What is scurrilously called ragtime is an invention that is here to stay. That is now conceded by all classes of musicians. That all publications masquerading under the name of ragtime are not the genuine article will be better known when these exercises are studied… Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at “hateful ragtime” no longer passes for musical culture. To assist amateur players in giving the “Joplin Rags” that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.
Composer Scott Joplin in the opening of his book School of Ragtime
Amidst the anxiety of growth that was New York City in 1910, on 128 West 29th
Street, Composer Scott Joplin
was finishing his opera, Treeminosha. Writing only a quick jaunt from Tin Pan Alley, ragtime music was the life, and hope, for Joplin, an African-American man attempting to encapsulate experience into music. A sort of living music to demonstrate, “Patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness,” – the sort of maxims Booker T. Washington lived by in his search for equality (Great Expectations,
Smithsonian Institute, 2010).
However, for Joplin, writer of the treatise School of Ragtime
and composer of Maple Leaf Ragand The Entertainer, his music would be forgotten for the next 60 years, left to the wayside of “frivolity”. Frivolity, however, was not the final word for Joplin – in January 1972, his musical Treeminosha would finally be showcased in Atlanta, and in 1973 the movie The Sting would future The Entertainer as its main motif. Joplin’s name and influenced surged, sparking a wave inside a niche and far from frivolous brand of music. His imperatives on upbeat conductors would be, however, cherished in a far from niche way.
In 1960, Koji Kondo
was born in Nagoya, Japan, quickly assuming a music career of his own. He was playing the piano by age five, introduced to rock music in his middle years of education, and by the end of high school was enjoying jazz fusion and the captivating waves of synthetic tunes of games such as Donkey Kong. Only then had he begun to delve into the world of BASIC programming language for music when he applied to Nintendo, allegedly the sole work application he has ever submitted, and was hired. All six songs for Super Mario Bros. were written by Kondo; the success of the game and the millions of people who can hear those tunes in their head, enshrined Kondo into a legendary category of composer.
Kondo himself is a quiet, almost stoic man, leaving several apt questions on how his formative years were musically shaped. His early years at Nintendo
consisted of him, Hirokazu Tanaka and Yukio Kaneoka being the music department, although they had responsibilities elsewhere in the company. Kaneoka taught Kondo how to program and became a vital second member of the team, ensuring the engineering side of the music video game venture was a seamless transition. Kondo now is an audio director at Nintendo and has yet to compose a solo soundtrack since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. His inspiration, and stoic fingerprint, however, is still found on all Nintendo tracks.
That fingerprint is one, however, which would not be possible without Scott Joplin (Schartmann, Example 15, 2015). Due to Kondo’s early years being largely a mystery, stating Joplin influenced Kondo would be mere speculation; in many regards, it would be easier to state that Joplin did not directly influence Kondo. However, the Joplin and ragtime ‘frivolities’ were passed through the bright and artful spirit of the artists who taught Kondo. And in that regard, Joplin’s wave is inseparable from Kondo’s wave. The classical harmonizing swing, each note, “scrupulously observing the ties” to derive the intoxicating effect of music, quoting from Exercise One in School of Ragtime, can all be found in music. A peppery ensemble of songs that inspire, motivate, and delight. And in these principles, there is no better example than arguably one of the best games of all time Super Mario World.
Super Mario World is a game that is abundant in personality. Each portion of Dinosaur Land is sectioned into distinct themes, slowly progressing the player alongside a grand adventure. Thanks to Kondo’s focus on composing
interactive music, this principle can be discussed from a game design perspective and a music design perspective. In the SNES era, with limited technology, the interactivity concept was strictly limited to the environment and pacing of play jiving with the music. This concept will be exemplified at length, as the musical concepts interweave intricately with the player. To iterate a modern example, the concept of interactive music is fine-tuned with goombas jumping on the down beat in New Super Mario Bros. levels.
Base Concepts of Super Mario World Music
Before moving forward to specific songs, it would be best to establish the (simplified version of) techniques Kondo uses to make Super Mario World a perfect mix of orderly video game jazz. The song which is best used to hear all the below concepts is the Overworld theme.
