Tag Archives: North American Conference on Video Game Music

New Year News

Happy new year!

While it’s generally too hot to think at this time of year in Sydney, I have set myself the task of finishing my thesis in the next couple of months. Why that is inspiring me to write blog posts instead of chapters is beyond the scope of the current study.

Twitter reliably informs me that the ludomusicological year is off to another flying start with the fourth annual North American Conference on Video Game Music held over the weekend in Austin, TX, USA. If you were (like me) unable to attend, the Twitter hashtag #NACVGM is definitely worth perusing. It sounds like there were some fascinating papers presented, and it’s always great to kick off the year with a flurry of ideas.

In related news, the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (SSSMG) was launched late last year — a collaborative community formed from the Ludomusicology Research Group, NACVGM, and Audio Mostly. It’s a hub for ludomusicological resources and discussion the world over. Get on over and check it out!

My own year is starting a little slower. The Christmas break was relatively quiet for me from a gaming perspective, being away from Sydney with only my old laptop and with lots of people to hang out with. One new thing was that my brothers in law and I made a game. We held a very informal game jam with just us, and built a third person puzzle game in UE4. I built a level or two, but my main task was audio. I scrounged and spliced together some audio files and gave the game a soundscape — fairly rough, but serviceable. And by all accounts, the 16 bar looped score that I composed in an hour was super annoying and therefore “good video game music”. A lot of the levels were really hard, and the music was ultra cheery, and that combination is all kinds of evil. All told, quite fun.

Over the last few days I’ve been working towards a thesis case study (on blurred boundaries between sound effects and music) by playing through Portal 2 and then Portal for comparison. I played through Portal in one sitting the other day. I ended up with one of the worst cases of what I call “gamer brain” that I’ve ever had (what others may call “motion sickness”, but I only get it when I play games; not a reference to gamergate, etc.). Half-Life 2 and its derivatives seem to have a knack of messing with my inner ears like that. Any ideas on how to avoid it?

Also, I’ve just listened to the soundtrack for Quake, which I had never heard before. I played the first episode of Quake over and over again when I was young, on a 486 DX2 that really couldn’t handle it. The first episode was shareware, and I’ve never yet played through the full game with an original CD; like quite a few games of the pre-MP3 CD-ROM era, the music was played straight from tracks 2+ of the game disc. So, Quake for me was never musical. It was sparse, sci-fi, horrific, ambient. I’ve assumed for a while that the soundtrack was something like that of Quake II with heavy metal all over the place, and so have been concluding that my cautious play style (which has lead to me being better at playing things like Skyrim and Portal than Quake III or Call of Duty in its later multiplayer forms) was at odds with the intended experience. But listening to the soundtrack now, I see that’s not necessarily the case — the music is really quite dark and fairly spooky in a sci-fi way. I’m quite surprised, and doubly so — perhaps I’m used to series like The Elder Scrolls and Halo and Portal and Half-Life where the aesthetic differences between games in the series are more nuanced, but the leaps in aesthetic styles between Quakes 1 through 3 are fairly stark in comparison. Is that a common thing in game series where the story is less prominent?

One last thing for now: Games with CD audio music can produce some unintended-yet-interesting soundtracks. Forget to put the game CD in the drive, and voila, your Age of Empires gameplay is forever associated with A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step, track two and onwards.

Anyway, notwithstanding my inability to update blogs on a regular basis, I’ll try to keep this updated with thesis completion info and other thoughts. Laters!

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.

Reflections on the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music

At the time of writing* I’m sitting in Pittsburgh International Airport, looking out on the snow-covered concrete while I wait for my flight home. I’ve just attended the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music at Youngstown State University. I’m a bit of a nervous traveller sometimes so I’ve given myself a 6hr wait, which is about half way through. But Pittsburgh Airport is large and near-empty; the classical music playing over the PA and the solitude (relative to Sydney or Los Angeles) is calming. And I’ve had a good weekend, and I’m heading home, so I’m feeling pretty good.

