Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: VGM Wednesdays

VGM Wednesdays – “Close to Home” from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

“Close to Home” from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, by Yoko Kanno and released in 1994.

I covered this game in my podcast a few years ago and I penned as “one of the best scores you’ve never heard” because the game achieved so little success in North America and Europe.  In Asia, the Uncharted Waters franchise did okay – it wasn’s Mario or Dragon Quest, but it held its own.

The game takes place in 1522, the age of exploration, and the essence is really to build alliances and move six different episodes to their conclusion via the collection of precious goods (via trading or discovery) and the defeat of your enemies.  Unless you like games of accumulation or slow-building games, this game may not be for you.

The real gem of this game is that the score is composed by Yoko Kanno, of Cowboy Bebop and the Seatbelts acclaim.  Okay fine, she also scored the hugely popular Macross: Plus, Ghost in the Shell (Standalone Complex), Vision of Escaflowne and a whole slough of other enormous anime titles.

The tune that I selected from her is the ending of the game, when the ship finds its way back to the home port.  I feel so many emotions when I hear this: Peace, calm, regret, finality… There’s almost that sense like at the end of Lord of the Rings when the hobbits find their way back to the Shire, but they’re different.  Nothing has changed back home, yet everything has changed.

But there’s still a peace, though.  The journey is done.

But there are still elements of our hometown that haven’t changed as though the citizens hadn’t realized that there was even a problem.  They just went about their daily lives.

What do you think? Post your thoughts and let’s have a talk about it 🙂

Kenley

PS: Speaking of LOTR, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” is one of the few songs that make me tear up every single time I hear it… and I love it for that.  The ships have come to carry you home… ah, music 🙂

VGM Wednesdays – “Fluffy Sweet” from Cloud

“Fluffy” from Cloud, by Vincent Diamante and released in 2005.

Have you ever put down a game after a few hours (or minutes) or play and thought, “man, that was just so beautiful?”  That’s Cloud.

I was exposed to this game at an IGDA meeting in Winnipeg about four years ago and it really stuck with me.  Noah Decter-Jackson of Complex Games was leading a small presentation about indie games and the industry around it and one of his examples of alternative gameplay was Cloud.  The wiki describes the game better than I ever could…

The game centers on a boy who dreams of flying while asleep in a hospital bed. The concept was partially based on lead designer Jenova Chen‘s childhood; he was often hospitalized for asthma and would daydream while alone in his room. Assuming the role of the boy, the player flies through a dream world and manipulates clouds to solve puzzles. The game was intended to spark emotions in the player that the video game industry usually ignored.

It’s about the experience and that’s what I love about indie games.  I’ve been replaying Bit Blot’Aquaria on the iPad and it’s been such a great time.  The colours are lush, the music in headphones is immersive… Indie games don’t shortchange you on the emotional part of the game and it never feels contrived or forced like in some big budget films or games.

Anyway, back to Cloud.  Episode 14 of Into the Score (my podcast on the in-depth study of video game music) tackled this game and features a great interview with the composer, Vincent Diamante.  What a great guy and very generous with this time.  Definitely check it out.  He’s scored thatgamecompany‘s fl0w, Flower and Journey.

What I love about the game’s score is that the melodic theme is heard first in “Title” often present, but with strange harmonies below it that pull the listener in a different direction.  The title really sets up the brightness and happy feel of theme, which leaves room for the composer to mess with it as the game progresses.  In the second track from the game’s OST, called “Just About Ready,” the theme comes in at about 0:32 and it sounds nice, but is then followed by (what I think is) the VI chord with an appoggiatura, betraying the happy expectation that you thought was coming.  This is what the whole game does 🙂

When we listen to “Fluffy Sweet,” we hear the theme of the game being elaborated and decorated through the harp and piano.  Then what he does (and this is lovely), he turns the theme into the rhythmic ostinato upon which these lush, colourful and vibrant chords sustain overtop, creating this juxtaposing texture of rhythmic-but-consonant and harmonic-but-dissonant.

So much love for this score.  The game is free, you can download it here.

See you soon!
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – Super Metroid (Orchestral)

“Super Metroid” from Orchestral Game Concert IV, recorded by the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra

Super Metroid and I go way back.  I got it for my 9th birthday and we tried to play it at my party, but we just weren’t old enough to figure it out.  I was 16 years old the next time I tried it and, that time, I got it 🙂

Even before we talk about the music, there’s this incredible elegance in how the world is laid out with regards to power-ups, sequencing and ability.  It’s just a beautiful game and that’s even before we talk about aesthetics.

The dark colour palette, the seemingly-blind exploration, the stumbling into new worlds and the rich soundtrack lend itself perfectly to the true intent of the designers.  From the darkness between the throbbing timpani lines and overdrawn low strings to mixing the pulsing synth and sweeping percussion… there is some beautiful work going on here.

I picked the orchestral version because it unites so much of the music that sits at the heart of the game – the Prologue, Brinstar (Green Vegetation), Lower Brinstar and the Wrecked Ship.  The orchestrator has handled the work of composers, Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamono, very delicately without compromising the integrity of the work.

For example, the Crateria Underground themes are full in the OST, but are very light in the orchestral version.  Even though there are differences, however, the core creepiness and curiosity within the music itself is never compromised.  During the prologue, moving the theme (ascending minor scale in thirds, or dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba) into the celli and double basses almost works better than even the original.  I wish that I knew who the orchestrator was because their work is just lovely.

