Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Death and Defeat, Part 1

I have become increasingly interested in the portrayal of death and defeat through music in video games. That has prompted this series.

Death in The Legend of Zelda for the NES meant starting over from the very beginning of what ever you were doing. On the overworld, you returned back to the first area, even if you were clear to the other side of the map. In a dungeon, you have to return to the first screen, with many of the enemies you previously defeated back.

When you die, a spiraling scale downward mickey mouses the action on the screen. The player is then treated to this lovely tune, hereafter called the Game Over object.

Within the context of the game, this tunes comes off as a modally ambiguous G-minor. The D-G fifth at the loop grounds G as the tonally centric pitch of this phrase.

The interest is in how this relates to the end game. This quasi G-minor turns quickly in to C Major with the addition of a upbeat bass line. In a musically symbollic gesture, the Game Over object is defeated by the C major victory key. The only other instance of C in the game is the fanfare when Zelda herself is rescued just prior to the end credits.

Looking backwards, Game Over object, and the use of the same melody at the beginning of the End Game object could be representative of completion. In one instance, the player is defeated, and is left in a tonally ambiguous state. The game is effectivly over unless the player wants to try again. On the other hand, the player has achived the final goal of the game, where this melody is a signal that the game has ended.

The End Game object can be viewed as a variation or extension of the Game Over object. Harmonically, they are both based off the same ground, and even have some of the same modal inflections (a flat third and sixth scale degree of C). After hearing the End Game object, the Game Over object seems a bit clearer in terms of harmonic underpinning. However, with the Game Over object frequently heard next to the Overworld object (a modally inflected Bb) and the chromatic Dungeon object (posessing the same D-G fifth that informed the initial reading of the Game Over object), a consistant harmonic hearing of this phrase is constantly destabilized.

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