Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Music in Video Games: Studying Play

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Music in Video Games: Studying Play

Article excerpt

K.J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner (eds) Music in Video Games: Studying Play New York and London: Routledge, 2014: 232pp. ISBN: 978-0415634441

review by Michiel Kamp

This volume falls right in the middle of a boom in publications on video game music. Following Karen Collins's Game Sound and her edited volume From Pac-Man to Pop Music (both 2008), there have been a number of articles and chapters appearing on the subject, both throughout the various Oxford Handbooks and in journals that focus on music in audiovisual media. These are joined by Kiri Miller's Playing Along (2012) and William Cheng's Soundplay (2014), which, although bundled in book form, can really be considered collections of article-length (case) studies. Add to that Peter Moormann's edited volume Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance (2013) and the question becomes how this Routledge volume Music in Video Games: Studying Play (2014), edited by K.J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner, distinguishes itself from or relates to this rapidly growing field.

The question is perhaps unfair, as the academic study of video game music is still in its infancy and the field anything but saturated, but it is fruitful to consider the different strands and approaches that operate on this relatively new and exciting topic within musicology. And, to start with, it has to be said that this is first and foremost a musicology volume. Whereas, for instance, From Pac-Man to Pop Music offers a multitude of scholars from different disciplines - and even expands its topic to include game sound - the chapters in Music in Video Games almost exclusively employ methods from historical musicology and music theory. This means the book has no shortage of well-printed and clear music examples that, given the dynamic and adaptive nature of game scores, get quite inventive.

Another thing that sets this volume apart from others is the fact that it, for the most part, eschews grand theories of game music in general in favour of more focused case studies - one, or a small number, per chapter. These include what might by now be called the canonical cases of Super Mario Bros. (1985), The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), and Silent Hill (1999, albeit only in passing in Rebecca Roberts' chapter), but also introduce a number of new and worthy topics of study, such as Plants vs. Zombies, representing the less-than-glamorous but ubiquitous non-dynamic soundtracks of low-budget mobile games; the soundtrack of Sid Meier's Civilization IV (2005), which features pre-existing music in a manner completely unlike other audio-visual media such as films, showing the idiosyncrasies of video games when it comes to representation; and all-but-forgotten soundtracks such as that composed for The Dig (1995). Together, these case studies uniquely represent the variety of video game soundtracks, whereas other collections have mostly presented the variety of approaches to game music.

The chapters are loosely ordered according to topics, moving from 'chip music' to analysis of dynamic soundtracks to horror games to hermeneutics. This, admittedly, is gleaned from the introduction, as there are many threads that connect chapters in the book, although none of them explicit. The book starts with 'the classics': Neil Lerner's analyses of the Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. soundtracks. Central to this chapter is the link between early game music and early film music, a thread of research that Lerner further explores in his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies (2014). There, he focuses on the very earliest video games, and his structural and semiotic analysis of Donkey Kong here is reminiscent of that chapter. However, particular attention is paid to the unity the soundtrack provides in an otherwise incoherent and inconsistent game world ('Why does Mario have three lives?' Lerner asks, following Jesper Juul [2005]). The tonal coherence Lerner notes is striking, and it is even more prevalent in his analysis of the later Super Mario Bros. …

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