Understanding Game Scoring is an adaptation of the author’s PhD dissertation from 2019, and forms part of the Focal Press “Perspectives on Music Production” series. Enns states in the preface that his own teaching has highlighted the unique nature of interactive gaming in creating a participatory experience of its associated soundtrack. The book sets out to discuss the musical flexibility, interactivity, and programming principles that inform the act of game scoring and set it apart from more traditional modes of composition. Unfortunately, the writing style used throughout the book is a little too obviously like that of a PhD dissertation as opposed to a style more typical for a publication aimed at a wider audience. Each section starts out with long summaries of what will be covered, and then is concluded with summaries of what was covered; while these don’t detract from the actual content or the discussions being provided, they were a little unnecessary and convoluted. I think this is an editing issue rather than one with the underlying writing or content, and perhaps something for any future authors and/or publishers to bear in mind.
Once you get past the writing style and editing issues, there is some good content within this book; the opening chapters would make great starting points for new students in this field, as they provide a good overview of the basis of interactive sound within video games and demonstrate a wide breadth of research and support from their respective bibliographies. The author also attempts to define a new taxonomy of game music categories, which may prove useful for researchers working in this area as something to either use themselves or to build upon in their own work. However, the biggest issue with this book is that while there are some well-written examples and case studies, these were typically taken from the usual canon of games, and so the text does not really provide a discussion of the “evolution” of game music in respect to its composition or implementation (as the title might suggest). This is a real shame, as had there been more modern examples used, it would have allowed for a discussion of more complex implementation scenarios, which would have, in turn, made the book more interesting and relevant to those studying the field of ludomusicology.
In Chapter 1, Enns starts out by arguing that, due to its inherent interactive and participatory nature, a game’s soundtrack is only finally realized through the act of gameplay, and so he defines “game scoring” as the act of composing for and through gaming. This is an argument that I find compelling, and one that I would like to see adopted more widely in the field of ludomusicology, where quite often the music is analyzed in isolation from the gameplay and purely from a musical point of view rather than how it might react and respond to the events occurring within the game and the player’s actions. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be discussing game music in relation to its structure, themes, motifs, and so on, but that we should be concerned with both its effect on the player and the player’s effect on the music. Enns goes on to argue that game scoring is akin to game programming (a point that is reiterated throughout the book), due to the fact that composers have to work within constraints imposed upon them by the tools and technology available to them—another difference between composing music for video games and for other media (e.g., film). As a result of these constraints the author likens game scoring to aleatoric composition, where the composer defines a series of rules and behaviors for the music to follow in response to game events, and as the player progresses through the game, the composition unfolds as a result. The example of Super Mario Bros. (1985) is used to support this, but the use of this particular game may be a little simplistic in that the main “Overworld” theme is linear in nature and the ending has only two possible states based on success or failure. Perhaps a more involved example would have been better to make a stronger case for aleatoric concepts and their use within game scoring. The chapter goes on to provide what is described as “a case study of game scoring” using the game FEZ (2012) and the music of Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace). There were some interesting points made about the use of music in the game, for example when discussing Vreeland’s approach of thinking about the music in terms of spatial proximity rather than a more traditional temporal relationship. However, the author appeared to make a number of assumptions based on a conference presentation delivered by Vreeland, and the text seemed to be more of a description of the software tools used to implement the music within the game engine of FEZ rather than a discussion of the compositional processes and the consequences of those tools. At this early, introductory stage, this rather in-depth description of the tools used in the development of FEZ’s audio felt a bit out of place.
Chapter 2 discusses the concept of diegesis in relation to video games, a topic that has been covered by other researchers (e.g., Collins, Jørgensen,1 etc.), and highlights the problematic nature of trying to label elements of a game score as being “diegetic” or “nondiegetic,” primarily that it is difficult to separate the player and the character in terms of who hears what within a game score. The author again uses FEZ as an example and points to the use of a low-pass filter to process the in-game music when the player character is hidden behind an obstacle. This discussion is certainly an interesting one, and Enns does a reasonable job of highlighting the potential confusions that can arise when one tries to define the concept of diegesis in relation to the gameplay experience. The chapter then moves on to a case study of the musical score for The Legend of Zelda (1987), which covers some of the “standard” musicological characteristics of the music such as key, time signature, and melody of the success and failure end themes. But as with the case study of Super Mario Bros. from chapter 1, the situating of this case study within a discussion of interactivity feels a little simplistic. The discussion is framed solely around which of the success or failure themes will play and tries to assert that the player is in control of this, and that it is “interactivity.” The use of a more involved example that utilizes a more subtle and fine-grained interactive relationship between the player and the game score, rather than this relatively simple binary construct, would have allowed for some discussions of the implications of this interactivity on the compositional process.
