Saturday, June 9, 2012

Portal 2 Soundtrack!

Well it's been a really long time since I've posted on this blog. I will finish my analysis of Final Fantasy VI later but I want to make occasional one part interjections in between the multiple part "series" that I will be posting.

So Portal 2. Excellent game. Really improving all aspects of the first game including the music. Mike Morasky did a great job with composing the score, especially at the more cinematic moments (which the sequel has plenty more of than the original.)

Recently I downloaded the soundtrack. It is completely free on Portal 2's official website. I would recommend getting it. click on this link to download it for yourself: Download Portal 2 Soundtrack

Many of the tracks make for excellent workout music. It's very techno and therefore has great driving energy from all the rhythm and repitition. I am more unfamiliar with techno music than I should be and so I can't make a good comparison of how this compares to most techno music but I found it to have some really nice and original electronic sounds and for the majority of the time it avoided getting too repetitive.

The Main Characters Chell and GLaDOS (as a potato)

Like I said, there are more cinematic moments in Portal 2. They are typically used to indicate major turning points that add variety in the game. And these important cinematic turning points are always excellently highlighted in the music.

I think that the best example of this is the track "Don't Do It" which also happens to be played at probably the most dramatic change in the game. Spoiler alert: about halfway through the game, you confront GLaDOS after unarming her neurotoxin and turrets. you are able to replace her with Wheatley. This gives Wheatley control of the entire testing facility which quickly goes to his head. You soon discover from GLaDOS (who is now in a potato battery) that Wheatley was programmed to be the dumbest moron in existence and you are responsible for putting in charge of the facility. 

During all the events of this scene, The music continues to build both in tempo, texture, and dynamics following changes in the action very precisely. The grove set up by the repeated note pattern that comes in about a 1:34 on the track and brings lots of excitement. Then a syncopated ostinato (groups of 8th notes being 3+3+3+3+2+2) that is found on multiple occasions in the game. it's first statement in this track starts to play at 1:53 and works very nicely played against the repeated note figure. These ideas along with sythesized orchestral sounds (which have mainly been absent up from the score until now) make for a very exciting track.

This is a reduction of one of the most exciting textures in the whole game at 2:16 into the track "Don't Do It." The ostinato is in the bass. the texture so simple yet so effective in making this moment in the game a memorable one.

One thing I am fascinated by in newer video games is when an interactive cut scene is going on and the music changes at important hit points but those hit points are dictated by a player's action. The challenge of the music being interactive with the player in the story seems so full of potential but also of programing nightmares. I think "Don't Do It" a solid example of this kind of interplay done right I hope to see more of it in the future of video game music.

Alright, moving on to other tracks. "An Accent Beyond," which plays earlier in the game when Wheatley frees you from testing, is another big turning point and the excitement of breaking out is really captured in the powerful bass figure. later on the syncopated ostinato figure from "Don't Do It" comes back but this time changing pitch on each beat. This ostinato is one of the main motives that unifies the whole score. Later an unpredictable rhythmic oscillation between two notes helps give a frantic and unplanned feel to the whole chase sequence.

"The Part Where He Kills You" fits the mood of it's scene so perfectly. starting out with an eerie atmospheric tone to give the situation a feeling of tension to indicate that you have to be very hesitant and careful in your action. Then once you escape, the tense situation the music kicks into action. This indicates that even more is at stake now that you have actually witnessed Wheatley's attempt to kill you. 

There are times during the typical testing areas that the music can get a little repetitive. However, there are many good tracks for this portion of the game. Some of the better testing area music includes "I Saw a Deer Today," "15 Acres of Broken Glass," "You Will Be Perfect" 

In the cue "(defun botsbuildbots () (botsbuildbots))", you can hear the influence from the Final Fantasy series. Not that Nobuo Uematsu owns the rights to the "arppegiating up and down over several octaves" figure, but the association is so strong it's hard to avoid comparison. Still it's fun to listen to and Morasky has his own take on the idea.

Wheatley and GLaDOS during the scene where "Don't Do It" Plays

The humor that Portal is famous for occasionally spills over into the music. "Machiavellian Bach," with it's bizarre juxtaposition of harpsichord and electronics, is played over the intercom in the testing facility by Wheatley to prove that he is well educated and NOT A MORON. This hilarious moment is made even better when GLaDOS acknowledges the music by saying "Ohhh, now he's playing classical music."

During your final interaction with GLaDOS, I absolutely love how the music fluctuates along with the AI's dramatic mood swing from the attitude of "Best friends forever!" to "I hate you. Get out of my face" in the cue "Caroline Deleted."

Now I'm going to take a brief moment to rant about the story. I'm justifying this on the loose premise that this is a blog about music that accompanies stories, so therefore it is not off topic to talk about the story (even without the music.) To me, the game's story really leaves you craving more! Mainly more answers. You feel like you are discovering so much about Caroline, Cave Johnson, and the history of Aperture Science. Yet all this knowledge leads to little payoff. It is sort of brilliant how anticlimactic the whole Caroline plot point was at the end (GLaDOS just deletes her) but no matter how brilliant it is, it almost makes the player feel cheated. The whole plot seemed to be leading up to some big reveal like "Caroline was Chell's mother" or something like that but that moment never really arrives. The fact that GLaDOS just deletes Caroline causes for a lot of ambiguity at the stories end. Don't get me wrong. The writing for the game is great! the writers really use subtlety and the whole "less is more" concept to the advantage of the game. I know that these writing devices are all ways to make people continue to play there games. Still.... I wanna know more!!!!!!!!!

Getting back to the music, let's talk about music for the end of the game. The Fat Turret singing Italian Opera ("Turret Wife Serenade") is quite humorous but also might be significant to understanding the sort of odd ending. Here is a link to a really good youtube video explaining the a well thought-out opinion (with a lot of logic and validity to it) that explains how the Fat Turret might have some actually significance to the plot. It also brings up many other good points. Watch it!

