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Braid – Maenam (Jami Sieber)

October 24, 2009

Today I went to a lecture by John Sharp on videogames and art. The lecture is a preview of what he will present at next year’s Game Developers Conference and was given to the IGDA Colorado chapter. It was quite interesting and thought-provoking, and opened up a new area of thought on games and art. Essentially, his thesis is that art is dead (and has been for at least the last 40 years) and that games should just insist on being games. Case in point: the Mona Lisa is still pretty 500 years after it was painted, but Wolfenstein looks terrible when compared with modern game graphics. At the same time, Wolfenstein is still just as fun to play as it was 20 years ago – and will still be 200 years after today (that is to say, it’s still quite fun). Within this art discussion, I present a soundtrack from one of the art games John discussed in the lecture, Braid (2008).

Braid – Maenam (Jenni Sieber)

Braid was produced by Jonathan Blow for the XBox 360 Live Arcade, and it is now available over Steam for the PC (there is also a Mac version). The soundtrack, Music from Braid (2009) may be purchased through the fantastic online music store, Magantune, whose slogan is “We are not evil.”

Braid is a sidescrolling puzzle game where the player must collect these puzzle pieces in order to reconstruct a world that was destroyed in the past by the protagonist’s own mistake. The player rewinds and speeds up time to solve these puzzles. The game is also designed as an art game – it is meant to be a work of art with a consistent theme and style. The soundtrack is also nothing short of phenomenal and has a great almost Celtic feel to it.

There are two striking things about this soundtrack. The first is that the music reflects and enhances the game’s art aesthetic. The construction of paintings suggests an art gallery, and some of the tracks, particularly Shiri Kammen’s “Downstream” feel like you are actually looking at pictures in an exhibition.

braid_title_new

The title track of this VGM Daily though is Jami Sieber’s “Maenam”, the first song that plays in the game. This is a fantastic intro theme. It plays when we first begin the game and the character is shown in silhouette before a burning city. He walks into the light and begins to explore this world, becoming a part of the space. This tune will play whenever the player explores this central hub area. Sieber describes it as “a gathering of where spirits and soul meet.” “Maenam” is actually from Sieber’s album, Hidden Sky (2004). It is based off an encounter she had in Thailand with elephants where she coaxed the elephants towards her by playing her cello.

If there’s one thing that Jonathan Blow gets exceptionally right, it is the emphasis on having a strong soundtrack. It is immediately clear that having good music will make your poor visuals look better (and great ones look fantastic), but it is always surprising to see how many game developers spend so little money on the audio and many developers just don’t seem to care. Here is Blow’s opinions on vgm composers to illustrate this point:

Most of them don’t really understand gameplay that well unless it’s very simple, traditional gameplay. If they give you a song, it’s usually not very high-quality, like what a real musician makes. By real musician, I mean people who made the song because they cared absolutely about that song. They weren’t making it for anything. They just made what they most wanted to make at that time, so that’s what I was looking for.

As such, Blow chose actual composers and let them choose music from their body of work that fit the style of the game. He also did a fantastic job of picking songs that were going to be long so that if a player spent 10 minutes on a puzzle, he or she wouldn’t become tired of the looping music (this makes me feel that game music composers should watch playtest sessions to judge the average length of time a player will spend in a given area and compose a track accordingly).

Yet the fact that actual musicians were used leads to the second interesting point about the soundtrack: its ‘originality.’ While Braid’s soundtrack is fantastic, because the music was chosen for the game rather than composed for it, it almost feels like this isn’t a ‘true’ vgm soundtrack (which is completely ridiculous, as the Korobeiniki example illustrates).

What this has to do with art is that while game graphics change over time, game music aesthetics are today less visibly affected by technology. Prior to CD audio, game music had to be composed to fit in only a few bytes of storage space (less storage than it takes to write “wow, that’s small!”) and used chiptunes to produce what were often approximations of real instruments (though some composers treated say, a triangle wave, as an actual instrument. With CD audio (early 1990s), games can store a lot more and the quality of the sound improves to something that resembles what you’d pick up off the radio or the music store. Now instead of having only a handful of crayons in the box, you have a whole rainbow to work with (including the four colors you had when you started, which can still produce some very cool things). Granted, the form of most game music is still going to rely on looping audio, but the compositions are more and more acceptable to a general audience as ‘music’. At the same time, the chiptune aesthetic still survives, even if it has a smaller audience, as it has become its own style.

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