When The Past Was Around & Grief As Gameplay

Death and mourning aren’t explored much in gaming.

Sure, every now and again you’ll get some big budget, AAA video game where the main hero or heroine will lose someone close to them. The main character will shout, scream, maybe even cry, before they steel themselves and return to their gameplay activities.

You may get a little scene at the end of the game where they look longingly into the sunset and think of their lost friend or companion, but for the majority of games, the grief is tied solely to the moment.

It just so happens that I played a game earlier this year, When The Past Was Around, a point-and-click puzzle game, that tackles the issues around grief and death; the empty space, the silence now they are gone…and succeeds in perfectly evoking those feelings.

I wanted to share this game with you, its beautiful hand-drawn art, its excellent musical score, and small yet powerful story, and how it manages to capture the idea of grief into a way only games could do.

Mild spoilers ahead.

When The Past Was Around & Dealing with Love, Loss, and Death

When The Past Was Around follows a young girl called Eda. She’s in her mid-twenties, recently moved into her own place, and is in a bit of a funk. We learn through her photos that she was once a violinist, but gave up when she was younger, and is now trying to get back into it.

It’s a simple scene, with only four photos chronicling Eda’s childhood, yet gives us so much on her mental state and her personality; talented, passionate, yet prone to criticism and overwhelming anxiety, all conveyed through through single snapshots of her previous performances.

Eda keeps a music box with an owl as the centre piece. One afternoon she hears the same tune the music box used to play (the one that inspired her to learn violin) being played on the street. She follows the sound, almost floating towards the music, and finds the violinist playing to patients in the child hospital.

The she sneezes, interrupting the performance, but coming face-to-face with Owl.

Yes, a man-sized owl, named, well…Owl. The game follows Eda and Owl’s time as a couple, until tragedy strikes, with Owl dying, and Eda being heartbroken.

Many stories that deal with grief usually personify it; a shadow, an item of clothing, something that ties the present to the past. So here, Eda’s lost love is an owl, and ties well into concept of grief and loss.

Throughout the game, the concept of fallen feathers stretches from starts to finish. The end of every chapter is signalled with a feather, such as in Eda’s finding one in a cardboard box when she’s unpacking, or when she is wearing Owl’s old scarf. Collecting these feathers are what unlock the next memory as she gets closer to Owl’s departure from the story, and that’s their real meaning.

The feathers are tokens of the memories that Eda and Owl have together, and as she collects them, more are taken away from him, until there can be none left. It’s and excellent metaphor for the passage of time, and yet cruelly bittersweet.

With each feather the story moves forward, bringing Eda closer and closer to tragedy. (Source: gonintendo.com)

The game switches between the memories of Eda and Owl together, and Eda at the graveyard at the ‘end’ of their story. During her time at the graveyard she is seemingly haunted by a shadowy silhouette of a man, enclosed in a giant bird cage.

When Eda finally reaches the silhouette after reliving all of her memories and collecting Owl’s feathers, the feathers attach themselves to the shadow man, revealing that he is Owl. It’s a great moment, showing how Eda’s memory of Owl had changed over time, and how he effectively became ‘entombed’ inside her head, only being set free once she looked back over her time with him. 

There is zero dialogue in the game, which I think is to its benefit. While it would have been easy to add voices to the characters, the silence of the protagonists allows the story to reach a broader audience and speak to more people. It’s that old adage of actions speaking louder than words, as Owl and Eda mentally and physically get closer (literally, they move closer to each other as the game progresses).

Some people may not be able to relate to Eda and Owl’s if they had talked about their love of the violin or the name of the stars in the night sky, but they can relate much more to a feeling or an emotion that the characters are going through, which the game captures perfectly.

Part of that excellent communication of emotion comes from the fantastic artwork by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena. The character models have a stunningly simplicity to them, yet are incredibly expressive. The animations are through a standard fade effect between each character stance, bringing a dream-like quality to most scenes, but also capturing incredible immediate snapshots as there will be many moments of stillness, highlighting the emotion of the scene.

