Saturday 15 March 2008

Project Update



In my project I propose to examine the role that music plays in the genre of videogames known as First Person Shooters (FPS). Specifically I will examine in detail the score of the Xbox game Halo 2, published by Microsoft Game Studios, and the complex relationships with other elements of the game. The Halo series of games are the Videogame equivalent of the Hollywood Blockbuster – they have some of the highest production values of the current generation of games and spend more time under development than their filmic counterparts.

Videogame analysis and critique, being a burgeoning field, has been developing a vocabulary and methodology with which to approach Videogames and their methods of creating meaning and story. Most analyses and critiques can be placed in one of two camps; those that study a Videogames efforts at inscribing a narrative in a game, identified as ‘Narratology’, often drawing on methods of analysis for other media, such as films, literature and especially hypertext and new media. The alternative, calling their study of games as systems unrelated to story ‘Ludology’, is exactly that, to treat Videogames as systems and representations, examining the rules and laws that govern the simulation.

My analysis of Halo and the music of the series involves a number of key elements. I will apply traditional musical analysis techniques to the music of Halo 2, looking at the function played by musical devices such as ‘Leitmotif’, as well as examining the effect of style and genre connotations. I will also apply a method of analysis that quantifiably examines the music in terms of ‘what plays when’ and try to find some motivation as to ‘why’ it does so. I wish to also apply an examination of the evolution of the music across the series, including key musical motifs and pieces, and view it as not only a development of the composers ‘voice’ but also as a representation of the progression of the themes of the games.

In a non traditional vein, I wish to also attempt to identify important salient features of the relationship between the music and other non-musical aspects of the game. For example, I wish to analyse specific levels of the game by using concepts such as ‘level flow’, ‘progression’ and ‘optimal paths or strategies’, in an attempt to uncover meaningful relationships to the music. One tool I will use to do this is a world famous video recording of a ‘Speed Run’ in which the player, an American film student and Halo player, completes the game on the hardest difficulty setting (called ‘Legendary difficulty’) and never once dies, providing an insight into the importance of elements of the structure and layout of the levels, as well as combat techniques. The most reduced and implicit form of feedback that the player receives from the game is information about the player’s state; either the player is still alive and can continue on ‘progressing’ through the game to its conclusion, or the player is dead and must try again. This information reveals inarticulate or tacit aspects of the game that the designers intentionally and unintentionally included in the game, and which I believe are a vital aspect of the ‘meaning’ created by the game. The crux of the rationale for this approach is a belief that Halo 2 locates much of its created meaning (in a largely non-narrative sense) outside of traditional narrative structures and devices such as dialogue, narration and cinematic direction. In this way, I believe that I will see a parallel to meanings and ideas created by and revealed in the music.

I will also apply semi-filmic analyses, adapting concepts such as Mimesis and Diegesis, along with analyses of such things as the effects of geography, art direction and the Videogame equivalent of camera angles to specific levels and sections of the game. Throughout I will apply Ian Bogost’ theory of ‘unit operations’ as an approach to Videogame criticism, as well as his idea of ‘simulation fever’, especially in regards to the ideas of Mimesis and Diegesis in Videogames – whether videogames ‘tell’ the story to the player (Diegesis) or ‘show’ the story to the player by mimicking actions (Mimesis). To explain the relevance of this distinction, I quote Wikipedia’s entry on Diegesis:

When we come to a modern consideration of the cinema, it may appear that the medium is a straight-forward example of mimetic storytelling--but it is not. In terms of classical poetics, the cinema is an epic form that utilizes dramatic elements; this is determined by the technologies of the camera and editing. Even in a spatially and temporally continuous scene (mimicking the theatrical situation, as it were), the camera chooses where to look for us. In a similar way, editing causes us to jump from one place (and time sometimes) to another, whether it be somewhere else in the room, or across town. This jump is a form of narration; it is as if a narrator whispers to us: "meanwhile, on the other side of the forest".

By this definition it would seem at first glance that First Person Shooter games (and Halo in particular) are generally ‘Diegetic’ with only a short amount of ‘cut scenes’ at the beginning and end of levels determining what the player has to look at. However, if we consider Bogost’s notion of simulation fever, which says that, while we generally view simulations, and Halo could be considered as such, as ‘objective’ representations of what we are simulating, they are in actual fact necessarily ‘subjective’ by virtue of their nature as reductive. Even when a simulation renders every physical aspect of an environment or situation in detail, it still does not include such things as concepts of value, such as the value of human life, which Bogost says by referencing a military simulation of a sarin nerve gas cloud modelling simulation. While it arguable simulates accurately the progression of the gas on a University campus and how to evacuate quickest, it does not represent such things as who to prioritise for evacuation; the Nobel prize winning Professors or the students with years of possible contribution in their lives still left unrealised. In this way, by choosing what Halo includes and excludes in its ‘simulation’, Halo 2 could certainly be considered also Mimetic, and this seemingly contradictory state will be explored.

To sum up my project, I am looking at the music of Halo 2 and placing an emphasis on identifying other aspects of meaning creation in the non-musical elements of the game, applying current theories and concepts of videogame criticism as well as a number of adapted methods from other mediums. I wish to outline the relationships between the music and these other elements and hopefully persuade the reader that a Videogame about a super-human soldier in the future whose task it is to save the world is a work worthy of investigation and which locates its meaning and value in places non typical to media such as films and novels.


Word! Did you read it all? If so, give yourself a pat on the back for getting through over 1,000 of the finest words on Teh Interwebs without exploding. Feel free to comment / flame / ignore this post.

Oh, and the thing about Heiddeger I mentioned last week? That's so last week. It's MIMESIS now.

- Ben.


Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,
Looking good, do a good job and when its all done and finished it'll be an awesome piece of academic literature :P

Kirk Battle said...

Sounds interesting. In the bare bones world of useful academic writing in video games, there is next to nothing on music. There are a few useful spots though:

Gamasutra is a place where game designers hang out, so it's an interesting angle on games. It might help your essay to mix in some authorial intent.

Look forward to it.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey LB,

Thanks for your kind words.

It is a shame that there's not been more written about music in Videogames, but hey, I'm really passionate about it and that's really what counts, right?

Also, it means less work for me, cause I can say whatever I want! :D

Unknown said...

Nice Ben, interesting read so far. :)

Humingway said...

Hi, it's Peter from the Cruise Elroy comments. Yeah, this looks good! It's funny that you're analyzing a recorded speed run, whereas my project is all about what happens when you die. Maybe that reflects my own lack of skill as a player...

If your library has it, you might check out a new collection of essays on game audio called /From Pac-Man to Pop Music/. ( I'm not proud of my contribution, but there's some good stuff there, including a pretty lengthy list of academic resources for game music scholars.

If you can't find that, Karen Collins, who edited the book, also maintains a bibliography of scholarly (and quasi-scholarly) work on game music at

Humingway said...

Oh, I forgot to say -- unfortunately, there's still no complete draft of that first chapter. I presented it a couple weeks ago as a work in progress and ended up doing the whole middle section off the cuff!

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Peter, thanks for dropping by to say Hi.

I got your blog bookmarked, you had me from the title.

I'll also look into the books you suggest as soon as I can muster the energy - I just finished my Literature Review for my thesis (as a coursework assignment, though, not the finished product) so I'm trying to wind down a bit, as I'm sure you'll understand.

Thanks again for dropping by, I love talking to anyone who'll listen about games and music.