Chapter 8: Characterization and Storytelling Using Themes

Advancements in technology have allowed games to possess increasingly extensive storylines and extremely developed characters. The design, characterization, and narratives in games has led many to argue that video games are one of the most important art forms of the digital age.[1] As a result of such detailed storylines and characters, game music has become more integral to the narrative process, just as it has in films. This chapter examines one such game, Final Fantasy IX (2000), and its use of character themes and thematic development as a means to aid characterization and narrative. Scored by Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy IX contains an extensive soundtrack, including over 150 tracks. A background discussion regarding how themes are developed in movies and operas begins this chapter, followed by how these techniques inform the use of such themes in video games. Several key themes in Final Fantasy IX are analyzed, with emphasis placed on the location in which they appear in the game and how the adaptation of these themes serves the storyline. Following this, we examine the variation and re-use of a singular theme in several tracks of a video game. This technique is compared to art music’s “cyclic form,” a type of thematic treatment involving the use of a singular theme in many movements of a multi-movement work. We will see how cyclic form functions within the game Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) through an examination of how the main theme is integrated into nearly all of the tracks in the soundtrack.

8.1 Brief Background

The term leitmotif has been defined as a “short, constantly recurring musical phrase” associated with a particular person, place, or idea.[2] The German word translates to “leading motive.” Generally, a leitmotif needs to be so distinct in rhythm, harmony, or melody that it can sustain transformation and remain distinguishable. The term is most often associated with Wagnerian opera, but Wagner was not the only composer to use it. “Leitmotif” is used almost interchangeably with “theme” presently, especially regarding film and video game music. However, it is essential to understand that what sets a leitmotif apart from the more general concept of theme is that a leitmotif retains its identifiability despite transformation. For the purposes of this text, we will define a leitmotif as a constantly recurring musical segment that is a associated with a particular person, place, or idea that retains its distinction through narrative transformations. However, when we refer to the more general thematic group of pieces that consist of music referring to a character or place, we will refer to that as a theme. The idea of leitmotif is almost taken for granted by our 21st century ears. During films, theatres, operas, musicals, and many other media, themes are present everywhere, and are an integral part of music’s role in such media. This was not always so; for example, in an 18th century opera (such as Mozart) music would have been used to depict the emotion and drama within each scene, but themes were not necessarily associated with singular characters or ideas to the extent that can be seen in entertainment today. In contrast, a theme such as the “Imperial March” in Star Wars is associated with a character (in this case Darth Vader), and the appearance of a theme can foreshadow a character’s appearance (the theme begins before we see the character, so we know he/she is coming), or even illustrate character growth (through minor changes in orchestration, mood, tempo, etc.). This concept is present in games as well, with both protagonists and antagonists having associated motives and themes that recur during moments in the game associated with these characters and their story arcs. Transforming such themes can be useful to create a sense of character progression, or to depict the emotional gravity of a situation a character is in. We will discuss this throughout the chapter, using the character and storyline development within the game Final Fantasy IX.

8.2 Final Fantasy IX (2000): Context

Final Fantasy IX was released for PlayStation in 2000 by Squaresoft, and represented the last instalment of the series for the original PlayStation. The game was released quietly, with substantially less hype than Final Fantasy VII and VIII (both were promoted for their then revolutionary graphics, length, and detailed story and gameplay). Final Fantasy IX represented a return to the medieval-style setting, including castles and dungeons, which a portion of the fan base had missed in the tech and futuristic-heavy Final Fantasy VII and VIII. The setting of the game is described on the Unofficial Final Fantasy Site:

“The epic tale of Final Fantasy IX takes place in the world of Gaia. Gaia is home to four great kingdoms: Lindblum, Alexandria, Burmecia and Cleyra. These kingdoms have, up until this point, always been at peace. Strange things are happening in Alexandria Castle however…there is talk of a strange man wandering the corridors, and the Queen herself seems to be uneasy. War is brewing. The beautiful Princess of Alexandria, Princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, suspects evil intentions of this new person wandering the castle. With Royal Pendant in hand, she devises a plan to escape the castle by hitching a ride on the theater ship that will perform on her birthday.”[3]

Unknown to Garnet, there were already plans in the works to kidnap the princess by the main character of the game, Zidane, Tribal, and members of his theatre group/band of thieves. Like many other main characters in RPGs, Zidane’s origins are mysterious and end up becoming an integral plot point, which will be discussed below. The Princess, Zidane, and several other characters join forces in the game, each with his/her own motivation for saving the planet and fighting the “strange man” described above, who is the primary antagonist, named Kuja.

8.3 Terra’s Theme

This section discusses a number of themes that come to be associated with Terra, a twin world that exists within Gaia, the world the characters live in. The characters are unaware of this world, although one of the main characters in Final Fantasy IX, Zidane, as well as the primary villain, Kuja, was actually created by the ruler of Terra as a crucial component to his plan to assimilate the two worlds.

