Leitmotif Dealbreaker

It’s quite common to find a game with a leitmotif.  You tend to have a tune for villains, a tune for the heroes, etc.  Technically, a leitmotif is really a part of a song that represents a mood / character / etc.  However, people commonly use it to refer to common tracks  or songs.  For me, a leitmotif using a song tends to become annoying as the game goes on.  Let me try to explain with a game that doesn’t annoy, and one that does.

The youtube video above shows a track that was never used in Xenogears.   It is called the “Star of Tears.”  This vocal track has elements that appear in a lot of the songs in the game.  Once you “hear” this melody, you can pick it up and many tracks in the game.  However, it never becomes that annoying.  I think the main reason for this is the fact that the remixed versions of the song tend to have a wide range of places where it is used, and the differences are enough that it is not blatantly obvious that this melody is associated with them.

In comparison, Lunar Eternal Blue has songs by a character named Lucia.  For example, this song is repeated several times in the game.  Unfortunately, the non-vocal version of the tune is the “happy” tune for several areas.  The cutscene below is a standard “discover a woman in the bath” type of thing, but it also shows the song appearing in the cutscene. The background theme for the area is also the same song, without the words.  For me, the song became more annoying to constantly run into rather then romantic.

All in all, Leitmotif songs tend to annoy me when they’re used in excess, or when the “meaning” of the tune is diluted.  Much like putting on sax music for every seduction, it feels like the game is using music with a broad brush.  I suspect if I actually enjoyed the melody in Eternal Blue, I’d be much less negative about the use of it.  However, since you cannot escape the main tune of the song, you can’t help but notice it again and again.  Xenogears varies up the song, and uses it more as a “travelling forward” kind of songs rather than specific mood or character type uses.  Lunar Eternal Blue uses the song for Lucia, happy areas, and as a song for Lucia to sing.

  1. yukie’s avatar

    ‘Small Two of Pieces’ (…yeah I know that’s probably not the right title for it but that was the title of my first MP3 of it) from Xenogears also shows up once as an instrumental. I don’t recall what the heck the title of that one is, though. It doesn’t pop up too terribly often though…

    Gah. I was certain that ‘Bonds of Sea and Flame’s tune showed up at another point in game at a more up-tempo, and I had some notion for whatever reason that it had an association with Bart or the Yggdrasil. But – yeah, my memory is iffy, the last time I saw Xenogears played was ages ago and Miang kept wiping the floor with my friend’s party.

    Chrono Trigger’s got a few leitmotifs too. The basic melody you hear in ‘Memories of Green’, the 1000AD overworld theme, shows up again in the HELL YEAH LET’S MOVE ON OUT theme whose name escapes me, and it’s sprinkled into ‘To Far-Away Times’ as well. You can hear a few bars of Magus’s battletheme sneaking into some of the music associated with Zeal too.

    FF6 is another good one – Locke’s theme is an integal part of Rachel’s sad flashback music, Celes’ theme is the main melody of Aria de Mezzo Carattere (I can’t spell this, tra la la); Setzer’s theme song slows down and gets all sombre and wistful for ‘Epitaph’ in Daril’s tomb, the Figaros brothers’ theme song does the same for the coin song. And then there’s the epic Dancing Mad, whose third and final tier have Kefka’s theme fragmented and happily crazydancing through them. This game really seems to have much more solid CHARACTER associations with the leitmotifs though, unlike Lunar EB. The only sort of exception is Terra, whose personal theme is also the overworld theme.

    I have no logical way to conclude this comment. Pretzeltown.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    I think one issue is that Lunar EB is supposed to be a love story? So her song is like the encapsulation of her discovery of the wonderfulness of life / humans / etc. But I think it doesn’t work for me because it’s used as a mood piece, rather than a “this is a character moment for her” or “she’s realizing stuff” kind of way. So it gets old faster.

    I think looking at how RPGs use music is something that could be fun to do. I mean, it’s like the Imperial theme. When you hear it in Star Wars, you know something is up. I wonder if you could argue that anime uses music in a similar manner, so games are just patterning themselves off of familiar tropes?

  3. yukie’s avatar

    The Lunar games never interested me because their heroines are such MacGuffins.

    …ooh. Yeah, some anime does? Evangelion has many iterations of Rei Ayanami’s theme…

    Also, I am embarrassed that I forgot the extremely long running leitmotifs of the FF series – the crystal theme and the Chocobo theme. Some of the newer FFs lack these, oddly enough, but up until 9 they were a constant.

  4. Alex’s avatar

    The only time I can recall a leitmotif being annoying was in Monster World IV. It’s just all over the place, and not much of à melody to begin with. Esp not when compared to the incredible earlier motif played in the final areas.

  5. Rav’s avatar

    I’ve never tried Monster World IV. It always seemed a bit action heavy for my tastes. Most platformish action rpgs have level specific tracks, as I remember, and thus don’t fall into that problem. I should check out Monster World IV to see how it works.

    Thanks for commenting, Alex.

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