The remainder of the chapter is used to put forward elements of Enns’s proposed taxonomy of categories of game scoring, in this instance that of “Title Music,” “Source Music,” and “Results Music.” It felt a little strange to have these categories being discussed in a chapter seemingly aimed at the concept of “interactivity,” as I’m not sure that the skipping of title and results screens and their associated music is the best example of the use of interactive music within games. Once again, we are presented with examples from the traditional canon of video games with descriptions of the title music from games within the Zelda and Mario series—while the appeal of nostalgia and people’s fondness for these games is understandable, it would be nice to see a wider range of games and maybe some more contemporary games being discussed. It was refreshing to see examples from the Grand Theft Auto games being used to illustrate the concept of “Source Music,” but again in the context of “interactivity” a relatively simple car radio that the player has minimal control over may not be the best example to use. The Source Music discussion highlights a slight issue with some of Enns’s analysis and assumptions: the assertion that the “Reflection” theme (composed by Vreeland for REZ) is an example of Source Music because it uses “game progression” to trigger the music. The problem (as I see it) is that if you follow this argument to its logical conclusion, then any music that is triggered (and this would essentially be all in-game music) could be categorized as Source Music. The majority of this section is well thought through and refers to examples that have clearly defined (if not always visible) locations as the source of the music, but the example of “Reflection” feels like an assumption too far.
In chapter 3, the author discusses how game scoring is structured by the technology available to the composer through an examination of the technical specifications of the NES audio processing unit (APU) that is responsible for all the sounds the console is able to produce. Enns provides a reasonable overview of the capabilities of the APU, and how composers leveraged the relatively basic capabilities to produce complex musical scores through specific examples from a number of games. The arguments that the compositional process is structured “in a peculiar way” (48) due to the requirement that the music be “programmable” and restricted by “chronically scarce” (48) hardware and software resources may well be completely justifiable for games (and their music) developed for the NES console, and other early gaming platforms. But unfortunately there is no discussion of how developments in technology and the increase in the resources available to composers may have changed both the compositional process and the ways in which music (and sound) can be used to enhance the gaming experience. This is particularly problematic given that the subtitle of the book is “The Evolution of Compositional Practice for and through Gaming,” as the historically focused case studies and game examples mean that this aspect of the book feels restricted and reductive. There were some interesting examples of game scoring techniques described within this section, for example how composers created the illusion of triadic block chords through quick arpeggiation, but it is a shame that there was no discussion beyond the one specific console. I appreciate that covering every possible console/platform is far beyond the scope of a book such as this, but when “evolution” is part of the title, one would expect some form of time-based analysis of the technology and its impact on the scoring process.
Following on from the examination of the NES APU, Enns continues to define more of his proposed taxonomy of game scoring through a description of what he defines as “Logo Jingles,” “Loading Music,” and “Voice Acting and Vocals.” The inclusion of Logo and Loading music within a book that has a focus on defining game scoring as an aleatoric process and experience feels like a strange fit, as any form of “interaction” that the player can use to influence the music and its underlying systems essentially is restricted to skipping through these sections, if that is even possible. There is an attempt to link silent loading screens to Cage’s “4′33"” as an example of aleatoric performance, but I was not fully convinced this is appropriate—“4′33"” is a deliberately curated performance of a defined length, whereas silent loading screens are more likely a result of technical restrictions rather than a deliberate choice to curate a silent “performance”; the player does not intentionally sit and partake in the silent performance. The short section describing vocals and their use in games did contain elements that could contribute to an aleatoric performance as Enns describes the experience of triggering the “Hadouken!” vocal effect in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991), but more could have been made of this to further reinforce what seems to be one of the central arguments throughout the book. Had the author made the case for including sound effects as part of the game scoring experience more strongly before this point, this section would have had a stronger connection to the discussions that precede it. As it is, it stood out a little for being the first point where nonmusical sound effects were discussed as constituting the game’s “score”; the opening of the book suggests that its focus is purely music—“In this book, I study the act of composing music for—and through—gaming, or what I refer to as ‘game scoring’” (1).
Chapter 4 continues the author’s proposed taxonomy of game scoring, starting with the categories of “Introduction Music” and “Demo Music.” For me, these two categories suffer from similar issues as some of the previous categories, namely that there is a distinct lack of interactivity. As the author states, these two musics accompany prerendered video footage, so it is unclear how they fit into the aleatoric experience of game scoring (the central tenet of this book). There are some interesting insights into the purpose and key characteristics of these musics, but I’m not sure that they warrant their own taxonomic categories. The bulk of this chapter is used to define various subcategories of the “Gameplay Music” category: “Hub Music,” “Area Music,” “Time System Jingles,” “Battle Music,” “Rest Music,” “Dialogue Music,” and “Challenge Music.” Given that gameplay music is probably the category that players will spend the most time listening to, it makes sense that Enns has devoted this much time to its various subcategories.
