By Mento 6 Comments
I've always wondered what it is about VGM that rates it so highly in my estimations, to the extent that numerous music playing devices I have owned were invariably filled at least halfway with tunes from video game soundtracks. Yet a bunch of bleepy-bloopy instrumentals through the limited medium of a video game system's sound chip can't really compare to professional studio-recorded material by any metric one might use to critique a piece of music, at least in theory. This recent trend of chiptune music might beg to differ, but I think the appeal of all that comes from the same place.
This appeal, I've come to understand, is due to how evocative video game music can be. Not just of an emotional state - sadness, panic, exultation, etc. - but how they're able to nostalgically tap into buried memories of enjoying a game and experiencing its story and gameplay for the first time. A song might remind you of a particularly hard fight, or of a poignant story beat, or of an impressive vista - it all depends on how strong an impression the game and music both have left on your psyche. It's a rare case when both are so high quality that they stick with you, with one helping to recall the other in the mind's eye. Or mind's ear. Stupid expression.
So anyway, what I'm doing here is starting a new feature where I explore a game through the lens of its soundtrack, discussing each part of the story as it pertains to the track currently playing and how effectively said track establishes the scene or ably embellishes a game's quirks. I hope to prove that each tune tells its own story without saying a word.
Just to drop the essayist pretensions for a moment to state that I know absolutely nothing about music from an academic perspective. I'm more of a "don't know much about X, but I know what I like" type in this particular field. So this blog will focus more on the game itself than the actual music, because I won't have much else to say other than "this track is pretty damn pretty, damn", which I can't imagine is the most concise and illuminating commentary out there. It also probably goes without saying, then, that these features will be very heavy on spoilers for the games they pertain to.
(So it turns out SoundCloud isn't compatible with this site. Great. Everything is now YT links - click the titles - until I fix all this with an alternate music-playing service.)
(Oh wonderful, the YouTube videos that all of these were linked to got taken down. Just... . That's the whole playlist in SoundCloud. Until the site lets you embed the little SoundCloud whoosits, that'll have to suffice.)
Illusion of Gaia
Yasuhiro Kawasaki doesn't seem to have much renown outside of his composer work for Quintet's Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time in Europe or Gaia Gensouki in Japan). This is almost criminal, since Illusion of Gaia's soundtrack is top notch. Both it and its semi-sequel Terranigma opt for an enigmatic ambiance with many of their tracks, presumably to complement the games' bizarre philosophical approaches to the RPG story format and their relatively heady themes of rebirth, slavery, enlightenment and death. Illusion of Gaia's in particular can be chirpy and upbeat one moment and then dark and mysterious the next, and it can also be downright eerie and melancholy in equal measures as well. It manages to rise to the occasion whenever the story requires it, which is no mean feat given the game's eccentricity and frequent mood swings.
Let's just jump in with the title theme:
Age of Exploration (Main Theme)
The rousing main theme sets a few precedents with recurring musical tics we'll be hearing again and again: specifically, the juxtaposition of light flute music with heavy percussion. The flute is a very important element of the game's story, as it is Will's (the protagonist) main weapon and also a tool used for a few music-based puzzles reminiscent of Ocarina of Time (and the subsequent Zelda games that featured a similar system). It's odd to think that a Zelda game borrowed what was a major element of a game that is itself not too dissimilar to Zelda - a kind of friendly borrowing back and forth between two contemporaries, I'd like to imagine.
"Age of Exploration" is, as its name attests, a theme meant to get you invigorated for the exciting adventure ahead. It's sort of a deceptive first impression given what Illusion of Gaia eventually becomes tonally, but the whole world-trotting element is right on the mark at least.
South Cape, the Town by the Sea
Similarly, the theme of the innocuous starting town of South Cape is a pleasant if irritatingly chirpy track. Even the name "South Cape" is so benign you wonder what malevolent events are going to happen to it before the end of the first act. Nothing out the ordinary here, though: really, it's to help accentuate that false first impression that this is another mostly cheery cartoonish JRPG like Dragon Quest. You do get the sense those seagulls in the background are driving everyone who lives there crazy, so there's a small suggestion of "I can't wait to leave" - isn't that always the case with every kid in a small town?
