Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Survey: VGTropes -- Results! (Part I)

Remember this survey that I conducted about a year ago? Well, I've finally gotten a chance to begin compiling the results. The results showed some interesting trends, but I'll get right into the discussion. (Many thanks to everyone who took the survey, and if you haven't yet, please feel free to do so at the link above! I promise it'll be fun :P)

I feel obliged to note that when I first conducted the survey, I suggested that the music was from a variety of video games. Indeed, the music was from a variety of video games, but all from one series: Sonic the Hedgehog. I am aware that it introduces some bias, but I chose this for several reasons: that my stronger knowledge of Sonic music would bias my choices anyway, that Sonic levels tend to follow a number of predictable clichés, and that Sonic music is really what I am trying to emulate in my own video game compositions in the end, anyway. Regardless, I still think I was able to provide a strong amount of variety in my chosen tracks, and that the results still have the potential to illuminate some aspects of video game music composition.

So as to minimize the number of brain-asplosions from too much text, I've broken the results post into two parts, of which this is the first. Below are the results for the first ten tracks in the survey. Sample size is somewhat small, but still strong enough to identify a few trends, or so I hope. Each set of survey results includes the "correct" answer (although again, this isn't about being "correct" or "incorrect," but more about identifying trends), the participants' answers, some interesting comments, and the music in the game's original context. You can judge for yourself whether the music is appropriate! With no further ado:

Mystery Track #1:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #1: Egg Utopia (Sonic Advance 2): Space/Tech

I thought that Egg Utopia was a pretty characteristic techno-y, space-y sounding Sonic track. The survey participants agreed, for the most part. (Note: as shown below, the most popular answer for each track is highlighted in bold, and the "correct" answer in italics. An answer in both italics and bold means exactly what you think it does.)

Tropical: 0/21 (0.0%)
Fire: 2/21 (9.5%)
Water: 1/21 (4.8%)
Ice/Snow: 1/21 (4.8%)
Space/Tech: 17/21 (81.0%)

Many people picked up "techno sounds" as one of the defining characteristics of why they chose space/tech for this track. By the repeated presence of the "heavy synths" argument, I'm going to assume the two are equivalent. Here are some quotes:
"The techno sounds..."
"Lots of beep beep boop boop- definitely techy"
"The techno beat in particular makes it seem more space/tech oriented."
"heavy synth"
"heavy snyths / optimistic theme"
I particularly liked this response:
"There are repeated arpeggio type patterns as well echoed sounds. In addition these echoed sounds definitely sound synthesized, and have a frequency (sound tone) that I associate with tech settings."
And here's the track in its original context. I think it works pretty you?

On to track #2!

Mystery Track #2:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #2: Ice Paradise (Sonic Advance 2): Ice/Snow

Oops, the two Sonic Advance 2 tracks ended up next to each other. :O I randomized the order for this, I promise. Ice level for sure (it's even in the name), but the survey responses were more intriguing:

Tropical: 11/21 (52.4%)
Fire: 0/21 (0.0%)
Water: 1/21 (4.8%)
Ice/Snow: 9/21 (42.9%)
Space/Tech: 0/21 (0.0%)

My initial thought upon choosing this theme was that the chimes would give the track a "wintery" sort of feel, and I did get a few comments that followed that train of thought:
"The bells at the back make it sound Chrismas-like."
"Bells, it's all in the bells man. Gives it a Christmasy kind of feel."
"Chimes make me think ice, and the major 7 chords."
I was pretty surprised at the prevalence of the "tropical" choice, but in retrospect, it's pretty clear that there's not much else "wintery" about the piece apart from perhaps the chimes. Let's see what people said:
"The melody is in a major key and very harmonious--eliciting imagery of a tropical setting."
"Very upbeat and happy; seems innocuous"
"More upbeat. Large variety of voices. Kinda sounds like a party. In my pants."
"Something about the carefree and relaxed feeling makes me think beach"
"island beat"
From these results, it appears to me that people identified the bells/chimes as a prominent characteristic of the "ice/snow" trope, but the peppy/happy feel of the song were also characteristics people associated with the "tropical" trope (although there were a few cases where people associated "upbeat" with "ice/snow" as well). Thinking back, I think the prominent use of the organ in this piece is actually something I associate with "tropical" as well. The title of this stage is "Ice Paradise," so maybe the composer was purposely trying to introduce some "tropical" elements in his composition. Who knows? Why don't you be the judge on how well this song works in context:

On to track #3!

