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The Relevance of Music to RPGs

by Brett Smith

Warning: Contains Final Fantasy VII Spoilers

Music alone can not make a game. If you only listen to "Locke" without having seen his daring entrance into the fray, it certainly still sounds regal and heroic, but it can not remind you of all the concern or selfless bravery the dirty treasure-hunter showed time and time again. The soundtrack for a game, however, does offer another level upon which a player can create an emotional response to what she is experiencing.

The soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII is largely underrated for this reason. Whereas Final Fantasy VI emphasized the underlying spirit of hope throughout its compositions, Final Fantasy VII, in contrast, frequently resorts more to the hopeless, dark nature of the world it accompanies.

Consider "Kefka" and "Those Chosen By the Planet," a song often played in juxtaposition with Sephiroth. "Kefka" seamlessly blends a powerful, blaring brass with an edge of quiet, cunning woodwinds. This is representative of Kefka's nature: a sly man who will use just about any trick in the book to fulfill his desperate desire for power. "Those Chosen By the Planet" is characterized by its minimalism: a pulsing, tense percussion and deep, foreboding choir -- aptly suited towards Sephiroth's dark, mysterious character. Standing alone, "Kefka" stands out as being more memorable, by far. However, it would be horribly inappropriate for "Kefka" to play as Sephiroth discusses the calamity from the skies.

It is because of the nature of Final Fantasy VII -- the characterization of its world, and the literary themes which it discusses -- that fewer songs burn a serious memory into your mind. When you consider the message it conveys, however, it easily stands on a level at least equal to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VI.

The song "Mining Town," (Disc 2, Track 18 of the OSV) which plays at the tramway station from Corel to Gold Saucer, is a wonderful example of how music conveys significantly to the mood of a particular scene. It starts with some hollow, low woodwinds, in a hopeless-sounding loop. A bell -- not unlike a death toll -- rings occassionally for effect. A slow guitar and plucked strings move up and down, not particularly moving the listener anywhere. A synthesized woodwind begins to make an ascent, but in the end, falls back down, and strings emphasize this falling. Eventually, however, this flute-like instrument, with the help of the strings, begins to make an aspiring melody. The background woodwinds raise their tone a bit. The death toll stops. For a few fleeting seconds, a ray of hope shines through -- until, eventually, it returns to its barren introductory pattern. This song wonderfully encompasses the despair felt by the people of Corel, but their yearning to hold on to the glimmer of hope which remains.

Such a mood is consistent through the game, and music, of Final Fantasy VII. "In The Valley Under the Stars," Cosmo Canyon's theme, is quietly haunted by its mournful undertone. The aptly-named "Off the Edge of Despair" only adds to the horror of seeing a senseless Cloud struggle in a wheelchair. Finally, the sole acoustic guitar of "On the Other Side of the Mountain" completes the sad sympathy the player feels as he watches a young Tifa desperately walk the trails of Mt. Nibel in search of her departed mother. In a world where hoeplessness and apathy are common, and death literally looms over the horizon, Final Fantasy VII's soundtrack does a superb job of creating an appropriate setting to allow these emotions to be felt.

In turn, when hope finally does arise, the music meets it appropriately. The battle music of "The Fortress of the Condor," with its regal melody and stunning instrumentation, slowly builds up to a wonderful climax, giving a sound for courage throughout the fight. "Words Interrupted by Fireworks," with its elegant simplicity, adds a final, thrilling emphasis as the situation, for a fleeting moment, is very right. Finally, the epitome of hope is expressed in association with its representing character in the unforgettable orchestration of "Aeris' Theme." These songs stand in stark contrast to the majority of the soundtrack, but offer a deep understanding of the rare hope which arises in the game.

Hence, the music for a game may be judged alone, but what is far more important -- as Final Fantasy VII's soundtrack clearly indicates -- is the ability of the sounds to convey emotions relevant to the themes of the game.

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