Conference Report: 2017 North American Conference on Video Game Music – University of Texas at Austin
Many thanks to composer and independent scholar Mark Benis for this outstanding report on this year’s North American Conference on Video Game Music, held at UT-Austin, January 14-15, 2017.
Video games have a way of bringing people together. The recent Pokémon Go made quick friends out of strangers when millions of gamers stormed the streets with their phones, and online multiplayer games like League of Legends connect us to our buddies halfway across the world. An international community has formed around gaming, and thus when the fourth North American Conference on Video Game Music (NACVGM) convened on January 14-15 at the University of Texas at Austin, it is no surprise that gamers and scholars from coast-to-coast of the US and even abroad came together to talk about the media they love.
Started in 2014 by Will Gibbons, Neil Lerner and Steven Beverburg Reale, NACVGM is a conference series dedicated to the analysis of video game music from a broad array of disciplines like musicology, music theory, composition and more. This year’s conference in Austin, TX brought in nearly 100 attendees with twenty scholars presenting their research over the weekend in NACVGM’s largest meeting to date. The program committee — made up of the three founding scholars, James Buhler, Karen M. Cook and Elizabeth Medina-Gray — constructed a program that encompassed seven broad categories: cultures and world building; immersion and the Gesamtkunstwerk; creation, composition and play; rhythm, gameplay and mimesis; nostalgia, film and television; NES/Famicom technology; and terror, madness and sadness. Diversity in subject matter and perspective was a clear highlight of NACVGM, and no other keynote speaker encapsulated that initiative better than Penka Kouneva1, a Bulgarian-born composer and orchestrator and one of the leading women in the video game industry.
Before touching upon NACVGM’s wonderfully diverse papers, I would like to address Kouneva’s talk about her path to the video game industry, titled A Composer’s Journey of Reinvention — From Classical Music, via Film Scoring to Interactive Scoring. Though she is now lauded for her work on video games like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands and Gears of War 3, Kouneva admitted that discovering her love for video game composition did not come easily. Her career has taken many different turns, starting with piano and theory while she studied at Bulgaria’s National Music Academy and later switching to composition when she immigrated to the United States to obtain a doctorate from Duke University. After getting her feet wet in concert music and orchestrating for film, she stopped to ask herself: What is my true passion and how do I see myself fitting into the world?
It’s a question that left many audience members in deep thought, but one that Kouneva was glad to have finally answered sooner rather than later. For her, the switch to video games was an exciting new prospect but also an intimidating mid-career decision. Kouneva had to start from scratch in the game industry, learn new entrepreneurial and music production techniques, and change her scoring approach to accommodate the interactive media that is video games. All of this she did while starting a family and working from a modest home studio: a MIDI keyboard and a laptop resting on a cardboard box. None of these struggles were obvious during her presentation as she effortlessly explained the vertical layering and horizontal resequencing techniques she uses to compose dynamic combat and exploration music.
Kouneva’s long, hard-fought journey to becoming a skilled video game composer was an inspiration to everyone who attended NACVGM, but her story was particularly relevant to the other women composers in the room who dream of doing the same. In the Kickstarter campaign video for her album The Woman Astronaut, Kouneva draws our attention to a surprising and sobering statistic: there are more female astronauts who have flown in space than there are female composers who have worked in Hollywood. That means for a little girl full of ambition, she has more role models to literally reach for the stars than to write music for a big-budget studio film. Add on the fact that video game composition is the intersection of multiple male-dominated professions (games, sound engineering/production, and composition), and Kouneva’s accomplishments are all the more astounding. According to a recent survey by Game Music and Sound Design Conference (Game Sound Con) organizer Brian Schmidt, the gender-based pay penalty for women is real and quantifiable, making gender equality all the more pressing of an issue in an industry known for its diversity in thought, music and the arts. NACVGM has taken an important step toward addressing this issue by encouraging and supporting women — who gave seven out of the twenty talks — and it has the impressive track record of inviting a female keynote speaker every year since its inception in 2014. Though the program committee has organized only a handful of annual meetings, their clear initiative toward diversity speaks volumes and make them a role model in their own right of what we should expect from an inclusive gaming community.
