[The following is a companion piece to a larger work, titled "Is Game Music All It Can Be?" I suggest you read that one first.]
The leitmotif is a concept that was really exemplified by Richard Wagner, the famous opera writer of the late Romantic period. You can read that link for a thorough explanation, but at its base level a leitmotif is a very small musical idea that serves to announce the presence of a character, place, object or even idea. Think of it as a mnemonic device of a story. It has become the one of the most important idea in scoring for feature works. Games, however, seemingly have no clue how to exploit this idea to deepen and enhance the player's experience.
“But wait!” you say. “I hear recurring themes in my games all the time!” Yes, it’s true, there are often common themes running through sequels, but this does not explore the full potential of the leitmotif. Wagner himself started out with this sort of unchanging theme, used over and over to the point where Claude Debussy said the use "suggests a world of harmless lunatics who present their visiting cards and shout their name in song." This is not, as you can imagine, the kind of image you want to project.
As an example, the “Zelda Theme” (and many other themes from the Zelda series) has been used in every single Zelda game since Ocarina of Time — always at the actual meeting with Zelda, and always roughly the same. Same tempo, same feel, often even the same key. The only thing that changes is that the orchestration gets a little beefier as technology and budgets grow. For instance, here are the Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess tracks side-by-side:
These do nothing to explore any narrative potential; they simply announce “This is the scene in which you interface with the Princess.” Once more, despite tremendous advances in technology between the two games, the latter can only muster somewhat better samples than the original N64 game. This is about as far as video games have gone in exploring the leitmotif. It is a tremendous missed opportunity; they are one of the most powerful tools a composer has in his toolbox.
Let me show you what I'm talking about in a more sophisticated example. For a very brief, drive-by example of leitmotif in modern cinema, we shall turn to John Williams, the idea’s modern-day master. I could choose a dozen or more themes he’s written and you could instantly think of the character they represent, but for now we’ll stick with this one. So: Name that tune!
Everyone recognizes this. In its most fundamental use, this leitmotif has succeeded — it instantly makes you think of a certain character, place, or idea — but what about the interesting implementations of this? If I may be allowed to torture you for a moment with Hayden Christensen’s acting from Episode III:
Williams subtly inserts this theme into Anakin’s responses to Padme’s pleadings. It starts in very twisted variations around 1:10 and becomes more defined and recognizable as “Imperial March.” The violins take the B theme around 1:30, the trumpet intentionally mangles the A theme at 1:58, the first two bars of the theme are stated quite strongly as Anakin gives us his “evil face” at 2:09. In short, we’re watching Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, he of the “Imperial March.” The theme is short and stunted at first, distorted in key and pitch, but it coalesces at the same time as Padme’s horrible dawning comprehension of what her husband has become. It — call me crazy on this one — supports the picture.
So where can this recognition and manipulation be found in games? Just about nowhere.
I don’t really know why this is. It’s so effective, but it’s never fully explored. Perhaps it’s because videogame plots tend to be so straightforward that there’s no room for subtlety and alternate takes on reality, but I don’t think that’s always the case. RPGs provide an excellent opportunity for leitmotifs, but honestly even many action and FPS games have plenty of room for subtle ideas. I’d love to hear a theme in Modern Warfare 3 that belied what one of the characters was trying to say.
Sadly, I only know of one game that has used leitmotif to any notable effect: Final Fantasy XIII. [Very early-game plot spoilers ahead]
I’ll be honest: I’ve never really been a big fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy soundtracks, at least as they pertain to our topic today. They’re pretty, and he writes a catchy melody, but they don’t really carry the narrative. Masashi Hamauzu’s soundtrack of Final Fantasy XIII was panned by some for not being up to the standard set by his predecessor Uematsu, but I think it is hands-down the best, most cinematic game score I have ever heard. It gives me hope for the future of game music.
In Final Fantasy XIII, each character has their own theme. This means six separate leitmotifs for the characters, as well as around a dozen conceptual themes — one of which is incredibly important (arguably the most important in the game). Each is used many times in many ways to evoke certain ideas that differ based on where an when they occur, each bringing their own weight to the visuals of the moment. There are themes for objects, important locations, and even for intangible concepts like atonement and promise. Let’s look at one of the important themes.
“The Promise” is the main theme of the game, and can be found peppered all over the place. This theme encapsulates the main purpose and focus of two of the playable characters, and can be extrapolated to all six. It is mostly used to represent a promise that Snow and Lightning made to Serah, an important NPC. She is Lightning's younger sister and Snow's fiancée, and has in a manner of speaking been cursed and turned into a L'cie. The promise made by both Snow and Lightning is to save her by whatever means possible. Here is the theme in its pure form.
It is a simple melody, but it has a complex and evocative underlying chord structure. It also has three distinct parts, each comprising roughly 1/3 of the composition. The A section is the solo piano section at the beginning; the B section starts at about :34 when the full string section and winds enter; and the C section begins at 1:05 with the undulating violins over the top of the slowly plodding lower strings. Interestingly, each section is sometimes used on its own to evoke slightly different aspects of the promises made. The C section, referred to by Hamauzu himself as a "crystal motif", appears in quite unusual places and can give the player fresh perspective. It’s very … wistful. It’s also out of tempo almost every time it appears, which is an interesting effect that composers can be reticent to utilize. Let’s look at a few uses of this theme to see how Hamauzu supported or altered the meaning of the visuals.