8.3.1 “The Place I’ll Return to Someday”

“The Place I’ll Return to Someday” is heard during the title sequence, when the player first boots up the game. This interpretation of the theme is sparsely orchestrated, with two recorders performing the melody in counterpoint. It contains some characteristics of Renaissance or early Baroque music, written in a dance meter (although somewhat slow), and contains a simple formal structure, consisting of two contrasting sections (A and B). Normally, a dance would include the A section repeating at the end to form a ternary sectional form, but because this track is already looping, this type of repetition would be redundant. The contrapuntal writing of the recorders could also be interpreted as historically (Renaissance or Baroque) stylistic writing. The nature of this track, given its instrumentation, form, and genre, evokes a sense of nostalgia. This is further reinforced by the title, “The Place I’ll Return to Someday”, indicating that the place in question is possibly a memory or a place from the past. As we will see following our examination, Terra’s theme has strong association to Zidane. Therefore, the nostalgic affect of the track also highlights Zidane’s attitude that a “home is where the heart is” and a place where one can return to any time (referenced in the Final Fantasy IX Ultimania.)[4] Remembrance and belonging are recurring themes throughout the game, and this is especially explored through the use of musical themes. It is also notable that “The Place I’ll Return to Someday” occurs at the title screen, which as we learned from a previous chapter, results in this melody functioning as the primary theme of the game, setting the overall tone of the game and cementing its importance.

8.3.2 “Oeilvert”

“Oeilvert” serves as location music for the Oeilvert area and contains Terra’s theme. In this instance, the theme group is lacking the Renaissance dance reference that was present in the title theme, instead containing a plucked string accompaniment and some kind of drone instrument alongside a wind instrument that performs the melody. This track does not contain the contrapuntal elements as in the title track, and possesses heterophonic texture (a texture containing many textural variations of the same melodic line). As such, this track is much more evocative of ancient music, including instruments and playing styles associated with the Ancient Near East or Greece, such as heterophony and lyre (or other plucked string instrument) accompaniment. This historical style is representative of the location in which the theme occurs. Oeilvert is an ancient struction that contains Terran artifacts and history. Therefore, the historical references used in the music adequately depict the location. Additionally, this represents the use of foreshadowing, when the title of the main theme (“The Place I’ll Return to Someday”) is taken into consideration. “Oeilvert” contains Terra’s Theme, and much of the information we discover at Oeilvert is related to Terra. For Zidane, Terra is the place he comes from, a place that according to his beliefs discussed above, he may return someday. This also establishes the theme as one that may be associated with Terra, and we later discover that the Terra’s Theme melody is also within the Terra location music.

8.3.3 “Ipsen’s Castle”

The party must locate mirrors at Ipsen’s Castle in order to find passage to Terra. The castle, like Oeilvert, lies on the Forgotten Continent, and has architecture that is puzzling, including passageways that are sideways, upside down, and a maze-like interior. The Final Fantasy Ultimania describes Ipsen’s Castle as “one of the locations from Terra that ended up on Gaia 5000 years ago due to Garland’s failed attempt to merge the two planets into one.”[5] Ipsen’s castle also has an effect on weapons in which the weaker weapons are actually more powerful, and the strongest weapons become the weakest. The music reflects all of these strange elements of the castle, and expectedly contains Terra’s theme, which is performed on a recorder in the track. Once again, this location is related to Terra in some way, as it is a necessary step on the characters’ journey to the planet, and is an important part of Terran (and Gaian) history. Terra’s theme is transformed into a fragmented and compound melody that transitions later into a canon or round, which is a type of counterpoint that involves multiple instruments (or voices) performing the melody, each separated from the others by specific time intervals.[6] Choir sounds are present in the background as well, unlike in “The Place I’ll Return to Someday.” The fragmentation of the melody and more eclectic instrumentation reflect accurately the unusual setting of Ipsen’s Castle.

8.3.4 “Terra”

When the characters finally arrive on Terra, they are greeted with a location music containing instruments such as harps, oboe, bells, and strings. Embedded within this location music is Terra’s theme, performed on oboe and a type of synthesized bell, likely emulating a glockenspiel or other pitched percussion instrument. There is no reference to dance metre or historical music of any kind. The nostalgia and distance created by the historical references is removed, and instead the music evokes the present with a modern orchestral instrumental subset. Instruments such as strings, harps, and bells are often used in other media to represent celestial, or heavenly, elements; this also helps to give the track an otherworldly mood. We also discover during our visit in Terra that Zidane was created on Terra, which is perhaps why Terra’s theme is “The Place I’ll Return to Someday.”

