ABZU: A Musicologist’s View

ABZU

ABZU is a short indie title developed by Giant Squid Studios. The music is composed by Austin Wintory and you might hear some similarities between itself and the PS3 title Journey. Wintory’s compositions are usually stylised, with his preference in using an orchestra with an increase of brass and woodwind that you would see in regular orchestras. Wintory particularly uses Cello, Viola, and Oboe in his recurring melodies that set the theme for the game.

The soundtrack sees mostly the use of drones passed between instrumentation depending on the area of the game this, paired with added reverb, causes the game to sound submerged, signifying the underwater theme. Speaking of signifiers, the soundtrack is flexible, with slower tempos and fewer instruments when the player has time to explore and area, which quickly build up in instrumentation and tempo when the player moves between areas of the game. The instrumentation here is playful, with contrapuntal melodies and a clever use of dissonance moving in parallel to signify the different types of aquatic creatures the player comes into contact with.

All in all, ABZU is something special in both its gameplay and soundtrack. The controls and the supporting themes allow for the game to feel very much like the player is underwater, and in quite a magical environment.

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Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean: A Musicologist’s View

Baten Kaitos is a 2003 JRPG on the GamCube platform, and something has only just discovered recently by myself. JRPGs such as Baten are a dying breed as games such as this are starting to be phased out for the more “favoured” open world, real time combat RPGs. In its gameplay mechanics, Baten Kaitos does something different, the fight mechanics use cards which harbour either attacks, defence or healing, and the game it asks you to line up or pair cards with certain numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,4 or 22,44) to add bonus percentage on to your attack.

This type of mechanic is different and quite unique, making the game interesting in its mechanics. Unfortunately, the English voice acting for this game does not live up to the same standard. Who knows how much of a budget they were given, but the vocals that can be heard in the game are badly recorded, sounding tinny and with too much reverb added. This is almost laughable when you begin the game, and it’s only for the game’s intuitive gameplay that one was not put off by the audio. The sound design is nothing fantastic either, with the soundtrack being a sister to that of the StarOcean franchise and naturally being too loud or repetitive in an area of gameplay, drowning out any language and vocality that is placed there.

Ori and the Blind Forest: A Musicologist’s View

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest is fantasy style, single player, platform adventure game which requires the player, as a small innocent puppy-like sprite to navigate levels, collect items which help the player on their journey and progress the story. The plot contains a melancholic story which follows a small creature after its only known family dies, attempting to overcome a disruptive environment which is slowly dying and filled with aggressive monsters.

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The music boasts a strong woodwind section, working closely with the oboe, flute, and clarinet. The instrumentation symbolises the small creature that the player is controlling, with a recurring melody throughout the game which semiotically acts as the game’s main theme. Cues such as The Crumbling Path and Racing the Lava occur in more dangerous and less wondrous areas of the game, and therefore use a heavier body of strings, brass, and piano, to emphasise this danger; an opposite to the lighter woodwind theme, a glimpse of this woodwind can be seen darting in and out of this heavier material, reminding the player of their small and frail character in these situations.

Ōkami: A Musicologist’s View

 

Ōkami

A highly stylised JRPG, Ōkami was initially released in 2006 and was re-released HD in 2012. The game uses specifically stylised visual environments and music to create a world which appears to be from Japanese history. This uses a woodblock print style for its visuals and traditional Japanese instruments for the music. The music works mostly with character themes, making them playful and a clear identifier of the character, such as Oira’s theme which uses a glockenspiel to distinguish his bouncing movements.

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Environments also have their own theme, with the Cursed Shinshuu Plains theme working with roughly 4 or 5 instruments, which play in a slow tempo, with mostly a solo flute and harp accompaniment which give the environment a closed and melancholic expression. When the player defeats this curse, Shinshuu Plains opens up with counterpoint melodies through large string and brass sections. This playful melody symbolises that the plain is now alive and full, becoming particularly exciting when the melody moves to the Koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument, which symbolises the bright and woodblock print visual aesthetics given in this area.

