Music and Lyrics

While there's plenty more to be said on the subject of archetypes, and I plan to post another little ditty on the subject, but until I'm done polishing the essay, here's this:

This time, I'd like to draw your attention to the following video:


For those of you who don't have 3 minutes, don't have sound, or are just too lazy to do any more clicking than absolutely necessary, it's a cut-scene from the re-release of LUNAR: Silver Star Story Complete. I'm not really here to comment on the quality of the scene, so I won't talk about the lip flap (terrible), the song (decent), or the direction (actually quite good). I'm here to comment on two things, the concept of vocal performance in games, and the host of comments on the YouTube video.

First of all, I'd like to point out, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that nothing like this song has been featured in a game before or since. Final Fantasy 8 contained the disastrous “Eyes on Me” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNefNLOHVYk for those who need a refresher), but even that was an actual event in the game. The characters heard on the radio a song sung by a plot important character. Xenogears, lots of Final Fantasies, even Portal all featured ending songs with words (some to greater effect than others), but the song from Lunar (Wind's Nocturne) is roughly akin to how characters would break into song in a musical. If the following events were happening in real life, there wouldn't actually be any music and nobody would be singing. However, since we can, we're going to use music and lyrics to help tell the story.

Again, abstracting the issue from any question of quality of the Lunar scene, this requires the question: “Why hasn't anyone else ever done this?” Three obvious reasons spring out:

1. It's expensive. You need to pay somebody to write more music, write lyrics, and voice actors who are also required to sing most likely command a larger salary, to say nothing of hiring someone else to be the singing voice of an existing actor, or hiring someone for a game that otherwise wouldn't have voice actors. (I should point out, about voice actors who are also required to sing, I have no actual experience with the relative salaries commanded by voice actors, this is just my intuition)

2. It's time consuming. In addition to the extra time demanded by writing the music and words involved, recording a song takes much more time than dialog of equivalent quality. Really though, it doesn't require so much more time that this doesn't reduce to just an issue of money.

3. Studios don't think there's an audience that cares.

So, money is the big issue here. Becoming increasingly tapped into the writing for games industry, these really sound like the complaints that people have about why writing in a lot of video games sucks. Many studios don't want to hire writers when they can just fob off the writing task on some designer. (Not to say that there aren't designers who are great writers) After all, paying some one to do two jobs is better than paying two people, right? It's the general consensus that many studios are reticent to bring in professional writers, because it's unclear how paying a writer will lead to more profits for the game. I expect nobody experiments with the power of music and lyrics because it's not really clear how it contributes to making a better selling game.

And therein is my second topic. The power of music and lyrics. If you'll take a quick check over the comments on the Lunar video, people love it. They talk about it like it's the best thing since sliced bread. I've already said, the song is pretty good, in the Disney musical style genre, the directorial eye is fairly good about framing interesting shots, but it's not nearly as good as the comments would suggest.

Why is the response so powerful? Part of it has to be that nobody else does it. When somebody does something new, the threshold for being impressed is drastically lowered. Second, and this seems deceptively simple, people love music. Luna (the woman singing the song) wasn't a particularly unique character, and didn't have a really well written character arc, but because she has this moment of pouring her heart out in song, she instantly endears herself to most players. I'm not gonna try to answer why music allows us such quick access to emotion, but in a player that is concerned about story to begin with, less can truly be more. I'm willing to bet that players felt, after this song, a greater emotional connect to this character than could have been achieved with any dialog in three times the time.

(I also submit that the fact that there was only one song over the course of the game, and only one character who sang wasn't a sticking point, because the game set up from the very beginning that not only is Luna a signer, and commands some magical power with her singing voice, but she's also the only one really holds her deep thoughts inside, and takes quiet moments away from everyone else to reflect.)

Personally, I'd love to see someone try it again. Only a matter of time I expect.


Natalie said...

I'm sure studios have their marketing research, but is there any attempt to actually figure out where the interface between profit and art is? Or does marketing direction basically boil down to cruder concepts like, "We need an MMORPG" or "we need a game with tightly balanced multiplayer" or "we need a game that will get stuck in the national pop consciousness?"

I'd be interested to see some studies on what actually does make a game more profitable, particularly if they addressed the following two questions:

1) What makes a game more profitable within a given genre?

2) What makes a game of any genre more profitable given a particular mix of genres in the market?

William said...

Sadly enough, it seems to me that what's missing is actual cause/effect studies. There's plenty of analysis of market trends, but, on further thought, I'm not sure the problem is "this clearly increases profits" so much as "this gives us an immediate return on our investment". Sinking another hundred thousand dollars into your team to actually bone your CG models has an immediate, drastic effect: Your game looks light years better.

Paying a writer from the get-go, or hiring a creative director, and keeping them on the payroll and in the process for the entire dev cycle of the game costs more money, and gives you... thematic consistency? Good character arcs? Thematic consistency doesn't promo well...