The first concept at play here is repetition and familiarity. In this transcription
by Matt Kenyon, the central motif to the music
of Super Mario World is outlined (the portion of the song playing from :05 to :06). This central motif will be the theme to listen for throughout the entire game, setting the quick pace for the athletic levels and being drawn out in the ghost house via motivic transformation. In the SNES era, this was a technique to work around limit storage. Hence, one base theme would be radically altered through chromaticism, tritone substitution, syncopation, and other techniques. The music would stay simple enough for the hardware, whimsically altered on Kondo’s genius.
Chromaticism and syncopation might be the most important concepts Kondo uses throughout his music; this is how the music adheres to the peppiness of Mario’s jump and stays engaging, in spit of the repeating motif. In short, a chromatic line is where a second note from the same key operates as a base coupling between two chords. The allusion at hand is Kondo’s music loves to jump off a waterfall, a fairly radical step of faith in the safety of the situation. Thus, to make it safer (sound more pleasant), the step chord operates as a first landing, so the overall fall is not as great. Thus, the music is perpetually cheery, not a sudden jump of fear.
Syncopation is the concept Scott Joplin pressed in the six exercises of School of Ragtime, the concept of, “Each note [receiving] its proper time…” Syncopation plays notes off-beat and off a standard rhythm. The chord, harmony, melody, and bass will not align, ensuring the music is, designed, to be all over the place. In this manner, the music is jumpy as Mario and Luigi are.
Although not the same concept, the bass line of the Overworld theme exemplifies the spirit of syncopation, racing up and down the scale. Allowing the bass to drive is a jazz concept, motivating the pizazz and emotion of the music. The importance of this is to imagine the song without any rotating bass line, simply a standard line of dialogue with the harmony that doesn’t proceed anywhere. The eighth notes at section B (refer to second page of the transcription) really stand out as a change in the flow, engaging the song in a certain amount of new energy. Syncopation allows each note to shine, driving the song, and equally, the player along their adventure.
The last concept to iterate here is the tritone substitution. This is where a chord will step up irregularly three-whole steps up, building a dissonant sound, then resolving on the base one chord associated. In the overworld theme, this is stepping up from the C chord to the F# chord, then resolving to the F chord. In simplified terms, the dissonance this adds is the important aspect of this concept – the inorganic sound keeps the player on their toes, adds a bit of the jazz formula Kondo loves, and operates as procedural fun. (Listen for this at the :06 mark of the World Map 2 song.)
The Art of Introduction
The prerequisite for using chromaticism and motivic transformation to compile an entire soundtrack is variety in pacing and atmosphere. Standard music tracks do not rely on these concepts as much due to the lack of a background adventure being the medium to carry the music; whereas, video games have a natural change of pace in game environment allows for these concepts to work in video game music so well. See for example the underground, ghost house, and water theme. Each of these are rather simple ensembles, again prying off the central motif discussed earlier; they do, however, cast off the denaturation of simplistic songs by making the environment they supply music for, come alive.
See first the Yoshi song. In any edition of the Yoshi song, Kondo utilizes drums to add a stepping and dance rhythm. These are early allusions to the Yoshi Island proper music, which was inspired by African drum music Kondo stated he was studying. The rhythm of the drums adds an accent to Yoshi’s new ability to move – a blatant change in the music but not a different song, notating to the player Yoshi is not like an invincible star (short-term, different song for a short-term item), rather, is an added layer to the gameplay.
The other way Kondo can hook a player is through the classic hook of an introduction. Notice in the Overworld theme song Kondo throws at players, a quick stair case ending on a dissonant note, leading into the piano swing. This is a quick introduction, giving enough time to establish a baseline. However, in the ghost house theme, the central motif is not inserted until :25. The underground theme holds off on the central motif until :10. The underwater theme is a slowed down version of the overworld theme, using slightly different instruments. These extended introductions establishe the setting of the level the player is about to enter – a brilliant adjustment to maintain the central motif while building new expectations in a few seconds.