 

Final Fantasy XV: A Musicologist’s View

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy (FF), as a franchise, can be praised for the musical accompaniments to its 15 games, all identifying with given environments and character progression. FF XV is unique to the series, boasting an open world where the player can travel by car and real time fighting mechanics which have originally been turn-based. What is also unique to this game is that the player can listen to music previous games and movies whilst exploring the open world; by foot and by car. What one will find is that most of the time spent playing the game will likely accompanied by music from previous games, keeping players occupied for the one to six minute drives between areas and quest points; including the Chocobo theme (which is the ONLY music you can listen to when riding a Chocobo).

The original soundtrack for XV remains mostly silent in the open world, except for occasional cues of short material in the open world, dungeon ambiance, and story orientated cues. This gives way for the use of the MP3 player and car radio (to play previous games’ material) without the player missing out on important semiotic cues. The conversations that occur between the team of four is important to the game’s lore and the relationship between the player and the game world. The, mostly, silent open world allows for the natural conversations that take precedence over music, as their relationship is more important for the player to understand than any musical accompaniment.

This relationship between original music, playable soundtracks, and vocality is an interesting balancing act for the game, something that FF has done well. The game offers a new perspective to the franchise in both its music and game mechanics, and works hard to create a believable environment and character progression for the player.

Stardew Valley: A Musicologist’s View

Stardew Valley

A beautiful and relaxing game, Stardew Valley takes Harvest Moon to the PC and offers a full, content-driven experience. The player takes the role of a farmer who inherits a farm from their grandfather and moves to Stardew Valley after working for a corporate establishment (JoJa Mart). From this beginning, the player becomes self-sufficient through farming crops, animals, fishing, mining, and a variety of other tasks. The music works well as a background to this day to day farming, occurring infrequently enough to not become boring and too repetitive for a player, ranging from environmental rural music to quaint town melodies.

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The winter music for this game is particularly interesting and stands out the most. During winter, especially in the early game, there is little to grow, and the landscape is a soft white and blue colour. The Wind Can Be Still is a particular favourite piece of music which plays infrequently during this season and captivates the environment perfectly out of all the winter tracks. A pure melancholy is produced by this soft synthesised melody, accompanied by soft minor drones which symbolise the blanket white environment we get from the game. Rarely the music is triggered to the player actions (apart from moving into new areas), yet the soundtrack identifies to each environment and season where this fills the game with enough musical value to give a well-rounded experience for the player.

Xenoblade Chronicles X: A Musicologist’s View

Xenoblade Chronicles X

 

Having acquired the CD soundtrack for Xenoblade Chronicles X before the game was released in December 2015 meant there were high expectations for this game, with the soundtrack being incredible and therefore increased hype for the game itself. The game began with the customisation of the player character, a suspicious start as it made one wonder what role the protagonist would play in the narrative. Unfortunately, beginning suspicions were confirmed as the player character does not speak or have any voice acting, which if you’d played the previous Xenoblade Chronicles game you’d realise was a real shame as the voice acting and character progression was incredible. X falls short of this, the story allows for little character development, the open world aspect is diverse yet surprisingly empty of content and the side quests are long, similar and monotonous.

Fortunately, throughout X the music is fantastic and sets the environment for each area of this open world, ranging from intricate textures and instrumentation to grand string sounding environments. This all goes downhill when the player is introduced to the Skell. Don’t get me wrong, Skells are one of the big story points the player drives towards as it gives the ability to fly and move quickly around this enormous open world. Unfortunately, when the player does get the ability to fly in the Skell, there is one track which plays as soon as the player lifts off of the ground, and then changes quickly back to the other environmental track music when they land. The problem with this is the straight cut between tracks, which at first seems fun different but after the 100th time, it becomes frustrating that the player cannot listen to any of the other area music, or at least have the choice to do so.

Albeit, over 100 hours of this game was played by myself, but the sound design and balancing let it down considerably, which is very disappointing considering the high level of the soundtrack.