Upcoming Events: Boston Festival of Indie Games 2013

If you’re looking for a new gaming convention to check out in the New England area, there’s a one-day gaming festival taking place in Boston, Massachusetts next month. On September 14th, the MIT campus will be hosting the Boston Festival of Indie Games 2013. The event is in its second year and will run from 10 am until 10 pm. The event features show floors for tabletop and digital games, a game jam that will go on for most of the day, an art exhibit, and screenings of feature films about gaming. There’s also an off campus concert in the evening running from 7pm – 11:30 pm titled Boston Plays Indies. The concert will feature music performances by Deadbeatblast, Darren Korb, Control Group, DJ Cutman, and Boston’s own Video Game Orchestra. The festival is free to attend, so if you are in the area on September 14th it will definitely be worth checking out. Tickets to the music concert Boston Plays Indies will require you to buy separate tickets and the concert venue requires you to be 18 or older.Boston Plays Indies

The primary focus of the festival is to promote the digital and tabletop games of independent game developers. Over 30 different developers will be at the show to feature their games, which you can play and help test out. The event also features guest speakers include Robin Hunicke, the executive producer of Journey, Chris Remo, a composer and writer currently working at Double Fine, and Brian O’Halloran, an actor/writer probably best known for his role as Dante Hicks in the movie Clerks.

It’s great to see more events taking place on the east coast, especially in the New England area. I’ll be heading to the festival myself and checking out everything on display, including the Boston Plays Indies concert in the evening. This will be my first time attending this particular convention. I’m not sure what to expect, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun. I’m especially looking forward to seeing groups like the Video Game Orchestra and Control Group perform. The last time that I checked, they are still looking for some volunteers to help them set up and run the festival. They’ll provide you with a t-shirt, food, drinks, and lunch for helping out. Be sure to check out their volunteer page if that sort of thing interests you. Again the main festival is free of charge, so give it a look if you plan on being in the area on September 14th. Hope to see you there.

MAGFest 11: Panels

One of the big draws for me about MAGFest and other conventions are the panels. It’s always great to hear about new things happening in the industry and it’s a good way to learn about different topics from people who’ve had some experience. A majority of the panels that I attended were focused on music making and game audio. I did however attend some Q&A sessions featuring some of the online content creators. Obviously I can’t really talk about the panels that I didn’t go to, since many panels occur simultaneously. What I will do, is tell you a little about some of the events I did attend. Hopefully this gives you a good sampling of what happens at these conventions/festivals.

Panels from Day 1

The first day of MAGFest didn’t officially start until 1 p.m. so there were only a few panels to go to on that day. The first was the “Opening Hijinks” event, which I talked about in the previous MAGFest post. A very laid back panel featuring many of the individuals who help run the show. Since many people in the audience were experiencing their first MAGFest, including myself, they went over the history of the festival and explained how it’s changed and evolved.

The next panel that I attended that day was “Music from a Dozen old Sound Chips” hosted by chiptune artist Inverse Phase. His presentation focused on the different sound chips used in video games over the years, from the Atari to the Sega Genesis. He covered the different attributes and capabilities of the chips including each chip’s specific pitch and amplitude resolutions as well as some of the unique quirks that they each have. The panel also featured a surprise appearance of Yuzo Koshiro, the composer for Ys and Actraiser, who entered the room just as Inverse Phase was discussing the PC-88 chip. This happened to be the very sound chip that Koshiro is considered the master of in terms of music composition. Despite this surprise, Inverse Phase continued his presentation, making sure to acknowledge Koshiro’s accomplishments with the medium. I got the chance to talk with Inverse Phase later in the week at his market booth. We got into some great discussions about music writing and our favorite old school video game soundtracks. He even showed me some of the trackers and sound sampling he had done for his own chiptune music. It was great to chat with a fellow musician and to check out his music. If you’re a fan of chiptunes or old-school game music, definitely check out Inverse Phase’s Bandcamp site.