Here's a link to the A Cappella sheet music for the Turret Wife Serenade just because I think it's hilarious.

Hmmm.... The ending credits song for Portal 2 is no "Still Alive." But what did you expect? There was no way to fallow up the success of the original Jonathan Coultan contribution to the series. However, "Want You Gone" actually seems to fit well with the bittersweet ending of Chell and GLaDOS parting ways just as "Still Alive" fits well with the sarcastic happiness of GLaDOS being killed.

Okay well that's probably enough for now. I know there's way more to talk about. The soundtrack is really long (it's divided into three parts when you download it) and it's hard to talk about it all but I wanted to just share a few personal highlights. More Posts to come soon (I hope!) 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Analysis of Final Fantasy VI: Playable Character Themes Part 2

Picking up from where I left off last time, let's dive into character themes. If you want to actually hear these tracks you can go to youtube and seach "final fantasy vi soundtrack" plus whatever the title of the track is. 

I'll be using lots of music theory terms because I want to specifically show how Nobuo Uematsu created meaningful music that is intelligently composed, organized, and developed. I will eventually create a glossary of music theory terms that I use on this blog but for now if you are confused by a term, you can always use wikipedia or google.

Terra- essentially the main character of the game. Logically her theme is also the most prevalent character theme and gets the most thematic development.  At the beginning of the game Terra has lost the majority of her memory. As a result, the theme and it's variations often reflect the problems and confusion of memory loss as well as the desire to discover mysteries of the past and purpose in the present. Here is a list of tracks in which Terra's theme appears as well as a description of what's going on musically and how that version of the theme is used in the game.

  • Terra's Theme- It plays on the overworld screen which is the part of the game where you travel between towns and fight battles. This theme is a good example of how Uematsu uses ABA form with effective contrast to give the characters greater depth. The A section has a lonely, isolated, wandering quality to it. The melody is diatonic to the natural minor or aeolian scale (depending on how you want to look at it) and has lots of long notes giving the melody lots of space which evokes the qualities I described above. The Climax of the A section seems to evoke a resilience and a reluctance to give up but then cadences with the reminder of harsh reality that the journey won't be easy. The B section is more hopeful. It switches to the relative major. the B section's melody is also diatonic and is essentially just a sequence. 
  • Awakening- This is a version of the theme which is very important to Terra's growth as a character. It usually plays when Terra gains more of her memory back or comes to a realization that develops her as a character. The neat thing about this version is that it takes the A section and the B section of the original theme and has them both playing at the same time with the B section more in the background of the texture. The A section is in the piano and the B section is in the midi string sound.
  • Metamorphosis- During the game you eventually find out that Terra is half human and half Esper. Espers are mystical beings which are the source of magic. Terra can change to an Esper form but she doesn't know that she has this ability. The first time you hear the Metamorphosis theme is when she stumbles upon this ability. This theme shows the surprise and choas that would result in such a powerful discovery which she doesn't understand how to control. Terra's theme isn't heard at the begining but about 15 seconds in. Metamorphosis only barrows the A section of the original Terra's theme. Where the melody of Terra's original theme implies the harmony of a minor chord, this version of the theme has the implied harmony a diminished chord. In fact this version of the theme is a sequence of three diminished chords. Metamorphosis is very chromatic which is in stark contrast to the totally diatonic original version of the theme. The Metamorphosis version of the theme is in the Octatonic scale which is a scale that is made up of alternating whole and half steps. The reason for this use of chromaticism could perhaps be Uematsu barrowing an idea from the composer Rimsky Korsokav, who in his operas used diatonic melodies for humans and chromatic melodies (such as using octatonic or whole tone scales) for magical beings. It seems like the original theme focuses on her more human side of Terra where Metamorphosis focuses on her magical side. This could be reading into it but I'm just making an observation.
  • Protecting the Espers- this theme further signifies the relationship of Terra to the Espers. This is actually a very fun and exciting track with lots of rhythmic interest. Once again Uematsu uses only the A section of Terra's Theme is this version but you don't hear it until about 32 seconds into the piece. Terra's Theme is probably least prevelant in Protecting the Espers of all the three variations. after playing the first phrase of the theme in the regular manner, the rhythm is varied (and shortened) and then the idea sequenced.
Next time I will look at characters who have two versions of their theme.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Analysis of Final Fantasy VI: Playable Character Themes Part 1

My Favorite video game composer of all times is Nobuo Uematsu who is famous for doing the Final Fantasy games. This is one of my favorite games he did and so I decided to analyze it first. One of my goals for analyzing this game it to show how the music works as a unified whole. The music for this game was the strongest written for the franchise up to it's time due to it's compositional unity and memorable themes. one of the aspects that set this game so far above it's predecessors was that every single playable character their own theme. Not only that but many of these themes are developed and altered throughout the game to fit with different situations and emotions that a specific character was experiencing (though the amount of development varied depending on the importance of the character.) This is especially true about the track "Balance is Restored" which plays over the ending sequence of the game and is 21 minutes long. During this composition each of the playable character themes are stated in a new altered form. the alterations of the themes match the full extent of the changes that each character experiences by the end of the story. This is all an enormous musical undertaking considering that there are fourteen playable characters. I am going to start analyzing each characters theme along with any variations of the theme throughout the game play. I will also have a post specifically for the use and variation of each of the themes in "Balance is Restored." All these posts will be coming soon.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Getting started

Okay so hopefully this blog will be a place for me to analyze incidental music and express my opinions. I hope to look at music for films, video games, plays, opera, ballet ect. Any form of storytelling that is enhanced by music will be discussed on this blog.