The fortress theme is a brilliant edit to the central motif, erasing most of the syncopation and chromaticism to make the song sound indecently haunting. Several examples of dissonance can be heard throughout this song, especially at :40 to :58
– the song never resolves, holding the player in psychological suspense and tension. Even as this brief interlude concludes and descends into the C section of the song, the song becomes a chaotic organ ensemble. The hook never stops for the player and just moves them along the chaotic journey until the fortress clear song is played.
Mapping the Tune of A Map
might be one of the most compelling songs of the game, breaking the rules of maintaining a distinct central motif. Instead, Kondo implements a lovely jazz piece that loops, and is easily engrained into the player’s mind. The elevator music for Star Road personifies simple magic in chromaticism and syncopation. The Special World
song does much of the same, but instead of concluding on a fast triplet, pauses and puts a cerebral marker, without syncopation, on where the start and beginning are. Again, in both songs the bass drives the song along, fitting perfectly with the overall force of Super Mario World’s Music. (Wait until two minutes for a special rendition of the original Mario Bros. song).
The Forest of Illusion
is a special song for the amount of dissonance and paralleled structure Kondo builds in one piece of music. The entire concept is a rise which doesn’t conclude until it receives the consecutive, parallel rise, only to move into another portion of the song which is dissonant. The final chords of the notation are a perfect example of what tritone substitution can do to a song to make it completely enrapturing, nerve wracking, and entirely charming in that classical Kondo essence.
Fitting Koji Kondo into one box is near impossible, but Super Mario World may be the closest example of his work to those attributes which make him a legendary composer. He has a knack for building worlds into his music and making those worlds come alive for the player. He takes native concepts of the original motif and expands upon them to make everything a cohesive picture of the adventure players are about to embark on.
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I wanted to avoid a sim where showing the numbers were the value. I wanted to create a player experience where the player could come into contact with the elements in the game and see the results.
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Put Harvest Moon in its simplest box – doing chores. The original Harvest Moon on the SNES paved the way for farm simulation games throughout the years, creating the simple beauty of… doing chores…
Okay, yes, romanticizing the objective of chores in everyday life, more so in video games, is a brute challenge. As Harvest Moon’s designer Yasuhiro Moro iterates, the separate concepts of the country side, nature, and the methodical pacing are idealistic in our own life, equally representing the human striving for peace, efficiency, and beauty. Combining those concepts into a video game can create one drably slow game. Video games were meant to be an ancillary part of life; a fast-paced challenge, a methodical puzzle, or a duel with the devil. The concept of a farm simulator is intrinsically contrary to the idealism of a video game.
That is, they are contrary unless the game design makes the slow pacing the central point of playing. A game where there is life teeming at every corner from farm animals to a thriving town; where the strategy is maximizing farm efficiency; where secrets lay in wait around every turn of the season. Under this umbrella, Harvest Moon is the exhilarating management of a business, romance, animals, all while maintaining the faint persona of simplicity in chores. The pacing may be slow, but every minute is filled with action, making the slow pacing a welcome part of the game.
To clarify, in this article, I am referring to THE Harvest Moon series. The series split roughly in 2013, when the Harvest Moon title shifted management. The classical Harvest Moon is now embodied in the spirit of Rune Factory and in the core of Story of Seasons. The current Harvest Moon games are a completely different, and often underwhelming, experience. Still confused? Here is a Destructoid Article
explaining a bit of the history. Still confused? Take my suggestion and play the Game Boy Advance Game: Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. This is my personal favorite, and in my opinion, epitomizes a lot of the design philosophy discussed below. With so many different Harvest Moon Games, and the many paths each game can take, you will probably be imagining a different Harvest Moon experience than everyone else. Just know, I have Friends of Mineral Town in my head when writing this, and that bias will probably be reflected herein.
Understandable and enchanting core gameplay is key to delivering a game players want to reengage with. For example, at the most basic level, playing an RPG is about managing characters and engaging battle systems, strategy games about creating a unique path to victory, and adventure games about peeling every layer of the world away. Genres exist for a reason, but the common element of almost all genres is crisp pacing (fast or slow), constant interaction, and connecting the world as one.