The conference—the first of its kind in North America—was full of interesting and varied papers from academics across the US, together with a few from Canada and myself. As I did after the Ludo2013 conference last year in Liverpool, I’m coming away inspired, intimidated, encouraged, daunted and (perhaps least surprisingly) keen to play more games. Among the papers, only a few games were discussed by more than one presenter, which speaks to the diversity of the work going on in this field at the moment. Enoch Jacobus’ and Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey’s papers on BioShock Infinite made me even more keen to get through the first two BioShock games so I can play it. I’ve added the quirky game Catherine to my list of games to buy a PS3 for after Will Gibbons’ paper on its dualities reminded me of its unique weirdness. And the fact that I haven’t played any Zelda or Final Fantasy games is really starting to feel like a hindrance. I think I’ll have to get some kind of AV switch box thing so I can plug my PlayStation and N64 into my HDMI-only monitor. I don’t often miss having a TV, but for things like this it would be rather useful.

The first two papers, by Dana Plank-Blasko and William Ayers, discussed alterations of Bach and Chopin pieces respectively; Dana demonstrating a mistranscription of Bach’s BWV 565 in the NES version of Captain Comic was an excellent way to start the conference. I enjoyed Steven Reale’s paper on Portal and William O’Hara’s paper on Proteus, both games that give exceptional musical experiences and that I’ve a lot of respect for. Nick Exler gave a paper in which he used a Schenkerian analysis of a Zelda melody, and Elizabeth Medina-Gray constructed a method for analysing smoothness in game music transitions, leaving me convinced I need to bulk up my analytical muscles. Matthew Thompson’s paper on his experiences teaching a music appreciation course using video game music was very warmly received, with many welcoming his pedagogical approach and applauding his successes. And I resonated with Peter Shultz’s paper that challenged the adaptive-is-always-better approach to game scores (perhaps unsurprisingly, as I’m an Elder Scrolls fan).

The keynote address came from Karen Collins, who is among the most prolific and inspiring researchers in the field. Her address did raise a lot of questions among those present, both about the future of the field and the nature of what we’re doing. Collins’ response to a question from Steven Reale about the term “ludomusicology” provoked a great deal of discussion for the remainder of the conference. Many agreed with Collins in thinking that the term was virtually indecipherable to most people and was therefore unhelpful. Others believed that the term is useful because it lends legitimacy to the field. A few made the good point that both “ludomusicology” and “video game music studies” can be useful according to who you’re talking to. I think I agree with this last idea. There were three things that convinced undergraduate me it was possible to study video game music:

  1. There were books published on game music (most notably Collins’ Game Sound)
  2. There was an organised group of researchers studying game music (shout out to the Ludomusicology Research Group), and
  3. People had bothered to give a name to the field.

These things indicated that people studying video game music took their research seriously, and that they considered their research field to be a field in its own right, rather than a sub-field or a side project. That kind of thing is invaluable to a young researcher about to invest their future in a field. It gives such a student courage in the face of almost certain opposition and/or apathy (from institutions and fellow students alike). At least, it did for me. And as I watch the term be understood and even used by a growing number of academics at my institution, I’m convinced it’s helping contextualise my work within the respected body of knowledge. That said, it’s still just a Greek word play, and it’s not the hill I’m going to die on.

All told, it was another engaging and inspiring conference—which, for a young academic field, is a huge success. I’m very glad to have been able to attend, and I’m looking forward to the next stages of ludomusicological research in North America and throughout the world. And I’m all the more inspired to start a ludomusicological research group on this side of the world, if only so I can make everyone else spend 20 hours on a plane to get to a conference.

Press coverage of the conference:
Vindy: http://www.vindy.com/news/2014/jan/19/ysu-forum-explores-music-in-video-games/
Wired: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/01/game-music/
YSU YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRsLZjIHDmE

*Though not at the time of publication — I’ve been back in Australia for about five days. I’m a slow blogger.