8.3.5 “Bran Bal”

The track “Bran Bal” is also a location theme for a place on the planet Terra. This track does not contain Terra’s theme, but I am discussing it because the instrumental group used is the same as the one in “Terra”, which establishes this instrumental group as being related to the planet. The harp strums used in the Bran Bal theme are taken directly from the Terra location theme, but with a new melody in the background. This consistency of instrumentation and some of the musical qualities associates them with Terra. However, it also allows Terra’s theme to be solely associated with Terra as an idea, a memory, or an origin unknown to a character, rather than a realized location – when the characters arrive at the main city/town in Terra, Bran Bal, Terra’s theme is absent.

8.3.6 Summary

The melody that is discussed in this section, Terra’s theme, occurs first during the main theme, titled “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” and this title alludes to Zidane’s unknown heritage. Terra may be a place of origin for Zidane, but he does not remember it, and the historical characteristics of the title theme evoke a sense of nostalgia. The theme itself is also present at the title screen, but serves very little function elsewhere in the game, until the characters are actively proceeding towards Terra. At this point Terra’s theme is primarily used in location themes that contain information about Terra or are on the way to Terra. The melody undergoes several transformations, including orchestrational as well as structural, but it is clear upon listening that the melody is retained through these transformations, sustaining its status as leitmotif. In this way, the theme serves to foreshadow in its appearance at the title screen, and its re-appearance at Terra provides a musical analogue to Zidane’s discovery – the “finding” of something he “remembered.”

8.4 Melodies of Life Theme

“Melodies of Life” is a pop-ballad song that appears in Final Fantasy IX during the ending sequence of the game. This type of song is characteristic of JRPGs, appearing as early as the 16-bit area in Tales of Phantasia (Motoi Sakuraba), and being a feature of several other Final Fantasy games as well (“Eyes on Me” in Final Fantasy VIII was a major pop hit in Japan). Elements from “Eyes on Me” appeared throughout the game in modified forms to trace a couple of characters’ development’ as well as their love stories. Much like this use of the pop-ballad theme in Final Fantasy VIII, many components of “Melodies of Life” are used throughout Final Fantasy IX as character and location themes, all of which allude to Garnet’s heritage and a past she also cannot fully remember. Throughout this section, I refer to Theme Group A and Theme Group B from “Melodies of Life”, which correspond to the melodies of the verses and chorus respectively.

8.4.1 “Crossing These Hills”

“Crossing These Hills” plays whenever the characters are on the world map, which, using the terms of the previous chapter, would make the track an “overworld” theme. Many of the characteristics of the track are associated with overworld themes; the tempo is moderate and walking-paced, and the instrumentation is light, including plucked strings, a soft synth instrument, a wind instrument, and bowed strings. Theme group A from “Melodies of Life” is the primary melodic element in this track. However, the melody’s presence in this world map theme indicates to the player early on in the game that this melody is a key feature, especially regarding the quest of the game, since the melody plays during a period of adventure and of searching for the next place to go. This equally parallels Garnet’s searching and finding herself and coming of age.

8.4.2 “Garnet’s Theme”

Garnet’s theme, which also contains theme group A from the “Melodies of Life” theme, subtextually illuminates Garnet’s importance to the story, as well as the prominence of her physical and mental journey in the game. This theme starts with an activated woodwind backdrop and a string accompaniment, and a synthesized bell sound performs Theme group A. The melody is completely present in this theme, only changed from its presentation in “Crossing These Hills” in instrumentation and accompaniment. This creates a connection between the world map, and concept of “journey”, and Garnet, even if the player isn’t consciously aware of it.

8.4.3 “Eiko’s Theme”

The player character Eiko joins the party late in the game, but does play a key role in the story. Like Garnet/Dagger, Eiko is a descendent of the Summoner tribe. However, unlike Garnet, she has spent her life living in the deserted summoner village, Maidan Sari. Garnet lived far away from the village and did not know of her heritage, while Eiko is fully aware of it. Eiko’s theme is slow, lightly orchestrated, and mellow, including plucked string instruments, bowed string instruments, and woodwinds. Theme group A is apparent, but slightly modified and in the background, of “Eiko’s Theme”. Additionally, it is clear that the harmonies are derived from this melody. As this melody is also used as the primary melody in “Garnet’s Theme”, it indicates that the two are related somehow, and this eventually becomes known to the player. Eiko is also a descendent of the lost summoner tribe, and has skills similar to Garnet’s. Both actually have the same heritage, Garnet just does not fully remember.

