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Koji Kondo paints interactive musical landscape

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Koji Kondo's lecture delivered at the Game Developers Conference described the evolution over the years of the interactive component of his game music. Isolating examples from the original Super Mario Bros. to Zelda: Twilight Princess, the composer described ways interactive media provide an entirely different approach to communicating with the listener than what is possible with film or television.

To introduce the key speaker for the audio track of the Game Developers Conference, American game composer Tommy Tallarico started by informing the audience assembled in the packed lecture hall that since the conference's inception a decade ago, including Koji Kondo's participation at the event had been a top priority. It was not until this year, Tallarico said, that the opportunity for the composer to attend had presented itself. Therefore, it was a unique honor to be able to introduce Koji Kondo to the stage for his lecture "Painting an Interactive Musical Landscape."

Communicating to the majority of the audience through the use of audio headphones, Koji Kondo began by describing his holistic approach to game music production. The composer asked those game designers present in the audience whether they give their music composers notes as they work. Hearing that most appeared to take that strategy, Kondo said his own process favored a different approach. When you listen to a song in isolation, said the game composer, you might be in a position to judge it as an isolated piece, but not in terms of its relation to the entire soundtrack. Isolated tracks should be considered alone, but in the context of the interdependence of the various components of the entire score.

"After I finish a piece, I do not show it to the director right away," Kondo explained. He chooses instead to compose a block of songs that will appear in close proximity to one another in the finished product, so as to consider how they work together. "Not all songs should have equal emphasis," he explained. When composers deliver their songs one by one to the game's director, and are given feedback based on the individual pieces rather than the relationship between multiple tracks, concern for the delicate balance of the whole soundtrack tends to be lost. So when Kondo presents his work to a director, he can speak both to the way each piece sounds and how they fit together organically.

Not only is there a degree of musical interplay between songs found in the same game, Kondo said, but over the history of a game series a manner of dialog takes place as well. The Mario invincibility theme, for instance, has remained the same since the days of the 8-bit Mario titles, receiving various arrangements over time. When players hear this fast-paced music they know that for a limited time they are invulnerable to damage and can race by their opponents unscathed. The composer chose to remix the piece a bit differently when, in Super Mario 64, the plumber encounters a new ability that turns him into liquid metal. Immediately, the presence of the theme signals to players, based on their familiarity with past Mario titles, that their character has powered-up. The retension of the theme across various titles thereby serves both a practical purpose in the game itself and provides a sense of continuity between titles.

The remixed invincibility theme in Super Mario 64

To provide an illustration of how audio components are made to interact with one another within a game, Kondo presented a video clip from Super Mario 64, in which instrumentation changes with the location. Mario is shown running through a cavern, along the shore of a vast pool of water. A song plays, featuring an electric guitar. When Mario dives in the pool, strings are added to enhance the sensation of gliding through the water. As Mario exits the cavern, bass and drum are added to the composition, signaling along with the visual information that the player is entering a new location. Though one track plays throughout the entire clip, the change in instrumentation directed by the player's actions is one example of the interactive nature of game music, which is not possible in other forms of visual media.

Another exampe of music interactivity, Kondo said, can be experienced playing Super Mario World. When Mario hops on Yoshi the dinosaur, players will notice that percussion is added to the music instrumentation. The technique is used to signal to players that Mario has acquired new powers, such as the ability to have Yoshi swallow enemies. An entirely new song could have been introduced, Kondo noted, but such a choice would have interrupted game the flow. By simply accentuating the audio with added drum beats, the soundtrack manages to alert the player to the change in gameplay without disrupting the game's rhythm.

The addition of percussion instruments while riding Yoshi in Super Mario World

Another interactive musical element can be found in New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. The game designers felt it might add an interesting element to the gameplay if objects on the screen responded to musical cues. So, in certain stages, the player encounters goombas that hop in time with the music. Not only does the effect add a surprising comical element that fits in with the style of the series, it exemplifies the broader interactive possibilities for game music. This becomes clear when Mario must anticipate the movement of boxes that are leaping into the air in time with the music. Gameplay, visuals, and audio are all working together to form a unified experience for the player.

With the increasing technical capabilities of newer gaming systems, Kondo explained, some previously unthinkable possibilities for musical design have been made possible. In Mario Sunshine, for instance, when the player is required to chase the doppleganger Shadow Mario, the player is informed of the enemy character's location offscreen by the use of the Dolby Surround multichannel format. In a similar vein, when Link encounters the Skull Kid in Twilight Princess, the location of the enemy is signalled by trumpet sounds. In both cases, new instrumentation is added to or overtakes the theme music and originates in the direction of where the mysterious character is located off-screen, giving the player an audio clue of the proper direction in which to take chase.

The trumpet sound signals players to the location of Skull Kid in Twilight Princess

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the interactive landscape of game music is offered by the field music in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Kondo described how he composed twelve phrases for the field music that would change either randomly or based on the action taking place on the screen. He demonstrated the effect by showing two video clips in which the field music transitions through a different set of phrases. The sound, Kondo noted, reflects the intensity of the on-screen action. When Link encounters enemies, the music is designed to seamlessly integrate a more exciting sound selection, as opposed to when the player is alone without a threat in sight. Kondo described the effect as being more of a unified experience than in the case of many RPG's, where battle music repeatedly interrupts the overworld theme. The random play technique in Ocarina of Time allows the music to keep from getting tiresome, since no matter how many times the player enters the overhead map, the order of the music arrangements for the field music is always a surprise.

Kondo ended his session by saying that game music allows for incorporating interactive elements in a way that is impossible to duplicate in a television or movie experience. The interactive musical landscape of game design offers the following advantages, he said. Music that changes with each play-through can be designed to keep players from feeling bored by repetitious themes. Musical changes can add surprises, engaging the player in ways static media technically cannot. Then there is the ability to add musical elements as gameplay features, extending a more immersive experience to the player. The end of Koji Kondo's lecture was met by an enthusiastic round of applause from the occupants of the packed lecture hall, and the influential game music composer stood and took a bow before his appreciative foreign audience.

Tommy Tallarico, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Koji Kondo at the event

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Excellent article, thanks for sharing. Koji Kondo is the poo.
I've always thought that the percussive Yoshi addition in Super Mario World was subtle yet clever. It's good to get a look into Kondo's mind.

And how is it that Tommy Tallarico ends up everywhere?
Tommy Tallarico helped found the Game Audio Network Guild and organizes events for the GDC.
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