Jump to content

The Ragnarok Online problem -- or what makes a town theme a town theme?


Recommended Posts

I've used this as an example of game music studies often as a speaker and organizer of panels, and I want to kick off this forum's discussion by putting this question to everyone.

 

First, listen to what in my opinion is the most "towny" theme of any piece of game music:  Ragnarok Online's "Theme to Prontera." 

 

I have suggested to music scholars and friends alike that I could play this piece of music for just about anyone with any amount of gaming experience and they'd know it's a town theme from some kind of Japanese RPG.  My questions to you all:  Why is this the case?  Is there something quintessential about this particular piece of music, or would it work with, say, the Lufia II town theme just as easily?  There's a lot of tonic going on, but imo there's more to it than that, and I'd love to pin some specific characteristics onto various jRPG town themes to help connect them.

 

You could replace "town" with "battle," "field," etc. and it still mostly works -- the rest of the Ragnarok Online soundtrack continues to conform to this notion of musical location quite nicely.

 

Other related questions to consider:  Can we identify a piece of game music as "from a jRPG" more generally, and if so, what elements do those tracks share?  Is it important to consider that first word in the jRPG acronym -- Japanese -- more strongly than the rest of this post has done?  

 

I'd love to hear some thoughts!

Link to post
Share on other sites

My take on this is that it doesn't sound like town music.  To me, these kind of songs evoke the feeling of "home".  They evoke a calm, welcoming feeling of coziness which make people think of a homely place.  Since there aren't many games which have themes exclusively for indoor homes or houses, and rather have the town theme playing whether you are inside or outside, then people respond with "town" instead of "house" or "home" when asked where this theme belongs.  

 

To me, this same type of arrangement is used a lot in old sitcoms that were family-friendly.  You could easily put this at the start of a "Growing Pains"-style of sitcom and it would fit right in.  These sitcoms also revolve around being in a house, which most of the time have a welcoming and cozy appearance for the audience.  In trying to identify the musical characteristics that evoke this kind of image in people's mind from this themes we could also analyze the themes used by this kind of sitcoms as well.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I definitely agree that there are a very limited number of contexts for these pieces -- it's not really a question of "what does this evoke" as much as "which of the following potential categories: title screen, town, castle, field, battle, dungeon" does it fit into?  As such, of course you're right that we combine "home" and "town" into the same category, because with rare exception (Earthbound, Robotrek offhand) they're the same as far as a jRPG is concerned.  

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think maybe instrumentation plays into it too. You generally don't hear a lot of brass in town themes unless the town is very specifically a regal kind of castle town. I think that what you've got in Prontera and a lot of Final Fantasy and Tales of town themes is a focus on woodwinds as leads. Maybe oboes, flutes, and clarinets evoke a kind of idyllic feeling?

Link to post
Share on other sites

The use of soft woodwind instrumentation is a mainstay in these types of  themes, as Darke said.  Maybe this type of instrumentation may bring images of medieval towns where it's easy to imagine these types of instruments along with other rural string instruments being commonplace.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yeah, I'm not getting "town theme" from this. To me it seems like it could function as a theme of reminiscence, being fairly sad, or a love theme, suggestive of remembrance.

 

When I think "town theme", I imagine something that evokes the idea that it's supposed to be memorable---chimes, flutes, guitar(?), a catchy melody (I know, catchiness might be subjective), etc.---because you'll be coming back to or going through the town pretty often. Another way to say it is that perhaps, you would want to keep coming back to the town in-game just to listen to it. Some of the people above have said that it "makes you feel at home," which, yeah, it should IMO, if it's specifically a "home town" theme.

 

If it feels too "lovey-dovey" though, like what I think this is, it almost but doesn't quite register for me as a town theme, but rather, as a piece about someone missing a loved one or something like that.

Link to post
Share on other sites

It's funny that you chose this one as an example of a typical town theme, especially since it contains some elements like synthesized drum beats that usually are not found in town themes in JRPGs. Especially the beginning part gives me more of a "Save Screen" vibe than a town. Later on, the peaceful melody and selection of harmonies and melodic lines clearly is more "peaceful town", but still I think for example Kakariko Village from Zelda: A Link to the Past is a better example of stereotypical "town themes".

 

I think the main aspect of JRPG town themes is that there is no sense of threat audible in the music. The songs are usually downtempo, have some beautiful melodies played on serene, soothing instruments. They often have some kind of strings/pads for the chords to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere, and the chords are predominantly major ones. When there are too many minor chords in there it mutates more into a love/sadness theme, so the major chords play a major role here (no pun intended :-)

 

Instrumentation is also a very important aspect, as town themes usually have little to no percussion in them. If anything, it's some light stuff like shakers or tambourines. There are of course examples like Secret of Mana's town theme, but that one also has a very happy vibe to it because of its jumpy melody and cute instrumentation. Generally the instruments are non-threatening in nature. Harsh sounds like electric guitars, heavy drums or deep basses/brass are usually left out to create a more natural, soft mood that doesn't feel too dramatic.