8.4.4 “Song From Her Memory”

“Song From Her Memory” is a track that frequently plays while Dagger is experiencing a memory, and she describes this song as being something she remembers but she cannot remember from where. It begins with a slow harp intro, performing Theme group B. Following the harp intro, a solo singer vocalises the syllable “la”, also performing the melody from Theme group B. There is reverberation placed on the singer’s voice, creating the illusion of distance and memory. Garnet claims this song is part of her memory, and it is revealed later in the game that Garnet’s birth mother is the source of this musical memory. This memory also represents part of Garnet’s journey: the discovery of who she really is and where she is from.

8.4.5 “Melodies of Life”

This song combines both theme groups into one larger song with added lyrics. In this way, it is combining the character of the summoner, (Garnet/Dagger) with her memory. This song marks the only time the two melodies come together, representing a wholeness that has been achieved, as Dagger has discovered her past, and mysteries that the entire party were searching for have been solved. This song also is played during the conclusion of the game, further establishing its position as creating closure and connection. It should be noted that there exists a strong thematic thread connecting the “Place I’ll Return to Someday” and “Melodies of Life”, since both themes are associated with elements that remain in character’s memory and of the characters having a faint but incomplete recollection of someplace they have come from. It also highlights the ideas of origin and home, which are both important concepts throughout the game.

8.5 Kuja’s Theme

The characters spend the majority of the game fighting a mysterious villain named Kuja. Kuja’s theme group consists of a chromatic melody and continuously shifting harmonic background. The result is a haunting and delicate theme, which adequately portrays Kuja’s character: Kuja was created by Garland to assist in the blending of Gaia and Terra first, but was deemed flawed because he did not experience childhood, which hindered his development of a special, and required skill, called trance. Therefore, he was well aware that Zidane was created because he was insufficient, and this fact tortured him[7]

8.5.1 “Kuja’s theme”

“Kuja’s Theme” contains piano only, consisting of triplet arpeggiated figures accompanying the chromatic melody shown above. The chordal content of the theme is elusive, with progressions that are not logical from a functional harmony standpoint (while a study of the harmony is beyond the scope of this text, which is aimed at a more broad readership, suffice to say that the progressions are atypical). Both hands are in rhythmic unison as well, limiting the possibility of counterpoint and resulting in a singular, simple rhythmic design. The resulting sparse sound, coupled with the elusive harmonies, portrays the dark and delicate nature of Kuja, who is repeatedly referred to as “mystery man”, and described as being “that mysterious figure around the castle”.[8]

8.5.2 “Wicked Melody”

“Wicked Melody” frequently accompanies Kuja when he is walking on screen and talking to characters, or otherwise engaging in some kind of direct action. The melody introduces two features that become important fixtures in other iterations of Kuja’s theme: an organ introduction, and a background beat that has some syncopated features, and sounds a lot like clapping or stomping. Sustained strings play the chromatic melody of Kuja’s theme, and the harmonies are similar to those in “Kuja’s theme”, but performed as simultaneous chords rather than arpeggios.

8.5.3 “Desert Palace Theme”

“Desert Palace Theme” combines the clapping and stomping percussion from Wicked Melody with the piano from Kuja’s theme. The result is a type of polyrhythm: while both maintain the same rhythm throughout, the rhythms always seem to be slightly syncopated or off-beat. This track also includes the use of a character theme, although it is actually functioning as a location theme. We have discussed this before in this chapter (The same melody was used in “Garnet’s Theme” as in “Crossing These Hills”). In Kuja’s case, this correlation is an effective representation of ego; Kuja’s grandiose palace embodies his perception of himself (or his ideal self). Kuja’s ego also contributes to his animosity towards Zidane (both were created by Garland, but Zidane is considered an upgrade).[9] The music provides the adventuring party with the consistent reminder that they are on Kuja’s territory, and a fight with him is imminent. Containing a restrained melody, jarring rhythms, and a short loop, the qualities of this track are very characteristic of dungeon music, but with the added feature of also containing a character theme.

8.5.4 “The Dark Messenger”

“The Dark Messenger” is the battle music that occurs when the party finally fights Kuja at the end of the game. This music contains many stylistic characteristics of battle music, such as drums, rock rhythms, and rock instruments. The use of the organ in this track both references rock-inspired battle music, and Kuja’s main theme group. The organ melody at the beginning is actually a component of “Wicked Melody”. Kuja’s percussive theme is also present in this battle music, although this too dissolves quickly into a drum kit performing a rock rhythm. Many of the other instruments in this boss battle exist in Kuja’s thematic group, including the piano, the organ, and percussive instruments, and all undergo transformations in this track. This is reflective of the character’s state: Kuja enters “trance mode” in this battle, which is a special form Final Fantasy IX character can enter when they have endured significant emotional or physical damage.

