Ah, the Music and Gaming Festival: Where hoards of nerds descend upon the national’s capital, along the picturesque shores of National Harbor. In the relief of exiting off the highway, one is greeted by the waters of the harbor and the glittering Ferris wheel that’s never open during the winter, anyway, but we like seeing it because it’s shiny. And best of all? The Gaylord Convention Center, where volunteers and panelists and performers eagerly await our arrival.
What other annual event would a gaming orchestra anticipate than one focused solely on music and gaming?
It was a balmy 8 degrees as we walked to the convention center without a jacket, because who wants to carry a jacket around all day? Once you obtain your weekend badge, though, you’re not bothered by silly little things like hypothermia. The schedule of events is intimidating: you huddle together with your con-going friends, checking off every panel and concert that looks cool, knowing there’s not enough time in the weekend to attend them all. (It’s the thought that counts.) But there are some panels you absolutely cannot miss, like the ones where MGSO founder Alyssa is one of the panelists. (Right? This is a priority for everyone, right?)
And these panels did not disappoint. Friday morning began bright and early(ish… at 10am) with “Being a Game Audio Designer,” and we were up again on Saturday to learn how to start a gamer orchestra. There are so many gamer music groups. Greetings to our friends in Seattle and upstate New York! I spent some time later chatting with a member of the Washington Metropolitan GSO, plotting ways for all our groups to get together somehow. Battle of the GSOs? MASSIVE JOINT PERFORMANCE? Look out, MAGFest 2019.
(Our good friends WMGSO)
And the concerts. One could easily spend the entire convention in the concert hall, watching back-to-back performers, for three days straight. Not only the WMGSO (who rocked the stage, in my humble opinion), but we also checked out the Triforce Quartet, the Videri String Quartet (a personal favorite from last year), and the Super Guitar Brothers, a list that I’m now noticing reveals my classical music bias. But if you want more, there’s more. Rock bands! Chiptune! So much chiptune. There’s an entire corner of the con center for chiptune. Mmm, chiptune…
While MGSO wasn’t on the “official” schedule of events, we still found time to jam. MAGFest encourages artists to randomly play in the hallways, and we claimed a tidy corner to show off. Kirby’s Gourmet Race was a local favorite, along with Korobeiniki (which might just be my favorite). And no MGSO performance is complete without a little Final Fantasy and Zelda action. If you saw us perform, hello again! I hope you enjoy this awkward photo of the back of your head.
Short version: Please attend MAGFest. It’s fun, it’s nerdy, and I didn’t even talk about half of what’s there. (Computer museum! Arcade! Jam clinic!) If you’re whining about attending a convention in the middle of the winter, remember: D.C. is a whole lot worse in the summer. Also, all those other conventions don’t have music and gaming and more gamer orchestras than you ever knew existed. No, really. There are so many of us.
The Legend of Zelda series is home to some of the most iconic music in gaming. The franchise even debuted its own orchestral concert tour, Symphony of the Goddesses, back in 2012, just a few months after the release of Skyward Sword. No matter how each entry chooses to portray its world and characters, music is a reoccurring theme that holds many Zelda games together. This includes the use of playable instruments, such as the ocarina, wind waker, harp, and even wolf howling from Twilight Princess (ok, so that one was a bit eccentric). The series has often given players the role of performing specific songs to uncover secrets, satisfy an NPC’s musical needs, or even change the weather or time of day. Link has become quite the musician over the years, but his talents seem to have been lost in translation in his latest adventure, Breath of the Wild.
Unlike past Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild uses an ambient soundtrack composed of minimalistic tracks, often with soft piano or strings. Songs rarely build up to full-blown orchestral pieces, unless necessary for a dramatic cutscene or boss encounter. Likewise, there are no instruments for Link to play, and musical leitmotifs aren’t as common either. Admittedly, it can be a bit jarring to see such a lack of catchy, recognizable songs in the overworld of Breath of the Wild. However, there is an intentional choice to keep the music minimalistic in the game’s world, and it shows a connection to previous titles.
Let’s take a step back to some of the past 3D Zelda games. During the daytime, the overworld always has the same piece of music playing; whether you are exploring Termina Field in Majora’s Mask, or the Great Sea in Wind Waker, there is always a stand-out track accompanying you. When nighttime arrives, the music cuts out in favor of some quiet time (minus Link’s occasional grunts and “hiya’s!”). The use of silence enhances the tone of the night, signaling a sense of urgency for the unknown, especially when enemies are approaching. Wind Waker uses silence when exploring many of its random islands, while Ocarina of Time uses ambience for most of its dungeons. Even Ganon’s castle lacks music for its entire first section, and instead uses an ominous, eerie drone.
