Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A research proposal on leitmotifs in video game music

The following is a research proposal I submitted last year as part of my course work towards my Master's in Music at the University of Victoria. I'm entering my second year now and will have to focus my time on completing my thesis, but this is still a topic that interests me. I'd like to hear from gamers and non-gamers alike to see how this topic resonates with them.

      Academic research on video game music is still very much in its infancy. Though this is partly a result of the newness of the genre, there are other problems that have restricted the growth of this field. Any music outside of the realm of art music is slow to appear in scholarly papers and faces a long and hard struggle to gain acceptance and find its place among academics. Though there are relatively few reports on game music in and of itself, there exists considerably more research on elements of video game music unique to the medium. The work of Karen Collins is an example of the kind of research being done. In 2008 she edited a collection of works into From Pac-Man to Pop Music; of the 12 chapters in the book, only the last approaches the theory of video game music. Among the other topics covered are: commercial aspects of game music, the interaction between the game and the gamer and the technology behind early game music.
      This has been my experience with how video games are treated in general. Among gamers discussion gets much closer to the actual games themselves, but whenever video games show up in other settings, there is a tendency to talk around the games. My impression is that games are being contextualised in a broader setting to legitimise them. Unfortunately, video games are still in a position where they are criticised as being for children, and therefore should not be taken seriously. Game music has progressed beyond the technical limitations of seconds-long melodies and sine waves, and the necessity to borrow from pre-composed melodies, but proponents still have to argue against game music being labelled derivative (Newcomb 2012). While there is progress in Japan, game music is still struggling in the West to catch on outside of special concerts dedicated to orchestral arrangements. Before iTunes, game soundtracks were very rarely made available in North America. In his article “Video Game Music: Not Just Kid Stuff,” Matthew Belinkie relates a story of a friend who performed a piano arrangement of the ending theme from Final Fantasy VI; the students who heard it were impressed, but once they found out it was from a video game “they started ridiculing it” (Belinkie 1999). In this case, contextualising very obviously hurts the reception of video game music.
      Discussion of game music is caught between two worlds. On the one hand there are thoroughly researched academic papers such as Guillaume Laroche's 2012 thesis on variational technique in the Super Mario Bros. series. This is an important milestone in establishing a precedent for analysis of video game music. Laroche is very clear with his intentions, and he also has a detailed introduction on the state of analysis and research on the genre, to which I would direct you for further reading. In the middle of the spectrum there are blogs, such as Game Music Theory, run by Tom Berg as a personal project. He started it in August 2013, and as of December 2, 2013 his site has over 30 pieces of annotated game music transcriptions and analyses. His work highlights two of the issues facing game music discussion: 1) the necessity of transcribing the music, and 2) the issue of the blog format tending towards short analyses for quick and easy consumption. This also means that the discussion never gets too technical, as it is still mainly geared towards people who are primarily gamers. On the end opposite academia are commercial sites, such as Destructoid that publish editorials that sometimes involve video game music. For example, someone with the username SWE3tMadness wrote a series of articles in 2009-2010 about music in some of her favourite games. While it is clear from some of her observations that she has an understanding of musical analysis, she falls short of actually analysing the music itself. She also makes some questionable statements, such as suggesting that it's possible themes from The Legend of Zelda series have been recycled out of laziness. Her extremely casual writing style, use of profanity and poor use of terminology (e.g. using the word “song” to describe instrumental pieces, and dedicating an article to dissonant pieces she calls “anti-music”) but the positive reception to her articles show that perhaps there is still a small crossover between gamers and academics.
      However, this is changing because people—such as Laroche, Matthew Thompson (see outline below) and Berg—who grew up playing video games are now in a position to generate discussion in an academic setting (or at least with an analytical point of view in Berg's case). There is still an enormous amount of work to be done in the field, including establishing categories and defining trends and terminology for the repertoire of video game music, as well as finding greater acceptance in the academic community. And while analysis may still be under-represented, the other supportive work provides a stepping stone and foundation for future discussion.
      The goal of the paper is to define and analyse the leitmotifs found in the video game Final Fantasy XIII-2 (developed and published by Square Enix in 2011 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles), and examine their appearances in the music and their use as an element of the game's narrative.
      There are three important sources that establish a precedent and context for this work. The first is Guillaume Laroche's MA thesis on the variational techniques used in the Super Mario Bros. series. This is the only major academic work I have encountered that specifically deals with theoretical analysis of game music. Its focus on variation and reuse of themes also relates to my idea of analysing reoccurring themes within a game.
      There is also the Game Music Theory blog, run by Tom Berg. His work highlights one of the biggest challenges facing game music analysts; that is, it is necessary to create your own transcriptions for the vast majority of game music. There are some instances where transcriptions already exist, such as the piano collections for various Final Fantasy games, but this represents a small sample of the game music library, and even in these cases, the transcriptions account for only a fraction of the game's soundtrack.
      Finally is Matthew Thompson's personal blog, Video Game Music Nerd. Thompson currently teaches a course on video game music at the University of Michigan and his blog deals with both the analysis of game music as well as the challenges he faces teaching a new course in a new field. His video analysis of some of the leitmotifs in Final Fantasy VII was influential in guiding my approach to this topic. Previously I had intended to analyse the music from Final Fantasy XIII-2 in its relation to a traditional theme and variations, but Thompson's analytical work steered me in the direction of leitmotifs, as I believe the importance of the themes in the Final Fantasy series as part of the story should be highlighted.
      This paper would draw upon ideas from each of these sources, mainly: the analysis of game music in an academic paper; the necessity of working with your own, previously unanalysed transcriptions rather than official scores; and the treatment of the themes in Final Fantasy XIII-2 as leitmotifs and their relationships to the characters and story. This could potentially be the first academic paper to examine modern video game music and music from the Final Fantasy series, and it would be a contribution to the small pool of academic work on game music currently available.