Dark Space is the first hint that the game might have a bit of a subversive streak. An otherworldly hub for saving and exposition purposes - a bit like Persona's Velvet Room, or Chrono Trigger's the End of Time - the first few Dark Space portals appear without fanfare and are something of a jarring surprise to a new player. The ominous ticking of a metronome, the whistling and the ethereal oddness of the track in general help punctuate the strangeness of a place where time has frozen and the spirit of the planet is talking directly to you on matters too significant to properly process right now. However, there's nothing in the music here to suggest any sort of malevolence either: this is a mysterious realm, but it's also a sanctuary.
Lola's Melody is the first of several tunes that Will learns on his flute and must laterplay to solve puzzles involving the Itory tribe - the game's obligatory mystical race of seers who seem to have all the answers. In that sense, it's sort of the game's version of Zelda's Lullaby, and how anything involving the Sheikah tribe (the Zelda universe's own tribe of mystics) will respond to it in some way. See what I mean about the odd back-and-forth comparisons to Zelda? Aw, dang it... forgive this conspiratorial tone I've suddenly adopted. Next I'll be talking about Tingle leaving chemtrails behind him as he flies around in his balloon.
Start a Journey - World Map
The World Map music is a little more laidback, with some light guitar, xylophone and flute music - it's relaxing travel music rather than the same kind of rousing overworld map theme most RPGs would elect to use. This is largely because it plays over what are essentially automatic level transitions. For the first half of the game, the player isn't really given much of a choice of where to go: you either head to the next destination in the story or remain where you are in case you missed something. There's a little more freedom towards the end of the game, but nothing like, say, Final Fantasy's airships. It's an entirely node-based travel system and not one that's had a whole lot of thought put into it, simply on the basis that Illusion of Gaia has no interest in being non-linear - rather, it has a story it sorely wants to tell and doesn't care for the player getting distracted and wandering off to do side-quests and revisiting places that have run their course in a narrative sense. I do appreciate that the map looks like an aged parchment though, with towns and dungeons represented as sketches.
The song also plays on the pause menu too. The slight malevolent tone towards the end of the loop is curious, because it's unlikely you'll ever hear it while playing the game - the time spent in the menu or world map is usually very short.
The castle sounds like a RPG castle ought to sound with all the pomp and circumstance that royalty commands. Another illusion, as it were, since the castle is a hostile place and you spend very little time there. In most RPGs, you head to the castle to get directions from the King - in this case, the King is a greedy tyrant who is of no help whatsoever. Instead, your quest is relayed to you as you sit in the dungeons beneath the castle. I know the cliché of getting tossed into a castle jail for no reason is about as common as having to get the King's approval to start a quest, but it throws you for a loop all the same.
A little Zelda-ish fanfare whenever you acquire a valuable item. Just one of many similarities between this and Zelda and a demonstration that it's not a one-way street between those two. Fair enough, though: if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.
Danger Abounds is an odd one. Most of the game's important dungeons - that is, the ones that hold one of the game's statues - have their own unique theme, but Danger Abounds is used several times in later levels as either the default dungeon theme for areas of less importance - like the castle's prison or the mushroom forest - or as a sting during a particularly perilous moment in the story. It becomes so common as a sign of trouble that at occasional points it will play for a few seconds until it suddenly cuts out and the game reveals that the party wasn't in any real danger. It's an effectively tense theme, what with its ominous percussion and theremins. Or a SNES approximation of theremins, at least.
This odd noise is a telepathic signal sent to and from Itory village residents like Lilly. It makes full use of stereo sound to create the effect of it flying through your head via a doppler effect. It's also the sign that something involving that tribe or just something odd in general is happening. It's possible that it sounds like a garbled signal to Will because he's only half Itory, which would've made for an interesting revelation.