Mystery Track #3:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #3: Volcano Valley (Sonic 3D Blast, Saturn): Fire

One thing I should note before discussing the results for this track is that there are two versions of Sonic 3D Blast. The first was released on the Genesis, and the second on the Saturn (in the same year, no less). The Genesis soundtrack was composed by Jun Senoue of, well, the rest of the Sonic games fame, and the Saturn soundtrack was composed by one Richard Jacques, who would later contribute to games such as Jet Set Radio Future and Mass Effect. As far as I know, there was no collaboration between the two, and certainly both are distinct in their sounds. (Personally, I prefer Jacques', though both are great.) Just keep in mind that the two are distinct soundtracks when you inevitably run into Sonic 3D Blast again in this survey. So, results:

Tropical: 0/21 (0.0%)
Fire: 13/21 (61.9%)
Water: 2/21 (9.5%)
Ice/Snow: 2/21 (9.5%)
Space/Tech: 4/21 (19.0%)

Most people did pick the "fire" trope for this track, which is the "correct" answer. Many respondents attributed a sense of majesty or, as some put it, "epicness" to fire levels:
"very epic burning~"
"fire levels tend to have a bit of a more orchestral "epic" feel to them."
"Has a sense of grandeur that conveys a bright image. Also, it reminds me of a fire emblem game."
"Dark, epic. Sounds like entering a volcano of doom to do battle with the nefarious evildoer"
"very 'fantasy' sounding which I connected with fire"
The interesting thing about this particular response, however, is that the same majesty and epicness was also attributed to "space/tech" and "ice/snow" in a number of cases. For example:
"The bold notes that are held for a long time harken to the majesty and vastness of space"
"majestic / imperial"
(for ice/snow)
Still, I suppose it is telling that most respondents attributed this sort of majestic sound to "fire" rather than the other tropes. Another characteristic pattern present in the answers is one I'll simply summarize as "intensity." Here are some of the responses:
"the intense sounding repetitive baseline seems to describe a "dangerous" environment like fire."
"This track carries a rhythm that drives the song along--leading me to think at first it may be from a fire level."
"Tempestuous, moving and constant."
"Something about the intensity of the music makes me think of fire"
Let's check out how the music works in context. What do you think?

On to track #4!

Mystery Track #4:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #4: Cool Edge/Holoska (Sonic Unleashed): Ice/Snow

Admittedly, I did expect the answers to this track to be somewhat confounded by the fact that recent Sonic game music has taken a turn for the upbeat and synthetic, something often associated with space/tech-style tunes. The crystal-like synths, which I believe to be the main distinguishing characteristic of this ice level, don't come in until 0:31, which may have made it yet harder to hear the "cold" characteristics of this level. Nonetheless, results:

Tropical: 2/21 (9.5%)
Fire: 3/21 (14.3%)
Water: 2/21 (9.5%)
Ice/Snow: 6/21 (28.6%)
Space/Tech: 8/21 (38.1%)