Panels from Day 2

Friday’s first panel was the Q&A session for composer Yuzo Koshiro. I was very surprised that this event was not very crowded. I got the feeling that many people at MAGFest were not familiar with this composer’s work. This panel was only half full when it started but some late arrivals wandered in as it continued. Due to my anticipation of a large crowd for this panel, I had actually arrived earlier than I really needed to. This resulted in my brother and I snagging front row seats for this Q&A session. Koshiro had an interpreter with him, since he speaks only a little bit of English. Most of the audience’s questions focused on what inspired him, what he found difficult about composing on older systems, and how he came up with music to write. He said that for the most part he has been influenced by trance and various types of dance music, which he incorporates into his music in different ways. He also wrote many of the software programs that he used to create music for the games. I was very surprised at how much the audience members knew about his work, even down to the computer systems that he used to program music. Koshiro seemed to enjoy the feedback he got from the fans about the music and it was great to hear about music writing from one of the early greats.

Yuzo Koshiro as DJ

Koshiro’s DJ performance on Saturday night.

The next panel I went to that day was on the Twilight Symphony, a fan made Zelda album featuring the music from The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess. The panel focused on the processes and procedures they’ve had to go through to get the album made and to get permission from Nintendo to release the album. The three and a half hour long album was arranged and recorded using a mixture of live instruments and virtual instrument libraries. Everything on the album including the artwork has had to go through various channels to get final approval from Nintendo. As of the day of that panel they had just sent a copy of the album to Koji Kondo, one of the composers for the original game soundtrack. I’ll be looking forward to the album’s release, assuming everything else goes well. Be sure to check out some of the album’s tracks at their site here.

Some of the album art for Twilight Symphony

Some of the album art for Twilight Symphony

The final panel for the second day was probably one of the longest panels I’ve ever experienced and for good reason. This was the “Extra Credits Q&A” which has a reputation for going on much longer than originally scheduled. The panelists James Portnow, lead writer, and Daniel Floyd, narrator and editor, were willing to keep the Q&A going until they had answered EVERY question that audience members had. This resulted in this session of Q&A lasting around 4 hours. Just about every subject you could think of relating to games came up for questions. Everything from the future of gaming, the WiiU, politics, the scapegoating of violent games, religion in games, the show’s future, and many other subjects were brought up for discussion. This was apparently the first time that they’ve had a Q&A session where all of the audience questions were answered. Despite the long running time, it was great to have all the time we needed to question Dan and James. This was probably my favorite panel at MAGFest.

Saturday and Sunday Panels

The earliest panel I went to on Saturday was the Q&A for Kinuya Yamashita, composer for Castlevania and Mega Man X-3. This Q&A had more people in attendance than Koshiro’s, which was nice to see. Many of the questions that audience members asked Yamashita were similar to ones asked for Koshiro the day before. Her primary influences for music, if any, have been from classical music, when she was learning to play the piano. She stated that if there are any influences on her music, they are only on a subconscious level. She never actively tries to imitate anything else she hears in other people’s music. She just writes what she hears in her head. The panel ended with a brief performance by Yamashita of “Blizzard Buffalo” from Mega Man X-3 on piano.

Yamashita

Kinuyo Yamashita performing music from Mega Man X-3 at MAGFest.

The final panel that I attended at MAGFest was on Sunday morning and was titled “Going Pro: The Business Side of Quitting Your Job and Making Things”. I expected it to be a boring panel on knowing the tax code and recording business expenses. But since I do want to eventually write music as a freelancer, I felt this was a panel I needed to go to. The speakers for this panel were not listed, but I expected it to be run by someone I had never heard of talking about the tools needed for succeeding. What I actually got was a very pleasant surprise. The panelists among others included Lindsay Ellis (Nostalgia Chick), Todd Nathanson (Tod in the Shadows), Lewis Lovehaug (Linkara), and Brent Black (Brentalfloss). Each panelist talked about their own experiences becoming of independent creators and the challenges and rewards that come from being your own boss. One of the biggest elements that they stressed was that there is a lot more work on the business side than most people think. About 80% of what they do has nothing to do with the actual creative process of the content that they produce. A lot of time is spent sending and responding to emails, dealing with financial information, and other responsibilities that are necessary to keep their businesses running as smoothly as possible. It was great to hear some firsthand accounts about working for yourself at home from people who are still actively doing it. While I don’t think they were trying to truly discourage anyone from attempting to do what they do for a living, they did present a very sobering view of what their jobs are like. If you really want to become your own boss, there’s a lot of hard work that has to go into what you do. Especially behind the scenes. It was a great panel and I came away with a lot of helpful information and advice.