8.5.5 “The Final Battle”

A typical conclusion to RPGs such as Final Fantasy IX involves the party defeating the game’s primary antagonist, only to reveal that there is actually a bigger, more powerful boss in charge of them. In Final Fantasy IX, the party defeats Kuja only to reveal Necron, a mysterious boss who claims to represent death itself, and desires to essentially destroy everything. The Necron battle theme itself is divided into four sections, which are preceded by an extensive intro, during which Necron taunts and heckles the party. During the fourth section, an organ plays the outline of Kuja’s theme, but in a major key. This theme is near the background of the orchestrational field, but clearly audible. The embedding of Kuja’s theme illustrates the fact that it was Kuja who influenced Necron to destroy. The change of the theme to major key is indicative of Necron being, rather than a dark, mysterious and troubled antagonist, an antagonist that exists to kill for the sake of killing.

8.6 Conclusion: Final Fantasy IX

This text has only examined a couple of the thematic groups used in Final Fantasy IX; there are many other character themes, location themes, and concept themes throughout that are just as effective at aiding characterization and story development. It is also important to consider how thematic groups are used to expose and illustrate key features of the game. “Terra’s Theme” and “Melodies of Life” both reference origin, or the sense of home, although in different ways. “Terra’s Theme” represents the concept of home as a feeling, which is what Zidane was made to believe in. The theme group referenced Zidane’s origin, and eventually, he discovered this previously unknown origin. The discovery made him question what and who he was, and it was his friends that reminded him that it didn’t matter where he came from. While the game displayed Garnet consistently recalling the song from her memory, the game never referenced Zidane attempting to recall anything from his past. “Melodies of Life” and its component themes were also associated with memory and origin, although primarily the origin of Garnet, both as a summoner and a child. Unlike Zidane, Garnet had more of a feeling of not belonging, and questioned her past throughout the game. The discovery of her origin as a summoner led her to find herself, which in turn made her confident. Both Zidane and Garnet had different approaches to how they felt about origin, but in the end they informed one another, and also made the discovery that one’s experiences in life and the friends they kept contributed to who they were as a person. This theme of origin is also important in the game for other characters such as Vivi, a manufactured Black Mage, who, although he was originally designed to simply be a soulless doll of destruction for the Queen, was aware and conscious. Vivi’s constant searching for his past and origin also remained constant in the game, and it was Vivi narrating at the end who thanked Kuja for assuring them that they were not “created for the wrong reasons”, and continued to narrate through each character’s concluding scene.[10] Additionally, it is the “Song From Her Memory”, which contains Theme B of the Melodies of Life them, that is played during the character conclusions at the end of the game, rather than each character’s personal theme.

8.7 Cyclic Themes

Cyclic form includes any type of multi-movement work in which many movements use the same theme in some form.[11] The technique has a complex history, having fallen into disuse in the Baroque and Classical eras, but steadily increasing in use during the nineteenth century.[12] Some of the earlier examples of cyclic form include the Renaissance Cyclic Mass, in which movements of the mass contain music based on the same cantus firmus, or chant melody.[13] This type of thematic use is present in video games as well, and Halo: Combat Evolved provides an excellent example, as components of the main theme are present in many tracks of the soundtrack. Unlike the use of themes in Final Fantasy IX, however, the use of thematic content in Halo is not used to provide character development or aid in storytelling, but to create a consistent musical backdrop for the setting of the game. The cyclic mass actually provides a good starting point for examining the use of cyclic themes in games, as these masses have very easily identifiable means of modification. We will briefly examine those techniques and how they are implemented in Renaissance music. Later in the chapter, we will see how this corresponds to the settings of the Halo theme. Additionally, Halo itself has religious undertones, and while it may not have been Martin O’Donnell’s intention to create music that uses techniques derived from Renaissance music, there is a stylistic similarity between Gregorian chant and the opening of the Halo theme. I describe two of the techniques that Martin O’Donnell uses in Halo below:

  • A Motto mass (or head motive mass), is a polyphonic mass in which the movements are linked primarily by sharing the same opening motive or phrase.[14] In the Halo theme, there is a rhythmic string/drum motive (which will be discussed later) that is used in a similar fashion throughout Halo, with the entry of the motive being the most recognizable.
  • A cantus-firmus mass is a polyphonic mass in which the same cantus firmus (existing melody) is used in each movement.[15] This technique is also used to great effect in the Halo soundtrack; the opening of the main theme contains a Gregorian chant-like melody that is present in many of the other tracks.

Following the Renaissance, cyclic form became less prominent, and Baroque and most Classical multi-movement works frequently made use of completely different themes in each movement. However, the technique saw revival during the Romantic era, and while several composers, including Mendelssohn and Schubert, used cyclic forms at some point, one of the most famous examples remains Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The work incorporates a theme, titled an idée fixe, in every single movement. The term was devised by Berlioz and refers to a melody that is used throughout a piece to represent a person, thing, or idea, transforming it to suit the mood and situation.[16] This sounds very similar to a leitmotif, however, an idée fixe involves a singular theme, that may exist almost to the point of obsession, rather than a collection of different motives that are recognizable. We will discuss later why this application becomes so relevant to AAA recent-gen titles.