Eda and Owl’s first meeting. The character’s faces and style is so simple yet has layers of emotion. (Source: heypoorplayer.com)

While the characters are simple, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and given the feeling of being ‘lived-in’. 

Those backgrounds are a key part of the game’s core loop, as the player must find hidden objects to progress in the story by moving objects around. The game presents it as being constructive or destructive, clean vs. cluttered.

The cleaning and constructive might task you with tidying up Eda’s bedroom, putting posters on her walls, or hanging the washing up.

Construction is the main engagement when Eda and Owl are dating, including coffee and tea at Owl’s home, going to the beach together, or camping out overnight and looking at the stars.

In each of these scenarios the player has to ‘build’ the setting around them; collecting seaweed and shells to go in a glass bottle (which the couple keep in their apartment), setting up the campsite and building paper windmills, or even fixing Owl and Eda’s drink of choice at his house.

These little constructions exaggerate the fact that we are essentially going through Eda’s memories of Owl, and so she would focus on all the small things that she remembers from those times, the things that make it ‘her’ memory.

A date at the beach. Through these moments you feel the promise of two strangers growing closer together. (Source: taminggaming.com)

When the gameplay switches to destruction, you might find yourself smashing countless plant pots, throwing books off shelves, or pulling down curtains.

These aspects perfectly match up in the order of the story, with Eda being tidier when she is with Owl, but messier both before she met him and after he is gone, for different yet obvious reasons. Her final scene with Owl where Eda searches for his pills uses the clean vs. cluttered to great effect, as players have to frantically search the apartment, pulling books off shelves and knocking over chairs in a desperate bid to find them.

Music also plays a strong part of the story, with both Owl and Eda playing the violin, and music being the thing that brings them closer together. There is a leitmotif that runs through the entire game (the same one played by Eda’s music box), which subtly changes with each chapter.

At the start when Eda has given up on playing the violin, the stringed instrument is removed from the soundtrack, instead a mournful piano plays in the background. As soon as Owl enters the story, the violin features again, playing a much more cheerful tone. As their relationship grows more instruments and accents are added.

By the final scene when Eda is alone once again, the piano has returned, but her memory of Owl is so strong that the violin jumps in, with the entire song picking up speed as it reaches the climax.

The story is not just of love between Eda and Owl, but of Eda and herself, highlighted by her learning the violin again. (Source: indie-hive.com)

Even the title references music, with a stylised repeat sign incorporated into it. This sign in sheet music indicates a section to be played more than once, referencing Eda’s journey back through her life.

When The Past Was Around is a whole package of a game wrapped up in around an hour, maybe little over if you are intent on finding all the hidden clues that inform more about Eda and Owl’s relationship.

For anyone looking for a short game with fantastic visuals, a great sense of gameplay as narrative, or just something a little different than anything else on the market, When The Past Was Around is heartily recommended.

Banner Photo Source: nintendo.de

Civilization Revolution & Adaptive Musical Score

I really like the Civilization series. I first came to the series with Civilization II on the original Playstation and sucked at it. Please understand I was probably around four or five years old at the time and pretty much completely blown away with what I had to do. I think I spent the majority of the game looking at the box cover which I still think is a elegant bit of art.

Through the years I would play different Civs, but only really got into the series with Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360. While Civ Rev (as it is more commonly known as) is seen as a runt of the litter by fans due to its more simplistic design and streamlining due to being on consoles it still holds a dear place in my heart.

Civ2
I mean, look at this cover art. It is lovely. Source: emu paradise.me.

It is one of those special games that managed to connect with non-gamers I know, with its mix of history, politics, and geography (all helpfully illustrated with the Civilopedia). I loved the game so much I even went out and got an old copy Sid Meier’s Pirates!, created by the main lead designer of the Civ series, Sid Meier.

Today I wanted to write about something I find fascinating about Civ Rev that I don’t see much of, that is adaptive music and sound effects.

 

Introduction – Music in the Games Industry

Music has become a large part of the culture behind video games. What started out as what Melanie Fritsch described as, “…a ‘bip’ disrupt[ing] the silence…” (pg. 12, 2013) has transformed into an integral part of the system.

