KES Transactions on Innovation in Music

Publisher Future Technology Press
Vol. 1 No. 1 Special Edition - Innovation in Music 2013
Article TitleGame Scoring: FEZ, Video Game Music and Interactive Composition
Primary AuthorMack Enns, The University of Western Ontario
Pages 79 - 93
Article ID im13bk-008
Publication Date 17-May-15
AbstractGame Scoring: FEZ, Video Game Music and Interactive Composition

Mack Enns

University of Western Ontario

The video game industry is in the midst of a transformation. Robert Abbott writes that in its earliest years,

‘games usually had a top-down view that let you see the entire game board. The graphics were minimal. If the player was represented by a character on the board, that character was usually just a stick figure or a small round cartoon face. Most of these games relied on fast response, but the players could actually apply reasoning. Compared to today’s games, the 70s and 80s seem like a golden age of video games’ (para. 3) [1].

Now, however, the video game has become a sophisticated art form in its own right, as well as the most profitable vector in the modern culture industry. In David O'Grady’s words,

‘Within the last decade, video games have emerged as a leading industrial and economic force, as a locus of cultural identity and exchange, as a site of great experimentation and proliferation, and as a subject of intense intellectual interest’ (para. 1) [2].

As is usually the case in modern culture, the majority of innovation in gaming has come from independent designers. Since they lack the massive marketing budgets of major gaming corporations like Electronic Arts and Microsoft, independent game developers have only innovation as a means of getting noticed in an increasingly crowded industry. Console games such as Journey, developed by Thatgamecompany for the PS3 provide not only non-linear narratives, but non-linear gameplay and a complete lack of textual instruction, which requires end-user participation to an unprecedented extent. Handheld games like Super Stardust Delta, developed by Housemarque for the PlayStation Vita utilize touchscreen and tilt controls to change perspectives, fire weapons and even manipulate time. These are just a few of the recent innovations in gaming that independent game developers are responsible for. Video game music has evolved alongside gameplay, though commentators tend to downplay or neglect the role of music in the overall gaming experience. In fact, in the last decade, musical composition for video games has become so technically and aesthetically distinct that I believe it requires its own category of technique. I call this category ‘game scoring’. As with film scoring, game scoring supports, complements and elucidates the visual aspects of the gaming experience. This is, however, where the resemblances between game and film scoring end. There is a host of different technical and aesthetic obstacles and concerns that face the game scorer alone. Most significantly, innovations in game design have pushed game scorers to the point where much of their technique has evolved to resemble software programming more than any traditional compositional mode. In short, in game scoring, distinctions between musical composition and software programming have blurred to a point where such distinctions are no longer of use.

This paper is devoted in its entirety to an exploration of this new compositional mode called ‘game scoring’. As an instructive example I use video game music composer Rich Vreeland’s soundtrack for the 2012 Xbox Live Arcade puzzle-platformer video game FEZ. FEZ received widespread acclaim upon release. The Imagine Games Network gave the game a rating of 9.5/10, and it currently holds a 90/100 on Metacritic. Eurogamer declared FEZ its Game of the Year, while the 2012 Independent Games Festival awarded it the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. I chose Fez solely for its utility as an instructional foil. This paper will begin with an introductory discussion of Vreeland’s musical philosophy, in order to situate his compositional process as an innovative departure from previous forms of video game music composition. Next it will introduce the story, gameplay mechanics and visuals of FEZ in order to frame the unique game world which Vreeland had to provide music for. The final and main section of this paper will conduct an examination of the programming system for FEZ, simply named Fezzer, and its integrated music composition system. In doing so it will posit the existence of this new compositional mode, namely, game scoring.

[1] Abbot, Robert: ‘Video Games Are Incredibly Stupid!’ Logic Mazes. (2001) [2] O'Grady, David: ‘Video Games: The State of the Field.’ UCLA Game Lab. (2012)
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