Tag Archives: cinematic

Published: Hard Boiled Music

My article “Hard Boiled Music: The Case of L.A. Noire” has been published in issue five of the online journal Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies. It’s related to a paper I gave at the MSA/NZMS conference 2013 and the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music in 2014. It was fun to write — I’m a pretty big fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels so drawing links back to his work and style was pretty great.

From the abstract:

Comparing L.A. Noire to notable examples from film, television and literature, this article discusses the game’s explicit attempt to be an authentic jeu noir and its musical accompaniment to crime and justice in 1940s Los Angeles. By exploring the origins of the game’s musical aesthetic, this article determines L.A. Noire’s relationship with the noir tradition. Although the game’s strong links to period noir film are unsurprising, L.A. Noire’s nexus of period style and open-form gameplay connects the player to film noir’s earliest influences, allowing exploration of both a constructed history and the notion of ‘noir’ itself. Accordingly, L.A. Noire should be considered as a progression, rather than a derivation, of the noir tradition.

Go have a read! Also, Screen Sound is open access and is one of the few journals to focus on screen media music studies in this part of the world, so check it out while you’re there.

Pointing Things Out with Music 1: Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is the game that got me into the whole video game music thing. About the time I was first playing it I took a course at uni on film music, during which the lecturer took us through the music of Psycho. Pretty soon I realised that the tone clusters and the descending semitones Bernard Hermann used to freak people out in Psycho were also used in Left 4 Dead to the same effect. I started to listen a bit more closely to the music when I was playing games, and here we are.

I’m going to write a few posts about pointing things out with music, because the games I’ve been playing lately all seem to do this differently and I think that’s kinda cool.

Left 4 Dead almost smacks you in the face with its musical cues. It uses leitmotifs for each kind of zombie you fight, and even one for the zombie horde that comes to eat your brains if you noob it up too much. If you’re not familiar with the term “leitmotif”, listen to the music that comes into your head when you think of Darth Vader or Indiana Jones. That music comes to your mind because it’s repeated when those characters have important on-screen moments — they’re like musical name tags for those characters. John Williams, who wrote the music for Star Wars and Indiana Jones, apparently loves leitmotifs heaps, and I think he probably got pro tips on their use from Wagner or Strauss or someone.

Leitmotifs are a nice touch for a game like Left 4 Dead. It could have been a “shoot everything that moves” game like Quake or something, with a suitably “make all the noise” soundtrack. But a leitmotif-laden soundtrack gives Left 4 Dead a touch of cinematic panache and it gives you a heady dose of prescience, which is actually quite terrifying. If you can see a horde of zombies coming at you, you know where to aim. But musical information is not usually directional. If you only hear a bit of music that tells you they’re coming but not from where, you flail around nervously and fire off a few shots at anything that moves, less ignorant but powerless and scared because your impending death could come from anywhere. The focus turns from killing things to surviving. The game is better for it.

I also think Left 4 Dead deserves a bit of kudos for its musical tutorial slash intro movie. The intro plays all of the leitmotifs as it introduces the “special infected”. If you bother to watch it, you learn things. Learning is fun! And so is not having your brains eaten. Double win.

Halo 4 and the Cinematic Ideal

I finished playing Halo 4 just before Christmas. I’ve clocked up quite a few hours playing multiplayer Halo 3 in share houses over the years, as well as playing through the various Halo campaigns from time to time, so I was looking forward to the new installment quite a lot. A new Halo game always brings mixed feelings because the gameplay changes, for better or worse or whatever. But Halo 4 brought a mix of feelings so complex I think I should probably call it a muddle. I honestly don’t know how to feel about it. The new developers have added a solid game to a classic series but the transition to a new order is easily apparent. Parts of the new game are regular old Halo, parts of it are exceptional improvements, and parts of it just don’t work. It’s a bit of an experiential mess. And I think the reason for this is that Halo 4 should have been a movie.

When you’re fighting your way through the Prometheans, you know you’re playing a Halo game. It has the same play style, the same controls and the same niggling sense of déjà vu we all know and love. Nearly. It’s Halo but it’s certainly new and different. The musical landscape has changed completely, and instead of the action-inducing, thoroughly theme-based music of the old games there’s an ever-present backdrop of unsettling sci-fi sound. It’s exquisite but it works completely differently. It doesn’t try to make you feel like the hero of the freakin’ galaxy; you’re one (artificial) girl’s hero, she’s in all kinds of trouble and neither of you is convinced you’ll make it home.

Wait a minute… Since when did anyone playing Halo care about, well, anything to do with the plot? Even in Halo 3 the plot was a convenient reason for such a fitting end to the trilogy (or so were my thoughts at the time) and a good excuse to go barreling over a geometric construction zone in a Warthog while some of the best action music ever put to game urged you on. But now Cortana’s wigging out and we’re on a first-name basis with the hero of the freakin’ galaxy and we have to feel slightly sorry for those creepy things shooting at us. Playing as the enemy in Halo 3 was quite a twist, but a twist does not a story make, and who didn’t just like being the Arbiter because you could be invisible and you had a sword? It’s fairly well-established that FPSs are about shooting things first, getting to the end second and any other things (including plots, stories, scores, etc.) last, but Halo 4 tries to alter that hierarchy. There is a plot, and it’s an important element — and almost tear-jerking at times, poor sweet Cortana — and you have annoyingly little control over it. Plot by cutscene isn’t abnormal in an FPS, but such games don’t usually expect you to take the plot so seriously. So when you think you’re about to save the freakin’ galaxy and the game snatches the glory away from you, you feel genuinely cheated.

Halo 4 should have been a movie. Its soundscape and effects are brilliant, but not tantalisingly interactive (except for the bass the assault rifle suddenly found – sweet, alien-exploding, neighbour-annoying bass). Its graphics are beautiful, its face animation technology (sadly limited to cutscenes) is excellent, and it has a plot you can care about. But each of these things makes the sameish Halo action sequences seem less necessary by degrees, because when you focus on the peripheral elements you lose sight of the main. I’m getting live coverage of my only friend losing her mind here, dammit — I don’t honestly care about fighting my way through aliens so I can push three separate buttons to move to the next room. And the problem is, of course, that the point of Halo 4 and its predecessors is to let me do just that. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this game’s plot in full cinematic glory, but as it is, I think Halo 4 illustrates a salient point about video games which numerous academic writers have made: it is exceptionally hard to deal with serious matters interactively.