“People Imprisoned by Destiny” from Chrono Cross, by Yasunori Mitsuda
I love moments like these. For those who have never played Chrono Cross, this is the scene where we fight Miguel and it’s a fight that you don’t really want to have. These are like the moments of war with a soaring choir overtop of bloodshed, or a slow motion sword fight with a slow and lilting orchestra behind it. They’re scenes where the music and visuals shouldn’t match, yet they do…
… Or they don’t, and their juxtaposition makes something new in the process.
I don’t want to give any plot lines away, but the story and music make this battle so gut-wrenching that it’s almost difficult to get through. It’s a bit analogous to the last fight in Mother 3, where you’ve finally put all of the pieces together in the story and you have to go in for one last fight and Lucas knows he has to do it, but you (as the player) don’t want to.
That’s not it for me, though. What really captures me about this piece is its focus on balancing melody and texture. Even though the samples are synthesized, a video game is finally using an instrument’s range to sort its colour. Granted, Chrono Cross does this a lot with its use of ethnic instruments (because range and colour are idiosyncratic ways of using them), but hearing the difference between the low strings in the first 8 measures, then afterward the high strings take the melody an octave higher and it changes your whole perception of the theme.
This is important because, with the exception of timpani, bass drum, suspended cymbal and one bar of harp, the strings are the only instruments playing for the entire piece. Part of the draw of classic video game music is the colour that can be found between instruments of different genres. Take “Terra” from Final Fantasy VI: Irish whistle, French horn, strings, electric bass, mandolin and drum kit. There are three converging genres there, and that’s what helps make that characteristic sound.
Not so in “People Imprisoned by Destiny.” Instead, Mitsuda explores colour and harmony with, not only just one genre, but one instrument group within one genre. It’s one of those rare times in classic VGM that simplicity counts for more juxtaposition and, as a result, it is one of the strongest pieces in an already strong OST.
And even more so, the strings are the most homogenous section in the orchestra, meaning that the different ranges of the instruments sound the most consistent with one another. To really differentiate colour, you have to evoke the voice in each of the different ranges of the instruments while still keeping some order and structure to the writing. In our case, Mitsuda keeps the bass and tenor voices pretty simple, the alto voice takes the melody off of the hop and then harmonizes with the soprano when it takes over the line.
Sometimes, there really is more in less.