So if other titles have used similar musical elements before, what makes Breath of the Wild so divisive? Well, it may come down to expectations, and what some fans hoped to see from a new Zelda game. Putting music aside, remember the negative reception from Skyward Sword’s excessive motion controls and linearity? Or how about when people mocked the cel-shaded visuals from Wind Waker? It’s not out of the ordinary for fans to look at past Zelda games and expect certain aspects they loved make a comeback.
When compared to other Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild is more unconventional in its approach to world building, story telling, and, perhaps most notably, exploration. It shows the player as much as he or she chooses to see; the main quests can even be skipped altogether in favor of rushing to the final battle. There are only four main dungeons and no additional items to uncover after the prologue, which is a drastic difference from what fans are used to. Breath of the Wild is less concerned with guiding the player on an adventure, and instead gives them the ability to create their own journey. Sure, there is a story to tell, but it’s essentially optional.
The emotional value of music tends to be different for each listener, but it’s common for Zelda soundtracks to work toward evoking specific emotions. For example, it’s clear that the “Song of Healing” from Majora’s Mask is meant to be somber; this is notable from its minor chords and general slow tempo. Conversely, the shop theme from Ocarina of Time is a jolly tune that can easily make the player want to dance. In Breath of the Wild, ambient tracks don’t particularly have just one emotion to convey, because that isn’t really its goal. This is a game about nature (or “the wild”), and the ambient music builds a relationship between the player and the game’s environment. Just as the player has the option to explore the world at their own pace and limits, the music is often kept minimal, so as not to drive the player in one particular direction emotionally. Ambience is a universal musical style that helps build atmosphere, which can be interpreted in different ways.
That’s not to say Breath of the Wild can’t have clear emotions to portray in its soundtrack. One of the game’s most memorable songs plays when the player encounters a Guardian; a large, spider-like machine with devastating laser attacks. The result is a tense melody that fills the player with panic and dread. This element has appeared in all previous 3D Zelda games, where a suspenseful piece of music will play when an enemy is nearby. In this case, not much has changed, and if anything Breath of the Wild is even more dramatic with its enemy and boss encounters. Some of the enemies can defeat Link in just one quick attack! Still, it’s far more common for the game to keep its music simple and in the background, rather than a fanfare of upbeat instrumentation.
Nintendo has effectively shattered fan’s expectations for what a new, open-world Zelda game can be. Breath of the Wild doesn’t follow most of the series’ past conventions, and isn’t afraid to embrace new ideas. Yet at its core it holds a significant part of what makes the Zelda franchise so cherished. It creates a world where the player is free to explore and genuinely feel like an adventurer. This time, the music adds even more depth to the world, subtly permeating each region’s locale with mellow piano keys and windy breezes. Breath of the Wild may not have as many iconic, or even hummable music, but its soundtrack still builds one of the strongest immersive experiences in gaming today.
When did you decide you wanted to start conducting music? What was your original inspiration?
“I actually wanted to be a drum major in high school senior year, but my family moved away from my old band so I couldn’t do it. I took a conducting class in college, but I was very shy and had some confidence issues. It was tough to stand in front of the class. Later on, UMDGSO (University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra) was playing my Kid Icarus piece and asked me to conduct a run-through, but I chickened out and couldn’t do it. I still think about that to this day, but over time, I’ve gotten over my fears and just said: ‘There’s nothing I can’t do! Screw it! I’m gonna do it!’ So I forced myself to start conducting and get over my fears.”
Why did you decide to focus specifically on game music? Was it mostly because gaming was a personal hobby?
“I love video games and game music. It has some of my favorite music in the world. I was inspired by University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra, so I wanted to bring that to New Jersey. I also saw a strong bond that people had over games and game music, which I’ve seen happen now with MGSO.”
How was the process of starting up MGSO?
“It was very difficult at first. I was one person with an idea, but it was a matter of getting people together to play so I could realize this idea. I started with friends I knew from MSU and got a few of them on board. In the beginning, I had around ten to fifteen people interested in performing with the group, but no place to rehearse! That was the toughest part. When I met Chris Erickson, that’s when we were able to find a place to rehearse. Our first show was at Digital Press, where we did a small ensemble performance. We had to sneak into some of the music rooms at Montclair to try and practice, but thankfully the school was on summer break at the time!”
What are some common misconceptions that people have about conducting?
“Some people wonder if it’s necessary to even have a conductor. So I always have to explain that yes it is. The conductor is the bridge from the music to the musicians. Also, the conductor helps keep the whole group on the same page about how the music should be played, thus unifying the group and their artistic intentions.”
