There Really Is a Conference Where People Study Videogame Music

by Rachel Baker on January 21, 2014

The interesting thing about this article is the topic, not the writing. Truly, if you haven’t ever considered music in video games, you should. Listen to the music in the background of what your kids are playing. If you want a cool soundtrack that you can sing in the car, give your kids Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas – or if you want something a bit more classical, buy them Skyrim and listen to the score. Those are just three, there’s a ton more out there with amazing scores…and now people are studying them.

Editor’s Note: I changed the title from ‘Nerds’ to ‘People’. Its not okay to call people names, and more specifically, just because one doesn’t understand something doesn’t make those who do “nerds”.

Conference organizer Steven Reale traces his abiding fascination with videogame music to the 1984 release of Pitfall II. While playing the game on his family’s Atari 2600, he had an unexpected and powerful emotional reaction — one having nothing to do with Pitfall Harry getting thwacked by a pixelated scorpion or condor. “There’s this music in the game that goes duh-duh-di-di-do/duh-do-di-di, and I turned around to my sister and said, ‘This song, it’s so pretty it makes me want to cry,’” he recalls. “Of course, she teased me mercilessly.”

Years later, in the course of earning his PhD in music theory at the University of Michigan, Reale wrote a landmark paper on how the music in Katamari Damacy affects gameplay. (Sample line: “The opening section has a sostenuto feel with few rhythmic or metric cues to the meter; the guitar is suspended in mistlike alternation between B7sus4 and E?9 over a pedal e.”) Now an assistant professor of music at Youngstown State, his presentation this weekend will focus on how the music in Portal 2 mirrors the game’s puzzle-solving strategies.

The Youngstown conference’s most-discussed game music will be the score for the steampunk-infused Bioshock Infinite, one of the most musically innovative games in recent years. It eschews a traditional score in favor of haunting, anachronistic covers tinged with irony. A barbershop quartet version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” for example, exudes an air of quiet menace that hints at the terror soon to come. There is also a warped, tinny take on a Chopin nocturne that pops up in a scene where malevolent tycoon Jeremiah Fink interacts with his abused employees.

“It’s supposed to be used as work music, but Chopin is totally wrong for that—it doesn’t have that steady beat,” says Sarah Podzerac-Chenevey, a graduate student in music theory at the University of Cincinnati who hopes to write her dissertation about videogame music. “Then I realized, the way the music was being stripped of its rubato, what it does is it reflects how Fink is stripping his workers of their humanity.” She will talk about that strategic butchery of Chopin at the conference, as well as the lyrical choices that make the game’s version of “Will the Circle be Unbroken” evoke concepts of both heavenly bliss and earthly disillusionment.

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