Sound Theory: The Science of Themes

Hey everyone! I’m back with another article about the music we know and love as gamers and, as an added bonus, you’ll also get to know me a little bit better. Isn’t that great? Without further ado, let’s get started.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m in school. I attend Baruch College as a communications major. From time to time, there are long study sessions I have to engage in before an exam or I’ll have to sit at the computer for a few hours at a time to write an essay or I’ll have to subject myself to hours of reading a day. Sounds fun, right? Well, it would be a drag to have to do all that without listening to music. So, like anyone else, I put on my headphones and get to work. Because I’m a rap fan, I’ll opt to listen to some Chinx, Meek Mill, 50 Cent & more, but I found that my concentration was wavering. So instead of listening to rap, I opted to listen to some music from games such as Super Mario 64, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and the like. I found that this music helped me concentrate on my studies and gave me some background music that I knew and loved.

There’s a specific reason for this. If you think about it, video game soundtracks are hard to get right. They’re supposed to highlight the emotion of the player at a particular point in the game's sequence, but also not be so overbearing as to distract the player. This is great because you can choose tracks that will energize you and generate hype without being distracting. This differs from fighting games in a couple of different ways, but is still similar enough in some ways, so we’ll compare and contrast traditional video game music to fighting game music.

To highlight, I will use Street Fighter V’s music and contrast it with that of Super Mario 64, which arguably has some of the most iconic video game music of all time. Street Fighter V has two main sets of music. Menu music aside, the game has character themes and stage themes, each with their own distinct style and flair. Super Mario 64 has a theme for most levels that you’re on, but some levels share the same music. It also has music for particular sequences in the game.

Right away, the immediate similarity that stands out are that the music changes in different sequences of the game. In Street Fighter V when stage music is selected, as the rounds change, the music subtly follows suit. The same way how in Super Mario 64 when you pick up a wing cap or get a star, the music changes. Or to better illustrate, Cool Cool Mountain has its own music to it, but when you enter the house with the penguin and challenge him to a race down the ice slide for a star, the music changes to the iconic Slider song, which does sound like a variant of the Cool Cool Mountain theme if you listen closely. Each change in the music highlights a change in the condition of the player, what the player needs to do and atmosphere. This is highlighted very well in the Bustling Side Street stage theme. In the context of Street Fighter, if the player has lost the first round, upon moving into the second round they need to focus and try to adapt. They need to quickly analyze why they lost the first round and find an answer. The tonal shift of the stage music gives you that feeling. Notice the change at the 2:21 mark. It’s a similar feeling even if you won the first round. The music is essentially communicating “you came away with a Round 1 victory after feeling out your opponent. Great. Now stay focused and stay sharp. Let’s close out the match here.” Further, at the end of the third round when the match is tight, the music changes yet again and it reflects the tension and urgency. The music goes along with that 'edge of your seat' feeling that you have as you’re on your last smidge of health trying to clutch out a win. We can see that the similarities in fighting game stage music and your regular action/adventure background music and its desired effect on the player.

How fighting game music differs from regular music is that there is a use of character themes that are static and unchanging throughout their duration. When a character theme is played in the background of a battle, the focus is placed entirely on the opponent... but that’s it. It’s a little bit one dimensional. For example, you know that if you’re fighting Ryu and his theme is on, you have no doubt that you’re fighting the world warrior himself, but that’s about all you’re getting from the music. There’s no real tonal change from round to round. There’s no added sense of pressure or urgency, you’re fighting Ryu and that’s really it. This differs from the very dynamic sounds and music in an action/adventure game where at many junctures, there’s a difference in music.

Think about how chill this map's theme was against how tense the game could make you...

Think about how chill this map's theme was... and now think about how tense you would get actually playing the game.

All in all, the similarities of fighting game music and an action/adventure game music comes down to how the stage music for both types of games changes as time goes on. It highlights emotion, gives the players certain feelings of stress and sets the mood without being too overbearing. We can see that illustrated in the Bustling Side Street Stage of Street Fighter V and the Cool Cool Mountain stage in Super Mario 64. On the other hand, we can see that fighting game music differs when character themes are played instead of the stage themes, because while character themes highlight the fighter and adds an extra element of personality to them, they are too static when it comes to the emotional roller coaster of a fighting game, so the effect of having background music go along with the mood of the game is lost.

I hope this was able to provide some further insight into the sound design of the games that we love. I’m learning a lot and I hope you all are, too. Until next time...

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