Itory, the Hidden Village
Itory's village theme is similar to South Cape's, though a lot more peaceful. The squawking seagulls are replaced with songbirds, and the song is led by its flute - a symbol of the Itory people and a signifer that this place is more on the light side of things than the shadowy. The music definitely makes Itory a pleasant place to stay a while, even if it's a little sad in spots too.
Signs of the Past
The far more mysterious Moon Tribe - the Itory's phantasmal neighbors - is used chiefly by the game whenever it goes full-on mysterious melancholy. Some of the game's most disturbing sequences are set to this music, such as the moments when the party is faced with death (the mummified remains of the Aztec ship of gold), slavery (the carpet makers of Dao) and how the world is basically circling the drain due to the effect Dark Gaia - the game's cosmic antagonist - is having on the planet. The Moon Tribe will often appear out of nowhere to dispense "wisdom" after these scenes of desolation, like a bunch of ghostly Oompa-Loompas, though really they're just making things even more confusing and dark. This is not the happy and bright game its theme music intimated it to be.
Larai Cliff ~ Where the Wind Doesn't Reach
The music for the first real dungeon of the game, the Larai Cliff is a vertiginous trek through a cave network built into the side of a cliff that has traces of an ancient Aztec civilization. Keep in mind that isn't "Aztec-like" or "some fantasy RPG equivalent to the Aztecs" but the actual Aztecs. The theme of each dungeon reflecting a real-life ancient civilization continues throughout the rest of the game as well. It's an exciting and bombastic theme with a strong hint of danger, in a sense signifying that the game is finally deciding to get serious.
Melody of the Wind
Cleverly, the piece of music you need to progress further into Larai is a distilled version of the area's music. This tune affects the winds in this particular area, making it possible to reach new places, but doesn't have any purpose outside this one dungeon. It just kind of sits in your inventory after that.
The Guardian (Boss Battle)
The normal boss music. I believe it plays for every guardian boss fight in the game. It's a fairly standard boss theme as boss themes go, but very heavy on percussion. I've thought a few times that the percussion was supposed to represent the game's dark half, with all the game's enemies marching to its demonic beat. When that beat is all the more pronounced, like it is here, it suggests you're in a place where the powers of darkness are at their strongest. Or I'm just imagining things. Probably the latter.
This little twinkling effect plays quite a few times, usually whenever a new statue (the game's six McGuffins) is added to the inventory. It's really more a sound effect than a tune, though.
At one point Will is knocked unconscious and has some disturbing prophetic dreams. Like Signs of the Past, this is meant to be a very enigmatic and melancholy tune. It also plays during a certain scene in a village full of starving villagers, which might be the darkest and most depressing scene in the entire game. Although the pathos in many early JRPGs can often be a bit too much, Illusion of Gaia's one of the few that gets it right often in spite of its clunky localization.
Adrift ~ Raft Theme
The game goes for an odd little detour after the Aztec dungeon, with a scene that's very strongly reminiscent (though, of course, Illusion of Gaia did it first) of the scenes in Final Fantasy VI when Celes (and the player) are first coming to grips with the World of Ruin - a world where the natural order of things has been thrown into disarray by Kefka's madness. The carefree music plays while Will spends some time adrift on a piece of flotsam while conversing with the only other (apparent) survivor - Kara - and catching fish while the hours and days pass by...
This whole sequence is a bit odd from a mechanical perspective as there's not a whole lot to do but click on things until the game lets you progress to the next story beat, but it helps to establish Kara and Will's relationship which becomes important later on. I have no idea what it is with JRPGs and catching fish, either. It'd be easier to list the ones that don't involve fishing at some point in the story.
Freejia, City of Falling Petals
Freejia, a picturesque European city that evokes Rome or Paris, is where the party meets back up after their ordeal on the Aztec ship and has the same cheerful theme as South Cape - though thankfully without the seagulls. It takes a moment to register the difference. Freejia, like many of the cities to come, has both a friendly facade that immediately greets the player as well as a dark side that can be discovered if the player prods around a bit by walking around back alleys and talking to NPCs. Protip: It's probably related to slavery and human trafficking. There's a few more cities after Freejia, and they all use this theme or the South Cape theme depending on whether or not they're on the coastline.
