Tag Archives: The Elder Scrolls

10. Wherein the Writer Grapples With the Intangible

Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why?  Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.

It goes without saying that everyone’s emotional experience of a game is going to be different, if only subtly. It would be naive of me to assume tat everyone has the EXACT same emotional experience when playing a given game, even a given sequence with a game, so I will not try and represent my experience as universal, only mine. But I will not say that other players don’t, in all likelihood, have some emotional response to he gaming stimuli that I’m talking about. Because all but the oldest games (and I’m never talking about them) include music to some degree, many of those experiences will be linked to the game’s score or soundtrack. Other game scores and soundtracks can put a little pep in my step, or reach me emotionally on even an otherwise unremarkable day. There’s a sound, a little progression of just a few notes, that players of The Legend of Zelda know by heart and that to non-players it will do no good to describe. The music, which in the game world announces the discovery of a secret, thrills my heart. Whether in the original 8-bit (link) or as part of an orchestral arrangement (link), it arrests my attention whenever or wherever I hear it. When it announces the receipt of a text message on someone’s phone at school or in a cafe or on the subway, I’ll immediately scan the area, looking for the source like I’m snacking a crowd of strangers for the face of an old friend. It’s not something I think about; I’m not looking for someone in particular, but a kindred, a comrade. It just happens, and I only catch myself once I’ve already begun doing it. Unconsciously, subconsciously- however, to my ear it’s a call to adventure.

That game’s music provides or reinforces an emotional experience for a player is a given. Scores and soundtracks support and help develop plot lines and game themes, and have virtually since the beginning of console gaming. For the original Super Mario Bros., composer Koji Kondo wrote a handful of pieces using the Nintendo Entertainment System’s admittedly limited capabilities that nonetheless provided thematic texture and support for the vivid and distinct tones and situations that make up the variable progression of events and levels on our 2-D plumber-hero’s journey to save Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom from the nefarious Bowser. The iconic Overworld Theme (link) that backs the bright and colorful “outside” worlds is cheerful and encouraging. The Underworld Theme that accompanies the game’s darker, foreboding dungeon levels is proportionately bass-heavy and ominous. And the funny thing about it is, even people who have been playing this game and others like it since their release in the 1980’s probably have never spared  a though for the music that has backed their many adventures over the years. I certainly haven’t. As I’ve said, it is alleged that game music has been written specifically to support focus and avoid distraction. So in a way, for the player to focus on it would be a failure for the composer. We must have forgotten about the endlessly repeating and technologically-limited scores of our favorite 8-bit games or they would have driven us (and our parents) crazy. However, that they supported game themes and emotional texture, that they were meant to at least, is simple fact. Music has for 30 years now been a vital layer of expression in the video game medium. Imagine playing SMB, if you can. Now imagine it without music. It’s weird, right? Something is missing. Without us even noticing it, game music has been shaping the resonant emotional experience we’ve been having with games for decades. As I say this, I know I’ve talked about acknowledging how much game music has effected me, but this was done reflectively. While I was consuming the product, having the experience, making the memory, I was unaware of just how great and impact these sounds would have. When I hear the score for The Legend of Zelda as an adult, I go looking for a horse to jump on, ready to be my best self and so good in the world, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. Looking back, I felt that way when I heard the music while playing the game too, but I never thought about it applying to my real life. I guess it’s like a form of psychological conditioning, that hearing what to me is a call to adventure in a digital world has made me experience that stimulus as a call to adventure when I hear it in the real world.

Game music can direct gameplay and signify events, like when a dragon shows up in Skyrim or the clock is running down in Super Mario Bros., but the vast majority of the time game music is has a more indirect effect in that it effects the game’s tone or mood. The eerie, bluesy guitar-riff ambience of the score from The Last of Us evokes a world and characters that are familiar and relatable but at the same time frightening and unstable. By contrast, to beat a dead horse (sorry Epona), the score from The Legend of Zelda, with blaring horns and marshal tempo tell the player that they’re in for a grand adventure, and nothing over the horizon is too daunting to be overcome by courage and resourcefulness. I may be embellishing subjectively, but I believe the point stands up anyway.