Video games don’t just have a way of bringing people together, they have a way of bringing all kinds of people together. Gamers are made up of Pokémon fans, scholars, Britons, LGBT members, women. NACVGM is a conference that welcomes anyone who shares the love for playing games, talking about games and yes, even writing about games. Music educator and first time attendee Charlotte Grandpre says that NACVGM was “not only a game-changer for my outlook on video game music but an event full of inspiring, sincere and brilliant minds.” With the growing popularity of video games and the many new faces and perspectives entering the scene like Grandpre, NACVGM’s future shines as brightly as a star — bright enough to reach all the little girls and boys looking up toward the night sky.
The following is a summary of all the inspiring and brilliant presentations from this year’s meeting. Should you be motivated to attend the conference next year, keep an eye out for an official announcement from NACVGM and follow the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games to stay up to date with recent developments in the Ludomusicology community.
Cultures and World Building
Kate Galloway2 started NACVGM off strong with a presentation on Digital Storytelling and the Spatiality and Sonic Cartography of Never Alone’s Indigenous Modernity. Never Alone is a game made in collaboration between developers and Alaskan Native storytellers of the Iñupiat community, and Galloway’s talk focused on how the game expresses the perspective of indigenous people through its music and soundscape. She noted that the detailed environmental sounds of splintering icebergs and polar bear roars create a natural sound world that conflicts with the electronic music score, which hints to a more modern lifestyle. The game features documentary-like videos about the Iñupiat people as breaks in gameplay, and Galloway aptly pointed out that the ability to skip them adds to the tension of preserving indigenous culture among contemporary influences.
Another talk that dealt with Native American culture — albeit referentially — is Topical Compatibility and Expressive Meaning in Blizzard’s Overwatch and World of Warcraft by Danielle Wulf.3 Her research examined how topics, or musical styles that use familiar tropes, can combine in ways that are either compatible or incompatible. In the track “High Mountain” from World of Warcraft, the topics “epic” and Native American — a culture that inspired the game’s Tauren race — combine favorably, as exhibited by their shared techniques of rhythmic drumming and a powerful, wordless chorus. On the other hand, Overwatch’s “Temple of Anubis” theme shows incompatibility in its technological and Middle Eastern topics. Notably Steven Beverburg Reale questioned the fact that some topics themselves can be combinations of other topics — like Native American and “epic” combining into a possible Tauren topic — which shows the potential for Wulf’s work to expand into other territories.
A presentation on the handheld Pokémon games rounded out this panel, with Rose Bridges4 comparing the scores of the original Pokémon Red, Blue, Gold and Silver titles to the reorchestrated music found in their respective remakes. These games — which are part of the first two generations of the series — have a distinct 8-bit aesthetic for their music due to the limitations of the Game Boy console sound chip, while their remakes took advantage of the audio capabilities of the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS to create a more authentic score. Grainy static percussion and pulse wave melodies of the Game Boy era evolved into sharp snare drum rhythms and powerful brass lines using MIDI technology. Though the improvements in audio fidelity may have offered the listener a more nuanced and realistic score, the player could unlock the original 8-bit music through a radio feature for no narrative purpose other than to instill feelings of nostalgia. According to Bridges, the Pokémon community is fiercely divided when asked to choose their preferred version of fan-favorites like Lavender Town, which raises a challenging question: what musical aesthetic more accurately represents the game’s fantasy world?
Immersion and the Gesamtkunstwerk
As the conference’s only talk on virtual reality, Warping Diegesis: The Evolving Role of the Soundtrack in Virtual Reality Gaming by Kate Mancey5 provoked a thorough discussion on how music functions differently between VR and traditional controller games. She examined scenes from Batman Arkham Origins and Batman Arkham VR, noting the unique approach to scoring of each game’s composer. In the former, scenes featured wall-to-wall pieces with thick textures and sweeping melodic lines, while the latter VR title had sparser orchestrations and more measured harmonic pacing. Mancey argued that due to the nature of VR’s motion controls and in-your-face graphics, the music must avoid overstimulating the player to maintain immersion. The spatial panning of non-diegetic audio is problematic for a system designed to replicate real sound sources, so Mancey addressed the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and how it collapses as games seek more immersive and compelling experiences.
Music theory graduate student Stefan Greenfield-Casas6 turned discussion toward composer Richard Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, and modified the concept to include the ludic aspect of games in what he calls a “neo-Gesamtkunstwerk.” Borrowing from cinematic theory, Greenfield-Casas creates a framework for us to determine which games represent a complete synthesis of the arts — role-playing games in his opinion. Citing the scope of the series Final Fantasy — which is all-encompassing in terms of music, narrative and art — RPGs have the detail and scope to create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. However, Greenfield-Casas claims that perhaps no game series is more representative of a neo-Gesamtkunstwerk than Pokémon, a franchise that has transcended the barrier of video games themselves into the realm of television, toys and trading cards.
