An Interview on Ludomusicology: The Language of Music in Dark Souls
Following on the revelations of game developers on how they are tricking players with game mechanics, I asked about the perspective of video game musicologists and musicians in the fact that Dark Souls 3 uses musical patterns to structure the attacks of it’s bosses.
Soon Travis Kindred, musician and developer of Rocksmith, approached me. The conversation that followed was a fruitful exchange about the Dark Souls soundtrack, how different cultures internalise music in different ways and why music can easily be seen as a language. With Travis’ friendly permission, I processed the tweet thread into the following interview. Enjoy!
Ludomusicology is the study of the human experience of an entire culture of music as brought to life through the unique art form of video games.
Travis: There’s a video from the Game Theorists about the Dancer of the Boreal Valley and rhythm. The music theory is a bit off, but it’s still fun!
Pascal: That comes very close to what I was looking for, although I would love to see this, but from someone with musicological expertise! I have to say, it’s astonishing to me that the Dancer of all bosses is the one that breaks the pattern. I was under the assumption it was the Nameless King, because his movements felt very erratic and random to me. The Dancer on the other hand I found have a rather easily learnable flow. Maybe that is because I assumed the Nameless King would break the rhythmic component entirely – not only change the measure. Although I don’t mean to imply that that’s not a genius move in itself!
Travis: What the video seems to miss is what syncopation actually does to our sense of time and the predictability of rhythm. The game seems to do utilize the power of seeming unpredictability of syncopated rhythmic interjections to break up the flow of a rhythmic pattern and ‘surprise’ the player. I like to think of the bosses basically as different funk bands, in a way.
Travis: That’s a much more complicated question to answer. It’s part cultural, part musicological, part biological. This is Your Brain on Music is a great resource to check out. In short, you can basically relate everything back to the heartbeat. We’re used to that being a solid, steady tempo. If we get excited, though, it speeds up and if we’re tired, it slows down. Mess with it, and you can have a bit of the struggle between life and death, or in other words, you have dance, groove and syncopation. Which means Dark Souls is really on to something!
Pascal: I got a grasp on the biological part through the heartbeat, but can you elaborate on the cultural aspect? Does the perception of a “rhythm of death or struggle” change with different cultures or social upbringing?
Travis: Well, culturally, we all have a different ‘rhythmic heritage’ in a way. The Cuban Son is strong in the heart of Salsa and those musicians feel that syncopation in a way that, for example, someone like me who grew up in the states has a hard time understanding. However, I can feel the syncopation of rock in a way that they can’t. It’s very similar to the relationship between language and culture in that way. It just happens to be a language based on time, volume, pitch and timbre rather than…oh wait…they’re the same!
Pascal: Indeed they are! Makes me wonder if having a feeling for the syncopation of the music of different cultural groups helps internalising the melody of speech of that group, thus being able to help learn the language itself.
Travis: I’ve thought a lot about this myself. Take for example something as simple as the minor third being a common trait in Eurocentric languages that don’t share a romanic latin base. A rhythm to one culture is a syncopation to another. Of course, you can’t separate melody and rhythm. They’re as connected as language and culture. Mastering Dark Souls is a great example of learning a ‘language’ and gaining a deeper understanding of a ‘culture’ through music.
Pascal: The music in Dark Souls works as a great example of language, I agree! It’s a system of signs given by the game and understood by the player after learning it, thus helping to learn about the game world. Or in this case, how to literally ‘dance’ with its inhabitants. And think about the fact that the music of Dark Souls gives away so much on the lore and the world itself. The tragedy of the decaying worlds, the false holiness its deities, the never-ending cycles. They all seem to be motives in the corresponding musical pieces, at least to my ear. This might be me charging the soundtrack with my overbearing fanboying, but somehow I doubt it.
Travis: Our fandom is not the point where we find reason to discount ourselves. It’s where and why we’re able to discover meaningful truth in games.
Pascal: Well, what I mean is: The Bell Gargoyle theme sounds to me like raging church bells, just by the way the strings are used. That might either be me obsessing over the genius soundtrack, or it might actually be intentional. Which I think it is, given how thought-through the music seems to be in general.
Travis: I see what you’re saying. I think what you’re doing is relating a ‘sound’ to a ‘culture’ and that’s perfectly fine! In fact, I’m sure that’s the feeling Sakuraba and the dev team wanted to get out of you. Playing with culture and juxtaposing it to put the player somewhere familiar, yet new.
Pascal: You’re probably right! Also, I dare to add, the music intentionally gives that opportunity to associate it with cultural aspects, but it doesn’t suffer if the player let’s that opportunity pass because they’re just not familiar with that aspect. It leaves space to readjust towards a range of familiar aspects, cognitively.
Travis: I feel like another way of looking at it is that the player has the freedom to have their own, personal, musical experience with the game. It’s hard to say that someone is necessarily missing something if they’re relating to it from a completely different background. That’s, I think, one of the best things about releasing games and their music worldwide: You get a planet’s worth of different experiences.
Pascal: That’s a great summary. I guess you have a lot of experience in that (and hopefully a lot of feedback from players!) yourself?
Travis: All I can do is speak from my collective anecdotal experience as a musician who loves games and thinks way too much about how they make us feel. Because, honestly, they do. That’s why we love them so much.
Pascal: You won’t get opposition from me there. I wouldn’t still play games if they didn’t affect me.
Travis: And if you look at any form of entertainment whether interactive or passive, you’ll see that people value learning about how we as humans relate. That’s what makes ludomusicology so important. It’s the study of the human experience of an entire culture of music as brought to life through the unique art form of video games.