How do you explain why music makes you feel what you feel? Why bother to try? It’s an arational emotional reaction to a subjective art. It always is. But for games it’s more than that. It ties back to an emotional experience, a moment of high tension and adrenaline and investment- to Kairi reaching across the growing void, telling you she knows that even across the endless disparate worlds, you’ll come back for her. To bursting out of Kokiri Forest and running free over Hyrule Field for the first time. Or if you like, to extend the example to film, to a young Luke Skywalker watching the binary suns set over the dunes, a long journey ahead. The music plays on you anyway, if you have an ear for orchestral music (not classical, right? That’s only Bach and Chopin, or something, if you’re fancy?), because that’s what it does. For game, the added layer of attachment comes from the suspension of disbelief that we didn’t actually participate in the moment. We remember the music as if from lived moments. As if we heard the music firsthand when we first laid eyes on Princess Zelda across the garden, when we ourselves drew our weapon to defeat Sephiroth. We forget we were in the TV room, the den, the rec room, the basement, and remember only the narrative moment, the white-knuckle grip, and the sweat creeping around our fingers. Or we remember happy times, with gathered friends, struggling to get through Quick Man’s stage in Mega Man II without getting blasted by those laser things. Taking turns, playing to our strengths by giving the controller to whoever was best at overcoming each obstacles. Endlessly repeating, the music ran behind all of that, adding texture and emotional attachment to our memory.

As I see it, music serves two functions in games. The first is directive. It signifies. It gives the player information, indicates a secret or prompts the player to take action. An example of this is the rewarding set of notes from the Zelda franchise that indicate you’ve discovered a secret. Other examples include the progression of notes from SMB right before the music speeds up that indicate to the player that 100 seconds are left on the clock, or the music the player hears in Skyrim when a dragon is looming near. All three of these examples tell the player something specific, and prompt them to act in gameplay: You’ve discovered a secret and you should investigate, time is running out and you have to cross the finish line, a powerful enemy is nearby and you need to prepare for an epic battle or run for your life. This third situation is actually an example of both the first function of music in games as well as the second, which is providing texture to the world and adding to the coherence and depth of the narrative and gameplay experience. In Skyrim, a dragon may appear at any time. A player might be guiding her avatar across the rugged terrain of the titular province hunting for rare mushrooms, approaching a new city, in the middle of an important mission, or already fighting any number of other creatures or people when the music shifts, indicating that a dragon is in the vicinity. It could be airborne, or on the far side of that hill in the distance, or attacking the city guard tower that you just left behind you. The instinct for the player is to stop and look around, and see where the threat is in relation to their avatar. In that way, the dragon music accomplishes the first objective of music- to direct. It tells the player something is happening and directs their action after. But it also provides the second purpose. The exciting score provides an epic sonic backdrop for a battle that is best described as mythical. The dragons in Skyrim are big- many times more massive than even the bulkiest orc a player can select as an avatar. Imagine like, if a train car grew wings and a tail and started breathing fire, and that would be not a bad comparison in terms of dimensions. As such, they are one of the more formidable types of opponent a player can come across. A battle with a dragon (which in the game are long-gone legends returned to life, visiting terror on the population on a grand scale) is meant to be a thrilling challenge, one that they player is by no means guaranteed to survive, especially early in the game. This music, then, that signals the arrival of the dragon also helps to set a tonal stage for the gameplay action to come. Depending on how far the player has gone along game’s main quest, it has been suggested that your avatar is the hero of prophecy, the only one who can end the dragon threat by absorbing the power of their very souls. The encounters extend this dramatic premise, and the score that accompanies them helps to support that feeling of uniqueness and excitement, of destiny and necessity, of duty and grandeur. This is a perfect example of the second function of music in games. The narrative moment that the developers are working to convey via visual design and gameplay is also carried in part by that moment’s soundtrack. In some cases this is easily done, like by licensing the original film score for use in a Star Wars game. It’s much easier to draw a fan into an exciting moment in gameplay when the music used is from an exciting moment in another well-loved piece of media that already exists. Who hasn’t wanted to be Luke Skywalker? When developers incorporate pieces of the film score into gameplay, they’re playing to the fan’s desire to live some of the exciting scenes from the film franchise. For us, living that moment absolutely means being backed by all of the horns and strings of that triumphant score, and when a game can deliver that, it can achieve a high degree of immersion and fan satisfaction.

