in this field in Australia, and while numbers are small I’m hopeful that talking and presenting can help change that.

My big stack of work at the moment is finishing off the article version of this paper and sending that off for publication (hopefully). I aim to get that finished ASAP so I can start working on EVE Online and its multiple musical experiences, which I’m quite excited to do. Things are busy, but they’re moving forward.