Developing Narrative Through Music [The Overthinkery Reclamation Project]

This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on March 7, 2014.

I got to thinking about diegetic music in games today. Diegesis, by the way, is (at least in terms of sound in film) what you get when the background music, for example, is actually playing in-scene. Take, for example, most musicals, or a scene in which a character plays the piano within the narrative. In these cases, the music of the song or the piano piece is diegetic in that it belongs within the narrative space. (Conversely, non-diegetic music is far more common and includes the majority of most films’ scores. As a general rule of thumb, if the characters can’t hear the music then it’s non-diegetic.) I feel as if diegesis has massive potential for artistic, emotional and narrative impact in games particularly because of the interactive element, but it seems to have gone underused.

I should probably point out that I’m not going to be talking about Guitar Hero or its like, in which almost the entirety of the in-game music is diegetically produced by the player him-or-herself. There’s an interesting case to be made for rhythm and music games forming both their entire narrative structures and the essence of their ludology (that is, the gameplay aspects) around diegetic sound, but that’s not really what I’m interested in here. I’m thinking more about the role of music within an existing narrative, and the first thing I thought of when this interesting topic came to me as I urinated between lectures today was Bastion.

Bastion is fairly well regarded for a few things, among them its art style, smooth-voiced narrator and well-developed plot. For a short to mid-length indie game, Bastion, set in a post-apocalyptic world following ‘The Calamity’, does a hell of a job at fitting in a deep backstory for its locations and characters, and its music is a great help with this. It’s probably worth noting that Bastion has won quite a few awards in varied fields and been nominated for even more – see its Wikipedia page for more information on this, but basically a fair few different organisations have praised Bastion as an innovative game with great music, for a couple of songs in particular.

Darren Korb’s soundtrack to Bastion is just all-around great, by the way, before we get into its interaction with the narrative. He describes it as ‘acoustic frontier trip-hop’, which sounds about right: a blend of American old-style Western picked guitars and multi-layered synth beats shouldn’t work as well as it does. The entire soundtrack is really worth picking up; that said, why not just play the game? Just go and play the game. Anyway, the main example of a diegetic track in Bastion is a song called ‘Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)‘. It’s a song that plays as you make your way through a certain level, which culminates in your discovery of a survivor of the Calamity. Until this point, it seems that the player character The Kid and the narrator Rucks are the only remaining living humans post-Calamity, but this level introduces a third in the form of ‘The Singer’, Zia.
A quick note on Zia and her importance to the plot: we are told, or can infer, from the narration in the game that Caelondia – the city in which the game takes place – was at war with a race called the Ura. In defence, the Caelondians built a great Wall, which the Kid formerly manned and which could not save them from the Calamity. Zia (along with a second survivor introduced later) is of the Ura people, and as such is constitutionally at war with the Caelondian Kid and Rucks, even now that Caelondia is little more than a post-Calamity wasteland.
When the level begins, the usual frenetic soundtrack is unexpectedly replaced with a slow, gentle guitar piece. This is odd enough in itself, but as the Kid progresses through the level a voice becomes increasingly louder: the first human voice heard in the game besides Rucks or the occasional sound-effect grunt of pain or effort. As the Kid approaches the end of the level, it becomes gradually more apparent that the song’s lyrics have something to do with the Wall:

I dig my hole, you build a wall
One day that wall is gonna fall

Gonna build that city on a hill
Someday those tears are gonna spill

So build that wall and build it strong
‘Cause we’ll be there before too long

Gonna build that wall up to the sky
Someday your bird is gonna fly

Gonna build that wall until it’s done
But now you’ve got nowhere to run

So build that wall and build it strong
‘Cause we’ll be there before too long

(Note that the first line of each of these besides ‘So build that wall..’ repeats twice, so I’ve cut out the repeats.)

It was unclear to me as a first-time player what the significance of this was. I was suitably emotional when I reached the end of the level and discovered that the singer was actually present, revealing the song to be diegetic, but it took me a while to realise what the song meant.
Remember, Zia is an Ura, so her people are at war with the Caelondians. The Caelondians built a wall to defend themselves from the Ura.
Now look at those lyrics again.

‘Build That Wall’ is a battle hymn. Someday your wall is gonna fall, the Ura sing to the Caelondians: someday we will come for you, so you’d better hope you’ve built that wall of yours well.

Zia, it turns out, is thankfully lacking in militant patriotism, and proves a welcome addition to the group of survivors, but it’s nevertheless quite something to hear her singing a hymn of destruction. I’m sure there are other games (as well as other media) featuring warring cultures with their own battle cries and songs, but I’ve never seen it presented in such an effective way. ‘Build That Wall’ tells us an awful lot about the Ura, removing the need for lines of spoken and explicit exposition. It’s a beautiful song in the version we hear, although one imagines that the Ura probably don’t sing it quite as sweetly when they’re marching to war.

There’s another song performed diegetically by an Ura character late in the game: Zulf, another survivor who briefly turns betrayer on the Kid’s group, sings his own funeral song towards the denouement of the story. It’s another emotional moment, since again this is the first time an actual human voice has been heard since Zia or Rucks, and the player hears it whilst battling through hordes of warriors to save Zulf (or leave him for dead, it’s their choice). The two Ura songs, ‘Mother, I’m Home’ and ‘Build That Wall’, are combined in the credits to form ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’, and whilst that’s not diegetic as such it’s still a great example of the Ura backstory and culture being shown off via music rather than a clumsy text dump or something.

It’s debatable as to whether the game’s narration can be considered diegetic, since the Kid doesn’t show any signs of being able to hear it, but Rucks briefly hums ‘Build That Wall’ in one line of narration, in a moment that brilliantly demonstrates how the song integrates with the narrative. Rucks also has a song as a bonus track on the official soundtrack album, in which he sings about the wrath of the pantheon of Caelondian gods. It’s a great song that effectively tells us a lot about the Caelondian’s beliefs, even if the track didn’t make it into the actual game.

There are other games in which there are moments of musical diegesis: notably, in BioShock Infinite, in which protagonists Booker and Elizabeth briefly perform ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’ on a guitar that just happens to be lying around. It’s an unusually tender moment in an otherwise often brutal game, and a nice bit of character development; the fact that Booker and Elizabeth are able to perform says a lot about their characters, and the song’s lyrics neatly foreshadow a lot of the themes of the game’s narrative. On a less serious note, there’s also the dubstep gun in Saint’s Row IV, which both adds to the world of the game through sheer ridiculousness and is just hella fun. Yes, the dubstep gun is part of the narrative: the Saint’s Row universe is utterly balls-out insane, and everything in its game world is designed to be consistent with that.

In short, we shouldn’t overlook non-overt aspects of a game’s narrative. This happens in other media as well; television and film are better known than games for making use of the soundtrack to add some artistic, thematic or narrative quality. The soundtrack isn’t the only important thing, by the way: it may be the only thing I’ve talked about here, but let us not forget that gameplay is an intrinsic part of the gaming experience (in fact, it’s a uniquely necessary part of gaming as compared to anything else) and can also be used to further the narrative in a way I may talk about at some point. It’s important to remember that a constructed world is more than what we’re overtly told or shown, and the music can play a big part in developing that.

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