I think I was about twelve or thirteen when I first played The Sims. There was something really addictive about the game; maybe it was the fact that I was a child at the time, and being able to live like a grown-up through The Sims was really compelling. It also had some really hilarious touches, like the undead Sims coming back from the dead at night. Let's face it, zombies are always a treat in any medium LOL But there was nothing quite like the day when my perfectly healthy, successful Sim walked out of the giant mansion I had purchased and lovingly decorated for him, walked three-quarters of the way around the house stopped, and writhed and screamed bloody murder for no reason before collapsing to the ground. Then the tombstone and a message popped up, and I promise you I am not making this up: “Oh no! Brad has sadly burned to death. May he rest in peace.” My Sim had died of spontaneous combustion. Now THAT'S ingenious game design.
Anyway: the music! I had actually COMPLETELY forgotten about the music to this game until I was doing some research the other day. I noticed that I have a tendency to arrange a LOT of Nintendo music, namely the Super Mario Bros. series, and I've want to try to branch out to games on different consoles; that's when I remembered The Sims, with music composed by Jerry Martin, Marc Russo, Kirk R. Casey and Dix Bruce. I typed “Sims music” into Youtube, loaded the track to “Buy Mode 1,” and suddenly I was overwhelmed with a tidal wave of nostalgia. There really is nothing like rediscovering something from your youth, especially music. Up until the moment I pressed play, I had no recollection at all of what The Sims music actually sounded like, but the moment the track started, I was able to hum along with the entire song, recalling every note and rhythm.
What a unique body of music for a game, huh? It had a wide variety of styles, while still creating a cohesive whole. The Building Mode tracks in particular are a good example; the tracks are comprised completely of solo piano music, but each piece is in an entirely different style.
The use of the solo piano in this game is a great example of “less is more.” There is power in a symphony orchestra, choir, wind ensemble—any large ensemble, really, has an incredible, boundless range of colors and textures and can create literally a mountain of sound. However, there is an equally powerful quality to a single instrument playing. Composers write instrumental and vocal solos into large ensemble pieces all the time, and when those moments occur it's really special. To have one, single voice pop out of an enormous texture calls your attention to the individuality of the player/singer, that qualities of their sound that make them unique amongst all of the other instruments in the ensemble. It can also represent something programmatic, like a character or idea that the composer would like to draw your attention to. For example, the violin solos in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade. For those of you who aren't familiar with this freaking amazing masterpiece of sound, it's the story of 1,001 Arabian Nights; the violin solo represents the voice of Scheherezade as she tells the Sultan her stories each night. (I attached a link to the Youtube video, but this is one of those pieces that you simply MUST hear live someday, DEFINITELY check it out if your local orchestra is performing it!)
A piano is especially different from the instruments of a symphony, in that it is a polyphonic instrument; it has the capability to play many multiple notes at a time. Some other instruments have a limited capacity for this, i.e. string double stops and woodwind multiphonics, but a piano is literally its own orchestra, if you compose for it the right way. And let's face it, the piano as an instrument that has an unbelievably huge history behind it. It's the instrument of choice for many famous composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy; and even composers who aren't piano virtuosos still use the instrument as a tool for writing their compositions. So, a solo piano can sometimes bring to mind the idea of a composer alone in his/her studio, writing or improvising at the piano.
So, with all of that in mind: why the choice of solo piano for the Build Mode? I personally think it's supposed to actually take you out of the game, in a way. I mean, you literally pause the game to go into Build Mode, you aren't actively participating in your Sims lives while in that mode. For me, the solo piano is saying, “your turn, Laura.” It's not about the Sims at that point; it's about you building a home, maybe even a dream home you'd like to live in someday. It's different than creating a musical theme for a person, place, etc. within the context of a story. For example, In Silent Hill 2, the music is ambient, creepy, atmospheric sounds that create a feeling of fear and horror. In Banjo-Kazooie, the bright, cheerful melodies, quirky harmony and downright silly instrumentation (tuba & piccolo FTW) creates the happy world that Banjo and Kazooie live in. The main theme of Legend of Zelda that we all know and love is suitably heroic for Link. But in all of those games, the music is accompanying a pre-determined plot. In the Sims, you create the plot, characters, world, atmosphere, everything. You are the composer hunched at the piano late at night, only instead of music, you're composing a world for your Sims to live in. There is almost no music in the game except in the Buy and Build Modes; the music in the game is entirely reserved for you, the player, as you create your world. There are no themes, motives or melodies that accompany the Sims themselves; the soundtrack accompanies you, the player. And it's all up to you to build the world that you want. Unless you're like me, and delight in creating stupidly designed structures just to see if your Sim can actually live in it :-D
Enjoy this week's arrangements of The Sims' Building Mode 4, Dr. Mario's Fever and Sonic the Hedgehog's Marble Zone! More on the way!
Video game music was what got me composing as a kid, and I learned the basics of composition from transcribing my favorite VGM pieces. These are my thoughts and discoveries about various game compositions as I transcribe and study them. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts/ideas as well!