Melody of Memories
The third and final tune that Will learns on his flute is a little tune that is meant to jog people's memories. Naturally, it's meant for a few puzzles involving forgetful NPCs, though doesn't have much use outside of that. A bit like the other two melodies then. Cleverest of all, the Memory Melody is very similar to the music in a much later dungeon: Ankor Wat. This is because the slaves that teach it to you were originally from the same region. By the time you reach the dungeon in question it'll be several game hours and possibly many real-life days later and so it's entirely possible you might recognize the music but not remember where you heard it. Pretty sneaky for a melody about remembering things, right?
In the Earthen Womb
Perhaps the game's most famous piece, In the Earthen Womb plays whenever the game is at its most overtly spiritual. It's also what plays if the player opts to stop playing their adventure when prompted after saving - an option many early RPGs (and many recent ones too) gave the player if they wanted to unwind a little before turning off their console, or were somehow paranoid about losing their progress if they didn't "save and quit". It's a very peaceful theme, but you didn't need me to tell you that.
The Sky Garden is the second unique dungeon theme and plays in a dungeon that is hovering miles above the Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines have befuddled archaeologists for centuries and have remained more or less untouched during that period due to the absence of any wind in that arid region, and the game kind of riffs on the mystery and suggests that they're some kind of code that points the way to a mysterious floating garden, which is itself an allusion to another archaeological wonder: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Sky Garden is a verdant, shiny and somewhat precarious dungeon due to its many pitfalls. Elegant beauty and precarious danger intertwined, hence all the violins and percussion in tandem.
The Ocean Palace of Mu
Mu is a headache for a lot of Illusion of Gaia players. Many of the dungeons of Illusion of Gaia operated like Zelda dungeons - there's a lot of backtracking as activating switches and solving puzzles and learning new skills would frequently open up paths in earlier areas. This is at its most convoluted in the Ocean Palace of Mu, which also had a water-level raising gimmick to complicate things even further. Odd that Ocarina of Time borrowed that idea too, given how little people cared for it at the time (and would continue to not care for the Water Temple it eventually evolved into). Like many of the dungeon themes, it's tense and percussion-heavy. Mu is one of the major mysteries of archaeology, akin to the disappearance of Atlantis, or at least it was until it was largely debunked by modern technology and understanding, and its lack of a real-life location is why it doesn't have any markers to suggest a regional musical style - unlike many of the other dungeons that are based on ancient buildings and areas with verifiable geographical locations.
The Great Wall of China
Take, for instance, the game's next dungeon within the Great Wall of China. The track is unmistakably Chinese in style. The dungeon was one of the few to be "2D"-inclined - though these dungeons had a depth to them, they were mostly left-right, up-down affairs which departed from all the multi-directional top-down dungeons that had come before. While I'm reluctant to invoke Zelda once again, dungeons like this were more "The Adventure of Link" than "A Link to the Past". It also made them a little less exhausting to explore than Mu, at least.
Simply a sped-up version of the Danger Abounds theme, this plays during a particularly tense game of Russian Roulette with poisoned wine. Though there is no way to lose the contest - Will has a psychic premonition if he happens to pick up the poisoned glass to warn him in time - it's a dramatic scene for a number of reasons. It's actually a little messed up that Will cheats at it, but then there was no way of predicting that the opponent would down the last glass despite knowing it was poison either. It's a very strange sequence, but an unfortunately necessary one if the player wants to continue on.
Anyway, just wanted to throw this in here because it does something interesting to an extant track and is a good example of how odd this game can be at times.
Ankor Wat's theme is, as previously discussed, built around the "Melody of Memories" tune. Ankor (or Angkor) Wat is a real place deep in Cambodia and is visually stunning to look at: an immense ancient temple that had in parts been reclaimed by the jungle that surrounded it. It's also a very tough dungeon, though fortunately not so much due to any disorientating mazes or water raising puzzles. The end of Ankor Wat is where Dark Gaia's venomous influence on the planet becomes apparent to the group, and builds towards the game's most insane (but somewhat hinted towards) revelation.