How long have you been arranging music for? Was it before you started conducting?
“Besides a few little things in college, I didn’t start until 2012 with arranging game music. I was learning about orchestration a lot more and started with my Kid Icarus arrangement, and kept going from there. This was well before I started conducting seriously.”
What is your favorite part when arranging music?
“I really love reimagining music in different ways, such as orchestrating chiptune music, or interpreting a piece presented in one genre as something completely different. It’s fun to think of new parts to add when you’re arranging, while making sure you don’t take away from what made the original so great.”
Do you have any advice for upcoming arrangers or composers?
“Learn a lot about orchestration. I got a great book on orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Start small and arrange with an instrument family you are familiar with so you can begin understanding the basics of arrangement and how to voice a melody, chords, bassline etc. Then, begin incorporating other instruments. Learn about their range, learn what’s idiomatic on each instrument, so you can figure out which melodies are best suited to which instruments. Then, as you learn more and more about each instrument family, try to incorporate all of them into a fully orchestrated arrangement.”
Are there any instruments you wish you could play?
“I have a lot of trouble with violin. I can work my way around the other instruments in the string family, such as the contrabass, but I can’t play the violin yet.”
What is your favorite video game? How about favorite game soundtrack(s)?
“My favorite game and soundtrack is Kid Icarus: Uprising. Some of my other favorite soundtracks include Phantasy Star Online, Sam and Max, Shovel Knight, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), Journey, Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Pokémon X & Y, Until Dawn, and more.”
What was the last game you played that had an impact on you?
“There are two. Smash 4 is a big one, since I started competing in it. I was having some trouble in my life, and Smash 4 really had an impact on me. I learned a lot about myself and how I could develop more confidence and a positive mentality. I’ve also met a lot of wonderful people through playing Smash. It’s really fun to see how good you can get at the game and compete with people.
The other game is definitely Kid Icarus: Uprising. The story was really touching and the characters were all so vibrant and well-developed. At that point in my life, I wasn’t too happy with myself and where things were going, but the game really made me excited and got me to study music again. The music in the game was so inspiring. It made me want to make music for games, because at the time I wasn’t doing anything like that. That’s why I started studying more, and decided to start seriously pursuing a career making music for games.”
If you could meet one video game composer, who would it be?
“I would love to meet Hip Tanaka. He made a lot of classic NES music. He is my favorite game composer. Also, Yuzo Koshiro’s music really inspired me. We follow each other on Twitter, and he has even complimented my music before, so it would be so awesome to get to meet him and maybe even work with him!”
Chrono Trigger has one of the finest soundtracks of any game I’ve played, so choosing just one track was a bit difficult. Since the game deals with time travel, I feel “Corridors of Time” perfectly showcases the sensation of traveling to another world. The song plays in the kingdom of Zeal, a city that floats above the clouds. It marks a big turning point in the game, and the story really starts to pick up during this section. The track itself stands out for its ascending notes, vocal sound fonts, and an overall “Zen-like” atmosphere.
“Gusty Garden Galaxy” – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
This may very well be the unofficial anthem of Nintendo during the Wii era. While the level itself is plenty of fun, the music is what really makes this part of the game stand out. Mario games didn’t traditionally embrace orchestral pieces before the release of Galaxy, especially to this degree. The use of strings, brass, and a triumphant percussion keeps the rhythm going, while Mario jumps his way around various grassy planetoids. Even a decade after the game’s release, I still think Galaxy has the best overall soundtrack from a Mario game, and this song is a true highlight.
“Dire Dire Docks” – Super Mario 64 (1996)
Traveling back over a decade before my previous entry, Super Mario 64 is generally known for a catchy, upbeat soundtrack. However, “Dire Dire Docks” perhaps embodies nostalgia in its purest form. While I didn’t grow up playing the game when it first released, I did play the DS version of the game back around 2005. Even coming from the smaller speakers of the DS, this song really stood out to me for setting a soothing tone to the game’s world. My favorite section is when the drums begin to kick in, completely changing the feel of the song. Considering how much everyone dreads water levels in video games, I think this track helped make Mario’s underwater adventure a bit less stressful.
“Ruins” – Kirby 64 (2000)
It’s hard to believe this track comes from a Kirby game. That’s not to say the games don’t have plenty of great soundtracks, but I can’t think of many songs in the series that sound this atmospheric. It plays only a few times in Kirby 64, generally during a desert or underwater level. I love the echo effect that the bell chimes have, along with the use of synthesized strings as the song builds up. It all adds up to an emotionally powerful tune; for a series that usually goes for a catchy “pop” style, it’s a welcomed surprise.
