“How did you survive…?”

-Princess Garnet

“I didn’t have a choice.  I had to live.  I wanted to come home to you.  So… I sang your song.  Our song.”

-Zidane, Final Fantasy IX

A few weeks ago I posted an article focusing on theming in music, and how it’s an important strategy to use in both video games and music to drive home deep emotional thoughts.  Today I’d like to continue that analysis with Final Fantasy IX and the theme of ‘home’.  This game not only uses music to foreshadow future events, like in Xenoblade, but also uses music as a recurring theme to carry emotion.

Final Fantasy IX revolves around the theme of ‘home’.  Almost every moment of the game contains some reference to home, whether it be the destruction of one’s home, finding out a place is not one’s real home, questioning what one would destroy to keep their home safe, or, in the case of the above quote, realizing that another person is one’s home.  This quote from Zidane (the protagonist) is the very last in the game; it’s the moment when Zidane realizes that he’s finally found his home.  Until that moment, Zidane doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s supposed to be, yet he seeks to find that place.  The journey is hard, and full of heartache and pain.

In order to drive that ache home to the player, the developers of the game, Square, had several design options.  They could use gameplay, a script for the characters, artwork, and music.  The most effective of all of these options in Final Fantasy IX was music.  The theme of home is driven home hard (pun intended) to the player through the game’s main theme: “Over The Hill.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGAWcVKDqxg&w=560&h=315]

The way in which this song plays with the idea of a musical key does a great job mirroring the theme of home that it’s intended to express.  The song is played in the key of G major, so in musical terms, the “home” chord of the song is G, and the “root” of the chord is also G.  The idea behind this is that G is the most basic note of the song, and so, in order to create a satisfying piece of music in this key, the music must “return to home,” and sound a G chord at the end.  But a good songwriter knows that in order to develop a meaningful piece of music, the chord structure must “wander away from home.”  The music wanders off on an adventure and then eventually returns to its home in a way that is satisfactory.

One of the times that “Over The Hill” wanders away from home, an E7 chord sounds, which is a chord known to be particularly bold and noticeable in the key of G because it contains a G#, a note not contained within the key of G. However, the root of the chord, E, does not actually sound.

E7-chord-intervals

This diagram maps out how to play an E7 chord on the piano, showing where the G# is in the chord.

When this chord sounds, its structure also communicates a message about the concept of home.  Since the root is absent, the listener feels a lack of grounding.   “Where we are” in the music becomes for a moment very hard to hear, though the music is very beautiful.  And since we don’t know where we are, it’s hard to anticipate where we’re going (i.e., G).  At this moment, too, G, the home note of the song, cannot be heard; in G’s place is G#.  If the listener searches for home, she will not find it.  When this chord sounds in the song, the listener feels very far away from home, and doesn’t know how to get back.

One of the wonderful things about music theory is that it explains structurally how the music feels to listen to.  The feelings of wandering and the ache of not knowing one’s place in the world are present in the song.  The wonderful thing about the music in this case is that those ideas don’t smack the player upside the head.  They’re hinted at.  The theming exists in the music, and allows the other types of storytelling to drive the point home a little harder later on in the experience.  The player has already felt Zidane’s ache and confusion in the main theme, long before his struggle to find home becomes clear.  And once his struggle reaches the foreground of the story, every time the “Over the Hill” theme reappears it brings with it all the emotional baggage that it’s developed over the course of the game.  That’s good theming.  What was upon first listening to it a beautiful and impactful song becomes the centerpiece of the emotional experience of the game.  That’s one of the many things music can do for a game.

When this chord sounds, its structure also communicates a message about the concept of home.  Since the root is absent, the listener feels a lack of grounding.   “Where we are” in the music becomes for a moment very hard to hear, though the music is very beautiful.  And since we don’t know where we are, it’s hard to anticipate where we’re going (i.e., G).  At this moment, too, G, the home note of the song, cannot be heard; in G’s place is G#.  If the listener searches for home, she will not find it.  When this chord sounds in the song, the listener feels very far away from home, and doesn’t know how to get back.

One of the wonderful things about music theory is that it explains structurally how the music feels to listen to.  The feelings of wandering and the ache of not knowing one’s place in the world are present in the song.  The wonderful thing about the music in this case is that those ideas don’t smack the player upside the head.  They’re hinted at.  The theming exists in the music, and allows the other types of storytelling to drive the point home a little harder later on in the experience.  The player has already felt Zidane’s ache and confusion in the main theme, long before his struggle to find home becomes clear.  And once his struggle reaches the foreground of the story, every time the “Over the Hill” theme reappears it brings with it all the emotional baggage that it’s developed over the course of the game.  That’s good theming.  What was upon first listening to it a beautiful and impactful song becomes the centerpiece of the emotional experience of the game.  That’s one of the many things music can do for a game.

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Nathan Randall

Nathan Randall - Video Game Analyst

Nathan Randall is a Master’s candidate in game design at FIEA. He analyzes how gameplay mechanics and design impact the storytelling of video games.  Learn more here.

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