The above statement is the first time we hear “The Promise” in the game proper, while the promise is being made. It’s pretty similar to the pure version, which makes sense. There are a few things to be gleaned from it, though. For starters, section A of the theme is performed by a sweeping string section, instead of a simple piano. It adds a more maudlin, bittersweet tone to the moment, reverberating with a promise made to an ostensibly dying individual. Also note that the changes in the theme from A to B to C and back to B are all very loose beats, corresponding with slight shifts in emotion or action of the scene. A is used starting at :40 for introductions and expository setting. B kicks in when Serah speaks, the delivery so to speak, and the promise itself is made by both Snow and Lightning. C enters as the time for words has passed — again, a wistful, poignant moment, as the characters realize that Serah has become a crystal (hence the moniker “crystal motif”) and is therefore “dead”, but fulfilled her focus and avoided the horrible fate of becoming Cie’th. We transition back to B as the process ends and the scene focuses on the characters’ rather bewildered reactions. Because the scene itself is something I would describe as “squishy”, you can see that these aren’t hard beats but softer, more gradual transitions.
Here we have one of several flashbacks to this same location earlier in the story (soundtrack version). This punchy, upbeat arrangement plays over events that occur before things have gone all to hell. It’s a rather playful due to some joking going on, and there are fireworks. Note the distinct lack of the third portion of the theme at the end. Note also that it cuts out for the brief time the discussion turns to darker matters (PSICOM), but then re-enters full blast once the conversation turns to a promise Lightning made to Serah. A different promise, and less serious, but it ties the two sequences together very well. Because it has a more light-hearted tone, the C section is omitted entirely, and we instead alternate repeatedly between the A and B sections of the theme.
This version is presented the first time that our characters enter a “brave new world.” Up to this point, our heroes have worked diligently to try to fulfill their promises, but immediately preceding this they discover that everything they thought they were doing was actually being orchestrated by their enemy, and they’ve only been helping hasten Cocoon’s destruction (which would be the opposite of their promise). So here they are, unceremoniously dumped onto a strange and dangerous world, with no clue of what to do next. It is a huge, sprawling place, with creatures and beings that can look down upon them and judge them. However, we have this level music that remixes the promise to give it a drive, a steady focus. In contrast to the lack of direction portrayed on-screen, it reminds us that the characters all still have a purpose, and it is the engine that drives them forward through their trials.
Our next cue (another flashback) uses a similar arrangement as the original version, although it is slower and a bit more unsure of itself. Less percussive instruments, more low strings. This flashback on the beach is another promise between Snow and Serah, very similar to the one we examined earlier. Again, the A theme is used as introduction and exposition, the B theme (with a nice hard cut to the sunset right as it kicks in) is the statement of the promise, and the C theme is the crystalizing, all-things-left-unsaid piece. It takes us back to that original moment when she turned to crystal, and gives a deeper impact to the promise Snow makes both here and earlier.
There are also several instances of a “blink and you’ll miss it” thematic use. Take this scene, for instance:
...which uses the “Pulse Fal’cie” theme through most of the video. Beginning right at :39, as we pass under the Fal’cie and cut to Snow, we get a very slow, melancholy statement of a single line of section B of the theme. Things look somewhat hopeless at this point, as Snow is amidst rubble and the Fal’cie where Serah’s located is guarded by half the Sanctum fleet. Very subtle, but nice.
The final use of this theme I’ll examine today is the ending credits. It uses a classic movie trope of remixing the main leitmotif of the story in a way that engages the viewer to walk out of the theatre feeling refreshed, saddened, uplifted, or whatever the point of the movie was. (In our case, mostly uplifted.) The underlying chord structure of the theme has changed, become more major key, more majestic, more final. There is a small amount of bitter-sweetness to it to reflect the fates of Fang and Vanille, but most of it points to the joyous reunion of Serah and Dajh with the main characters.
I chose a theme that has simplistic uses of the leitmotif idea and is mostly presented intact, but there are a great many more advanced and subtle uses of the leitmotif in Hamauzu's work in this game (even an incredible rhythmic motif that runs through almost every theme in the game and hearkens back to a similar idea in Beethoven's 5th Symphony). A full article could be written on each of the themes in Final Fantasy XIII, but Lightning's theme in particular is a fun one to dissect, as it gets sliced and diced a lot more. If you're up for homework, check out the following links and see what you can glean from their uses. 1 (through 3:25) 2 3 4 5 6 7
Final Fantasy XIII is an excellent example of using the leitmotif to support the visuals. Sure, the gargantuan orchestra playing impressionist chords is great in a gee-golly-whiz way, and they work well with the highly-produced and generally large focus of the game. But the real point is that the themes themselves, those simple melody lines, can be twisted, reverted, and contorted in all sorts of ways to create interesting emotions and call back certain themes that would otherwise be missed.