Creation, Composition and Play
Continuing the coincidental theme of Pokémon at NACVGM, Mark Benis7 presented on the correlation between mystery and complex loop structures found in the original Pokémon Red and Blue games. He codified the term “nested loop” to refer to a piece that has multiple independent layers, each repeating at different intervals to create an ambiguous texture. One can find this structure in three pieces that progress the enigmatic side of the game’s narrative, like the infamous theme to Lavender Town where trainers lay their deceased Pokémon to rest. Through a detailed deciphering of two nested loop examples, Benis showed the efficacy of this compositional technique in evoking emotions associated with mystery, optimizing cartridge memory, increasing musical variety, and saving a composer’s time and energy.
In a talk titled The History (and Future) of Automatic Mario Music Videos, Michael Austin8 introduced the audience to a community of Nintendo fans who sync gameplay from the Mario series to music unassociated with the franchise. The example Austin played sparked whispers of amazement from the crowd, showing four simultaneous playthroughs of custom Mario levels with the sounds of koopa shells and coins matching the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” These custom level designers took the side-scrolling Mario — typically considered a 2D platformer — and converted it into a form of play that goes beyond the original scope and prescribed rules of the game. No longer should players guide Mario to the flagpole at the end of the level, but rather they should sit back and admire the spectacle of Mario moving and interacting with the environment on his own like a Rube Goldberg machine at work. Austin’s research into the Automatic-Mario community brings extra-ludic play — or game mechanics unintended by the developer — to the forefront of game music studies and shows the potential this area of study has in future analyses.
Nathan Fleshner9 continued the discussion Austin started on how we define play in his talk covering creative-based video games. Citing Bernard Suits’ definition of play as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” he questions what the purpose is of playing generative music games like Soundrop and Seaquence which have no clear obstacles to overcome. In both games, the player creates their own “song” by bouncing a sound-emitting ball off custom-drawn lines in the former and by bio-engineering microscopic melodic plankton in the latter. Fleshner played through a live demo of these games and showed that “winning” and “losing” in this context is predicated on the player’s ability to make musical choices that sound “good.” Thus the obstacles we face while playing these games are not only unnecessary by Suits’ definition but also self-imposed according to our own standards of musical taste.
Wrapping up day one of the conference was Mack Enns10, who gave a talk on Game Scoring: The Performance of Aleatoric Composition and FEZ. He defines game scoring as “composing music for and through gaming,” an improvisational method that takes into account the aleatoric potential of a game’s programmed musical triggers and the player’s ability to interact with them. Enns cites the unique coded sequencer found in FEZ — which composer Richard Vreeland used to build his music — as an example of how a game’s prescribed functionality affects the process of scoring. FEZ’s dynamic music system makes us consider video game composition as not only involving the composer, but also requiring the game’s programmed interactive capabilities and the players themselves.
Rhythm, Gameplay and Mimesis
Keyboardist Walton Alexander Lott11 began day two with A Multimodal Interpretation of Mimesis in Video Game Sound. The concept of imitating physical controller inputs through a video game’s visuals — and vice versa — has implications on the musical aspect of the game, Lott argued. When players are required to press buttons in sync with specific visual cues, they are creating a rhythmic element that contributes to the game’s score. Even for titles that are not as innately musical as Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, auditory cues can assist players in accurately producing this rhythmic element. The relationship between a player’s inputs and the game’s auditory response means that one can interpret a controller as an interactive instrument that produces part of a game’s score.
Also speaking about the interplay of rhythm and games, Jesse Kinne12 presented on the intricate combat music found in Heroes of Might and Magic. The strategy game has a turn-based combat system that could potentially frustrate immersion due to the lack of real-time interaction, but the composer’s careful craft of rhythmic grooves allows player-determined events (and their respective sound effects) to always occur in sync with the music. Kinne showed that at a quick enough tempo, a piece with multiple rhythmic layers and subdivisions can cover all submetric positions possible in a bar. This means that no matter when the player triggers an event, like moving a character or attacking an enemy, it will always occur in a metrically meaningful position that relates with the music. Given the popular trope among games of making combat music fast, thickly orchestrated and intense, Kinne’s research is one possible explanation for that trend.