Conclusion

I attended a fair number of panels at my first MAGFest. I thought that every panel I went to was well done, very informative, and featured some great panelists. There were plenty of events that I really wanted to go see, but couldn’t due to scheduling conflicts with other events. A few that I wanted to see but missed out on included Egoraptor and Game Grumps Q&A, the Team Nostalgia Chick Q&A, and a handful of others. However, I really enjoyed the panels that I was able to go to. If you’d like to see some of the panels from MAGFest 11, a handful of them were taped and can be found floating around on the internet. Some of these panels include Game Grumps, Team NChick, and The Game Overthinker. Be sure to check out some of these and other panels from MAGFest 11. If you’re ever at a convention, the panels are almost always worth checking out. They’re a great experience and always a ton of fun.

MAGFest 11: Overview

As the year 2012 drew to a close, there were different events that people were looking forward to. Many people were looking forward to the holidays and New Year’s to spend time with family and friends. Others anticipated the apocalypse due to the Mayans inability to make a calender past the year 2012. I however was getting excited for a different event that wouldn’t take place until the start of the new year. I had registered for MAGFest 11 and I was seriously more excited about this event than Christmas or New Year’s Eve combined. It was my first time going to MAGFest and I can now report, after returning home and getting some sleep to recover, that it is a complete blast!!

For those who don’t know, MAGFest stands for Music and Game Festival. It’s a four day festival that features gaming, video game music, and various panels on gaming and entertainment topics. This year the two featured music guests where Yuzo Koshiro, composer of music for the Ys series and Actraiser, and Kinuyo Yamashita, composer of music for Castlevania and Mega Man X-3. Before this festival the only other video game convention that I had been to was PAX East and that was only for one day. I had been told by a few people that MAGFest was a very different type of experience. It’s not as crowded, it avoids using any corporate sponsorship, and has a more party like atmosphere than other conventions. It sounded like something I would enjoy as a gamer and a musician, so I registered for the full four-day event.

True to what people described, this event was not as crowded as other festivals or conventions that I’ve attended. On the first day, I made sure to get there extra early in case there were long lines for the opening ceremony panel room. I discovered though that I was in no real danger of missing out due to overcrowded events. In fact almost none of the panels had to turn people away due to over-attendance. The “Opening Hijinks” Panel was one of the best things I could have gone to for my first day at MAGFest. A group of the people who run MAGFest explained what the festival is about, how it started, and gave an overview of what kind of shenanigans were allowed/encouraged while we were here. At its core, the festival has always been run by people who are fans of gaming and the music of those games. The panel was informal and it really helped set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

TF2 MAGFest

TF2 seemed to be some of the most popular cosplay at this year’s show.

There were a good variety of panels happening at MAGFest 11. Subjects ranged from game audio, cartoons of the 80’s and 90’s, Game Maker Studio Tutorials, and the business side of being freelance to name a few. There were also a number of Q&A events with internet personalities such as Ego Raptor, Channel Awesome, Brentalfloss, Extra Credits, Bob “Movie Bob” Chipman and Team NChick. Although I was mostly interested in the game composer and game audio panels, I was able to go visit some of the other panels as well. All of them were very informative and all of the speakers took time to answer questions from attendees during and after the panels. The fact that most of the panels weren’t overcrowded allowed me to relax more about getting to the panels that I wanted to see, which helped make the festival much more enjoyable.

The concerts, which usually ran from the early afternoon until late at night, featured a wide variety of bands. There were groups like Metroid Metal and Overclocked University, which focused on rock covers of video game tunes, and others like the Triforce Quartet, a string quartet that played medleys of music from different game franchises. There were also other musicians that set up in jam spaces to do more impromptu performances and even some solo artists playing out in the halls. One of my particular favorites was a trumpet player in costume performing melodies and fanfare from The Legend of Zelda series. The best concerts at MAGFest 11, for me at least, were the Video Game Orchestra on Friday night and Yuzo Koshiro, on Saturday, acting as the DJ doing mixes with his own game music in an hour long concert.

