Monday, 8 October 2012

Writing about writing about the music in video games, and a nostalgic story

So, Video Game music again. Probably the last for now; I feel this topic ended up being a lot less simple to explore than I had given myself credit for. To put my frustrations simply: cutting through what I’ve felt is a common element of most prose that discusses music has proven troublesome. That is—and I may be mistaken—that conventional discourse on music often seems to end up as either very specific or very general, and that striking a decent balance is enormously difficult. The former approach fits comfortably in a corner of musical theory or in unfolding one of the many musical genres that’s been carved out over the years. To link a point out of specific tones, styles and compositions to the life-span of video games as a whole, though, feels like tenuousness and verbosity combined. On the other hand a more general and perfunctory kind of approach picks up a great deal of rapidity (and so over-all form). Sadly an equal measure of specificity and detail are lost in the process.

This kind of balance between style and substance is not uncommon, and yet the extent to which music can be so scrupulously picked apart and analysed cannot be over-stated. It will be a little while before I can find a satisfying balance, but I will find it eventually. I have a feeling it lies somewhere on the side of detail, but that the actual result is, by necessity, a much slower and more lumbering thing than I thought initially. In any case, it’s something I need to keep an eye on. For now I’ll wrap things up with what I feel is one of the largest hurdles to actually talking about video game music: the narrative of nostalgia-led listening.

I believe strongly in the power of narratives to fundamentally affect the way we view the world. More pertinent here, though, is the effect narratives (the more pervasive and simple the better) have on the language and demeanour we adopt when discussing most anything we have familiarity with. This has all been a long way of saying that different ideas are invariably viewed through prisms that are shaped by experience; we naturally identify shared narratives, drift towards them and then react. Our collective reactions to these narratives, though beginning privately and individually, can coalesce into another shared narrative which we are in turn prompted to react to once again.

The thread I wanted to pick out is the placement of nostalgia in all of this: among a group as attached as the video gaming community is to objective facts and tangible numbers, the impression of bias that a strong nostalgic connection to something represents puts an implicit burden on the individual to address it. We have all read gushing sentiments for games that strike as ultimately empty or clich├ęd, more often than not prefaced with the admission that the author was very young, care-free or otherwise occupying a generic ‘better times of yesteryear’ position when they first played it. We don’t enjoy them because they often fail to give us something tangible or unique to attach and share with the experience other than ‘it was really fun’ and ‘childhood and friends are nice’. This perception of inadequacy in description gets wrapped up in the all-encompassing ‘nostalgia-led’ narrative: a game that may or may not be good gets played a lot during childhood, resulting in an abundance of admiration that may or may not have ‘actual’ merit; a narrative of much doubt. As a collective reaction to this we pre-emptively check our own language to filter out the same inadequacy we perceive in the descriptions of others, while perhaps ignoring the fact that there is a slender segment of games that could evoke the same kind of general expressions of fond memories without tangible cause in us. This is ultimately why, without properly contextualised hard critical endorsement (or at least the impression of it) of the games we loved from the past, we veer toward nostalgia guiltily.

Just as a seemingly huge number of people would place Final Fantasy VII in that slender segment of gush-worthy games, so, too, would the corresponding reaction of many be to denounce the game as ‘overrated’. I think one could go through the game’s execution and the context into which it was released and find some form of ‘objective’ merit, but that’s not the point here: ‘overrated’ is the explicit challenge we put to ourselves; to explain why something so blissfully adored is deserving of that praise. Turning (finally!) to the music we remember enjoying from the past, though: contextualisation and analysis here is something just as complex as in the full gameplay itself, without the benefit of such wide-spread dedicated discourse as there is toward gameplay. To sever the burden of the nostalgia-led narrative here requires a whole different set of interpretive skills; un-intuitively divergent study of music genres, theory and machine capability. And even after this, articulating ‘why this music is objectively good’ is enormously difficult, and only made harder by the barrier of nostalgia-avoidance in current discourse.

I think the assumption that older celebrated games are only aided by the perception of nostalgia is the most common mistake that needs to be considered. A decent example of playing with a prejudice that subverts the general narrative is that I didn’t play Chrono Trigger until a decade after its release (thanks, in part, to no European publication). The idea of this title being a font of nostalgia-bound over-enthusiasm was well embedded by this point. Newcomers of differing tastes would throw out what a disservice had been done in overrating Chrono Trigger; a lot of ‘rose-tinted glasses’ type stuff. A part of me knows that there is a fragment of truth here, even musically: the tracks are small and oft-repeated, and more than one standard battle theme (used) would have been nice. But this is where expectations are tempered by reality: I knew what the SNES was capable of and was attracted to Chrono Trigger’s reputation of having excellent music; I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t need the Magical Joy of Childhood to appreciate the constraints it overcame, or its overall strong consistency. The ‘nostalgia-bias’ thread just seems silly to me when applied to my experience with that game.

I guess the point of all this is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that elements that evoke a happier or more care-free time are irrevocably linked to some kind of childhood-bias. It’s a seductive idea, not least of all because it allows us to look at the games we enjoyed many years ago and just suppose they are magically linked to our empowering memories. This doesn’t hold up as a judgement-impairing force, though. I can’t say I find it terribly difficult to look at older games with celebrated soundtracks, but which I have no experience with, and hear for myself how they work. In the case of the first Castlevania (a game I first played, shamefully, four years ago) I understood the perception of nostalgia around it and the quality of its music. It was that initial attraction that led to me, apparently, wanting to strip myself of my objective position and subject myself to the game. Castlevania didn’t inflict itself on the soundtrack after I had already heard it; it simply remained solid composing with an impressive use of the NES’s capabilities.

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