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Things I learned while composing the music to Bonerquest


Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame

My first musical composition "assignment" began after I read randombulleye's initial post showing his initial work on Bonerquest. Near the end of the cblog post, he pointed out that he would like the game to have original music in the style of classic NES games such as The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. I should point out at this point that while I feel that I am fairly knowledgable about certain intricacies of the genres I like (film music, video game music, musicals, anime music, etc) I lack any theory or composition study or experience other than what I picked up from about 8 years of violin-playing in primary school, the words and advice of Music Composition for Dummies, and the experience from my own crude dabblings over the years in composition and arrangement that include an arrangement and extension of Shadow's theme from Final Fantasy VI, themes for a fantasy movie I once swore I would have made by now, and a musical based on John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Having been in a creative sort of mood for some time, probably due to my mind desperately looking for some escape from being completely bored out of my skull in MBA classes, I was inspired by the Dragon Quest look of the game to put together something that was clearly inspired by Koichi Sugiyama's main theme to Dragon Quest. I sent it to randombullseye just to see what would happen. To my surprise, he liked it alot. In fact, that same piece of music (with a three measure extention) is what you now here in Bonerquest at the title screen. randombullseye then asked me if I wanted to do the rest of the music. I was unsure at first because I knew that I did not have formal musical composition experience or training or even the background for it, especially given that I know as a fact that there are plenty of other Dtoid members who are far more musically talented than I am. Putting together a "homage" to the Dragon Quest theme is relatively easy: putting together an entire soundtrack is an entirety different matter and I was not sure that I could put together something of satisfactory quality. Nonetheless, I always been that kind of person who talks about doing stuff but never does it unless I feel something pushing me forward (much like the Mega Man 9, Halo music, and Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross cblog post I swore I would write ages ago) and I had never accomplished anything musically that I considered "finished" and so I agreed, letting randombullseye know to not expect too much.

Now that the background and origin is out of the way, I just wanted to share some of the more interesting things I learned while working on the music to Bonerquest that changed the way I viewed video game music or reinforced or changed certain notions I had about video game music.

Koji Kondo of The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. fame performing at Play! in Chicago

Koji Kondo, Hip Tanaka, Koichi Sugiyama, and Nobuo Uematsu are not only four of the greatest composers in video game history, they are four of of the greatest composers in modern music.

As I was sketching out the basic themes and melodies that would form the basis of each track, I started digging into the musical styles of the earlier NES game that were the contemporaries of Dragon Quest, the game to which ]Bonerquest is perhaps most linked to. In listening to these earliest works of video game music, I suddenly became aware of how short and simple most of these early pieces were. Yet despite being short, so much of these short pieces work extremely well looped over and over again and do not feel repetitive when hearing it over and over again. In addition, despite the NES only having a limited amount of sound channels (4 I think), these early pieces feel fully arranged and fleshed out.

The amazing qualities of these early NES soundtracks weighted heavily upon me when I was trying to compose something of quality. I am convinced that whatever crap I wrote cannot be listened to more than once before it gets tired and boring and from that point of view, I am happy that the random battles ensure that listeners are never subjected to more than one loop at a time. Well, I guess the town and castle music goes on for awhile without interruption. Oh well.

This leads to my next observation.

Hip Tanaka of Metroid fame

It is quite interesting to think about how many different genres and styles of music find their way into video game music

I think the hardest piece for me to write was the overworld theme. Of course, it didn't help that this was the second piece of music I tried to write. When I think about the great video game scores, often the overworld piece is the one I remember the most. Even if the overworld music is not the most memorable, it is usually at the least the one piece that defines the whole musical style and identity of the game.

In my early discussions with randombullseye, we agreed that I should probably write the music in a way that treats the story and setting as a serious RPG. Of course, I was happy about this because I came to realize that I have no ability to write something funny or comedic sounding. At this point, I realized that the main theme I wrote earlier was really easy to come up with because it was essentially a ripoff of an existing piece and style. In contrast, I now had to come up with a style for the rest of the music.

I began to think about some of the overworld music out there, only to realize how radically different musical styles find themselves into video game music. The overworld themes to the various Square Enix RPGs run through a number of styles. The overworld theme to Wild Arms uses the style of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores. The main level 1-1 theme to Super Mario Bros. has a vaguely Latin flavor to it. Of course, within these scores, you still have a wild variety of genres. The water level of Super Mario Bros. for example, is essentially a waltz, as can be best heard from the various orchestrated versions of the theme avaliable out there. Perhaps the king of all video game music variety is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night which oscillates between baroque to New Age to light jazz.

In the end, I decided to just go for something a bit moody and dramatic, perhaps thinking about some of the mooder pieces from the Final Fantasy series.

