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More than just noise: Nostalgia and homecoming

3:40 PM on 09.09.2010 // SWE3tMadness

[SWE3tMadness, one of the Destructoid community's resident music experts, shares her thoughts on why game music ends up being so memorable, using the Legend of Zelda series as an example. Want to post your own thoughts on this month's Musing? Do it! -- JRo]

Video games and music have a very unique relationship when compared to other media that incorporate soundtracks. Because the flow of the action in a game is entirely dependent on the player’s actions, the background music that accompanies these actions are separated into individual, recognizable tracks. You have an overworld theme, an underworld theme, battle themes, boss battle themes, really important boss battle themes, character themes, themes for love, sadness, and victory, etc, etc, all repeated every time its corresponding action takes place and all are differentiable from each other.

It’s mainly for this reason why video game soundtracks are so much more memorable than soundtracks from movies, TV shows, cartoons, etc. Read on as I elaborate.

If the action in each storyline is fixed and predictable, then the soundtrack can organically move in exact rhythm with the development of the storyline. To illustrate this point, imagine a scene from any movie. You can probably remember the characters involved, what they were talking about, and where they were at. Now try and remember what song was playing in the background during the scene. It’s quite a bit harder, isn’t it? Sure, you may recall specific pieces -- themes from Star Wars, Pirates of the Carribean, or Lord of the Rings perhaps, but that’s only because those pieces are performed numerous times outside of the movie where it originated, and they become recognizable through that repetition. But in the vast majority of cases, soundtracks to movies or TV shows are not meant to stand on their own but instead only to provide a backdrop to the action they accompanies, and thus are generally one-off melodies with that flow into one another.

Video game soundtracks are forced to repeat themselves over and over again as the player visits the same town, fights the same enemy, or encounters the same character time and time again. Like Pavlov’s drooling dogs, the players are then conditioned to recognize those songs and more easily associate them with specific parts of the game. After a while, video game developers started to notice this pattern and began manipulating it to elicit specific emotional reactions from the player. Whenever you hear the original level 1-1 theme from the Super Mario Bros. start up, your mind instantly snaps back to 1983 when you were a happy kid lost in the innocent fun of the game. The musical cue is purposefully engineered to make you nostalgic and connect your experience playing a game now to that happiness that came from playing a game over twenty years ago.

However, sometimes these nods to older soundtracks can be used to add much more to an experience than just simple nostalgia (although that definitely helps). There are many video game series that use recurring leitmotifs that span across multiple games in the franchise, but the Legend of Zelda’s soundtracks are especially unique in that their repeated musical cues are ties more to the game’s setting. Take for example, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A good proportion of the soundtrack borrows from its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. Many people accused this game of simply trying too hard to be OOT, and this use of its recognizable tunes could be interpreted as nothing more than a cheap way of latching onto people’s fond memories of it. If you think for minute though, it actually makes a great deal of sense within the game’s universe to recycle its soundtrack.

Most explanations of the continuity within the Zelda franchise state that TP takes place a century or two after the events of OOT and Majora’s Mask. Within the game itself, you visit many of the same places as the Link of OOT. All of these places share a similar melody between games, but still differ to signify that they have changed over time. For example, the Lost Woods (now called the “Sacred Grove” in TP) still retains the ever-recognizable melody of Saria’s Song (played on an ocarina, no less), but it’s in a minor key and sounds much more forlorn and distant than the upbeat tune Link learned in OOT. The player’s memory of the original Lost Woods remains woven into the forest like how the ocarina tune winds its way through the maze of trees and guides you along the right path.

Even the character themes connect their respective role to the past. Zelda’s Lullaby also makes an appearance, virtually untouched from its original form because the character of Zelda herself is virtually unchanged. Like the song, she’s merely been given a cosmetic update to match the increased capabilities of the new system. Similarly, the songs for Death Mountain and the Zora’s Domain are largely unchanged because the Zoras and Gorons themselves haven’t changed much either.

This technique of using musical themes from the series can also be taken another step farther and be used more literally. Some players may have recognized the Requiem of Spirit and Song of Healing from a couple of the Howling Stones scattered across the landscape. By using these stones, you contact a ghostly swordsman from the days of old and he passes on ancient forms of swordplay to you to aid on your quest. So wouldn’t it make sense that to summon the legendary swordsman and create a connection to those days of old (perhaps, say, a link to the past? Oh, I’m so clever), you would have to use the old magic inherent in those songs?

But perhaps the best example of this happens in one particular event of Twilight Princess: The entrance into Temple of Time. When you encounter the gateway to the temple, it’s merely a rusty door sitting alone in the midst of decaying piles of rubble. However, by walking through this door, you emerge into the interior of the temple as it was in the past; specifically, during the time frame of Ocarina of Time. The two entryways looks almost identical, and are also both accompanied by the Song of Time. I really cannot summarize into words the huge rush of recollection that comes with walking through that door for the first time, and I feel that it wouldn’t have been half as moving if the Song of Time was missing or altered in some fashion.

Now compare this game’s soundtrack to Wind Waker which has virtually no songs in common with Ocarina of Time. In this game’s setting, Hyrule has been destroyed, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and forgotten amidst the passing of time. Because its influence on the world has been erased, its influence from the soundtrack has largely disappeared as well. This makes the moment when you rediscover Hyrule Castle underwater even more striking because it starts up a recognizable version of the oft-repeated Castle theme from A Link To The Past.

Could all of this just be due to the game developers being lazy, and relying on our own nostalgia to carry the soundtrack rather than creating new and interesting themes? Maybe, but I think that the series would lose a lot of its emotional impact if they decided to make a completely new soundtrack for every new game in the series. Even though the land of Hyrule changes with the passage of time, our memories of those olden days of legends still persist. And when we hear the songs that have been so deeply woven within our memories of those places long past, it simply feels like coming home.

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