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The Gardner Effect: Genre-crossing for game music

John Gardner, critically-acclaimed author and respected teacher, advocated "genre crossing" as a way to find new modes of self-expression. Working on the iOS game "OMG! Pirates!" taught me how smashing cliches together can create new styles of music.

James Bordner, Blogger

May 12, 2015

2 Min Read

In his classic writing textbook The Art Of Fiction, John Gardner told his students to experiment wildly with crossing the conventions of certain genres of fiction: set a detective novel in a sci-fi world, write a love story based on a classical myth, tell a hoary old epic from the point of view of a surprising character (Gardner's own novel Grendel retells the legend of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster he kills).

This can be a great technique for discovering new modes of expression in game music, too. In early days, I tended to drift (as most inexperienced composers do) into the well-known clichés of genre: baritone guitars for cowboys, pipe organs for spooky places. By the time I started scoring for games, I was beginning to get bored with my own approach, and the iOS game OMG! Pirates! gave me a chance to stretch and to learn something.

The game is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, similar to Castle Crashers, based on the old Internet gag about whether ninjas or pirates are cooler:  you play as a young ninja whose dojo is raided by pirates, and you spend the rest of the game seeking revenge. In a spirit of wacky fun, I decided that the music would contain elements of both "ninja" music (Asian melodies and harmonies, koto and zither, etc.) and "pirate" music (sea chanties, Celtic or Olde English folk music, etc).

The result was surprising, and made me realize what John Gardner was talking about: the music became more than a stylistic gag. What emerged was a style I had never worked in before. Some of the early themes were clear pastiches where the individual elements were clearly discernible, but crossing these genres eventually led me to a crazy blend of jazz and rock forms that got compared by some listeners to “Frank Zappa with Herbie Mann sitting in.”

I couldn't have set out to include this kind of music in the game: it simply wouldn't have occurred to me. But I got there by smashing together two sets of cinematic tropes and listening to what happened. "The Gardner Effect" has become a regular tool for me. What if an orchestra had a pair of DJs instead of a percussion section, and then a sax player jammed with them? I have no idea, but I intend to find out.

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