      Introduction to the history of video game music research and game music analysis
      Laroche's thesis has a very thorough section on the dearth of scholarly analytical work of video game music. Here I would provide a summary on the current state of research and make some conjectures on the lack of information, but would refer the reader to Laroche's work for a more general history and to demonstrate how new this area is (his thesis being from 2012). Since this area of research is understudied in the field of music, I think it's worth providing some background information for the reader. Here I would discuss the current research on game music, namely the three important sources discussed above (Laroche's thesis, Thompson's blog and Berg's blog). Also worth discussing at this point are the issues related to this kind research; that is, lack of scholarly sources, necessity of transcribing the music yourself, lack of established language or any kind of standards for analysing game music, and the difficulty of being taken seriously by academics. One of the aims of the paper would be to show how game music can be discussed on the same level as other art forms that are discussed seriously. I understand, of course, that this is impossible to do with one paper, but it is important that there are more works produced in the vein of Laroche's thesis to show that analysis of video game music can be academic and can go beyond analysing it based on a larger context. That is, game music need not necessarily be defined by its underlying technology, or how interaction occurs between the gamer and the game, or even how it relates to film music to name but a few examples.

      History of the Final Fantasy series and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy
      If detailed context needs to be provided for analysing the music from Final Fantasy XIII-2 (or indeed any other game) I believe this is the section for it. Here it is worth talking more about research or analysis directly related to the Final Fantasy series. Even though the first nine instalments were composed by Nobuo Uematsu, and Final Fantasy XIII was the first time Masashi Hamauzu composed for a Final Fantasy game on his own, this is much closer to the paper's topic than the general history of game music. This is where I would talk about how the series has a history of reusing themes (musical and otherwise), certain characters, and nomenclature in subsequent games despite there being no narrative connection between most games: Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, but neither is connected to Final Fantasy XII. There exists some common elements in many games in the franchise; for example, often there will be a character named Cid (though he will differ in appearance and personality), the player will usually encounter magical creatures called moogles (original creations by Square Enix), and most games in the series contain variations on-—among others-—the victory fanfare (music that plays after the player wins a battle) and the prelude (the very first piece of music played in the original Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Entertainment System). This establishes a precedence of using variational techniques, which can support how reoccurring motives are purposeful and part of the history of the series.
      I believe a detailed analysis of reoccurring themes within and across the trilogy (Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) would be worthwhile, but possibly too large for one paper. Among other reasons, my familiarity with the middle entry led me to single it out for the topic.

      Biographies of composers Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki
      The final step before the analysis is to give some insight into the histories of the three composers. Unfortunately, information on game music composers in general is meagre, and certainly the language barrier contributes to the difficulty in establishing detailed profiles for Japanese composers.
      Hamauzu's involvement in Final Fantasy XIII should be highlighted, as his score for this game necessarily influences the music in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Reoccurring characters and locations means musical themes will be reused and varied to strengthen the connection between the games.