8.8 Halo: Combat Evolved, Theme

To have a discussion about the use of themes in Halo: Combat Evolved, it is necessary to have an understanding of the components of the Halo theme. The two primary sections of the Halo theme are: 1) a Gregorian chant-like melody, which I will title section A, and 2) a rhythmic strings and drum theme, which I will title section B. The overall form of the Combat evolved theme, therefore, is ABA:

0:00-0:33: Section A
0:34-2:23: Section B
2:34-end: Section A

Brothers in Arms Section B Retains string drum rhythm, changed melodic and harmonic elements
Enough Dead Heroes Section A Strings/brass play A theme at beginning/end
Perilous Journey Section B Electronic sounds play ascending strings motive variation from section B
The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe Section B Same drums as in section B, and in some areas same drum rhythms
Devils… Monsters… Section B Strings contain ascending rhythmic motive variation from section B
Covenant Dance Section A, B Choral chant melody from section A, Drums from section B, electronic instrument playing variation of ascending rhythmic string motive (B)
Rock Anthem for Saving the World Section B Includes drums from section B, rhythmic strings, guitar plays melodies from section B
Drumrun Section B Drums from section B with processing
On a Pale Horse Section A Strings play a variation of melody from theme A
Suite Autumn Section A Melody from A at end and slowed, blended with the strings
Dust and Echoes Section A Melody from A throughout, against string/synth pad background

8.9 Conclusion: Halo Thematic Use

As is shown in the table above, Halo makes use of many different arrangements of each component of its theme during tracks that occur at various parts of the game. This type of thematic use is considerably different from that in Final Fantasy IX, as it is not used to tell a story or depict a character’s trajectory. Instead the theme is reworked in various ways to connect components of the game to a common setting or tone. This may largely be due to the genre of the game: First Person Shooter games often do contain a storyline, but it is less complex (and shorter in duration) than the storyline of an RPG, as the main component of an FPS will remain its gameplay. Gameplay is important in RPGs, but the story and narrative has always served a more crucial function than in many other game genres. Additionally, because of the genre, the sound and music function differently. Gameplay in Halo is conducive to adaptive music: the world is open, with fewer sharp transitions between areas, the sound effects are prominent, and there are no clear distinctions between areas that contain enemies and those that do not (areas are flexible and enemies can appear after they are eliminated). However, none of these concepts are unique to Halo, as they are features shared by many action games and shooter games, as we discussed in the previous chapter. The thematic coherence within the Halo soundtrack resulted in a musical backdrop that was successful not only as adaptive music, but also as a musical work.[17]

The reason that this is so important is that adaptive music in general, and especially the type of adaptive music that uses, for example, a technique like horizontal re-sequencing, can easily fall into the trap of being too amorphous or too ambiguous. While the leap in interactivity is ideal, a soundtrack runs the risk of losing its individuality because the music has to be constructed in such a way that it can be re-organized and re-constructed without sounding like pieces were put together incorrectly. Red Dead Redemption, for example, allowed for short audio stems to be played using generative algorithmic means, but in order for the sound team to make this possible, every single stem was in the key of A minor. Once again, we are presented with the task of creating a wide variety of interesting music with a limited amount of possibilities (in this case, limited by pitch/key). Martin O’Donnell’s approach to Halo represents a moderate approach, blending the through-composed methods used in Final Fantasy IX with the very liberally adaptive techniques used in Red Dead Redemption. This allows the Halo soundtrack to function effectively as adaptive, but also to have very distinct and recognizable themes.

8.10 Thematic Function in Post-HD Games

This section describes the use of themes in post-HD video games, a generation of games that includes more adaptive music, lower volumes of in-game music, and higher quality FMVs. Realism during gameplay is very much emphasized, which may partially be why the soundtrack music starts to play a quieter role – we don’t hear continuous background music as we explore our own environment, but we do hear sounds and respond accordingly. However, game themes and cinematic approaches to music in games are increasing. Title sequences are becoming more tightly crafted, and FMVs contain very clear and emotional use of themes. Therefore, music’s role in games is not diminishing; rather, it is changing. This section discusses the use of themes as derived from cinematic practices, as well as some of the approaches to themes that can be used in adaptive music. These examples will also illuminate why Martin O’Donnell’s approach in Halo is so important, and influential on this generation of games.