Answers were somewhat scattered for this one. Even the for the people who guessed "ice/snow" (the "correct" answer), their reasons varied quite a bit, though there was a minor trend of "crystalline" sounds, as one person neatly put it:
"Has one layer that is melodic and higher pitched but in a regular pattern much like a crystalline structure."
"Sparkly music about halfway through makes me think of ice."
"somehow i hear bell-like sounds, and it sounds like a holiday tune"
"Kind of sounds like a Sonic song. I'm imagining kind of a fast-paced beach scene. I'm tempted to put tropical here. Modern sounding voices, but not really 'tech'."
The responses for "space/tech" were interesting as well. The most common trend I noticed between the "space/tech" entries was a fast-paced and "synthetic" feel, along with some other more vague criteria:
"fast paced rock reminds me of speed (spaceship)"
"Fast-paced but synthetic sounding so seems more tech"
"very upbeat, sounds like running...or surfing...but more running like in Sonic"
"It just sounds spacey to me."
"has background tech noises"
"very industrial"
Or, as one respondent curtly put it:
"What the heck does space/tech really mean, actually? And tropical for that matter."
Guessing at a reason for this discrepancy, I'd venture that, as mentioned before, modern Sonic music has become more electronic and fast-paced, due to a desire to emphasize Sonic's speed. In many ways, this has led to a homogenization of styles. Looking past the "space/tech" implications of fast and synthetic, the composer seems to have chosen more subtle elements to show the track's ice-ness, as some people picked up on. Here's the track in its original context.

On to track #5!

Mystery Track #5:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #5: Aquatic Ruin (Sonic 2): Water

Remember when I said that I would throw some curveballs and put in some tracks that might be indicative of multiple tropes? Here's one of them. While the answer I was looking for was "water" (it is Aquatic Ruin, after all), the style of level lent itself well to the "tropical" trope as well. I'll examine responses for both in the analysis. Unfortunately, because of the relative familiarity of Sonic 2, this result was a bit biased toward the correct answer by people who knew the track. Nonetheless, here are the results:

Tropical: 7/21 (33.3%)
Fire: 2/21 (9.5%)
Water: 9/21 (42.9%)
Ice/Snow: 0/21 (0.0%)
Space/Tech: 17/21 (14.3%)

Most "water" respondents mentioned something of a "bubbly" or "muted" timbre in the sounds, as shown below:
"The faintly 'muted' sounding effects give a feel of being underwater and not hearing sounds clearly."
"The tambre of the sounds has this wawa that reminds me of water"
"Kind of "dulled", like underwater."
"slightly slower, bubbly tune"
As for the "tropical" answers, most people were somewhat uncertain about their choice, leading me to read all sorts of interesting explanations:
"Sounds kind of adventurous"
"it sounds happy and upbeat in certain parts"
"Latino sounding...perhaps some flamenco dance? XD"
"the "hoots" at the back could be animal calls =.="
"The intriguing lilt to this music makes me think either tropical or ice."
Or perhaps the most concise answer:
I think what's interesting to note here is that most "water" respondents mentioned the timbre of the instruments as the key reason for their choice, while most "tropical" people discussed more rhythmic and melodic elements. Just goes to show the different ways in which composers inject evocative elements into their music. Here's the original context:

On to track #6!

Mystery Track #6:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #6: Death Egg (Sonic & Knuckles): Space/Tech

Ah, the good ol' Death Egg. Space/tech levels like this are a staple of Sonic games, and Sonic 3 is no different. I'll go right into the results:

Tropical: 1/21 (4.8%)
Fire: 7/21 (33.3%)
Water: 1/21 (4.8%)
Ice/Snow: 1/19 (4.8%)
Space/Tech: 17/21 (81.0%)

The results seemed to be a toss-up between "space/tech" and "fire" (again, obfuscated by the bias from people who knew the track). The "space/tech" reasons were mostly the same as usual, referring to the "techy" sound of the synths:
"grungy sound, sounds like a generic tech tune"
"again, very upbeat and techno sounds"
"Tinkly with deep bass riffs. Sounds like tech"
"sounds robotic and synthesized"
"Techno again, with multiple layers in a grid. Very technological"
More interesting to me are the answers for "fire," which really probe at people's associations with the "fire" trope:
"The fast paced music reminds me of a lava flow (if that makes sense)"
"This also has that 'intense, pounding' beat that feels dangerous, like fire."
"low notes remind me of things burning"
"The beat is very busy, and sounds are hard. It's a toughie between fire and tech."
"sounds meaner and heavier"
Though the reasons were still a little varied, I'm getting a sense of intensity, fast-pacedness, and lowness as associations with fire. Admittedly, this one was a tough choice between "fire" and "space/tech." I really enjoyed this response, which really highlights why the listener chose "fire" rather than "space/tech":
"I'm kind of picturing a factory here. Maybe that's more tech, but I feel like I'm going through the factory guts. Furnace/hot/fire kind of feel. I don't feel super confident about this one."
Good stuff. Here's some context:

On to track #7!

