Overworld music in the time of augmented reality gaming

It’s the age old (well, “old” in terms of video games) question: Can the character I’m controlling in the game hear the music that I’m hearing? When you think of classic games like the original Super Mario Bros., the answer seems fairly obvious. The music is meant for the player, not the character, as the way the music changes (speeding up when time is running short, “star” music when the character is invisible, etc.) gives auditory clues to the person playing the game. Mario is just along for the ride.

But many games blur the line. Take for example The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. When walking around the town of Skyloft, all seems to be normal with regard to the use of overworld music. Your character happily roams about while the cheery, lilting tune gives you, the player, a sense of calm and a push to explore. But at night, the music doesn’t change into an eerie, dark, and ominous soundtrack. Rather, it completely disappears. Was the music silenced as not to wake the other characters in the game? Can Link and the other characters actually hear the music during the day?

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nighttime in Skyloft

The recent global phenomenon of Pokémon Go, a game which makes extensive use of augmented reality gaming, further confuses the question on the diegesis of a game’s overworld music. For those that haven’t yet had the impulse to “catch ’em all,” Pokémon Go asks that players move their character not by pressing directional arrows on the screen, but by walking through the actual world we live in. The overworld, then, is our world, and as a player moves through it, they encounter small creatures (Pokémon) in an attempt to catch, evolve, and eventually battle with other player’s Pokémon. This is where the technological magic of AR comes in. When a player finds a Pokémon, the phone’s camera is turned on and the player sees the creature as if it were really there, sitting on a park bench or on the ground in front of them.

For a game in which the character is more closely connected to the player than ever before, and in which the game’s map is the real world, how does the traditional use of overworld music work? Pokémon Go has six main soundtracks; the overworld/walking music, the main title music, the catching Pokémon music, the Registered to Pokédex music, the gym music, and the gym battle music. Over the next few posts, I’ll examine each of these themes in turn, but today, let’s turn our focus on the overworld music and how it impacts gameplay.

Pokémon Go, Overworld Music

The opening repeated bass notes recall the ostinato patterns often found in the intro to training montage sequences (like this one from the 2015 Rocky spinoff Creed). And the connection to training montages seems particular appropriate since the players of Pokémon Go are known as “trainers.” The low ostinato also elicits a march topic, creating military undertones that foreshadow the battles that will be fought throughout in the game (and prepare the gym and gym battle music).

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Step-up Sequence (starting at 0:13)

A recurring harmonic pattern throughout the overworld music consists of major triads ascending in parallel by major second. The first time this happens (from 13 seconds to 27 seconds in the above video), the goal is C Major (the overall key of the overworld music), ascending from A-flat major through B-flat major. But the next time this motion is heard (at 40 seconds), it begins on B-flat, quickly stepping through C and arriving on D major. The main theme is heard again in this key, a sequential step-up modulation that effectively increases the tension and intensity of the music.

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Return of step-up sequence (at 0:40)

A little over halfway through the overworld music, the driving intensity of the opening ostinato is replaced by a contrasting lyrical passage in the subdominant (F major)(at 1:34 in the video). This is similar in affect to the Registered to Pokédex music. But just as quickly as it arrived, the driving ostinato returns with yet another iteration of the ascending step-up sequence from before, leading to a return to the opening and thus completing the unbroken loop necessary of this kind of overworld music (at 1:54).

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Final appearance of step-up sequence (at 1:54)

The musical devices here serve to foreshadow and increase tension and excitement, but in the context of the method of gameplay, how successful are these musical codes at achieving their goal? In my own experience playing the game, I typically have the music turned off. And from what I’ve seen in casual observation around TCU’s campus, other players don’t seem to have their sound on either. The music, then, only seems to serve the few who are playing with the sound turned up (and turned up quite fully as to compete with the sounds in the real world). In addition, like many other mobile games, a player can choose to listen to the game’s music or provide their own soundtrack via iTunes, Spotify, or any other music app (Simon Morrison’s recent post at Musicology Now discusses, among other things, a crowd-sourced playlist to accompany Pokémon Go). But an augmented reality game presents an interesting question: what is the more authentic soundtrack for the game? Is it the one provided by the game, which hits on crucial musical codes to set the game’s mood? Or is it one provided by the player? After all, the game is augmented reality, so is not the player’s own musical choice more authentic? Or is the real soundtrack to the game life itself, the everyday noises and sounds all around us? Consider that if it was Ash (not us) walking around a fictional Pokémon land, he wouldn’t hear the driving ostinato or the step-up sequence. He’d hear the sounds of Pokémon rustling and the grass beneath his feet.

So can the characters hear the overworld music in a video game? It’s complicated, but the rise in popularity of augmented reality gaming will continue to obfuscate and complicate this question even further.

Stay tuned for more posts on the other music in Pokémon Go.

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