8.10.1 Cinematic Paradigms

One musical trend that we see in the most recent games, especially post-Dolby Digital, is the use of music in a similar fashion to that of film. Part of this is related to the general style of the music (game music tends to incorporate more orchestra, extensive title sequences and incidental music cues), but it also pertains to the placement of the music within the game. This is likely due to the increased realism in the game, especially regarding the sonic environment. During a film, music tends to be most present during periods of high emotional tension, and decreases in volume and presence when, for example, characters are talking onscreen. Video games now often use similar patterns in their use of music, removing or attenuating musical elements during dialogue and heavy sound effects, and increasing the amount of incidental cues that occur. This may be considered a natural result of the evolution of games, as sound effects become more analogous to real world sound effects or movie sound effects. The cinematic influence also results from the increasing popularity of video game music, video game music symphonies, and the industry of video game music. Like film scores, video game scores may now be composed for large orchestras, with a lot of development put into the music for the game. However, also like film scores, video game scores (at least for AAA titles) are becoming ever more relegated to the background during periods of activity.

8.10.2 Applications in Heavily Adaptive Soundtracks

With the increase in adaptive music, an important consideration becomes the use of thematic material that is recognizable while also retaining the capability for music to be fluid. This is a complicated concern. When examining the themes for Final Fantasy IX discussed previously, for example, it is clear that to stop playback of a specific theme and begin playback of another (due to a scene change) would not result in a smooth transition. Final Fantasy IX includes screen fades and clearly delineated areas, and the music provides an analogue to this. However, in recent-gen 3D games, this becomes a concern because the areas are open, without fade screens, and the music changes adaptively. This presents problems for the creation of the type of lengthy melodies in Final Fantasy IX, which have clear and obvious beginnings and ends. Additionally, techniques such as vertical re-orchestration and horizontal re-sequencing require composers and sound teams to write and produce materials that are capable of being combined in several different ways, both instrumentally and sequentially, without sounding haphazard or clashing. As discussed previously, this type of music does affect how composers approach the actual materials, and it also changes the effect that re-orchestration will have on the emotion of the music. If the music is continuously adapting, the minor changes that Uematsu used to such great effect in Final Fantasy IX, for example, will have substantially less gravity because they will occur all the time, and not necessarily with relation to narrative and characterization. This also may be why a cyclic approach is so favourable for soundtracks that are heavily immersive and contain significant degrees of adaptivity.

8.10.3 Destiny (2014) and the Halo Legacy

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s work on the Halo series paved the way for other soundtracks to become more immersive and adaptive, and the cyclic thematic use allowed for the creation of music that was unifying, but also very diverse. Cyclic use of themes does differ from leitmotif approaches, because unlike the use of leitmotif, it does NOT need to be easily recognizable and identifiable, and it is not associated (necessarily) with a specific person, place, or idea. The use of a common theme or themes throughout will give the music a subtle sense of unification that may or may not be obviously apparent to the player. Since we examined one of Martin O’Donnell’s pioneering works using this type of composition, the Halo soundtrack, earlier in the chapter, this section will conclude with an examination of his final contribution under employment by Bungie, the soundtrack to Destiny (2014). Destiny is also an FPS like Halo, although the gameplay is primarily online. It also involves some RPG elements, which add to the complexity of the gameplay. However, the primary gameplay mechanics are FPS and the environment is fully 3D and very immersive. Therefore, the game does have extreme realism, immersion, and very fast-paced action, just like Halo. The soundtrack has a rich background, and involved primarily a collaboration between Martin O’ Donnell and Paul McCartney, but several other composers also worked on the soundtrack, including Michael Salvatori and C. Paul Johnson. The soundtrack was recorded with a 102-person orchestra at Abbey Road studios, and along with 44 tracks that were released on the OST, Paul McCartney recorded and produced a track of his own.[18] The theme of Destiny, called “The Traveller”, is similar in structure to the Halo theme, opening with a melodic motive in the horns, and progressing through a more activated section including higher strings, voice, and pizzicato strings, and also through a fast section with low rhythmic strings, similar to the string/drum section in Halo. These different elements of the main theme are dispersed throughout the soundtrack, and expanded upon to create entire tracks – this technique was also used in the Halo soundtrack, as we have seen earlier. Therefore, the legacy of the sound and music in Halo continues to have an impact on current game music.