Yuzo Koshiro as DJ

Yuzo Koshiro, composer of Actraiser and Ys, performed as a DJ. Yes, that actually happened and it was awesome!

Overall, MAGFest was an amazing experience. There were lots of great things to do and it was one of the best festivals/conventions that I’ve been to. The panels were great, the music was amazing, and I got to meet and talk with tons of video game fans and members of the gaming industry. I’ll definitely be going again and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of games and music. I’ll have a few more articles up on some of the specific music events and panels that I attended at MAGFest 11. Be sure to check them out later this week and next week.

A Lesser Known Final Fantasy Soundtrack

When people talk about the Final Fantasy series and it’s music, there are certain pieces that usually come up. One-Winged Angel, Battle on the Bridge, Dancing Mad, and the many character themes from the series are usually named. In particular a lot of people usually think of the music written by Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote the music for Final Fantasy I through Final Fantasy X. Not only has his work been rearranged and remixed by various artists, but it has also been featured in concerts performed by orchestras around the world. The more popular pieces of his tend to be from Final Fantasy VI and VII. However, there are a few Final Fantasy soundtracks that don’t get nearly as much attention as the ones previously mentioned. One of these soundtracks is Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.Crystal Cronicles Cover

A different take on music for a fantasy world

Kumi Tanioka

Kumi Tanioka

The music of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was written by Kumi Tanioka, who had previously worked on Final Fantasy XI. Two other composers are also credited on the soundtrack. Uematsu is given credit for two tracks that use the Moogle theme from other Final Fantasy games and Hidenori Iwasaki has credit for the track “Oath in Eternity” which he wrote specifically for this game. Iwasaki is also responsible for may of the subtle synthesizer effects used on the soundtrack. Together they take a very different approach on the music for the Final Fantasy franchise.

One of the interesting things about the music for this game is the choice of instruments. Most games today that are set in a fantasy world use a modern orchestra to accompany the events of a game. In many cases they are mimicking the instrumentation of Hollywood scores, Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings soundtrack being one of the more obvious and recent influences for fantasy games. However, Kumi Tanioka takes a different approach with the music. For this soundtrack, Tanioka uses a small group of medieval and renaissance instruments almost exclusively. These instruments include the recorder, lute, crumhorn, xylophone, and other woodwind and percussion instruments.

16 Century Lute

What results is a one of the more unique sounding video game scores of the Final Fantasy franchise. Instead of large sweeping orchestral suites and dramatic battle music with intense chorus sections, the player is treated to more intimate and smaller scale pieces with a unique ensemble of instruments.

It seems odd that only this and perhaps a handful of other fantasy games use instruments from older time periods for their score. A few games use medieval and renaissance period instruments, but they are usually confined to a small selection of pieces (World of Warcraft‘s music for the inns for example) as opposed to being used exclusively for the entire soundtrack. A big part of this probably has to do with most game publishers wanting a more “cinematic score” for their AAA games. This of course means imitating movies and bringing in big orchestras or creating big orchestral sounds with computer programs. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s nice to see a soundtrack that takes the less traveled road. This eclectic collection of musical instruments that Tanioka uses allows the score to have a unique sound that helps invoke an older time period for the game’s setting.

A quick overview of the game

As is usually the case for the Final Fantasy series, the setting of the game has no connection to any of the previous games in the franchise other than the names of spells/items and the types of monsters the player encounters in the game. The plot for this game is relatively simple. This time around the game takes place in a world covered with a deadly and poisonous miasma. The different races in the world live in towns and cities that use special crystals that keep the deadly fog at bay. To keep the crystals working, special caravans must go out and venture into dangerous monster lairs to retrieve “myrrh”, a valuable substance that replenishes the power of your town’s crystal. Each year you and your caravan must travel the world, battle monsters, and collect enough myrrh to last another year. On your adventures, you eventually help unravel the mystery behind the miasma’s origin and find a way to rid the world of it.