Contrast these concepts in the Legend of Zelda, a standard for adventure games; A Link to the Past has relatively quick pacing while Windwaker has relatively slow pacing with the an enemy rich overworld and a sea-bearing, exploratory adventure, respectively. However, both are very crisp to the natural game environment. Both demand constant interaction from the player in the form of exploration and navigation, while the overworld and underworld (dungeons) connect in the classical sense of defeating dungeons signaling and advancing of the game’s time.
The classical example here is important to show that Harvest Moon is a bit of an odd-animal in the game genre, not owning any of these video game design points in a clear sense. While Moro did not reinvent the wheel of video game principles, he certainly gave it a new, dynamic style. Harvest Moon is not fast-paced, demanding the player move with methodical precision to build, literally grow, the world. In exchange, Harvest Moon emphasizes interaction, ensuring the player’s in-game-day is filled with work. Connectivity may not be clear at first, but the importance here lies within the pacing holding back the economy; or put another way, getting past the game’s pacing is mastering the game’s economy.
Using an in-game clock system to pace crop and animal growth, a stamina measure to give the player health, and a rotation of seasons limits the number of tasks that can be done in a day, even limiting the type of tasks in a day. For example, the farming set of tasks, clearing space on the farm, planting crops at the beginning of a season, caring for the crops, harvesting crops, replanting, are all done on separate days for different segments of the farm. To maximize the efficiency of the farm, however, these tasks will be combined on segments of the farm so each one is performed on the same day. This will maximize the resource gain so the breadth of segments which can be built upon will increase throughout the seasons and years. Furthermore, maximizing the resources allows the player to maximize their time in the town, building relationship with the harvest spirits, the town civilians, and exploring the game’s secrets.
To be blunt, Harvest Moon has its magical melody in the repetition of building resource gates throughout the season. Regardless of the season, the combat inviting the player back is the farming. Upon mastering the ‘combat’, every other point of the game can be accessed more readily. This is where the ancillary parts of the game really come into their own. The combat of an adventure game moves the player along, allowing them to access the lore mentioned earlier, and thus build the world. In Harvest Moon, and specifically, Friend of Mineral Town, the player can upgrade their house, their farm, allowing them to house more animals, access a kitchen, and thus, access different events such as the cooking festival or dog frisbee tournament.
With the gameplay explained, this begs the question, what about this formula is engaging? (See Mark Brown’s video below on the importance of engaging, How to keep players engaged (without being evil)). The achievement is not in the farming alone, the means, but the end of the means, where the player is given the option of what to progress and when. Upgrading the farm house or the different animal barns demand the same resources, thus, leaving it up to the player of what aspect of their life they want to progress next. This might be applicable to the season – spending more time with the horses for the upcoming horse race – or it might be completely arbitrary because the player loves farming chickens. The strategy and management factors in, however, as upgrading the chicken coop means the player’s house will have to wait; and without upgrading the house to a kitchen, there is only so much work that can be done due to the lack of ready stamina.
One of the most comical parts to me is the way the character in Friends of Mineral Town tosses down a piece of pastry, hops out of his chair, and is ready to go. Every. Single. Day. I bring this up, because I cannot help but think of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who bragged about his ability to be up and ready for the day in 30 seconds. Or, Emperor Marcus Aurelias who wrote, “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being, What do I have to complain of, if I am going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm. But, it is nicer in here… So you were born to feel nice? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you are not willing to do your job as a human being…” (Meditations, translation by Gregory Hays). My point isn’t much of anything, besides the fact the Harvest Moon characters are so impervious to sleep. That is, unless you work to hard the night before. The game will force you to sleep an entire day. So, get everything done between sun rise and sun set, then enjoy the rest of the day with family. As the Romans did.