8.10.3 The Mass/Idée Fixe Connection

At the beginning of this chapter, we discussed both cantus firmus mass and idée fixe, and their use in cyclic forms. However, it may remain questionable why these are appropriate comparisons to draw, considering the use of cyclic form may also be present in film, a media which is far less (at least temporally) removed from video games. However, there are many parallels between these types of music and their place in history, and cyclic form in games, and its place in video game music history. The cantus firmus mass, for example, was used during a time (in the 15th century) when polyphonic textures in choral music had grown incredibly dense. In fact, in the early 16th century, polyphony was reportedly banned from use in the church because the saturation of the lines had made it nearly impossible to discern the actual words of the text (while the reported potential banning may be a rumour, Palestrina was aware of the need for discernible text in sacred music, and such discourse highlights the complexity of polyphonic music at the time).[19] Using a cantus firmus or motif as a basis for every movement, or nearly every movement, may have been an early attempt at unifying something that had become extremely complex. This same concept can be seen in the music of Berlioz and his idée fixe; orchestral music especially had expanded to extremes, including in musical duration and in the size of the orchestra. A typical Mozart symphony from the mid-18th century, for example, would have been approximately 25 minutes in length, with an orchestra of 30-60 players, while Berlioz’s Sypmohonie Fantastique, composed in 1830, was longer than an hour in duration, and contained closer to 100 players in the orchestra.[20] Once again, the sound had become complex and saturated. Each of these examples, discussed above, represents a heavy saturation point in its period in history. This is very similar to the trajectory taken in video games. The “size” of the orchestra has increased, from the 5-channel NES to the current systems that use full orchestra, a full sound effect palette, and surround sound. Therefore, AAA HD fast action games contain a very large aural load in comparison to, for example, Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy IX contained only written dialogue, minimal sound effects, and clearly delineated areas. Therefore, the player could focus more of their aural attention on the music only, allowing the type of melodically rich music that Uematsu excelled at, as well as the numerous themes (in Final Fantasy IX, there are 11 character themes alone). With the high sonic saturation level in games such as Halo or Destiny, it becomes very difficult to internalize and identify so many differing themes, which is perhaps why using a singular cyclic theme and its internal components can allow for a very unified sound. Therefore, this approach to music may become very important to future soundtracks of this game type, in order to create effective soundtracks that are also memorable.

8.11 Chapter Conclusion

Themes are an incredibly powerful tool in guiding the media consumer towards certain emotions, to recognize certain characters, places, or concepts, and also to allude to things subtextually. Themes have been used successfully in film, opera, TV shows, and other forms of media, but function equally as well in video games. They can also serve multiple functions, such as character development and storytelling, or maintaining a sense of unity within a game. Using a consistent theme throughout can improve the interactive capabilities of the sound as it can make techniques such as vertical re-orchestration and horizontal re-sequencing more feasible and flexible whilst retaining game or concept identity. Thematic use, whether as a leitmotif, which must remain discernible regardless of transformation, or as cyclic form, in which themes may not retain their overt identity, provides unity to game music. In both game examples we have examined above, we can deconstruct tracks and describe the occurrence of the theme as well as how it has been transformed, although the themes are more easily identified with superficial listening in Final Fantasy IX. Identifiable themes are becoming less and less prevalent in games, especially with the rise of adaptive music and the increase in sound effect volume. Music often exists in the background of scenes, and requirements are placed on sound teams to make music as interactive and/or as seamlessly adaptive as possible. Additionally, some games are moving towards music that is in some aspect generative music. At the same time, cinematic themes are becoming more prevalent in games. However, these more often occur during cut scenes and title screens or credits, and less often during active gameplay. This can be seen as a reflection of games becoming more realistic and immersive, and also more like cinema (background music does not play continuously). However, even in cinema, where music has always functioned as to be heard in the background, cues and short clips of music usually relate to theme groups, much like Final Fantasy IX. And with such a push towards nostalgia gaming and games in recent years, it is becoming apparent that players do appreciate memorable and identifiable themes.

[1] Tucker, Abigail. “The Art of Video Games,” Smithsonian, March 2012,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[2] Michael Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford, 1987, Leitmotif.

[3] Final Fantasy IX: Story,” Unofficial Final Fantasy Site,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[4] Studio BentStuff, Final Fantasy IX Ultimania. Square Enix, 2004, pp. 08-09.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Johnson, David. 2001. “Round”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

[7] Final Fantasy IX Ultimania.

[8] Final Fantasy IX, Squaresoft, 2000.

[9] Final Fantasy IX Ultimania.

[10] Final Fantasy IX, Squaresoft, 2000.

[11] Macdonald, Hugh. 2001. “Cyclic Form”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

[12] Randel, Don Michael. 2003. “Cyclic Form”. The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[13] Burkholder, J. Peter. 2001. “Borrowing, §5: Renaissance Mass Cycles”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadi and John Tyrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

[14]Burkholder, J. Peter, and Donald Jay Grout. A History of Western Music: Ninth International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Shephard, Tim, and Anne Leonard. The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture. Routledge, 2013, p. 181.

[18] McCaffrey, Ryan. “Bungie’s Destiny: A Land of Hopes and Dreams.” Imagine Games Network online, Feb 17, 2013,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[19] Jerome Roche, Palestrina (Oxford Studies of Composers, 7, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[20] Burkholder, J. Peter, and Donald Jay Grout. A History of Western Music: Ninth International Student Edition.