The gameplay is very straightforward. You select an area of the map that you want to travel to, usually a town or a monster ridden area, to enter the different areas of the game world. The cities and towns are very small with only a handful of inhabitants. Even the world’s one city has only a few more shops than the average town. Typically you go into the towns to sell items, and craft new pieces of gear. The monster areas where you need to go are also pretty small and linear. Gameplay when fighting monsters consists of a very simple real-time combat system, only allowing you to do a three strike attack pattern, with abilities assigned to your combat slots for different types of magic spells and items that you might want to use. There are minor obstacles that either require you to get a key from a monster or find a switch that will open up the next section of the level. Bosses at the end of the area are usually simple battles, requiring a strategy of running up and hitting them a few times then backing away to avoid the boss’s very slow attack. In fact that’s the strategy that you will end up using for just about every monster and boss fight in this game.

Malboro Boss

This particular Boss remains in the same spot for the entire encounter.

There is multiplayer for this game but it requires that every player has a Game Boy Advance and the connector cables to hook them up to the Gamecube. So unless you know enough people who owned the GBA, a multiplayer session with this game is rare. The visual aesthetics are one of this game’s strengths, with an art style similar to that of other Final Fantasy games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy IX. The game still looks great today and is one of the most visually impressive games in the Game Cube library.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is one of those games that doesn’t get a lot of positive attention from gamers. Although it boasts a decent Metacritic score of 80/100, most people I talk to either love or hate the game. A lot of people I know didn’t like it because it didn’t play like your standard Final Fantasy game. The trend seems to be that people enjoyed the game more when it was a multiplayer experience rather than a solo campaign. For me the game is decent, but I found the world and story itself is much more interesting and engaging than the actual gameplay. What really drags the game down, for me, is the repetitiveness of the combat system and the fact that you have to return to many of the same monster lairs each year. It may have helped to have stages that were randomly generated each time you entered them and a more diverse battle/combat system would have also provided a more engaging experience.

FFCC City

Even the large city of Alfitaria has a small population.

A well crafted soundtack

Kumi Tanioka’s score complements the game’s style and gameplay very well. Just about every piece features a memorable melody that will remain stuck in your head long after you’ve left that area of the game. The simple and elegant composition of the music blends well with the minimalism and simplicity of the game’s design. One of the hardest parts of writing about this soundtrack is that it’s hard to pin down what I think are the best pieces. In most soundtracks there are usually a few standout pieces that you can point to as examples, but there really isn’t a bad track for this entire game. Every town, village, and dungeon has music that sounds unique and lively. The melodies that Tanioka writes are really what keeps the music from sounding stale and avoids listener fatigue. The composer’s focus and reliance on simple melody writing is put on display in pieces like “Amidatti, and Elenor Too” for the town of Shella.

A majority of the music maintains a tranquil and lighthearted feel, which complements theĀ  gameplay and world very well. Even though you spend a majority of the game fighting monsters, the music creates a relaxing atmosphere that encourages you to take your time and enjoy the environments while adventuring. Tanioka gets a surprising amount of mileage out of the small set of instruments at her disposal. Even in later levels of the game, she still manages to bring in something different. A great example of this is the music for the Dessert level titled “Treasure Sleeping in the Sand”. The track features a complex set of rhythm changes with the music, altering meter every measure in several sections of the piece.

This track switches frequently between meters of 9/8 (3+2+2+2) and 7/8 (3+2+2). The constant fluctuation of the rhythm gives the music an exciting and energetic feel. The use of uneven meter also creates a more exotic sound that we’re not used to hearing in western music.

One of the other pieces that deserves special mention is the single track that was written by Hidenori Iwasaki. His piece “Eternal Oath” plays in one of the creepiest and darkest parts of the game. The music is for the area of Tida, a former town whose caravan failed to gather enough myrrh for the crystal. The entire level is spent moving through the ruins of the village whose entire population was wiped out by the miasma.

Tida

Seriously, Tida is not a pleasant place to visit.

The piece is ominous and solemn, featuring low strings, synthesizer effects, subtle percussion, and an incredibly haunting melody from the flute. It sets the mood perfectly for an area that gives the players a grim glimpse at what failing in their quest would mean. Rather than being tranquil and relaxing, the piece is tense and foreboding. The player is removed from the more comforting music heard in the rest of the game, putting them on edge as they traverse the level. This creates a great contrast to the rest of the game’s music and environments. I’m actually surprised that Iwasaki hasn’t done much composition work outside of this piece. It is probably one of the most emotionally heavy pieces presented in this game and it really demonstrates his talents as a composer.