The Hub Music section contains some interesting insights concerning the need for the music that spans any in-game “hub” to feel connected and unified even if there are differing styles like those employed in Super Mario 3D World (2013). The proposed definition of Area Music feels a little at odds with the more usual usage of the term—rather than defining the music for a specific area within the game (e.g., the forest theme, the desert theme), Enns instead uses it to describe the music that accompanies the main “gameplay venue.” To support this definition, case studies of Tetris (1989) and Guitar Hero (2005) are used, which are strange choices given that Tetris is essentially a single 2D screen with a single looping musical theme, and the music of Guitar Hero varies depending on the song being performed. In fact, this case study seems to be framed almost entirely from the point of view of what the author describes as “mimetic technology” (84) (that of the technology mimicking the performative aspect of music), which could be valid given the gameplay of the two games, but there is very little discussion of how the games utilize their Area Music.
Following on from these case studies, Enns briefly refers to the aleatoric techniques utilized by both Vreeland and Kondo in their compositions for FEZ and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), respectively, and frames the discussion around creating musical variety. Given that variety and the avoidance of repetition are some of the most important aspects of game sound and music, I would have liked to have seen more time spent discussing this concept and its implications for the compositional process. There were, however, some interesting comments relating to Kondo’s work for Ocarina of Time and how when the game was ported to the 3DS, resulting in a different frame rate, the developers had to pay special attention to the rhythm of the game and its music to ensure that they remained congruent. The Battle Music section contained some pertinent musicological discussions of the instrumentation, melodic choice, and arrangements of the music for Street Fighter II and Final Fantasy (1990). One of the most interesting aspects of battle/combat music is the possibility for having the music change (adapt) in response to in-game events, player performance, and more, so it was a little disappointing to just see a simple table summarizing a few games’ approach to this without any real detail or discussion; the descriptions of how the boss music in Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002) varies depending on the action were interesting but too brief.
The descriptions of the various subcategories exemplify the problem with the approach taken by this book—a lot of the “types” of music, and their examples, seem to be based solely on the author’s own experience of a relatively small selection of games. This is not necessarily problematic in and of itself, and the games themselves are typically those regarded as canonical and widely lauded as successful and important games, but they are from a limited selection of genres, and so the types of music may not be generalizable to many other games. For example, the sole example used for “Dialogue Music” is the various owls in the Zelda series; I wonder how many other games have music written specifically for dialogue-based characters, and how many of these are skippable? Another example is the “Challenge Music” section, which is essentially just a description of what is meant by “mini-games” or “bonus games” with only a passing mention of the accompanying music needing to “set a sense of surprised discovery” (103) or to “encourage players to continue their efforts” (103), but how would this be done? What is the compositional practice? How has this practice evolved over time?
In chapter 5, Enns expands on the argument that game scoring is an aleatoric process born from chance operations and “performer freedom” through discussions of John Cage and other composers and their relinquishing of control to the performer. This discourse is certainly an interesting one, and the parallels drawn between their approaches and a game score produced as a result of player actions are valid and appropriate. It is at this point in the book that the author finally clarifies the role of sound effects within game scores; doing so at this late stage (the final chapter) felt a little overdue given that doing so earlier would have made some of the previous discussions clearer and more meaningful. I have no argument with Enns’s assertion that sound effects form part of the wider game score, and would agree with the notion that ludomusicologists should consider “sound effects” as part of their examination of game scores given their ubiquitous nature within gameplay. However, while the premise that “the game scorer composes sound effects” (110) might hold true for the example cited (Kondo) given the technology available at the time, contemporary games (and arguably those produced in the last twenty years) are not made using this set of restricted technologies and tools, nor are the composer and “sound effects” team the same person. To explore the impact of sound effects within a game’s score, a case study of Super Mario Bros. is used—the use of a relatively simple game, and only a portion of it, is understandable, but it would have been more interesting in terms of the overarching concept of the book to analyze a more modern game that has more interesting possibilities for change/adaptation, and outcomes in terms of the score. This would also have facilitated the possibility of a comparison of how technologies and approaches have evolved over time as promised by the title of the book. The case study itself contains some useful descriptions of the score that could be generated through playing one specific level, but again these descriptions are focused on the musicological aspects of the music rather than the compositional practice.