Mystery Track #7:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #7: Tidal Plant (Sonic Triple Trouble): Water

I chose this Sonic Triple Trouble track in a deliberate attempt to steer respondents away solely using the timbre of the instruments as the main factor and to encourage consideration of other musical elements like tempo, melody, and rhythm. To an extent, that worked, but a lot of people were still thrown off by the 8-bit timbre of the music. Results:

Tropical: 3/21 (14.3%)
Fire: 4/21 (19.0%)
Water: 7/21 (33.3%)
Ice/Snow: 5/21 (23.8%)
Space/Tech: 2/21 (9.5%)

As can be seen, the "correct" answer, "water," barely eked out a victory. Here are some of the responses for "water":
"the lower note melody sounds watery"
"there's a progression that kind of reminds me of a wave washing in and out."
"I'm a happy fish! This reminds me of my fish :D"
"The music is very bubbly - reminds me of the sea"
"The legato, gliding lines feel like waves in water."
Not the most coherent of responses, but I guess that's to be expected from a somewhat-misleading track like this. Here are some of the responses for other level tropes, which actually bring up a number of great points. Here are the responses for "fire"; I could easily see this music being from a fire level.
"intense beat"
"low notes remind me of things burning"
"fast, intense, and very repetitive, as fire tends to be?"
"the melody's pattern is not very harmonic. Other little crunch sounds could represent spurts of lava or fireballs splashing into lava."
For "ice/snow." Some of the respondents didn't put answers, grrrr. >:(
"I'm getting more of a "windy" vibe than any of the others, but if pressed to fit it in the 5 categories, I would pick ice/snow with a blustery blizzard."
"reminds me of heavy snow at points"
"This one isn't easy. My first thought is 'ice cave', but it could just be like a cave... The tinkle tinkle kind of reminds me of ice. Let's go with that."
Interestingly enough, multiple responses mentioned that this track reminded them of Pokémon and/or Legend of Zelda. I'm hypothesizing that this is mostly due to the 8-bit sound of this track. Here's the original context:

On to track #8!

Mystery Track #8:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #8: Neo Green Hill (Sonic Advance): Tropical

Despite the Game Boy Advance's limited sound capabilities, Sonic Advance has one of my favorite Sonic soundtracks of all time. Th jazzy feel of the soundtrack is fantastic, and I really like the clever melodic interplay between the Act I and Act II music. Results:

Tropical: 13/21 (61.9%)
Fire: 0/21 (0.0%)
Water: 5/19 (23.8%)
Ice/Snow: 3/19 (14.3%)
Space/Tech: 0/21 (0.0%)

This one seemed to be pretty straightforward. The most common element identified as being "tropical" was that it felt relaxed:
"It's so bouncy and lighthearted"
"Fairly light and free of tension, like a beach."
"Party-ish theme once again reminds me of a tropical scene."
"The major, "happy-go-lucky" feel of this song describes a beach scene."
"Generally tropical levels have more relaxed music to them, to emphasize the sort of breezy feel of the environment."
Interesting, people used the same reasoning for the "water" trope, so I think there's a bit of confusion about exactly what "tropical" vs. "water" entails. As far as the "snow/ice" responses go, here are a few:
"This sounds happy and Christmas-y!"
"sounds like another jazzy holiday tune"
"The melody is very crisp and upbeat - reminds me of snow"
Evidently, there's an association of upbeat with a Christmas-y winter feel as well; I can definitely understand that association. To me, however, something about the harmony of this track makes me think more "beach" than "Christmas." Here's the music in its original context:

On to track #9!