Timing is Everything: Relationships Between Ludic and Musical Rhythm in Modern Video Games by Ryan Thompson13 represented a more hands on approach to the subject of rhythm. He posed the question: does music improve gameplay skill and accuracy when it aligns with visual cues and controller inputs? Evidently yes, Thompson claimed when he showed a blindfolded speedrunner who exclusively uses auditory cues to successfully complete a level of a 2D Mario game. To collect more empirical evidence, he conducted his own study in which he created custom levels in Super Mario Maker and timed how long it took participants to complete them when music synced with player-inputted jumps and again when they did not. The results strongly supported that overlapping visual and auditory cues reinforced gameplay mechanics and led to faster completions of the level.
Nostalgia, Film and Television
Peter Smucker14 opened this panel with a presentation on Appalachian Folk Music and the Supernatural: Tracing Social Encounters in Kentucky Route Zero. The game contains themes of life, death and limbo, and Smucker directs our attention to a peculiar scene with a large eagle drawn as an occlusion illusion, similar to René Magritte’s painting Le Blanc Seing. The artist’s design for the bird challenges the player’s understanding of what appear to be real just as composer Ben Babbitt’s multi-faceted folk songs challenge our interpretation of the game’s score, Smucker claimed. One can hear lyrics like “I’m on my long journey home,” as reinforcing the joys of life or hoping for a peaceful existence after death, but deciding which interpretation holds more credibility is irrelevant because both analyses are simultaneously valid and equally so.
For those familiar with The Twilight Zone, Reba Wissner’s15 presentation on a video game adaptation of the TV series offered a new perspective on the popular franchise. Like many other TV and film adaptations, The Twilight Zone: The Game appeals to the player who is a fan of the show and relies on familiarity and nostalgia to drive gameplay. Many of the game’s puzzles take place in iconic places and scenes from the series, and Wissner argues that a similar approach to include iconic themes and ambiences in the game’s score emphasizes the nostalgic feelings in the player. Though the game and its story — which tells of an actor trapped within the series itself in a meta narrative — are not part of the official TV canon, they work with the familiar music to support a reading of the game as an alternate reality; the world is referential enough to evoke feeling associated with the original show, but not enough to represent its purest form.
While Wissner’s presentation on The Twilight Zone hinged on the central importance of nostalgia, Matthew Neil’s16 talk, Sound Stone Memories: The Intersection of Music Technology, and Nostalgia in EarthBound, addressed a game’s more subtle approach to these feelings. Rather than reuse themes and ideas from an established series, EarthBound composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka referenced specific instruments and familiar styles from popular culture. They synthesized a fretless bass sound using the SNES’s sound chip, and their songs contain parodic allusions to salsa tunes, The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” and the rock-and-roll style of Chuck Berry. Thus, players will only feel nostalgic if their musical memories come from a specific pop culture upbringing. Neil argued that EarthBound further plays upon the concept of memory as a narrative plot point, a gameplay mechanic, and a trigger of nostalgia when the game entered the “retro” canon.
Kevin R. Burke17 picked up where Neil left off with Pushing the Envelope: Distinct Sound Drivers for the Common Famicom (NES), a lecture on the sound limitations of “retro” games. As a natural teacher, he educated the audience on the channels available on the Famicom’s sound chip (two pulses, a triangle, a noise and a pulse code modulation “sampler”), their limited possible timbres (due to duty cycle settings), and their programmable volume envelopes. With these basic limitations, game developers Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft produced their own sound drivers for the NES, which gave each studio a unique and identifiable sound. For example, Capcom games in the Mega Man series used a portamento effect in the triangle channel as a percussive hit, while Konami’s Contra featured a distinct echo effect using only one channel. Burke’s research ultimately showed that developers were capable of giving their games a distinct musical voice even with the constraints of contemporary sound chip technology.
Alan Elkins18 continued this exploration of distinct musical voices from the 8-bit era in a talk on contrasting approaches toward composition between Japanese and American NES composers. Some of the differences stem from the fact that there were alterations in the NES hardware depending on the region, but Elkin’s research showed that what separates the 8-bit music of the east and the west are more so stylistic and aesthetic trends than any exclusive sound chip capabilities. For example, Japanese composers showed more reservation with the arpeggio effect, using it to flesh out textures and accentuate lines, while American composers like Tim Follin sped up the effect so much that it served to create unique and fascinating new timbres. That said, both regions shared many of the same techniques — like cutting out a channel to accommodate the game’s sound effects — but that does not minimize the astounding capacity for 8-bit composers to give their music a flourish of personality, which complements Burke’s previous conclusions and vice versa.