Conclusion

Kumi Tanioka’s music for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is a great addition to the already amazing collection of music written for the Final Fantasy franchise. It takes a completely different approach to game music and what fantasy music should sound like. It’s one of the few soundtracks that actually attempts to create the atmosphere of a medieval world with ancient instruments. While it doesn’t have the grand scale or complexity of a modern orchestral score, it does do something very important. It sets a simple and relaxing tone that enhances the player’s experience in this game’s world.

Crystal Chronicles may not be the masterpiece of high fantasy that some gamers were hoping for, but it boasts, in my opinion, one of the best soundtracks in the Final Fantasy series. The pieces are memorable, with simple melodies that remain in your head long after you’ve stopped playing, and the entire soundtrack is great to listen to on its own. If you’re someone who prefers having exciting battle pieces and heroic orchestral themes, this may not be a soundtrack that you can get into. However, if you are someone who enjoys simpler, calmer, smaller scale pieces of music and are looking for something a little different, then this is a soundtrack for you. It is probably one of my favorite game soundtracks and I’d highly recommend it for anyone’s video game music collection.

Welcome to Video Game Notes!

Greeting and welcome to Video Game Notes. Since this is the first post, in what I hope to be a continuing blog, I’d like to start by just go over what the focus of this site will be andĀ  tell you a little about myself.

If you haven’t already guessed from the name, Video Game Notes is a site that is focused on video games and the music that is written for them. While that will be the main focus to my writing on the site, I will occasionally have some posts that will be more about the games themselves. Some other blog articles will have more emphasis on music writing and may not always be tied directly to video games. There will also be some occasional reviews and retrospectives on particular soundtracks and games. Eventually, I will be making some announcements on music projects that I am personally working on, but for now this will be strictly a blogging site on video game music.

A Brief Biography

I’ve been playing games since the early 90’s. The first games that I remember playing were owned by my older cousins. They had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and later a Sega Genesis consoles and having them show me how to play games was always the highlight of my visits to their house. The first two games that I played with them were Tetris for the NES, and Sonic the Hedgehog for the Genesis. At the age of six, I wasn’t particularly good at Tetris and I always needed to have my cousins beat Dr. Robotnick at the end of each zone in Sonic the Hedgehog for me. I still remember having a blast with them and it got me hooked on games. After some pestering, my parents allowed me to get a Game Boy Pocket and later a Game Boy Color. We then got a Nintendo 64, our first console, a few years later for Christmas. To this day I still play video games and they remain one of my favorite pastimes.

Music has also played a major role in my life. Having a father who is a pianist meant always having music in the house. My father taught me a little, but I mostly taught myself how to play. My parents considered having me take lessons but they decided against it in the end. I really just played because I thought it was fun and in retrospect I think it was better that I didn’t have music turned into just another class I had to take. Unfortunately, music wasn’t a big thing with my peers at school. Sports were more important there and if you didn’t get involved with them, you didn’t fit in. This lead to some rough times, especially in junior high. Luckily, music ended up being a good emotional outlet for me. If I had a bad day, and there were many, I would come home from school, sit at the piano, and play for an hour or so. It wasn’t until college that I seriously thought about pursuing music as a career. After a lot of practicing and a few audition attempts, I was accepted into the University of Southern Maine’s School of Music. During my undergrad degree, I got involved in writing music with the school’s Composer’s Ensemble and I’ve been writing music ever since.

Why Video Game Music?

Since both music and video games have played big parts in my life, it seems like an obvious choice to combine my interests. While I am a classically trained musician, I do enjoy a wide range of music genres including video game music. It has always seemed to me that video game music is an underrated genre. There are certainly particular pieces from games that everyone knows, like the Super Mario Brothers and Final Fantasy series. However, aside from the more well-known music from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, there seems to be little recognition of the music that is written for games, even among gamers. There is definitely a niche audience for it and it is growing. With this site I hope to bring more focus on the genre and some of it’s lesser known content. I will still be writing about some of the more well-known music that many gamers enjoy, but I would also like to bring up some discussions about pieces and composers that not everyone knows about. With all that said, I hope you enjoy the blog. The next blog post will be on a game soundtrack that I guarantee few people know about.