Following on from this case study, Enns continues to develop the proposed taxonomy starting with “Menu Sound Effects,” which is framed primarily through a description of the menu sounds within Super Mario Odyssey (2017). This leads, logically enough, into a description of “Menu Music,” but here the author tries to cover too much ground with the inclusion of music composed for the console’s operating system menu and for any digital game store system. While there are clearly compositional considerations needed in relation to these musics, they are not “in-game” music, so it felt like a distracting tangent to include them within this book that frames itself as a discussion of “game score.” Within the section describing “Status Music” there were some examples of how this music might have been composed to fit the game action, for example the “invincibility” music for Super Mario Bros. and the theme composed for Yoshi’s Island (1995) when the player touches one of the Fuzzy characters. These descriptions are useful for understanding how music can be used to signify important in-game changes, but they felt rather brief.
The next category to be described is that of “Gameplay Sound Effects,” and one might be forgiven for expecting a rather longer section given the breadth and range of sounds that occur within video games, along with the range of functions that these sounds fulfill for the player experience. Alas, this section was fairly limited in scope. However, it did provide one interesting insight—that of the melodic hits that accompany player sword strikes within The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. This would have been an ideal opportunity to finally return to the opening sentence of the book, in which Enns asks an interesting question: “Have you ever turned a video game into a musical instrument? That is, have you ever decided to—temporarily—change your competitive goals to musical ones while playing a game?” (1), but unfortunately, this was not to be. This felt like a missed opportunity to continue the notion of how players might approach a game differently in order to generate “music.” This chapter ends with some discussion (albeit brief) of how in-game ambiences have grown in importance as a result of game environments becoming larger and more complex over time, so we do at the end of the book get what was (seemingly) promised by the title—some consideration of how game scores might have evolved over time.
Chapter 6 provides a summary of the preceding chapters along with some possible suggestions for future work, but some of the suggestions felt a little simplistic—for example, the question of how approachable audio middleware (e.g., FMOD and Wwise) is to composers and what their limitations are would be easily answered by simply trying out some of the ideas covered within this book. Another area suggested as worthy of future work is that of surveying the gaming industry in relation to the tools that are used within game-audio development, but this has already been, and continues to be, done by the GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey, who publish their findings yearly. I would support the claim around significance in relation to being one of the few ludomusicology texts that is focused on the game score as produced by the act of playing (the ludic nature of the score) rather than simply focusing on the pure musicological characteristics of the music.
To conclude, I would like to make it clear that while this review may feel overly critical, these criticisms are mainly aimed at the structuring and the editing of the book rather than the contents per se. Chapters 1 and 2 are well referenced and contain comprehensive bibliographies that support many of the points and assertions being made. The proposed taxonomy of categories is interesting and potentially of use for those looking to categorize game music for analysis, but it would have been useful to get a better understanding of the work and research on which the arguments were based. These categories, which were originally discussed as part of a separate chapter within the original dissertation, now suffer from being scattered throughout the book, and they do not always sit logically alongside the content being discussed. I thought the various descriptions of in-game sequences and case studies were generally well written and will likely be of use for future researchers, but if the author is trying to make the case that sound effects are part of the “score,” it would have been good to see more discussion of them rather than a seeming focus on the musical aspects of a game’s sound. The attempts to link aleatoric composition and game scoring were interesting, and I think there is mileage in this in terms of further analysis and other researchers adopting this approach, but I wish this had been taken further and there had been some analysis of more complex interactive music. For me, the biggest failing comes as a result of the stated aim of being to discuss the “evolution of composition practice”—discussing the “evolution” of something requires a review of material and techniques over time, but this has not been done. The musical elements were described, for the most part, in terms of their musicological characteristics, but there was very little about the actual practice of composition (either traditionally or aleatorically), and the focus on the usual canon of games and consoles (with some minor exceptions) has resulted in a restricted view, chronologically and developmentally speaking. This historical focus would be absolutely fine if this had been the stated aim of the book (and I feel the book would have been stronger had it been so), but as it stands, the conclusions are a little reductive and restrictive. The overarching feeling one is left with is that this young researcher has not been well served by their publisher. No doubt early researchers are keen, and under pressure to publish early, but rarely does an almost direct translation from PhD to book work. In this case the minor structural change (scattering the taxonomy chapter across the book) that has been made serves to weaken the text rather than strengthen it. There are some potentially important and thought-provoking ideas here, but a lack of editorial input and challenge has resulted in a work that does not yet feel fully formed.
Karen Collins, “An Introduction to the Participatory and Non-Linear Aspects of Video Game Audio,” in Stan Hawkins and John Richardson (eds.), Essays on Sound and Vision (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2007), 263–298; Kristine Jørgensen, “Time for New Terminology? Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sounds in Computer Games Revisited,” in Mark Grimshaw (ed.), Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2011), 78–97.