8. Wherein the Writer Gets Fictionalized

As per Andre’s recommendation I dug into Walter Ong a bit recently, specifically “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” and I found a lot of the ideas he expresses there really apply to games. Most immediately- what other form of expression fictionalizes its audience, or forces them into a role, more than video games? None. Not opera, not poetry, not graffiti. Maybe performance art, but that varies and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually follow you home. A game (to some degree, usually) forces its audience into a role that the player then stays with for hours, days, sometimes months or longer. The player returns again and again to a table set for someone other than themselves— sometimes someone similar to themselves to some degree but always other— and the only way they can eat is to assume another (sometimes obscured) identity. And that’s supposed to be part of the fun. A big part in fact. Some games do this in different ways and a lot of styles of games do this to different degrees. It’s often but not always games designed to be more digestible to children and families that do the most to cast the player (please read: audience, reader) in a prescribed role. When the intro cinematic opens up on almost any Mario game lately, the player is greeted with a brief tale of what darkness has most recently rolled across the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, and what nefarious deed the villain (usually but not ALWAYS Bowser) has committed that drives the heroes to struggle against him (I think it’s always a him) across dozens of levels and finally banish him from the land or whatever. Another recent Nintendo game called Hyrule Warriors collects a bunch of characters from the Legend of Zelda franchise and sticks them into a story along the same lines as the outline I just… outlined. This game adds the really pleasant voice of a lady narrator who updates the player on what’s happening in the story between playable missions, and I think that’s key as we (read: I) talk about fictionalizing the audience. This lady, whose voice I have to say is really well suited to telling stories, not only tells the player what events have come to pass since the last battle, but also how the characters feel. One of them must put her mission on hold, even though it is desperately important, because she has come upon a village beset by monsters. Another, we are told, is worried about her charge, the princess who has gone missing, and is crossing time and space to find her. And then, when the narration ends and the next mission begins, the player picks up control of those very characters. In this way, the game, or its way of communicating its story to the player, has cast the player in the role of the self sacrificing hero who cannot ignore a plea for help, or the devoted companion who will stop at nothing to rescue her friend. These stances are not negotiable. There is no option to not free the village or rescue the princess. These are gameplay mechanics that are a slightly different topic but also serve to irrevocably cast the player into a role through which she will digest whatever narrative or experience the game has to offer. Hyrule Warriors, from which these examples are taken, was released for the WiiU, successor to the Wii, both of which have long been held to be the family-friendly option in the gaming console market. It is worth repeating that these types of games are generally considered to be more child-friendly, which could be a function of their direct audience-role-casting narrative. These games offer sweeping tableaus and detailed maps and intricate mythologies and backstories that are made available to the player from the outset. These elements serve to further flesh out the game world and serve the function of immersing the player more deeply in that world, thereby deepening her commitment to the role she’s asked to play.


The above art for Hyrule Warriors reinforces the storybook paradigm of brave heroes and enchanted weapons that can only be wielded by the pure of heart.

Many other games offer almost none of this, but cast the player in a role nonetheless. Many games begin in the middle of an action sequence or an empty room, with little or no explanation of who the player is supposed to be or why they’re there. Over the course of the game, the player may  or may not learn more about the world or the avatar he is inhabiting, but that doesn’t eliminate the need to take on a role other than oneself. The situation of the game, whatever is happening to the player’s avatar or in the game world, is what creates the fictional role of audience, not necessarily directive narrative control. Even in an empty room with no clues the player takes on a role, if for no other reason than because the player is lounging comfortably somewhere in her home surrounded by her things, and not in fact in some desolate chamber. More than that, a game almost never (really never, but I say almost just in case) allows a player to explore the full range of option in game as he or she might in a real life scenario. For example, if I suddenly found myself locked in a blank room devoid of context and with no memory of how I arrived there, I probably wouldn’t calmly walk into each corner of the room at an even pace and search for items. And the kind of thing I would do isn’t necessarily going to be provided for by the designers coding the game. There might not be an option to “hit X to quietly freak out” or “rotate L3 to use a stern voice to trick somebody nearby into coming in here.” This is what really does the role-casting: when a player is forced, through choice, to behave like someone other than themselves in the interest of experiencing the game. And it’s something I’ve never heard anyone talk about before, and it happens in literally every game all the time, no matter what. You think sports games are exempt because they don’t tell stories? Who are you that you are controlling who is and isn’t on this team, and who plays when, and what they do? You’re either some kind of manager or coach, or the god of soccer, or SOMETHING, but the point is you’re not you. Same goes for strategy games, simulators of any kind, tower defense, even mobile phone puzzle games.

The premise that Ong is talking about in different ways throughout applies wholesale to games, as far as I know without exception. So is this something that game designers are aware of? Certainly great amounts of time and resources are (probably) dedicated to character development, and a large part of that work is usually in the player’s avatar. Some games let the player choose most of the characteristics of their avatar, and in those cases the role of the player is still strongly suggested if not dictated, but it is done environmentally or through interactions with other characters rather than learning about the player’s character. Even games like Skyrim, one of the features of which is a big world full of relative freedom of choice (including the choice to create and develop your own character) the player must assume the role of somebody cast into this wild world and forced to choose to take sides in a revolution or ignore that it’s even happening and collect flowers and animal hides instead (which is not a joke, you could actually play Skyrim like that if you wanted). It’s the same principle as the empty room with no clues. You’re now a person thrust intellectually into a situation in which you are not physically taking part and which is at least somewhat at odds with the details of your actually reality. You are not really fighting a dragon. You are not really commanding a Roman legion. You are not really piloting a 787. You’re hanging out at home, or at a friend’s place, or on the subway with a handheld console or your phone, or it would be cool if you were at one of those bars with arcade games in them. So whatever the circumstances, the game you’re playing is asking you to pretend that they’re something else, even if that game lets YOU tell IT who that someone else is going to be. But such a game still tells you a number of things, and thereby kind of subtly funnels its player into a sort of role.