 

The song structure is also usually more predictable, so the player gets the feeling they know the place and there will be no surprises, and they can feel right at home without fearing any threatening dangers or battles.

 

I think those are the main ingredients to create a typical JRPG town theme that fits into all those classic games.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Wise words

 

heh, I knew you would nail this.  I agree with mostly everything.  I also thought of kakariko village as a better example of the quintessential town theme as well.  But I think you hit the nail in the head about the non-threathening nature of everything in a town theme.  From the instrumentation to the arrangement to the structure everything is made to make the listener feel safe.  I think that's why it gives me a "Home" feeling, because your home is the safest place one can think of.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Funny you should bring this one up. I actually addressed this very thing in great detail in the VG Analysis thread that's up here many years ago, it might be relevant.
 

 

It's a common thing with older JRPGs, having peaceful towns that need help or supply you with a place to rest and such. What's so interesting about the town music from older JRPGs? I found that they follow a relatively rigid formula, which one could capitalize on if they need to have good ol' town music in an RPG.






It's interesting - I've noticed that many town songs seem to introduce a mellow theme, then follow it up with an elaboration or variation of that calm theme before moving into the 'B' section (the songs above are an example, but there are quite a few more that do this, as well). I won't go so far as to say every JRPG song does this, but I find that a great majority of them seem to do so.

I can't say for sure why this is done (other than because it works  ;-)), but if I were to take a guess I'd say it's because the calm, peaceful introduction of the thematic material gives the illusion that the next part is peaceful, as well (which may not be so peaceful in the reiteration, in reality, like the Mario RPG rendition). Also, it is an effective way to extend a track without too much effort. If anyone else has any idea why this works so well, let me know - I'm really curious, and I don't have a definite answer.

Thus, in theory, it would be possible to emulate this effect by doing the same thing yourself when composing a town theme for an old style JRPG. I did just that a few years ago - write a JRPG-style town theme (well, styled to represent a big city, actually) using the technique I explained above and expanding on it. I feel it captures the mood of a city perfectly, partly because it emulated the classic formula so well.

For how rigid it is, you'll probably notice that there is a lot of room for variety, even with such a strict structure. The classic, rustic town is easy to find, but you'll notice that there is room for a royal city theme or even a big modern-city theme to follow this structure with ease. It's quite amazing, but not surprising - composers have written many amazing works using rigid structures and such.

Try it out - you'd be surprised how well this works (and don't forget to share your examples if you do try it  :razz:).

TL;DR, the form for a solid majority of jRPG town music follows as such: A - A' - B, or some variation thereof (such as an intro preceding the "A" section). A is relatively soft, A' is an elaboration of A, and B is fresh material. The Lufia theme follows this structure, as well, if you listen for it. The beginning of the Ragnarok theme also begins this way, though it takes an admitted turn by continuing to expand rather than repeat to the beginning. Soft instruments help evoke the mood, as well, but I feel that form really contributes to the whole thing.

Those are my thoughts on it.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Gario, I think you are absolutely right about the A - A' - B thing, and it's what I called a "predictable structure" earlier. It's something that creates the illusion that you "know the theme" in advance, even if you're listening to it for the first time. It's something that gives the listener the ability to hum along because they already have heard the first part, and the second part is a variation of this. I've been guilty doing this in some town themes I wrote myself, like this one here, or this one which is more festive, and even did it - to some extent - in a not so peaceful haunted town theme recently. All of them feature the basic structure you wrote about, and totally fit the stereotype, with the exception of the last one being in more minor keys and having a bit more of a mysterious undertone for obvious reasons. So maybe I helped answer your "why" question on this a bit :-)

Link to post
Share on other sites

If you ask me, this track feels not just like "town" but like "home town", in the tradition of say.....Chrono Trigger or Shining Force.  It combines equal parts optimism and innocence and sounds far too plucky and sweet for the world it's set in.  The point of this is to make a sharper contrast when the plot kicks off and the kingdom goes to hell.

 

Chrono Trigger: Peaceful Days

Shining Force II: Lively Town

Xenogears: My Village is Number One

Ocarina of Time: Kokiri Forest

 

These are all towns you begin the game in and the music is really important in the "Once upon a time, everything was good..." part of a story.  They're very bubbly and bouncy and like the theme of Prontera, there really isn't a shred of doubt that can be heard (I think that actually makes them kind of annoying after awhile).  There are PLENTY of examples of town themes that do not feel homey or sweet, but I think the earlier on in a game you encounter a town, the more likely it is to be a happy one and that's really for the benefit of the narrative.

 

Now that I've said all of that.....uhh....do you start Ragnarok Online in Prontera?  I've never played it... :oops:

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...