Breaking the Loop: A Look at the Cinematic Music of Breath of the Wild
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Original post here:
A while ago, I did a talk on the History of Zelda music at the offices of Twitch, which included some post-talk Q&A. I had just finished explaining a key difference between video game music and other forms of music, which is that video game music has to repeat, that it has to play on loop for a potentially indefinite amount of time---when I got a really good follow up question:
"Do you think that games could ever move out of those kinds of constraints [of needing to loop indefinitely]?"
At the time, I couldn't really think of a good example of how a game could do that. The one example I could conjure up was the track that plays in New Home from Undertale---which is a 6-minute long track, easily longer than any other track in the game---clearly designed to play through its entirety, as it gradually builds up, mirroring the player's progression through that section of the game. As a result, this track is not really meant to be looped---it's meant to be heard from start to finish, and there's a progression and climax to the music that traditional game music often eschews because of the Loop constraint. (Of course, if a player decided to stop progressing at that point, the music would continue and eventually repeat, but it's all designed in a way that a situation like that would be unlikely.)
But that idea stuck with me, and after the talk I finally got to finish playing Breath of the Wild...
As a general rule, I don't like to listen through a game's soundtrack until after I've finished the game (the idea being that I want my first experience with each track to be in its intended context, i.e. in the game itself).
But of course, after finishing the game, I took to YouTube and started going through all my favorite tracks again, as well as others that had slipped by my attention. And I realized:
The music of Breath of the Wild is breaking the Loop Constraint all the time, in different ways, and for different reasons.
Let's take a closer look.
Why Hate for the Loop?
Though it may be obvious, it's worth first discussing why a game like Breath of the Wild would want to avoid using traditional looped music in the style of the majority of Nintendo games.
Since the beginning, the music of the mainline Nintendo games (and really, most games of the time) were composed by looping a section of music, usually comprising 2 or 3 melodic phrases. Because these few melodic phrases were ones that you would hear over and over, they really had to be catchy (and thus, very melodic) to avoid being annoying---this was something that Koji Kondo, the composer for Mario and Zelda was truly a genius at.
These looped sections of music are almost always the same length---with each melodic phrase taking up about 15 seconds each. Short enough to not require a ton of musical material, but long enough to not be monotonous when looped for long periods of time.
|Super Mario Bros. - Overworld||1:16 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
|Super Mario Bros. 2 - Overworld||0:39|
|Super Mario Bros. 3 - Overworld||0:26|
|The Legend of Zelda - Overworld||0:33|
|Metroid - Brinstar Theme||0:48|
|Pokemon RBY - Pallet Town||0:32|
Perhaps due to the success of this musical formula, this way of writing video game music pretty much stayed constant throughout Nintendo's history. Of course, not every track followed this rule---deviation from this formula happened more often as composers began having more resources and license to experiment---but many, especially the most well-known tracks (the ones with the catchy melodies), tend to follow the same pattern:
|1991||Link to the Past - The Dark World||1:00 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
|1998||Ocarina of Time - Kakariko Village||1:33 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
|2000||Majora's Mask - Clock Town Day 1||0:52 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
|2002||Wind Waker - Dragon Roost Island||1:18 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
|2006||Twilight Princess - Midna's Theme||0:36|
|2012||Skyward Sword - Ballad of the Goddess||1:37 (3rd melody acting as bridge)|
This is all to ultimately show that, structurally, video game music has not changed all that much since the beginning, at least within Nintendo, and more narrowly, within the Zelda series.
So why would they deviate from this formula in Breath of the Wild?
Well, the answer is pretty simple, I think---with the game being Open World (or as Nintendo calls it, "Open Air"), as a player you spend the majority of your time in the Overworld, which is huge and completely unfettered by loading screens of any kind. One could easily spend more than an hour just wandering Hyrule Field and its surrounding areas before coming across a town or village with its own distinct track---which means that if Nintendo were to use traditional looped music for the Overworld---and let's give it a generous 2-minute long loop length---you could easily be listening to that same melody over 30+ times before you got something new.