The Great Pyramid
The final true dungeon of the game, the Pyramid is where Will finally unlocks the powers of his second alter-ego Shadow. Shadow's unique powers to blend through floors made with sufficiently porous stone to accommodate his gaseous form makes the Pyramid a very curious, vertically-inclined place to explore. It's also, like the Great Wall of China, largely a 2D affair. It's also where Illusion of Gaia wraps up a plot thread that had been left dangling since the very beginning of the game. It's effective when it happens, because the game counts on you forgetting after so much time had passed - much like it does to a surprised Will. As with the other regional dungeons of the game, the Great Pyramid's track is unmistakably Egyptian. I also have no idea what that echo-y effect is meant to represent, but it's certainly ominous and therefore fitting for a tomb full of monsters.
Clash of Light and Shadow
The final boss theme is traditionally where a JRPG's soundtrack is at its most bombastic and up-tempo, and Illusion of Gaia is no exception. The final encounter with Dark Gaia is truly astronomical - you're fighting on top of a comet above the planet - and the culmination of the game's most prevalent theme of light vs. shadow, as intimated by this track's very name. It's also frantic as hell. Hard not to get pumped up by the sheer spectacle of it all.
However, in all honesty the final boss fight itself is something of an anticlimax. It's unusual in that it plays like a shoot-em-up - you can move left to right, but the only weapon you have is a powerful ranged attack. It becomes a matter of dodging projectiles and then moving into a position where you can damage the boss. An odd departure, but given all the other weird shit in the game I guess it's germane enough.
To the New World - Ending Theme
The bittersweet ending music reflects the end of a journey and the resurrection of the Earth as it was always meant to be, free from Dark Gaia's influence. Despite Will and Kara's journey deepening what was once a burgeoning friendship to a devoted love for one another (which seemed a bit too sudden for my liking, but whatever), the two must now be separated forever as the world returns to a point before its malevolent visitor started messing everything up. This results in the world's chronometer rewinding a few hundred years to let the new history play out - effectively erasing the cast of characters and the entire game's journey from existence, if not its result. That the theme is so utterly emotional on top of everything else means I have trouble keeping it together whenever I hear it.
The game's stinger suggests that Will and Kara might well meet again someday...
Around the World - Staff Roll
A part cheery and part sadly reflective track that features a piece from the game's signature Age of Exploration theme, Around the World - the longest track in the game by quite a margin - plays during the credits to leave the player on a high note. An adventure's been had, a story's been concluded and the Earth has been saved. I believe the end credits track is customarily meant to be evocative of the time spent with the game, as well as another bittersweet reminder that your game is at an end (at least until you restart, anyway). The Super Mario 64 staff roll theme is another excellent example of this.
The Bit at the End
Which is where we end this blog. Illusion of Gaia is perhaps the best known of the Soul Blazer trilogy, but its sequel Terranigma (by all accounts even stranger) is what receives the most acclaim from JRPG fans. Illusion of Gaia is a game that deliberately made itself approachable with its simple gameplay systems and straightforward linearity to tell its story to as wide an audience as possible - an idea not a million miles away from what story-driven games are doing these days with the likes of Dear Esther and Gone Home.
I sorely hope both it and its two brothers make their way to Wii U's VC and join EarthBound in what could be a burgeoning retro market of classic Nintendo RPGs. I suppose that all depends on who owns the rights to Quintet's games these days. I figured it would be Enix, the publisher for IoG and the other Soul Blazer games, but they separated from Quintet some time ago back when the latter developed The Granstream Saga - the fourth and final game in the Soul Blazer series (depending on who you ask). No point speculating on the wheres and whys of all that though, I just want to see it happen. Is that too much to ask? Probably, you say? Tch, you're no fun.
Supertember will continue... dun-dun-duuun?