This post continues my discussion of Chris Bateman’s talk presented on video games. I will start off with a digression.
One of the great innovations of the 20thC was the cinema. Cinema captures social history and combined storytelling with visual imagery. Eventually the cinema integrated music into its performance. Films in very early periods involved an organist or performer pianist who accompanied a score. Eventually the music scores became part and parcel of the film product and less of a performance than a tape playing on a screen with speakers blaring. The soundtrack in my view is an addition to the repertory of serious music, this can be evidenced by the fact that quintessentially classical composers have created soundtracks for films, such as Georges Auric, member of the visionary les six coalition of French Composers wrote the score to Passport to Pimlico. Philip Glass contributed to the film classic American Psycho and some composers have gained a name for themselves as soundtrack composers.
Soundtrack composition has become an art form, and it is still evolving. There are exceptionally notable and innovative things that occur in the art of soundtrack. The use of the highly dissonant minor second clashing sound of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho evokes the fear and suspense of the inevitable in the iconic shower scene, likewise, who can forget the use of a minor second upward movement in the John Williams’ Jaws. There are aspects of true originality in the soundtrack. A very recent example of this is the Zimmerman soundtrack to the film Inception. A key plot point to the film involves the association with an Edith Piaf song, which is then slowed down to an exceptionally painfully long drone to form the main theme of the film. This involves a level of innovation, as this is a reference to the nature of the film (experiencing dreams and time through a different rate of ordinary reality) and turns a very sweet Piaf song into something very sinister sounding.
My personal favourite soundtrack of all time is not the most easy to listen to. It is John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back score. This score is highly modernist, atonal and dissonant at times. There are elements of Romanticism (through the Leia and Han romance theme leitmotif or Yoda’s theme). The conflict in the score is between the styles of modernism and romanticism. This is marked much more in this film than any of the other Star Wars films, which lean more on the Romantic/Mahlerian/Wagnerian/R. Straussian. There are aspects in the Empire Strikes Back which are so daring as a soundtrack, so modernist, it gives respectability and power to what the modernist visionaries like Schoenberg and Berg represented in their music. The theme to the Battle of Hoth is utterly surprising to me how an audience took this part of the score with conviction. 60 years previously if something like that were performed in a concert hall there would have been a walk-out!
Relating back to the notion of Video Games. It has been acknowledged on a variety of fronts that one very powerful aspect of well-recognised games is its soundtrack. How notable is the simple theme to the NES Super Mario classic, or the Zelda soundtrack. One thing that Destre often repeats to us is that popular song has not advanced very much since the Lied (German Classical art song).
In praise of conservatism
I wish to introduce an aesthetic notion of conservatism. Conservatism here, I confine as a set of standards in a work that would entertain putative aspects of being aesthetically beautiful or successful even if they are not particularly innovative formalistically, or rely on old or well established styles.
The video game soundtrack, and the art of the soundtrack is generally quite conservative. I’m not fully sure why but I suspect there are psychological reasons why film sound tracks generally seem musically behind stylistically to lots of other contemporary music. This is not however to undermine it. Composers such as John Williams is essentially a Romantic/modernist in various moves. Bernard Herrman brought Modernism which was a half century old to cinema. This is quite innovative as a soundtrack, but as music, I’m less sure that it’s especially avant-garde.
My contention is that many games would work in the same way. The Modern Warfare series, or RPGs are based on often tired and well-worn tropes, storyline and gameplay elements. They are based on formulae that are known to succeed and are well received by gamers. Often it is the little bits that are different about each individual game that is entirely new that makes such a game particularly innovative, despite the rest of it following all the other rules about its genre. many of these successful games follow much of what has come before, and adds a bit. To state a very tired phrase made in PC magazines: ‘evolution, not revolution’.
This isn’t to say that they aren’t good games, in fact in many ways they are great games. They are however, as Bateman would claim, hardly imaginative and less engaging because of this. Many games that are part series have taken away a lot surprise and offers expectation of what has come before. I’m bemused to find out for instance, that there is a Lego Batman game! That said, I played Lego Star Wars and it did gloss over some of the darker aspects. It’s as absurd as how many action figures in the 1990s were marketed to children who weren’t old enough to actually watch these films.
There are two points I wish to make about ‘conservative’ games. Firstly, many of these games rely on things that make them innovative, that are not necessarily unique about games. A good screenplay, good dialogue, soundtrack and visuals. Buildings can be appreciated as artistic pieces. Bateman himself pointed out how many people have come to know architectural terminology through playing games. What makes conservative games good are that they rely on already established principles or even embellish and add to this. I’m not saying that there cannot be a great and original video game soundtrack, however it will be considered as music and not as game. We may say that such a conservative example of a game is good not because it is a good game, but because it is a good way of using music or drama through games.
What I wish to point out here is that there are more conventional categories to be applied to games outside of the Bateman schema. An obvious point though this is, what is not obvious is why such games may be considered successful (critically and commercially). I deem that this is because they obey conservative criteria.
What I wish to draw out is an historical analogy. The two great composers of the 1910s were Mahler and Schoenberg, Mahler was to some extent a conservative Romantic while Schoenberg is the radical visionary, games may work in the same way and in my personal view Mahler and Schoenberg have their merits as composers, but for vastly different reasons. Mahler is the surviving Romantic who draws from the late 1800s as his source, much like say, the music of Adele or Amy Winehouse are evocative of late 20thC soul, nice music but hardly innovative. Schoenberg hower is the prophet to a new vision (or so we at Noumenal Realm think). Serialism is a re-definition of musical style, although Bachian in aspects, it is a radically different sonic experience to the audience expectations their contemporamous diet of Brahms and Liszt.
This tension is an historic condition. As some games try to be more innovative and break boundaries and create new rules, others rely on already established ones to be successful. Bateman’s criteria of appeal to imagination for games reminds me of this historical-cultural tension. We will always have the conservative stylists against the Nouveau. I think there’s a place for conservatism. Glenn Gould was once questioned about how he considers both Schoenberg and Richard Strauss as favoured composers, his answer is that although they were worlds apart in style, they were historical contemporaries, both facing the rise of the National Socialists and the death of Old Europe. The conservatives and the Nouveau will have to live together, and both belong to their time.