So how do other Open World games handle this musical design challenge? Skyrim and Minecraft, for example, use largely ambient music, fading in and out semi-randomly, to fill the Overworld. Because ambient music is much less focused on melody, it's much harder to actually perceive "loops" when listening to ambient music, even when it is looped---because there's no melody to anchor your musical memory. Furthermore, by having the music fade in and out randomly, there's no fear of over-exposure:
Breath of the Wild's approach is similar, but not quite the same.
There IS actually a looped piece of music for the Overworld in Breath of the Wild. It's this:
The music here is so fragmented that for a while I didn't even think it was a looped piece of music---initially it seemed as though they took short little musical phrases and played them at randomly programmed intervals, like the way it's done in Minecraft. The key here is the length of silence in between musical moments---they're long enough so that as a listener you're no longer perceiving rhythm, and thus, no longer anticipating more music (alternately: you can't bob your head to this). As a result, you don't really get sick of it the way you would a looped track.
Note though, that though the music is fragmented, it's not quite what I would call ambient---each musical cell is a little melody. Again, the real key here to making this loop work is the lack of rhythmic continuity.
(This method of fragmentation is effective even with established, familiar melodies. Check out here how the music for the Temple of Time is slowed down and fragmented to the point where, unless you stop and listen to it, you might not even recognize it as the Song of Time from Ocarina of Time.)
Song of Time:
Another benefit of fragmentation like this is the ease of transition in and out of the track. Without loading screens in between areas, the music has to fade in and out seamlessly as you enter new areas. With extended silences in between musical moments, this is made a lot easier. This effect is especially effective when used with some of the less-explicitly distinct area tracks in the game, like the "Cave" track:
You can see the way an Overworld track could easily fade into this when you enter a cave. While it doesn't have a distinct melody that hits you over the head with "We're in a new area!", there's a definite change in mood and timbre with this track. This is another big strength of Breath of the Wild---while much of the soundtrack is centered around a single instrument (piano), there are distinct timbral palettes for different areas of the game, and these timbral changes come through in moments like these.
In this case, the Cave track adds a high-pitched whirring synth and some sort of woodwind in the lower register---together, these two new timbres play long, drawn-out notes that are further emphasized by some added reverb, creating an echo effect---perfect for a Cave track.
When I discovered my first cave in my playthrough of Breath of the Wild, I was struck by how cinematic the moment felt, without the game having to resort to any sort of cutscene---accomplished simply by transitioning to this track as I entered. It's the game's ability to create memorable moments like this with music that make the exploration aspect of this game so strong, and a large part of it the soundtrack's willingness to dial back the melodic writing and focus instead on timbre and harmonic color.
Minimalism and Rhythmic "Skips"
While fragmentation drags out loop length, minimalism shrinks it down until it may as well not be there. For example, listen to the Maze Forest (Lost Woods) track:
Here we get a 3-note piano loop that creates the backbone for the track, but it's unusual in that it sometimes appears to "skip" a beat. The best way to listen for this is to use the high note as an anchor---it appears to loop every 3 notes, but then at 0:03 we hear an extra note---a deviation from the pattern, which effectively sets the loop "off phase." As a result the listener actually feels rhythmically lost (try to count the beats for this track!)---a perfect complement to the track's purpose.
There is a progression to this track, to be sure, which includes a shift of focus to the bass of the piano rather than the treble for the 3 note loop (note how the "anchor" becomes the lowest piano note around 0:30) and of other seemingly random musical flourishes on top of the piano, and at a macro level there is actually a moment when the track loops and starts again---but none of this is really perceivable to the listener. Instead, the tiny 3-note loop that makes up this track is the object of focus because it's the only really melodic thing in the entire track, and because of its rhythmic "skipping" it's nigh impossible to tell when the "larger" loop starts and stops, unless you're paying very close attention.
This concept of irregular rhythm being used to cloud perception of a loop also appears in the Battle Theme:
Again, the music is written in a way that makes it hard to tell where the downbeats are (try counting the beats!). Especially in the 2nd part of this track starting at 0:33, note how the repeated strings pattern is doing the same thing as the piano in the Lost Woods track---setting up a pattern, then deviating from it, causing a "phase shift" that confuses the rhythm.