And this is where the feedback loop connects the ancillary into the direct outcome. There is only so much work that can be done before a player’s stamina runs out. The player must have food to replenish that stamina, but without a kitchen purchased for the upgraded house, food in town will cost the player their family of chickens. The game never clearly states the need to own a kitchen, and this is where some of the mystery and beauty of Harvest Moon really settles in. Many of the key processes to developing a truly efficient life are hidden, waiting for the player to discover. The game does indeed offer enough obvious assistance to ensure the game is not miserable, making discovering the different paths to efficiency all the more rewarding. No player will take the same road map to success, an element that was prime in the era before internet guides were quickly plastered to offer the ‘definitive’ best path to success.
In that regard, a definitive plan from the outset largely ruins the joy of Harvest Moon. Sure, the gameplay might be profoundly casual with the guide – it will, however, be missing the joy that comes along with the rise and fall of victory or failure in processing crops and making the most of the days and land at hand. When it comes down to, “Why play Harvest Moon,” and beyond the philosophical design points, there is something imprecisely magical about trying out one cycle of vegetables, only to face a monetary constraint because they cannot be processed quick enough, solving that problem by clearing another patch, and struggling to find out which tool needs upgrading when. There is a heartfelt charm in town, talking to different citizens, giving gifts, and waiting for a special event to occur.
And to be blunt, charm is what the game comes down to. For all the planning, crop manipulation, and progression, charm is what separates the game from everything else. The point of engagement, and not addiction, is essential here. In a modern era where mobile games with many of the same elements as Harvest Moon are rued for their pay wall mechanics, Harvest Moon’s incentive is the baseline cheer that pushes the player to keep improving. As the player improves, so do their relationships and connections in town. The game design remembers that a human with poignant reactions is playing the game, and capitalizes on human capital to make an unforgettable, life-simulation game.
My approach is not just to create art, but to try and sense what a game’s content and function demand from the art, and create art that’s in line with the game’s particular needs
Hisashi Nogami, Producer of Splatoon
There are few games which combine aesthetic pleasantry with functional pleasantry inside of a playground atmosphere. Quality game design typically carries a measurable standard of aesthetic interest, whether in a unique art style or music, using that element as a complement for the functional enthusiasm of the gameplay. Aesthetic is a point in design which can be complementary to the presentation – see how Dark Souls or DOOM sets the atmosphere for impending clashes with dark or gritty enclosed spaces – functional – see rhythm games which rely on aesthetic relaying pacing for players – or both – see Luigi’s Mansion relying on the world’s aesthetic, most literally, coming alive. Designing games with functional and aesthetic formidability seamlessly meshing is a challenge, demanding a special team, a special type of game, and a special producer.
Splatoon 1 and 2 are games that splatter the competition when it comes to that prowess of seamless design.
Understanding the enthralling experience of Splatoon really demands experimenting in its heartful playground. There are few words which justify the rain of color in the game which translates to a cascading of whimsical fun for the player. In one regard, the player is encouraged to play free on a play-ground, almost literally. Thrown into a skate park, museum, shipyard, shopping mart, or concert stage, the player is allowed unrelentless freedom with character motion that is fish-chip crisp, comparable to the free enthusiasm of the childhood spirit running on the playground. (Or what enticed me to participate so often in paintball). The lighting in the game presents the stages as a suave, blank-canvas, eagerly waiting to be splatted with ink in the proper team color. The art of a Splatoon course is in the player’s creative hand, a delightful adventure in obsessively covering every nook and cranny of the stage to give their team a chance at victory.
These elements are topped with the interactivity of everything. Every inch of ground gained is important, a very clear and methodological way to observe battle progression – every wall is a tactical opportunity – every weapon a different, and vital, way to overcome the bad guys – every movement of the squid a decisive way to deceive or bite the enemy’s bait. Splatoon design is centralized around combining these layered and interactive elements to engage the player. There is never a dull moment, and every team member is vital the battle.
