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GDC: Koji Kondo’s Interactive Musical Landscapes

In his session 'Painting an Interactive Musical Landscape,' legendary Nintendo musician Koji Kondo took developers and admirers on a trip down memory lane, illustrating his compositional techniques through implementations in games past like The Legend
The line for Koji Kondo’s panel, Painting an Interactive Musical Landscape, began forming an hour before its schedule start time. Developers and fans mingled as they waited for the doors to open, and when they did it was only a few minutes before the room was filled, forcing people who merely arrived on time to stand on the sides. Composer Tommy Tallarico quickly introduced Kondo, and the lecture, accompanied by translations from Kondo’s Japanese to English and Korean started at full speed. When Kondo begins his musical creations, he keeps three things in mind: rhythm, balance, and interactivity. Rhythm here refers to the timing of character movements, game animations, and the players’ own ways of pressing sequences of buttons. In order to do serve the game rhythm, the composer must keep them in mind in crafting the rhythm of the music. This demands playing the game again and again during the composition process. “If the music doesn’t reflect the rhythm of the game, it becomes background music that might as well be piped in from any other room,” he said. Rhythm also dictates his predilection for internal synthesizers and sequencing data for the game music rather than streaming audio. For Kondo, being able to harness the game clock to drive the music data is an extremely effective device. If a game uses an orchestra recording, Kondo argued that the rhythm there is the rhythm of the conductor rather than the game’s rhythm. Kondo then talked about balance on varying scales. On a small scale, balance between frequencies, between music and sound effects, and between positions within a stereo or surround soundscape are extremely important. On a larger scale, however, composers should consider the balance of the whole soundtrack as a single coherent piece of music. Balancing the transitions between songs is important, as well as balancing different types of songs within the whole of the game. He also noted that in presenting games to his director, Kondo would wait until he had 4 or 5 songs prepared, so he could present them as a group. This helps to communicate the balance of the songs as well to the director, so all can better understand how the music better corresponds with the game. Balance becomes even more difficult and vital to success when dealing with a staff of composers. Interactivity is the most important part of the interactive game sound track, and incorporating sound ideas that showcase the interactivity is key. Here, he demonstrated how in Super Mario World he used percussion tracks that played or didn’t play throughout the background music based on if the player was riding Yoshi. This same technique was used for the Yoshi mechanic in Super Mario Sunshine more than a decade later. Besides just muting an un-muting single tracks, music instrumentation could change as Kondo demonstrated in a level from Mario 64. Here, the player experienced different instruments playing depending on whether Mario was standing on the shore, swimming in the water, or inside a cavern on the other side of the level. A similar technique was also used in the recently released The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, where the same music would play with sparse instrumentation on the outskirts of Castle Town, while an energetic band would join the mix as soon as the player entered the center of the area where the band was located. He also showed how phrases can be stitched together randomly to from a single coherent piece that would sound appropriate and fresh as it is repeated throughout the game. In The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, 12 phrases were randomly chosen and stitched together to create an 8 phrase melody that formed the Hyrule field day time music that the players heard. Recently, Kondo has been playing with music actually driving the actual gameplay. He showed New Super Mario Bros, released last year on the Nintendo DS, and noted how different stages had enemies that moved and danced in conjunction with chord stabs that happened in the game soundtrack. Wrapping up, Kondo noted that all of these techniques can be used regardless of the genre of the game or the genre of the music. Incorporating the interactive elements can be especially beneficial for creating an extremely rich experience for the player to enjoy, and the actual implementation of these ideas, while challenging, should also prove very enjoyable.

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