Terror, Madness and Sadness
Discussing perhaps the most controversial topic of the conference, James Deaville19 presented on video game aesthetics found in recruiting videos of the terrorist group ISIS. One particular video called Flames of War — made in response to President Obama’s statement against terrorism on September 10th, 2014 — incorporates many auditory and visual effects common in war games like those from the Call of Duty and Battlefield series. Such tropes include montage-like jump cuts between explosions (some of them even CGI), over-the-top and bassy sound effects, and slow motion scenes with appropriately filtered and manipulated audio. Deaville claimed that these game-derived techniques aggrandize war inaccurately, and he noted that even the title Flames of War has a perhaps intentional similarity to video game titles like Gears of War. In response to this talk, fellow presenter Ryan Thompson pointed out that “the West is also guilty of stylizing military experience as a game” in their TV ads, showing that military organizations of all backgrounds appeal to young men who are fans of games in the first-person shooter genre.
Shifting to a different form of terror, Dana M. Plank20 presented on the infamous villain Kefka Pelazzo in Frightful Energy: Musical Madness in Final Fantasy VI. Kefka is a court jester who is maniacal and destructive in his actions and a justifiable example of a “psychopath,” but Plank’s research into the representation of mental illness in video games gives us a new perspective on this character. She claimed that Final Fantasy VI — and by extension many other games — portray insanity through an exaggerated lens and even seek to characterize mental disabilities as a negative, violent trait. The dramatic music associated with Kefka and his diabolical laugh make him less a villain and more a victim for the player to project prejudiced and unreasonable sentiments toward mental illness. This does not excuse Kefka for his actions, but Plank’s research makes us consider whether constructing characters so divorced from reality is helpful for the very real people who suffer from psychiatric disorders and disabilities.
Closing the conference on an emotional note, Karen M. Cook21 gave the final presentation of NACVGM on the heart-breaking story of The Whispered World. The game follows a pessimistic circus clown named Sadwick who is doomed to destroy his world, and it features a varied score for flute, bassoon, piano and percussion. Through an analysis of the score’s motifs and harmonic structure, Cook argued that the music frustrates nearly all attempts of resolution until the very end of the game, when it is revealed that Sadwick’s existence is not all that it appears to be. The music acts to foreshadow this revelation on a macroscopic, structural level, and the scarcity of tension-relieving cadences makes the arpeggiated tonic chord in the final scene a powerful and profound moment.
And with that lead organizer Jim Buhler called NACVGM officially adjourned. After much applause and cheering, the crowd sprung to life with chatter about the weekend’s nearly two dozen talks. From retro games to virtual reality, there was so much to think about, so much to discuss, and I couldn’t have felt more motivated to pursue my own work in the field and perhaps “research” a few more games in my spare time. See you all next year my friends, both old and new.
Disclaimer: While I, Mark Benis, presented a paper at NACVGM in 2017, I have no affiliation with the organization. A special thank you to Dana M. Plank and Kevin R. Burke for compiling notes on the conference.
- Kouneva, Penka., Composer and Orchestrator for Film and Video Games
- Galloway, Kate., Professor at Wesleyan University
- Wulf, Danielle., Florida State University
- Bridges, Rose., Musicology Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin
- Mancey, Kate., Masters Student at the University of Liverpool
- Greenfield-Casas, Stefan., Graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin
- Benis, Mark., Composer and Independent Scholar
- Austin, Michael., Professor at Howard University
- Fleshner, Nathan., Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University
- Enns, Mack., Graduate student at University of Western Ontario
- Lott, Walton Alexander., Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro
- Kinne, Jesse., Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati
- Thompson, Ryan,. Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota
- Smucker, Peter., Professor at Stetson University
- Wissner, Reba., Professor at New York University
- Neil, Matthew., Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside
- Burke, Kevin R., Professor at Florida Institute of Technology
- Elkins, Alan., Professor at Lee University
- Deaville, James., Professor at Carleton University
- Plank, Dana M., Ph.D. student at the Ohio State University
- Cook, Karen M., Professor at the University of Hartford