Breaking Splatoon down a bit further and the design goes back to the vision of Producer Hisashi Nogami (first credited as a design team member on Yoshi’s Island SNES) of ensuring aesthetic being intentional with the function of the item. The fluid motion, the very way the game is played, is a brilliant exposition on this. The characters, being squids, look very natural speeding below ink, moving with precision, or slowly plodding where there is no ink – hence, the game’s motion is very habitual. Build in the squid’s skate-boarding or extreme sports appearance, and the art of passing through an ink cannon and tossing an ink bomb in rapid succession, or waltzing up a wall to surprise an enemy, is fitting. These are not mere squids, they are squids who own their stylistic, jubilant, combat movement.
The jubilant combat movement is not lost on impacting the player; it has a refined and balanced approach which rewards mastering approaching a stage’s middle-point or high-ground and punishes jumping into an enemy onslaught without a plan. There is a tactically right way to approach each hurdle of an enemy splatter-gun or a stage twist/turn, playing right into the player’s learned subconscious. Yes, there is a skill element, but learning how to handle these tactical situations is intrinsic to that skill, rewarding competitive player’s who approach the game with intent, rather than intent only for spamming chaos. There is a refined balance to each match because of this, and only rarely are games completely lopsided by the halfway point.
I study military and political history for a career now, and Splatoon has a much more nuanced and realistic approach to handling combat than older Battlefield or Call of Duty games I remember playing. The maps are designed to reward classical tactical principles that are natural to man. I don’t know if that is intentional, but it is worth mentioning.
The jubilant squid principle goes beyond just the movement in game, as each player gets to take a personal approach to the ink-field. The gear in the game is essential to the multiplayer progression and feedback loop, as well as the very function of playing. A T-shirt, a very stylish T-shirt at that, is a unique way for the player to foremost gain an upper hand through an added ability such as a tad more ink or quicker movement; second, a way for the player to show off their flavor in squid-fashion; third, a reward for the player to continuously come back for more Splatting. The shoes, and head gear all follow the same pattern – players must play to win coins to purchase the items, which are reset in stores every few hours, encouraging the player to get a taste of Splatoon every so often instead of in one sitting.
This existential concept of rotating schedules is not limited to the gear, also applied to the maps and game modes. With matches being three to five minutes and the rotation every few hours, Splatoon can be tasted in traditional, long-haul gameplay sessions, or in short bites every few hours to buy new gear and play on new stages, all at the convenience of a few minutes at a time. This concept of time, and time moving on, adds a sense of realism and engagement with the player, almost in the same way Nintendo’s Animal Crossing invites the player to play the game a few moments of time throughout the day. The atmosphere of the hub, a bustling city of players, and unique art from said players, makes the world feel alive and worth engaging in. In a very imaginative, punctual way, the player is made into their own rising sports star within the game, experiencing the rise, and struggle, of Inkopolis.
While Splatoon 2’s attraction might be difficult to picture in words – mostly due to the charm of the vivid, cascading, wall of bright colors and over-enthusiastic squid-kids – the design carries this multi-layered experience that entices the player to keep coming back and explore a world truly created for them. By putting player freedom through movement, expression, and time-investment foremost, Splatoon offers this cheerful combination that makes the player feel as if they stand out. Never mind all the design elements, map layouts, the single player experience, all elements which deserve their own design review, Splatoon 2 is a colorful world meant to be nothing less than exuberantly, even if inanely and unapologetically, boisterous. The multi-layer package of design is a special treat, deserving praise not only for the functional approach, but the mentality and player-focus to which the game focuses.
You did it! You found the hidden block, out grew a beanstalk, and you climbed it to the heavens. There in the clouds above you see coins floating in the sky. And… what’s that? They spell a message: “VIDEO GAME SHOWTIME”.
Hello! Let’s have a conversation about video games!
This is Video Game Showtime, and Video Game Showtime is Alexander and Sarah Haynes, Sam Lockhart and Michael Swenson. And maybe our dog, Gerald? We all met as moderators on the r/Nintendo community on Reddit, but we like other games too and wanted a new challenge.
We don’t know what that new challenge looks exactly like yet but we hope you’ll stick around to find out with us. We’ll be launching with a brand new style of podcast in the coming weeks and later you’ll find videos, essays and other tidbits here in base camp. We want to be a new voice and try out something a bit more inventive than news and reviews, news and reviews.
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