Peritextual Game Music (Writing Music for Games, Part 1)

This essay is based on lecture notes for my Video Game Music Composition class I’ve been teaching at SAIC.

For this essay, I want to look at approaches towards title screen, pause/save menu music, and motivations for these approaches. This essay does not go into music theoretical breakdowns of the mentioned songs.

Peritext, Paratext, Epitext…

In the recent 2016 collection, Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, Michiel Kamp wrote a paper called “Suture and Peritexts: Music Beyond Gameplay and Diegesis”. In it, Kamp proposes :

“that there are two primary ways of understanding music beyond diegetic gameplay sequences: as peritexts (Genette, 1997; Summers, 2012) and as a structuring device that relates different situations to each other in time.” (Source)

A peritext is part of a model of viewing an  Artwork. The model posits that a work can be viewed as two separate parts, the text and paratext. The text is the work itself, in the case of a game – roughly, the gameplay. The paratext consists of other things a consumer encounters on their way to playing the game. Reviews, fan theories, marketing, the title screen, all of which color the experience of playing the game.

A paratext is further broken down into two parts, epitext and peritext. Peritext consists of “materials that surround and are attached to the text itself:  a book’s cover and index…” (Ludomusicology, 75). Epitext is everything else: marketing, trailers, fan theories, criticism, hype.

So, in the case of a game, the peritext is often things like: the title screen, save menu, loading screens, credits, main menus. They are ‘part of the game’, yet not in the same way the moment-to-moment gameplay is. This definition doesn’t generalize perfectly over all games, but it will do for now.

Peritexts seem to exist on a spectrum of distance from the ‘text’ of the game. What is peritext and what is not depends on the game, but can be determined by considering how a particular moment in the game moves our experience with it to and from the text of the game. Kamp created a helpful chart (distortion is mine, whoops.). What is peritextual here is debatable, but you can tell that the non-gameplay+nondiegetic elements are clearly more peritextual than say, the gameplay+diegetic elements. Of course, you may have a game like OneShot or Metal Gear Solid that play with peritext in a 4th-wall-breaking way, by asking you to unplug controllers or look on your computer desktop.

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Okay So What Does This Have To Do With Music

What was exciting about reading this paper (and this essay) was that it finally gave a name, ‘peritextual music’, to music that appears in title screens, credits, intro sequences.

On an intuitive level, a good game composer will know what this music is supposed to sound like, but it was nice to find that how this music operates can partially be explained by a model used to analyze other creative artworks.

Peritextual game music can be broken into a few categories:

  • “Diegetic Break-Smoothing”
    • Location: Pause Menus. Inventory Menus. Death Music.
    • Preserve a player’s engagement with the game that may be reduced by the diegetic breaks caused the above situations. “Smooths over” these breaks. Help stabilize the ‘temporal ebb and flow‘ (Ludomusicology, 78) of intensity in engagement with a game’s text.
  • “Preparation to Enter the game”
    • Location: Title screens, pre-title cutscenes, Character Creation music, menus taking place before entering the game.
    • This music helps the player enter the world of the game, hints at what is to come, or, “primes” the player to engage with the text. The main distinction from the above.
  • Overlapping cases:
    • Location: Loading screens (the loading screen from the title screen of Dragon Quest XI is the same as the one that shows when we fast travel.)
    • Rare cases when the title screen is the same as a pause menu (As Kamp mentions, this happens in Max Payne).
    • Settings and Save menus can vary in presentation and music depending on the game.

Title Screen Music

A good title screen theme draws you in to the fiction of the game. It understands that it is the first piece that cuts you off from the audio of your immediate physical surroundings, and that is offering a preview or taste of the game. Songs here may draw upon important melodic motifs or instruments used throughout the game’s soundtrack. Or, they may conjure up images and feelings representative of the game. The energy of the song – whether on the slower/calmer side, or more intense/upbeat side, is dictated by the game.

Take the title screen of Final Fantasy 13, which contains the main theme. While FF13 is not the strongest game, the song hints at the game’s narrative themes and conceits of trying to save friends and siblings and maintaining hope. It does this in a gentle way, with light piano, and quiet orchestral accompaniments. This method works well in games with strong casts of characters and a well-written main theme, when the game is dramatic enough to merit these sorts of grand title themes. Final Fantasy 15 takes a similar approach.

The title theme from my game Even the Ocean, “A Streak of Lavender”, slowly fades in the atmosphere of the game. The melody played by the lead synth incorporates the main Even the Ocean motif, but is recontextualized in a more melancholic, mysterious manner (than say, the credits theme, or introductory story theme, or orchestral-like overworld song.) However, the game isn’t all just that sort of semi-dark fantastical mystery, and so the 2nd half of the song is an ethereal mix of a string-like sound and piano (I was actually riffing off the end of the FF13 theme here, which does a similar job of using more ethereal sounds in order to suggest you to begin and enter the game.) The title screen of Even the Ocean focuses on an image of a cabin in the woods – and my focus with the song was to try and transport you into this mysterious setting, before the Storyteller brings you into the game proper.

