GDC 07: Koji Kondo and the art of interactive music

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Andrew Yoon
March 8th, 2007
In this article: gdc, gdc07, koji kondo, KojiKondo
GDC 07: Koji Kondo and the art of interactive music

Koji Kondo, famed composer for Nintendo, spoke to a packed auditorium at this year's Game Developer's Conference. Before the session began, giddy members of the audience snuck up to Kondo-san, a copy of Zelda or Mario in hand, asking for an autograph.

To answer the question, "what are the main points of game music?," Kondo-san showcased the retro NES favorite Super Mario Brothers. By looking at how Mario jumped, and ran, Kondo-san was able to think about the rhythm intrinsic to the game playing experience. The length of Mario's jump can be exemplified by a eighth note: when a composer thinks of these kinds of attributes, music becomes part of the gameplay itself. If a game's soundtrack doesn't bother coordinating to the rhythm of game, Kondo explained, the game's soundtrack might as well come from an unrelated room next door.

A second element to good game music is balance: thinking about left and right stereo balance is certainly one thing, but thinking about the game as a whole is crucial. Music can tell a story, especially when referencing familiar themes: when Mario picks up the Metal Hat in Super Mario 64, the music will play homage to the original invincibility theme from the NES Super Mario Bros. Through music alone, players will be able to understand how powerful Mario has become.

The final (and most important) element to game music production is interactivity. For example, the addition of percussion to the score when Mario rides Yoshi in Super Mario World or Super Mario Sunshine is a subtle change that doesn't overwhelm the player with a completely different song. Super Mario 64's water stage shows how the background music's instrumentation changes to the journey that Mario goes through: while underwater, the strings are far more prominent, but in the cavern, the strings are dropped for a much more lively bass and percussion. Surround sound is also an important aspect of the interactivity of game music: searching for the Skull Kid in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is aided through the location-based soundtrack.

One of the more fascinating techniques demonstrated during the session is to have random phrases play through music. There were twelve phrases that could be incorporated into the field song from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: by introducing random variance, traveling the massive Hyrule Field wouldn't feel so tiresome, as the music has subtle differences. When encountering an enemy, the music is able to slowly transition into more ominous phrases, but the overall integrity of theme is still maintained. Unlike in RPGs, Kondo explains, the goal of Zelda was to have the process of battling seem like a natural addition to the game.

Much to the surprise and amusement of the audience, Kondo-san showcased one of the more subtle aspects of New Super Mario Bros. The enemies actually respond to the music playing in the background: at the down-beat, one can see the enemy Goombas jump.

Kondo-san admits that his creations don't come quickly: he only submits material at the last moment possible, much to the dismay of his coworkers. However, it's clear that the man is a genius, seen through the various techniques he's successfully implemented through the years. Next time you play your favorite Kondo-composed game, try to listen with a critical ear. Not only has the man been able to craft some of gaming's most recognizable tunes, he's manipulated them to evoke certain feelings in games.

The audience gave an incredible standing ovation at the presentation's end.

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