A character traverses the vast and arresting wilderness of Skyrim on an unknown errand or for no reason at all.

To continue using Skyrim as an example, when the game informs you of the civil war between  occupying (but legally reigning) Imperials and the (racist and also maybe murderous) rebel Stormcloaks, it sets the player up to make one of a few choices, not just about what to do in the game, but who he is going to be in the game world. In the game’s very first scene the player has been captured and faces execution by the Imperials, who are executing known Stormcloaks and other undesirables. Your avatar’s impending execution is fortuitously interrupted, to the disbelief of everyone, by a dragon attacking the town, bringing chaos and fire and devastation. This scene sets up the two major narrative conflicts in the game. In the province of Skyrim there is a civil war on, and an ancient prophesy is coming to pass about the return of in indomitable race of dragons and the advent of the (you guessed it) one hero who was born to defeat them. SO, what we have here, immediately,  is a set of choices. In the first place, the Imperials tried to kill you, so you must decide whether to take revenge on them or not. If you do, it’s an easy choice to join the Stormcloaks faction and tear down the whole wretched establishment in retribution for their wrongdoing. On the other hand, once you escape, you could decide that the Stormcloaks aren’t such a legitimate organization after all, and you forgive the Imperials well enough that you’ll join them and crush this silly uprising and restore law and order to the region, which sorely needs it. HOWEVER, the dragon attack from the beginning of the game occurred right in the middle of this partisan squabbling, which strongly suggests that at least from the developers’ point of view, the threat posed by the dragons should supersede any squalid politic dealings between humans. The player is free to agree, and (spoilers) pursue her destiny to be the one to rid the land of dragons forever. The player could even do this while working with one of the factions. OR, the player could decide he’s not interested in the civil war, nor is he interested in singlehandedly taking on the ancient scourge of the dragons, and that he’d rather just, F off, and make potions or something. Why is the relevant? Because. Yes, the game asks you to choose how strong your character’s sword arm is, and how good he or she or it is at public speaking. But from the very outset it also asks you to choose what kind of person you want to be in this world. Are you a vengeful killing machine, a solemn keeper of laws, a legendary hero? Or are you uninterested in grandeur of any kind, and prefer quieter pursuits like magic, or murder, or getting married? Because of the nature of the game i.e. slaying dragons and casting spells in a world with almost no irreversible consequences, these questions aren’t really about who the player is as a person as much as they are who they player would like to play as in the game world. THUS with a subtle hand does this game and others like it necessitate the acceptance of a fictionalized self on the part of the player as a prerequisite to participating in the game.

The earlier question was, “to what extent are game designers aware of this?” I think they must be acutely aware of it, although they might or might not be familiar with Walter Ong. An essay in Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives talks about one iteration of the incredibly popular Call of Duty franchise wherein the player is asked, as part of a mission during which her avatar is under cover, to essentially participate in a terrorist attack (I’m gonna put a link in here but I have to find the one I want). The game offers an out, warning of disturbing material and allowing the player to skip the level if she chooses, which only underscores how deliberately the designers chose to put the player in a position that they knew would be uncomfortable if not fully reprehensible. This decision to force the player to bear witness, as a participant rather than a rescuing hero, to a scene bereft of glory or honor has had and will likely continue to have its merits and shortcomings debated for some time, and that’s not what I’m talking about here so I’m going to skip it. For now. What I mean to point out is the level of attention paid to the exact topic I’ve been scrawling about all this time: the role that the game imposes on the player. The move by this team to manipulate the player this way, so overtly, was controversial of course, but that was at least in part, in my estimation, due to the fact that this was an experiment. And a bold one at that, though perhaps misguided and maybe inhuman. Like psychopathic? Or bereft of empathy, I don’t know. But it was an experiment. Messing with the player’s role, drawing attention to it like that and switching it up, that isn’t something that happens often. Sure players can be made to use different avatars, but the player’s role remains the same. This was different, and I think part of the reason for the high energy of the backlash was that this was such a new attempt, and I believe it indicates kind of an unsophisticated understanding of this phenomenon. Not really on the part of the audience and the bloggers and the parents and congress and all that, but more on the part of the design team who waded into these waters. Though they may have bungled it a bit, they came across something pretty new, and shed light on an element of gaming that is pretty ubiquitous but I think inelegantly understood. So I think maybe that’s my point, the one I’ve been looking for for a couple thousand words now, that the fictionalization of the audience(reader/player) is something that is accepted in gaming completely, but it is only barely understood on a surface level. It’s understanding, and certainly its execution and employment, lack nuance, and perhaps this is one great untapped component of gaming that could revolutionize gameplay if it could be better understood and incorporated into the experience.