My favourite section is during the “Brinstar (Green Vegetation)” sequence, which feels like a mini-climax within the piece.  The xylophone and high strings are covering the ostinato, the basses are belting out the melody, but the show-stealer for me is the trumpet section, who is playing this intense dynamic hairpin (crescendo-decrescendo, or ” < >”) on these harmonically-moving chords.  It happens at about 3:37 – just gets my heart-a-poundin’ 🙂

Then the floor just drops out and we’re left with the oboe-flute pairing that leads us into the darker depths of Brinstar: the red soil.  I really love the xylo/flute pairing here too.  It happens a few times, but it happens first at 4:22.  The first note is accented, but the second note isn’t, so the second note feels more like an echo than a rhythmic subdivision.  But even still, there’s something so moving about that whole section.  For me, I think that it’s the basses moving from the Im chord to the bIImajor chord (the Phrygian II, as it’s often called), then the melody itself moving downward.  It’s like harmonic collapse as the two lines move inward, but again, the structure is handled with this tremendous delicacy.  Just love it.

Taken from the YouTube post itself, the medley is structured as follows:

Theme of Samus Aran (0:002:08)
Crateria (2:092:41)
Brinstar Green Vegetation (2:424:00)
Brinstar Red Soil (4:015:39)
Super Metroid Ending Theme (5:408:05)

… and now the originals from the OST

Theme of Samus Aran
Crateria
Brinstar Green Vegetation
Brinstar Red Soil
Super Metroid Ending Theme

Compare and contrast, then see what you think and feel free to post comments 🙂

Thanks!
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – “Ending Theme” from Final Fantasy VI

“Ending Theme” from Square’s “Final Fantasy VI,”  released in 1994.

So, Final Fantasy VI was released on the PSN Store yesterday and the big question remains: Will I buy it for a fourth time?

Well, I have it for SNES, PS1 and GBA, so probably not… but few games have moved me as much as this one.  I owe so much of my youth and musical development to this game.  My understanding of leitmotifs, my passion for melody, the inklings of my understanding of orchestration… it all stems from MIDI files ripped from SPCs (the sound format of the SNES) and imported into MIDISoft Recording Studio, my awful early-90s sequencing software.

To me, this score (and game) is really the pinnacle of storytelling in video games.  Granted, I’m very nostalgic toward this 17-year old game, but maybe that’s okay.  When I first started this write-up, I wanted to start with “it’s a story about a young woman who is trying to find herself,” but that’s not really true: It’s a story about sixteen interconnected individuals who are all trying to conquer their own individual demons…

… And isn’t that all of our stories?

I mean, the woman down the street hasn’t had her memory erased by a sadistic dictator (like the game’s protagonist, Terra), but there may be those who are gambling their life away because they harbour guilt about hurting another human being (Setzer), working through sibling rivalry about the family business (Edgar and Sabin) or trying to build a relationship with their father (Gau).  The older I get, the more that I realize this game is really like the human condition, like how Battlestar Galactica isn’t really about space, but more about survival and what makes us human.  Like BSG, this game is a story of fighting all odds, but also realizing that the battle within ourselves is just as important as the one in the world around us and how critical it is that we find out what keeps us going in the world and how we can create something to live for.

I picked the “Ending Theme” because it goes through EVERY protagonistic character theme in the game.  At an amazing 21-abd-a-half minutes, this surpasses even what the cutting edge of VGM was doing at the time.  Also, there is something profoundly beautiful about a piece of VGM that doesn’t loop; but rather, has a fixed structure that moves from beginning to end.  I did a podcast episode about this and there is some solid analysis of the game and its score in the post.

Now that I’m writing this, maybe I should buy it again… Or at least, maybe you may want to thinking about it, reader!
Kenley

PS:

Two links that I love:

Perhaps the most in-depth article on the game that I’ve seen in a while…

Also, I want this in a picture frame SOOOOOO badly 🙂

VGM Wednesdays – “Times Scar” from Chrono Cross

“Time’s Scar” from Square’s “Chrono Cross,”  released in 2000.

This game has been on my mind for a while now.  Lately, it re-emerged with its release on the PSN Store about a month ago and I really considered buying it again.  Next, a blog called “Score” wrote a 3-PART analysis on the tune and did a fantastic job.

If you like music theory and VGM, you want to follow this blog 🙂

Anyway, back to the retelling! I picked this game when I was in second year university (3 years after its release, I always seem to play games way later) and, after a passionate affair with Chrono Trigger  for much of my youth, there was such relief in playing this.

It often gets criticized as being a game that doesn’t make sense or is far too convoluted (and I’m not entirely disagreeing), but the soundtrack in this game is pure Mitsuda.  “Time’s Scar” is the opening piece of the game, luring us in with its mysterious add9 chords and big leaps in the shakuhachi.* Big leaps give a lot of emotional power and I am all about that open fifth that starts the melody.

Even just the opening instrumentation of classical guitar, shakuhachi and the wash of synth behind it really demonstrates the cross-cultural score that permeates this game – not just instrumentally, but stylistically too.  The Celtic rollicking of “Another Termina,” the island feel of “Plains of Time – Home World” (also recounting the theme of Chrono Trigger), the sweeping European Classical string feel of “People Imprisoned by Destiny“… it’s as though the listener experiences both the world of the El Nido Archipelago AND the geography of our Earth too.

While I love the game, the soundtrack is really the gem of the experience.   I usually want to find pieces that are less well known, but some scores really have a lot of personal significance to me and are really part of my musical experience and development.  So, even though this is a very common score and really a big member in the canon of VGM, sometimes things are popular because they’re good – this is one of those examples 🙂

Thanks for reading,
Kenley

* I wrote “Irish Whistle” first, but that wasn’t correct.