Battles in Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) present special problems for game immersion because of their sheer ubiquity and repetitiveness. This is particularly true of games that require the player to “grind”—that is, to engage in repetitive fights in order to level-up characters and thereby gain tactical advantages later. This paper argues that battle music is first and foremost a variety of functional music, a genre that fans measure not by its sonic beauty but by its psychological effectiveness. This point leads directly to a number of pressing questions: How do battle themes function? How do these functions relate to the all-important concerns of immersion and interactivity? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of battle music? And finally, what would a preliminary theory of battle music composition look like?
This article examines how the grind of JRPG fighting manifests as an integral part of battle music composition, analyzing three standard conventions in detail: (1) a clear opening audiovisual rupture, (2) a fanfare as cadence, and (3) a sustained period of harmonic stasis underpinning busy surface textures. This last phenomenon creates a sense of “musicospatial stasis”—that is, a musically induced sense of stasis that intermingles with and projects itself onto the visual and narrative fields. Because the repetitive grind of JRPG battles interrupts movement through the overworld, battle themes should be understood as ruptures in the sonic environment, just as the battle stage is a spatial rupture in the overworld. Battle themes therefore make little sense as analytical objects out of context: by definition, they signal a break that impedes the player’s movement throughout a larger environment.