      Presentation and analysis of main character themes
      The analysis would begin with the exposition of the main characters and their themes. Since most people reading the paper would not be familiar with the characters, some background information on their involvement in the story will be necessary. Though there are other reoccurring themes in the soundtrack, the case will be made for the analysis of only four of them, being the themes for Noel and Serah (the two characters controlled by the user), Lightning (Serah's older sister and the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII, and sole playable character of the third instalment Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII), and Caius (the antagonist). Based on my preliminary research, these themes are the most prominent in the game and are connected to the most important characters in the game.
      Each theme will be analysed in terms of melody, harmony and orchestration and any defining characteristics that sets it apart from or relates it to other character themes. It will then be discussed in relation to the character's personality and role in the story. Each treatment of a motive will be contextualised by its placement in the game, its relationship to the character, and its purpose as an element of the narrative. For example, in the analysis of the piece An Arrow Through Time, I would note that it only plays near the beginning of the game when Noel meets Lightning for the first time. It contains elements of Lightning's theme as well as Serah's theme. This is interesting because Serah hasn't appeared in the game yet or had her theme played, but Noel and Lightning are talking about her, and she is introduced in the next scene.
      The paper would finish with some observations on the use of leitmotifs in the game. I would also include some commentary on the overall process and any issues that arose, as well as some thoughts on the future on video game music analysis. This would include my desire to see game music treated as a genre and area of research in its own right. While one can't ignore any parallels between video game music and film scores, art music and popular music, I believe research should not rely too heavily on trying to make it a subset of another field. This will allow for more growth and will create an environment where video game music can be analysed and appreciated in a more positive light.


Belinkie, Matthew. “Video Game Music: Not Just Kid Stuff.” 1999. Accessed November 21, 2013.

Berg, Tom. “Game Music Theory.” Accessed November 20, 2013.

Brame, Jason. “8-Bit Analysis.” Accessed December 2, 2013.

---. “Thematic Unity Across a Video Game Series.” Act. Zeitschrift für Musik &
issue 2 (July 2011).

Collins, Karen, ed. From Pac-Man to Pop Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New
. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.

“Final Fantasy VI's 'Dancing Mad', a Critical Analysis.” Destructoid. Published December 15, 2009.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2: Original Soundtrack.” Final Fantasy Wiki. Accessed December 2, 2013.

Hamauzu, Masashi, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki. Final Fantasy XIII-2 Official Soundtrack.
Square Enix Music SQEX-10296~9, 2011. CD.

Laroche, Guillaume. "Analyzing Musical Mario-Media: Variations in the Music of Super Mario Video
Games." MA thesis, McGill University, 2012. ProQuest (MR 84768).

Newcomb, David Lawrence. “The Fundamentals of the Video Game Music Genre.” DMA diss., James
Madison University, 2012. ProQuest (3507135).

Thompson, Matthew. “Analysis: Final Fantasy VII Leitmotifs.” Video Game Music Nerd (blog).

Whalen, Zach. “Play Along – An Approach to Videogame Music.” Game Studies vol. 4, issue 1
(November 2004).

1 comment:

Guillaume Laroche said...

Hi Alexander,

Sounds like you have a great project in mind. If you're looking for another scholarly consideration of video game music, look up my colleague Andrew Schartmann's recent book "Maestro Mario: How Nintendo Transformed Videogame Music into an Art" (e-book for Kindle). Andrew is a Yale PhD candidate in music theory, so he knows his stuff. The book deals principally with the history and analysis of 8-bit video game music, and balances technical detail against the need to appeal to a wider audience. While you won't find anything about FFXIII-2 in there, it could nonetheless be of some use to you in the way it approaches thematic analysis in video games, and tying themes to narrative ideas. It also has a *great* defense of why non-traditional sources of information (blogs, online journalism articles from gaming websites, etc.) are actually the best academic sources of information there are when dealing with video game music. I strongly recommend you take a look (while keeping in mind that he aims to keep the book accessible to laypersons).

I wish you the best in pursuing your research, and look forward to learning of its outcomes! Please get in touch once your project is completed, I'd love to take note of your findings.


guillaume.laroche [at]