How It’s Meant to be Heard: Authenticity and Game Music

By: William Gibbons (Texas Christian University) //

I never thought I would be listed as the “Dungeonmaster” in a concert program, much less for one of the world’s leading wind symphonies. Nevertheless, that was my title last March, when The Dallas Winds generously invited me to provide some on-stage commentary during a live concert of video game music. It was a thrilling evening—not only did I get to experience the ensemble up close, but I also got to speak publicly about one of my favorite topics to a large, enthusiastic, and diverse audience.

After the concert, I chatted with some audience members about what they had particularly enjoyed about the program. Though the responses varied, one refrain caught my attention: many listeners were excited to have heard their favorite game music “how it was meant to be heard.” They seemed to mean that they preferred the music performed by a large, live ensemble instead of the original, electronic version—they felt, in other words, that the orchestral rendition was somehow more “authentic.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hear game music played by an orchestra, of course—it can be a richly rewarding musical experience. But the idea of finding the “real” piece of music somewhere beyond its original form raises some tricky questions (and ones not unique to game music).

dallas winds option 2.jpg

William Gibbons as Dungeonmaster with The Dallas Winds (March 2015)

Those audience members in Dallas were not the only ones to assume that the “real” versions of game music aren’t always found in the games themselves. I’ve come across similar sentiments everywhere from YouTube comments on fan-created covers to crowds at hugely popular touring concerts like Video Games Live, mostly with regards to game music from the 1980s and 1990s.  The capabilities of the audio hardware during that era of game history were much different from that of more recent games. The bleeps and bloops of Super Mario Bros., for example, didn’t really sound like any “live” instrument, and even the synthesized instruments more common in the 1990s retained a distinctly electronic sound. The hardware also put restrictions on the amount of music any given game could contain, on the number of pitches that could sound at any given time, and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if those early game composers could have used today’s technologies, they would have. And so, paradoxically, to reach the “real” music, we have to change what the composer wrote.

Super Mario Bros. (1985, music by Koji Kondo). Note that the music doesn’t seem to emulate any particular instruments.    

Almost any discussion of a game music canon will prominently feature the Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu’s music for the Final Fantasy series of games. One of his most popular scores is for Final Fantasy VI (1994), originally released in the U.S. on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES. (It was confusingly called Final Fantasy III in the U.S. at the time.) Aside from being a fan favorite, scholars of game music love to discuss Final Fantasy VI, perhaps because it evokes the traditional “classical” repertoire that so many of us study. Not only does the game borrow musical techniques and plot structures from nineteenth-century opera, but it also includes an extended scene set in an opera house. In this iconic segment, one of the main characters impersonates a singer during a performance of the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” (itself a music-historical term) from the opera Maria and Draco—a (melo)dramatic tale of love and war. Players interact with the scene occasionally by choosing the correct lyrics, but for the most part they simply watch the opera unfold with all the drama the SNES’s 16-bit graphics and the MIDI sound card could muster.    

Obviously, this music doesn’t sound much like what we expect from opera: the orchestra and—especially—the voice are obviously synthesized, and the words often don’t quite line up with the music (a result of the game’s occasionally imperfect translation from Japanese into English). Despite these limitations, for many players this scene evokes a powerful emotional response. In his book Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, for example, William Cheng notes that comments on YouTube video captures of the scene often refer to how the music brought the player to tears—a response Cheng suggests may be the result of our imaginations, “fueled in part by the pride and pleasure of locating unlikely beauty in an unreal voice” (p. 75).

On the other hand, it is easy to view the very “unreal” sound and clumsy text as problems waiting to be fixed—pale imitations of how the scene would have unfolded if only the technology and the translation were better. Later re-releases of the game have, in fact, experimented with subtly improving both the text and the music. The 2007 version for the Game Boy Advance, for example, contained an entirely new English translation for the opera scene (and the rest of the game), and the GBA’s different sound chip made the sound of the voice and instruments arguably more lifelike. Though the translation is widely regarded as an improvement, players are sharply divided about the changes to the audio, as countless heated Internet forums like this one reveal. A more recent iOS/Android version features the new text, but emulates the original SNES music. Although the technological capabilities of these devices would actually allow for more “realistic” sound, this release attempts to win fans over by being authentic to the original version of the game. All three of these versions (and others!) all co-exist today in easily obtainable formats, and in a variety of languages across the globe—so which is the “authentic” one?


“Aria di Mezzo Carattere” from Final Fantasy VI as seen on SNES


“Aria di Mezzo Carattere” from Final Fantasy VI as seen on iOS

To further complicate matters, concert arrangements of the opera scene have focused on transforming it into a “real” opera, complete with live orchestra and professional singers. The best known of these adaptations is probably the Distant Worlds project, which started as a concert series and later became a set of albums of music from the Final Fantasy series. The music for Distant Worlds is artfully orchestrated and arranged—but also altered from the original through cuts, additions, and of course the introduction of acoustic instruments and voices. The text is adapted as well, translated into various languages when the concert series is on tour, and altered to better fit the music. The commercially released live video recording is from a Japanese performance, for instance, but the studio recording features a new English translation (see both versions below). Since the opera scene in the game was clearly intended to simulate a “real” orchestra (we can even see the conductor and instruments on the screen at some points), arrangements like Distant Worlds are more arguably more authentic than the original SNES version. But on the other hand they are also in a sense hyperreal, an attempt to reproduce an original that doesn’t (and never did) exist.

Distant Worlds Live Concert DVD, Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra (2010) Distant Worlds Studio Recording, Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra (2007)  

And then there are the countless covers and adaptations of the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” ranging from simple piano arrangements on YouTube to the “popera” version released in early 2015 by crossover musicians Jillian Aversa and Tina Guo. Their adaptation of the “Aria” adds elements drawn from electronic dance music and features an Italian text, presumably to add a level of “authenticity” to the idea of it being “opera.” I don’t think many listeners would claim that this version (whatever its musical merits might be) is the “real” version of the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” but why not? It is only less authentic than, say, the Distant Worlds arrangement in that it doesn’t conform to what audiences guess the original version was supposed to sound like—or, in other words, “how it was meant to be heard.    

“Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” Jillian Aversa featuring Tina Guo (2015). Aversa is well-known for her performances at Video Games Live concerts and recordings, while Guo was featured prominently on the Grammy-nominated score for the game Journey.

The opera scene in Final Fantasy VI is compelling in part because it brings game music into dialogue with other fields, including the study of opera itself. Opera composers would frequently make major changes to works, tailoring their works to particular singers or updating them to suit practical needs or audience preferences. The language and structure of the opera might depend on where it was being performed. French audiences, for example, didn’t hear Mozart’s Magic Flute in the original German, or with its original plot, until over a century after it was composed. Today, opera audiences are polarized about modernized stagings of older operas—some listeners crave bold, new interpretations, while others just want to see and hear things “as they were meant to be heard” (see the division over the LA Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for example). These issues of authenticity—the endless, impossible, and amazing struggle to discover what the “real” music is for us—complicate how we think about all music, from the concert hall to the corner arcade. As for me, I love all the versions of the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” and I always look forward to hearing new interpretations. But so far nothing beats the memory of that awkward, synthesized, 16-bit original.

For Discussion

  1. Think of another example where finding the “real,” “authentic” version of a song or piece of music is difficult. How is it like the example from Final Fantasy VI? How is it different?
  2. Let’s say you’re curating an exhibit on video game music for a museum. They want to include the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI, but can only include one version. Which do you choose, and why? 

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