UBC scholar’s Final Fantasy is a PhD in ludomusicology

At the turn of the century, Marina Gallagher was a young piano student who played a lot of video games between piano lessons. The Final Fantasy series was her favourite.

Music from Final Fantasy, which will be performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at The Orpheum on April 14-15 as part of the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy tour, is the subject of PhD research by UBC music scholar Marina Gallagher. Photo credit: AWR Music Productions, LLC

At the turn of the century, Marina Gallagher was a young piano student who played a lot of video games between piano lessons. The Final Fantasy series was her favourite.

Today, Gallagher (she/her) is a PhD candidate at the UBC School of Music whose thesis explores the music of the Final Fantasy series. She will speak next month at the 10th annual North American Conference on Video Game Music.

Gallagher’s field, ludomusicology, combines the study of games and gameplay (ludology) with the study of music (musicology). We spoke with her about her work.

How did you manage to turn Final Fantasy into a PhD research topic?

I took a class on music and landscapes during my undergrad and it kind of evolved from there. I realized, “Hey, the pastoral landscapes and music that we talked about in class are here as well.” So I started to look a little more critically at landscapes and music in video games and see connections between them.

Marina Gallagher
Marina Gallagher

When I was looking at grad school, I thought if I’m going to spend this long on something, I want it to be something I’m passionate about. Game music seemed to be an obvious choice.

The Final Fantasy soundtracks are just massive—each game has several hours of content, several CDs worth. It’s one of those classic series that’s celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, but it actually hasn’t been studied very much.

How would you describe the role of music in the gaming experience?

I think it’s really critical. It’s sort of like in films, or even opera. You’re seeing something take place—or in a game you’re actually completing actions yourself—and the music is this constant underscore to what you’re doing. It communicates information about particular characters, different situations those characters find themselves in, where you are in the game world and what you’re doing. It’s a constant source of information, but since it operates subconsciously, we don’t often realize it’s giving us this information.

In what ways do you think scoring a game is different than scoring a film?

The interactive angle definitely comes into play with games. Gameplay varies from person to person. If I want to spend 10 hours roaming around this field and somebody else only wants to spend two, you have to make the music work for either period of time.

Even when you’re transitioning from one location to the next, you have to make sure the transitions are seamless so it doesn’t just cut off and start the next track. You might have a fade out and a fade in with the new music, where it gradually replaces the old track. Sudden stops can detract from your immersion and your experience in the game world.

The music in this clip from Final Fantasy XV by Yoko Shimomura must play for as long as the characters run, then transition seamlessly when they arrive at a new scene.

How far back does ludomusicology go as a discipline?

Early writing about game music was in the 2000s. It’s just in the last decade or so that we’ve been acknowledged as a subdiscipline, getting that “ludomusicology” label. We have our own game music journal now, and the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games. In the last 15-20 years, things have definitely taken off.

To what degree has game music transcended the genre?

Game composers have a similar sort of appeal to film composers. John Williams is a prominent film composer, and there are composers in the game world who are highly revered, too. Koji Kondo, who wrote a lot of the classic music for the Mario games and Legend of Zelda, is one of the main figures of game music.

A whole bunch of orchestras have popped up devoted to music from particular game series. There’s the Distant Worlds Orchestra that performs Final Fantasy. There are orchestras for Zelda, Kingdom Hearts and NieR. These concerts are massively popular. People really get into it. I went to a Distant Worlds concert in Vancouver, and people came in cosplay, dressed as characters from the game. People are so passionate about the music they hear.

Interview language(s): English