An example of a weak title theme would be Donkey Kong Country 2. This is bizarre because of the high quality of its songs, including the excellent Stickerbrush Symphony. The issue here is not a poorly written song (though it does cut out sort of suddenly), but more that it fails to encompass the overall feel of the game. The title theme sounds quite dark and forboding, and while it does play with ‘pirate’ motifs present in the games’ levels and songs, I wouldn’t call this characteristic of the game, which has an interesting mix of thick atmospheres and subtle humor. Weirder is the very happy file select music and then the again, forboding level select music that follow. The title in DKC2 feels like something that wasn’t as hardly thought about. Either way, it seems fine because the file select music is catchy and sort of overrides the short title screen.


Introductory Menu Music

Some games, when re-using the title screen song is inappropriate, will have separate songs for important title/main menu stuff. A strong example is Phantasy Star Online’s main menu music, “Prenotion”, and character creation music, “Image A Hero”. The main menu music immediately sets the general tone of the game – futuristic synths, a sense of flying through space.

(I would argue that PSO fails to live up to this title screen, which, based on FF15 and 13’s failures, I can only chalk up to that it’s much easier to write a song encompassing a theoretical ideal game, vs. pulling off a ‘perfect’ game worked on with financial expectations and many workers. I’m not complaining, title screen music is interesting in that it gives us a view into an ideal, perfected game.)

PSO has a mission structure where you accept quests from a spaceship, and then beam down to the planet to explore. But I think the story felt a little light, which goes against the interesting grandeur of the main menu music.

Likewise, this happens with the character creation music, which serves to almost prepare you for the bright lights of the game’s main hub world spaceships.

Pause Screen Music

Some games add music to the pause menus. Some game just leave the current environment’s music looping, optionally lowering the volume or filtering out higher frequencies. These approaches function differently in terms of how they preserve or interrupt the game’s diegesis. I don’t find one or the other to be stronger, as they have different effects. So it’s worth noting that interruption of the game’s diegesis is not necessarily a bad thing.

Upbeat, Preparatory Approach

Final Fantasy 15 has an upbeat pause theme. The pause menu has information about the game and shows the main characters standing, hanging out. I wonder why they chose to add a pause menu theme – my guess is it would be odd to pause the game in a battle, and have the music keep playing, and then see my four main characters hanging out in some blue, empty space, acting relaxed and chill, while their ‘in-game’ selves are fighting a giant dragon. The song helps to cover up the intrusive pause menu, with music that focuses on the game’s main musical motifs, and allows the player to focus on memories of the journey so far.

Pokemon TCG has a great theme. What’s weird is this pause theme tends to interrupt this overworld theme. In addition, the pause menu is a short loop, and you usually spend minutes rearranging your deck and strategizing. So it makes less sense to me to have a potentially irritating song there, though the pause theme has much more of a ‘let’s prepare for a fight!” feel to it.

This NBA Live 97 theme is similar to Pokemon TCG in terms of function, presumably.

Quiet Ambience Approach

I’m not sure how far this dates back. But in a lot of AAA games, the game will go nearly silent when pausing the game, though still have some light ambience. See Assassin’s Creed IV. This theme from The Wolf Among Us is a more brooding and present.

I think, in the case of Assassin’s Creed, the effect here is to remind you of the game’s narrative framing device – the game being a simulation of an ancestor’s memory. So while the game audio may be interrupted, in some sense, the near silence makes sense narratively.  The pause menu is transporting you to a new space, just like the FF15 pause menu, rather than overlaying a UI.

In GTA V, there’s a lightly melodic, ambient drone piece for the pause menu. The feeling here is one of rest/reflection. It’s strange – why not just keep the music playing in game? I haven’t played in a while, but you can listen to music while driving, and presumably while walking around. In a game that focuses on personalizing one’s musical experience, it feels odd to cut that off with some Tangerine Dream piece.

Melodic Rest Approach

Kirby: Planet Robobot. Somewhat close to the “upbeat” approach, but with more of a muzak/elevator music feel to it. This reminds me of music that plays on a handheld when you get up to do something, and you end up forgetting about the game for a few minutes while the song loops. It kind of inspires reflection on the game, because the music is transporting you slightly out of whatever you were doing in-game.

The Banjo-Kazooie theme, while irritating with its horns and banjo, functions similarly. Somehow, it’s a little endearing (likely because of it echoing the game’s main musical themes.)

And, Mother 3.

Nothing Else Approach

Some games do nothing, like Even the Ocean, which just loops the current area’s music. I did this partly out of not thinking much about the idea of music while paused. My earlier game, Anodyne, also has no special music for the pause menu. My intuition is this approach works well when the UI is clearly just an overlay, rather than an entire different space (like Assassin’s creed or FF15). That is, no matter what’s in the pause menu (within reason), it won’t be too big of an interruption. Of course, what you sacrifice is the possibility of conjuring feelings of preparation (like in Pokemon TCG or FF15). But, it’s possible that narrative diegesis is better preserved as there are no cuts in a level’s audio.

That’s it for this time, see everyone in Part 2! Not sure what it will be about – maybe complaints about overused instruments in ‘fire/hot/lava’ levels and their stereotyping effect on some cultures.