In this track, we actually get a mash of various repeated patterns from different instruments, further adding to the chaos of the track---Nintendo really did a great job with conveying the right emotions with each of their tracks.
The most unusual thing about the Breath of the Wild soundtrack is how many of the important themes are contained in brief, through-composed tracks.
If infinitely looped music is one end of a spectrum, then through-composed music is at the other. The idea of through-composed music is that there are no repeated sections of music, period---so a typical pop song with repeated verses and chorus would not qualify as a through-composed song. But in Breath of the Wild, we have through-composed tracks acting as all 4 of the Champion Themes---themes that end up forming the foundation for a number of other tracks in the game.
Compare this track, which has a distinct beginning and ending, with no repeated section, to Prince Sidon's Theme (which shares the same melody), which is a 32 second long loop:
Prince Sidon's Theme
To me, this difference in treatment has everything to do with the characters' place in the story and the gravitas of their specific narrative.
For Prince Sidon (and the other "living" characters) in Breath of the Wild with a theme (Riju, Kass), their themes loop because they are constant, persisting characters in the world of BotW. On the other hand, Mipha and the other Champions are memories---and there is a distinct moment of meeting, remembering, and farewell for each of them. And so appropriately, the themes for these characters are through-composed, representing a finite presence in the game through the music. It's a great example of deviation from the Loop being used to deliver a specific narrative.
Even in some of the "looped" tracks, this idea of one-directional, linear music stands out---one particular track that really illustrates this is the Rito Village track:
This track, is, of course, based on the theme of Dragon Roost Island from Wind Waker---which makes perfect sense, as that was the home of the Rito in that game. What's interesting to me about this track is not the callback to Wind Waker, but rather the extremely long and flowery introductory section leading up to and including the swelling strings, from 0:00 to 0:38. This type of introduction leading up to the main melody of the track, with its grand dramatic buildup, seems extremely out of place for your standard "looped" video game music track. After all, hearing the introductory buildup looped over and over is a little awkward and weakens the effect. So why use it?
I'm curious about others' first experience with Rito Village in this game, because for me, entering Rito Village was one of the most memorable moments of the game for me. Again, like my experience with finding my first cave, it just felt so cinematic. The introductory passage sparked a lot of curiosity (it's a theme new to the Zelda series and you wouldn't have heard it prior---you hear it later in Revali's cutscenes) and synced almost perfectly with my crossing the first couple bridges leading up to Rito Village; then, upon finally reaching the central area of the village, the familiar Dragon Roost Island melody kicked in. It just felt so perfect. That moment stuck with me, and it's not something that could have been achieved without the grand introductory section. To me, it feels like there was a deliberate choice on the composer's part to give players that cinematic moment, that memorable moment, even if it meant adding an unusually long and dramatic introductory section to a track that might sound a little awkward when looped.
As I was writing and thinking about Breath of the Wild's use of non-looped music, one idea kept coming back again and again: that many of the most memorable moments from my playthrough of the game involved the use of non-traditional, non-looped music. I've talked about how some of that effect was achieved due to the game's willingness to forgo the standard strengths and benefits of looped music in favor of things like emphasizing timbre, rhythmic effect, or a one-way, emotional progression, but I think that some of the effect is undoubtedly just be the way we've collectively understood video game music for the entirety of its lifespan---that it's a 1-2 minute loop, focused on a catchy melody, looped indefinitely. When a game deviates from using that formula, we naturally take notice.
There's much more to be said about the incredible quality of the Breath of the Wild soundtrack aside from what I've said above---the beautiful orchestration, creative use of piano, the undeniable influence of Joe Hisaishi's (composer for many of Hayao Miyazaki's films) style---but I think the game's willingness to distance itself from the Loop may be the biggest sticking point of this soundtrack (ironically, I think it's also responsible for a lot of negative feedback people have given about the soundtrack: "Where are all the great Zelda melodies?!"). While it's certainly not the first game to feature this type of musical writing, it's definitely given non-traditional looped music more exposure (especially when juxtaposed against past Zelda games). There's a great deal of unexplored territory in terms of the structure of game music, and this is a great starting point for composers looking to do something different.
What do you think about looped music in video games, and what are your favorite examples of unconventional music structure in games? Let me know in the comments!
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