Mystery Track #9:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #9: Hydrocity (Sonic 3): Water

Oh, the good ol' Hydrocity; brings back a lot of memories from my Sonic 3 days of yore. I expected this one to be challenging, and I was right; this track doesn't have anything especially obviously "watery" about it. The most "watery" qualities about it, in my opinion, are the little "bubbly" introductory motif at the very beginning of the track, the downward glissandos that resemble falling water, and the slight echo-y quality; plus, it doesn't really fit well into any of the other categories. Still, those are kind of a stretch, and I'm not sure I would have guessed correctly had I not already known it.

Tropical: 3/21 (14.3%)
Fire: 4/21 (19.0%)
Water: 4/19 (19.0%)
Ice/Snow: 2/19 (9.5%)
Space/Tech: 17/21 (38.1%)

Unfortunately, I was lazy and didn't control for the fact that some people already knew the source material; consequently, two of the "water" respondents were people who had already played Sonic 3, which essentially invalidates them. The one genuine "water" respondent had this to say:
"Strikes me as a kinda fluid theme going. Sounds like it could most likely be a water level."
"Fluid theme" is somewhat of a cryptic answer. Since most people responded with "space/tech," let's see what their reasoning is:
"Robot "beeps" in background. Also, super over the top.
"didn't sound like it fit the other categories"
"this is a tough one. sounds like shinobi in a factory"
"Sonic again? All Sonic songs make me think of the future, but this sort of sounds like a metropolis/city theme. Could be wrong."
"Sorry I have no idea... doesn't sound like anything. A lot of blippidy's."
"the sounds sound echoed. some higher notes are light and 'glittery'"
"Sounds vaguely familiar. Also from Sonic? Some of the very characteristic 'synthesizer' strains give it a futuristic feel."
Quite a bit of uncertainty here, but most people who gave any semblance of a strong reason mentioned the sounds of the synths. I admit that there aren't many strong characteristics that give away this level's trope. Here's the original level:

On to track #10!

Mystery Track #10:

Show survey results!

Mystery Track #10: Cosmic Angel (Sonic Advance): Space/Tech

I really did pick a lot of songs from the Sonic Advance series, didn't I? Whoops. :P The Egg Rocket-Cosmic Angel pair from this game represents one of my favorite Act I-Act II variation sets within the Sonic universe, with a fairly different style despite an obviously common melody. Results for this one were fairly scattered, though:

Tropical: 2/21 (9.5%)
Fire: 5/21 (23.8%)
Water: 4/19 (19.0%)
Ice/Snow: 2/19 (9.5%)
Space/Tech: 8/21 (38.1%)

"Space/tech" did manage to come out on top in the end, but it was by no means a majority of the respondents. Here are a few responses in favor of "space/tech":
"sounds factory-ish"
"epic sounding and lots of beeps and boops"
upbeat and techno :P"
A few people used process of elimination:
"Not really feeling anything elemental about this one. Upbeat futuristic-ish tune..maybe."
"Don't know it, but I'm also getting the space/tech vibes going here. Not quite as carefree as a water level, none of the majesty of an ice world, none of the danger of a fire land. It could also be tropical without much of a stretch though."
This particular response pretty much sums up my own thoughts about the "space/tech" qualities of this track:
"Those pedal bass notes make me think of man-made, and then those swift upward arpeggios at the end of the loop gave it away."
Of note within the other responses are those for "fire." There was a consistent pattern of attributing a sense of urgency or fast-pacedness to the "fire" trope, as evidenced by these responses:
"Almost like a countdown. I'm not really sure at all."
"again, fast-paced and sounds epic"
"The high pitched urgency of this music reminds me of fire"
The fact that space/tech wasn't represented even more strongly initially surprised me, because this seemed to be one of the more obvious uses of "there are lots of beeps in this track, so it must be space/tech." In retrospect, however, there don't seem to be as many bleeps as I thought there were. Hmm. Here's a clip of the original level:

Anyway, that's all I've got for Part I of these results. Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll go over the results for the remaining 10 tracks as well as (try to) draw some overall generalizations based on the results as a whole.

Until then!


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