Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: vgm wednesday

VGM Wednesday – “People Imprisoned by Destiny” from Chrono Cross

“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.

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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.

Enjoy!
Kenley

VGM Ed Mondnesday – “Dying Over and Over Repeatedly” or “Why Super Meat Boy Makes Students Into More Successful Human Beings”

Once upon a time, console platformers (Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy, etc.) gave the player three lives to beat the level.  In the case of Super Mario Bros., you got three lives to beat the whole game.  You may be thinking “but you’ve got 1ups!” and yes, that’s true, but allow me to pull you into a stressful part of your past…

You (as Mario) are standing on a platform with a particularly treacherous jump.  There are hammer brothers and a smattering of koopa troopas that pass juuuuuuust at the time you need to jump.  Your heart races.  Your getting warm and your face is flushed.  Your breathing accelerates and one thought cuts into your consciousness:

I don’t know if I can make it and I only have three lives.

Then you jump… and you don’t make it.

You wasted one of your lives because you made a mistake, now you only have two lives left! You can’t get that life back!

However, you need to try again… and you die.  One life left.

In a last ditch effort to beat the level and continue forward to the game’s conclusion.  You attempt the terrifying jump… and you die.

Then you see it, what you’ve been dreading all along: GAME OVER.

Life message: You tried and you just weren’t good enough.

Let me present another scenario.  You see an amazing power-up at the top of the screen in an underwater level, but it’s being patrolled by cheep-cheeps and those squidy guys.  You mull it over in your head for a while, then remember that you only have three lives and you can’t risk it.

Life message: The best things in life have risk attached and, if you want to get to the end, it’s best not to go for them.

Now, I’m no educational psychologist or sociologist, but those sound like pretty bad messages to send to kids.   I know that there are no game designers laughing maniacally in some Japanese lab, trying to crush the dreams of schoolchildren, but the messages stand.  This is the plight of older console games, especially the ones at the nexus of limited lives and extreme difficulty.

Strangely, that nexus resonated with one of the game designers of Super Meat Boy.  In Indie Game: The Movie, Tommy Refenes talks about his love of hard games, especially older console games.  I say “strangely” because there is one real difference between Super Meat Boy and platformers across all gaming generations:

The player has unlimited lives.  It’s not even a cheat code, it’s a legitimate part of the game design.

The game is also punishingly difficult, and notoriously so.  And, as a player, it’s okay that the game is hard because I get an unlimited number of lives in order to achieve my goal.

Life message #1: You can always try again.

Furthermore, every level has an ending that’s really achievable and many people have done it.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, it means that success is possible for every player and, as said above, you can always try again.

Life message #2: It’s hard, but you can do it.

Life message #3: You can achieve the success that other people have also achieved.  They are not special or better than you, they just put in the work and time it takes to be successful.

Because you have infinite lives, the player isn’t afraid to take risks because you can always try again.  There are no consequences for failure.  In fact, the respawn time after you die is almost immediate.  Imagine if, every time you failed, you immediately picked yourself up and tried something new?

Life message #4: In order to succeed, two of the most important qualities you must develop are persistency and resiliency.

The game requires you to take risks in order to find the solution because it’s often not where you expect, or it demands a certain level of ability.  If you have it, you’ll beat the level and continue to one more difficult; if you don’t, then you’ll die a whole bunch of times until you finally achieve the dexterity and finesse you need to win.

Life message #5: Practice makes perfect.

Life message #6: No risk, no return.

The amazing thing about Super Meat Boy is that it not only demands risk, it also demands failure.  You need to fall down sometimes.  You may jump into a wall full of needles when practicing your jump timing.  Then you die and respawn immediately, before you get the chance to wallow in your own failure.  In fact, it often achieves the opposite effect: You get inspired to win.  By the time you’ve actually realized that you died, you’re already back at the start, ready to start again.

Life message #7: Allow failure to be motivating, instead of demoralizing.  If you don’t find it motivating, see Life messages 1-6.

Beating a level in Super Meat Boy is so rewarding because it’s just so damn hard.  Before we move on, let’s address how awesome that feels.

Life message #8: If you want a feeling of genuine success, find a genuine challenge and overcome it by being persistent and resilient.

It feels amazing because of a wonderful combination of personal risk, failure, persistance, resiliency, and finally victory.  After you beat the level, the designers put in a replay where you get to watch every round that you played on that level at the same time.  So you watch your ten or twenty or thirty or forty Meat Boys at the same time jumping, racing, running and dying.

All except one.  That Meat Boy makes it to the end and succeeds.  That’s you 🙂

There is no consequence for dying; in fact, it’s celebrated.

Watch an example of the bone-crushing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, at least from the opening to 4:15.  The re-run happens at 4:00, but it’s important to watch this player fail for four minutes straight.  He must fail thirty times.  Then watch him get back up and try something new.  Watch him keep going.  Watch him being resilient.  Watch him being persistent.

Now imagine if we all did that in our own lives.  Imagine if we picked ourselves up every time we fell down.  Imagine if we didn’t internalize failure and just treated it as something that happens whenever we start something new.  Imagine that failure was not only expected, but celebrated as risk taking.  Imagine taking a risk that was meaningful to you.  Imagine going all in on everything important to you.

What if we failed, got up, and tried something different every time?

What if you learned that at 16 years old?

Imagine how different your life could be.  If that makes you emotional, let it.  If you are a teenager/young adult, take that to heart and go for it.  If you’re older than that, it’s not too late.  It’s never too late.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. 🙂

Cheers,
Kenley