Finally, this leads to my last point for this post.

Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame with an adorable dog.

Writing music is really really really hard

Ok, I knew that writing music was hard. But until I did it with the fear of missing a deadline, writing something that wasn't meeting randombulleye's expectations, or getting the music torn to shreds on Podtoid, I didn't quite realize how ridiculously difficult music writing was, especially since I have almost zero music theory or composition experience.

If anything, by the time I finished writing the last note on Bonerquest, I gained an enormous respect and reverence for musicians and music students for having to work in this difficulty realm called "creativity" and "arts." In addition, the more I look at video game scores with a critical eye, I become overwhelmed by the genius and skill which I know I can never come close to achieving in this lifetime. Shortly after I finished the music to Bonerquest, a friend and I started playing Secret of Mana on the Virtual Console. Within an hour of playing the game, I was blown away by the incredible work Hiroki Kikuta did on the music to this game. Of course, I played the game back and forth when it first came out and the soundtrack is frequently played on my playlist.

I just find it interesting how often we listen to music and do not really notice or think about the work that it takes to create something like that. I think that working on Bonerquest has taught me to appreciate and hear video game music in a new light. In addition, I am happy that after all these years, randombulleye gave me the opportunity and push to actually write music instead of just talking about writing music. I do not pretend to think that my work is comparable to anything professionally done. However, I hope that the Destructoid community enjoys what I have done in the context of Bonerquest.

P.S. If anyone for whatever reason I cannot imagine wants it, they can get the music I wrote here: http://www.eden.rutgers.edu/~pjan/bonerquest/
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About Tascarone of us since 9:27 PM on 03.03.2008

Once upon a time, back in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, I was a "hard-core" gamer. Since that time, a variety of factors ranging from money to college to real life significantly cut into my video game time. Nonetheless, I have always retained my love and interest in video games, although to a lesser extent.

At present, my video game time is generally monopolized by World of Warcraft. I play a troll mage named Moor (WoW Armory profile here) on the Nathrezim server where I am a happy member of the guild Sanity.

Current-generation consoles I own include an XBox 360, a Ps3, a Wii, a Nintendo DS, a PsP, and a PC.

I am a huge fan of video game music. In fact, I confess that many of the games I own, such as the Halo games and Rygar: The Legendary Adventure are in my collection solely because I love their incredible musical scores. I have only been able to attend one VGM event, Video Game Live's New York concert on April 26, 2008 which was an amazing experience.

During middle school and high school, I was inspired to attempt music composition after hearing the reprise of Shadow's theme that appears in the ending of Final Fantasy VI by Nobuo Uematsu and "Angel's Fear" from Secret of Mana by Hiroki Kikuta, an attempt that quickly ended due to my lack of talent with little more to show than a crappy five-song musical. The highlight of my musical career as well as my journey through video game geekdom came during an impromptu musician meet-up at the Otakon anime convention in 2003 in which I had the honor of performing the violin solo in Yasunori Mitsuda's incredible "Scars of Time" from Chrono Cross.

I have been a lurker on Destructoid for some time. I am an especially huge fan of Destructoid's three excellent podcasts, which are not only the best video game podcasts I have heard but amongst my favorite podcasts of all time. I give much credit to these podcasts for bringing about a resurgence in my interest in video games and inspiring me to think more about video games. I also give them special credit for entertaining me during a series of hospitalizations in which the only thing I had for entertainment were these podcasts saved on my Zune.

I was particularly inspired by Podtoid and randombullseye and ended up composing the music to randombullseye's game Bonerquest, my first and last foray into video game composing as I quickly came to realize, as I did back in high school, that I lacked the training and talent for the art. Nonetheless, I am grateful to randombullseye for the opportunity to have contributed to a part of an actual finished product as opposed to the unfinished sketches that populate my desk and computer hard drive.

I love writing and I often find myself discussing and writing about video games on a variety of subjects and contexts. As a high school student, I had great difficulty writing long papers or long articles and so I began to force myself to write as much as possible. By the time I was in college, writing huge amounts of text for both school and school-unrelated purposes became not only easy but rather relaxing and unenjoyable. I therefore apologize in advance because I know that a great deal of my writing will probably be far far longer than what is probably necessary or appropriate. In the past, my writings on video games found themselves in a variety of places ranging from the WoW forums, a text file on my desktop, to my friends' Xanga and MySpace pages and for some time, I have thought about consolidating my video game writing at one place, which is why I am happy that I discovered Destructoid. The Destructoid staff and community have greatly influenced my thoughts on video games and opened my eyes to things that I never saw. I hope that many writing can give a fraction of that inspiration (or at the very least some entertainment) back to the Destructoid community.
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