Music, Lyrics and Song Design

18 Feb

This week over at Kotaku, I wrote a piece called “Gameplay and Story are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s my take on the whole “gameplay vs. story” debate, and I believe it’s a useful one.

I’ve been chewing on the idea for a good long time now, and I was happy to finally get it down. It kind of works in tandem with my first Kotaku column from 2011 about “The Rhythm of Play”.  Two entries in my ongoing quest to demonstrate that video games are really just music.

(I’m kidding. Sort of.)

I’ve been happy with the response the piece has gotten–the analogy sure put the entire situation into perspective for me, and I’m glad to hear that it has felt useful for others as well.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the debate for a while now, reading recent pieces like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic” and Mattie Brice’s response, “Narrative is a Game Mechanic”, watching Clint Hocking’s killer 2011 GDC talk on dynamics and “how games mean”, and earlier last year, brokering an enlightening letters debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari over at Paste.

But I’ve never felt like I had that much to add to the discussion. I understand the finer points of the definitions and analyses that are being thrown around, but most of those distinctions haven’t felt that vital to me. (That’s to me, I should stress. They’re entirely relevant to the discussion itself.) Anyway, this parallel did feel vital, and like something that was easy to understand and articulate.

After the article ran, friendly rabble-rouser Mattie Brice took issue with what she took to be my conflation of (or at least, lack of distinction between) “story” and “narrative.” I’ll point out that in my piece, I really only referred to story, though I did call these types of games “narrative games.” Perhaps I should have just gone with “story-based games.”

While I actually do find the distinction between story and narrative interesting (to think about more than to write about), I don’t believe that distinction was all that useful for the broader analogy I was making. Just as I wasn’t going to spend a paragraph making distinctions about atonal music, and how to find melody and rhythm in the work of, say, Merzbow, I wasn’t going to dedicate space to making distinctions between narrative and story.

I don’t meant to wholly disregard the importance of that distinction, however. As boring as semantics can feel at times, language is important. I just don’t think it’s all that important for the point I was making. But if you do want to make the distinction, I think that the musical analogy has a place for narrative as well as story.

The question is where we want to place narrative on the spectrum. If narrative and story are in fact interchangeable, then it’s a moot point. But I like Brice’s illustration of what narrative is, how while Tetris may not have a story, it certainly has a narrative:

Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety.

So let’s say narrative is like musical form. The way that a piece is arranged and built; not the music specifically, but its structure. “Gameplay and Story and Narrative are like Music and Lyrics and Song-Form” is a bit of a mouthful, but it feels like an accurate headline.

At any rate. In my years as a composer and songwriter, I’ve come to understand my creative process as a kind of design. The term “song designer” sounds ridiculous, but that’s very much what writing a song is like.

Most of the songs I write start with a melody. I’m strumming guitar, or sitting at the piano, and I sing the melody to myself. It sticks, so I sing it over and over. I play through a chord progression, I figure out a bit of the form, I conceptualize the tune, but it’s all built around this one wordless melody. That melody is the core of my creative idea, the peg upon which I’ll hang the rest of the song.

Sometimes the lyrics I attach to my melodies don’t make sense right away, and I’ll wind up with a completed song with no lyrics. But other times, I know exactly what a song’s lyrics will be–I have a specific story I want to tell, and I build the song’s structure around that story.

No two songs come into existence the same way. It’s an endless puzzle, and an endless design challenge. It’ll never get boring.

I’m excited that I’ll have an opportunity to write more about music and games at Kotaku–I’ve got a regular weekly posting-block every Thursday evening called “Kotaku Melodic”, where I’ll get to write about whatever I want, from terrible menu music to Avishai Cohen. It’s gonna be a blast.

And hey, while I’m at it, maybe I’ll finally find some time to finish designing some of these songs I’ve been working on.


2 Responses to “Music, Lyrics and Song Design”

  1. Jon Bash February 18, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Trying to judge whether or not that’s “The First Time” from the tiny picture… :p

  2. Dmitri Cherakshev March 18, 2012 at 2:52 am #

    okkay i’v decided i wana be in the music know assisgning people who can sing and all that but what is it called? and what kind of skills do i have to have to be in it?
    oh and what college do you think i can attend to learn about it and and pursue the dream from thier?

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