“Sona Mi Areru Ec Sancitu” – Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
Panzer Dragoon Saga is, quite possibly, one of the greatest video games of all time that, sadly, not many people have had the chance to play. It’s an incredibly rare title that released at a time when the Sega Saturn was starting to lose its relevancy. This track plays during the ending credits, bringing the game’s somewhat sorrowful ending a last bit of hope. The song uses the game’s fictional language, “panzerese,” which borrows characteristics from Latin. It combines tribal drumbeats, a strong brass section, and a fairly unique vocal style to really bring out the otherworldly feel that the game presents.
It’s a tough call to make, but I think if I had to choose one dream arrangement for MGSO to perform, this would probably be it.
“Dear to the Heart” – Final Fantasy 7 (1997)
Sure, this song is essentially just another arrangement of the main Final Fantasy 7 theme, but it’s still my favorite from the game. Final Fantasy 7 is also my favorite video game of all time, and this track serves to remind me of all the memories I’ve had with it. Though the song appears several times in the game, my favorite moment is when the main cast of characters is finally about to leave the city of Midgar and explore the rest of the world. That’s right, there’s still another thirty hours or so of story content after Midgar! The game’s story can be pretty tragic at times, but this song always lets the player know that there is still some beauty left in its world; you just have to chase Sephiroth for several hours before you find it.
“Multi-Man Melee 1” – Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001)
Huh? Super Smash Bros. Melee has twenty-nine playable stages? Who needs those other stages when you’ve got this awesome track playing on Battlefield! I’m not usually into competitive gaming, but Melee is an exception. Every time I sit down to practice, I need to play on Battlefield so I can hear this song. The synthesized guitar solo is permanently engraved in my mind as one of the coolest riffs in gaming. Set the stock count to 99, hold the L or R button when choosing the stage, and get ready for hours of intense button clicking.
“The Crystal Stars” – Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door (2004)
I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t played the Thousand-Year Door, but I will say that this track plays during a rather triumphant moment in the final boss fight. Having played the game when it first released in 2004, I’ve always had a soft spot for this song over the years. This track serves as a reminder that, though you’ve still got an incredibly daunting opponent left to fight, all the characters you befriended along the way have your back. It would be nice if they could do more than just cheer you on, but it’s the thought that counts!
“Lofty Castle” – Spyro the Dragon (1998)
The Spyro franchise may not be around today, but during the late 90’s it was one of the top 3D platforming series. Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the popular rock group, The Police, composed the soundtrack. Copeland utilized synthesizers, electric guitar, piano, and of course his remarkable drumming skills. “Lofty Castle,” in particular, sounds quite different from the other songs in the game. The level itself has a dreamlike atmosphere, with pink skies and flying pigs (which I used to think looked like turkeys for some reason). Unlike some of the other songs in the game, piano is the primary instrument on display here; it’s played in a fairly unique style, and I still haven’t been able to figure out how to replicate it properly.
“Undertale (Main Theme)” – Undertale (2015)
Before I played Undertale, I didn’t really have any expectations in advance; my only prior knowledge of the game was that it was a turn-based RPG where you didn’t have to kill any of the enemies. Oh, and apparently it was similar to EarthBound, a game I already had a ton of appreciation for. On my first playthrough, I opted for the “pacifist route,” where I wouldn’t have to hurt any enemies, or other characters in the game. It made the game’s tone a lot happier, and kept me motivated to continue befriending every character I met. It took only a few short hours, but I was beginning to reach what I believed to be the final section of the game (though I’d later find out that wasn’t quite the case). I had made my way to the home of the supposed main villain, Asgore, and anticipated an immediate battle.
As I approached the closest save point, a soft guitar began to play a familiar leitmotif from past sections of the game. It looped a few times, before a timid piano was added, and finally some strings and percussion. I had to take a moment to sit back and appreciate what I was hearing; it was such a simple melody, and yet it worked so perfectly within the context of the game. Undertale loves to go against the player’s expectations. It doesn’t just throw you into an epic final boss fight right away. Instead, it gives you time to let the results of your journey sink in. What kind of player were you? Did you fight every enemy you encountered, or only a few? Or, did you spare every enemy instead? I sure knew what kind of player I was…I was the one who started bawling when this song played.
In a few of these entries, I‘ve talked about nostalgia, and how certain tracks, even if you didn’t grow up hearing them, can still bring you back to earlier moments in your life. To me, that’s exactly what the main theme of Undertale manages to do. It may sound somber in its first few measures, but the final key change ends everything on a positive note. It assures you that, though your journey is coming to an end, there were plenty of memories made along the way.
The main theme from Undertale evokes a powerful essence of innocence and love that few songs have managed to match for me, video game soundtrack or otherwise.