This can be seen with the rise of famous composers being brought it to do video games soundtracks, with notable examples being Hans Zimmer (Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2009), Joe Hisashi (Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, 2013), and Tyler Bates (Rise Of The Argonauts, 2008).

There are even stars that are well known for their work on games. One of the high-profile creators is Jesper Kyd. Kyd is known for his work on the Hitman series as well as creating one of the most famous pieces of the seventh generation, Ezio’s Family, for Assassin’s Creed II (which has become THE defining piece for the entire series).

The music is so high profile now that games are picking up awards (Christopher Tin for Civ IV won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocalist(s)) and there are live performances for the music, for example, I went to the Tomb Raider Suite back in December 2016. In a similar vein Video Games Live is a major-selling show that plays famous video game music to sold-out venues.

But anyway, let’s move to focusing on Civ Rev.

The Silence In Between – Music and Sound in Civilization Revolution

A game of Civilization Revolution takes place over 6000 years. It starts in 4000BC with the game finally stopping at 2100AD if the player or AI haven’t reached a win situation.

The game is split up into four distinct eras, Ancient, Medieval, Industrial, and Modern. These rely on how advanced your civilization gets, with more technologies you discover your civ keeps moving forward.

The techs reflect this, with Bronze/Iron Working and Alphabet in the Ancient Era, Engineering and Banking in the Medieval, Gunpowder and the Railroad in the Industrial, and Electronics and Space Flight in the Modern.

As the game moves through time the music adapts and changes. It’s something that is so small but so engrossing. It would have been easy to have a singular “fight” sound, a continual loop that plays with every encounter, but for Civ Rev it changes based on your era.

Michael Liebe notes this as, “…linear music…” as it;

“…runs incessantly without any direct influence on the player’s action… [but] may change with different levels or milestones in the game.” (pg.47, 2013).

However, it also is part of what Liebe calls;

“…reactive music…[a] type of game-music [that is] is triggered by specific micro-actions… [such as] beginning a fight…” (pg. 47, 2013) because the battle music changes according to the era.

In the Ancient era, the player’s aggressive interactions with other civs or barbarians will produce woodwind and drums, perfectly evoking primitive instruments (4:23, 6:11, 12:24).

Moving to the Medieval era, there is a light accompaniment of brass into the mix, sometimes having an almost ecclesiastical quality (32:45, 33:23, 38:10).

The Industrial era brings with it strings, and heavier, lower-registered brass, hinting at the more expansionist, mechanized warfare as well as a more romanticized view of warfare that came with the age (1:04:24, 1:09:55, 1:10:28, 1:12:52, 1:15:57).

When a player reaches the Modern era, the sound completely changes with hints of synthesizers, metallic percussion, and even some electric guitar thrown into the mix (35:23, 35:39, 42:46).

The sound effects also follow this mode of changing although these can also be based on the unit (be it the ship, warrior, caravan etc.). While each has a “movement” sound effect, with marching boots, revving engines, or oars in water depending on the unit, it was the idle sounds that drew my attention.

Just hovering your cursor over a galley or galleon produces creaking wood and flapping sails. Hover over a warrior and your hear swinging swords, or pawing hooves on a horseman unit.

This even translates to the world. As you move over the ocean, crashing waves greet you. If you have built a city near the sea you hear crowing seagulls and shoreline swash. Build a strong market place and you hear barters conversing in shouts, or if you select a high profile mining and factory town, the sounds of hammers on metal and machines can be heard.

It’s not a subtle change, but it is somehow smooth. As we move through the eras not just the music changes but the visuals too, with our “advisors” (who look strikingly similar to Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) taking on different dresses and outfits depending on the era. Roads adapt too, moving from dirt tracks, to cobbled streets, and finish as tarmac highways.

I previously mentioned Sid Meier’s Pirates! as being another game I picked up due to loving Civ Rev. Despite the remake of Pirates! being thirteen years old at this point its music is very much the same; always playing, but then reactive as to the situation, the location, and your reputation.

As you pass by ports of the different nations they each have their own theme. Even passing by the ports of pirate havens, Jesuit missions, and natives have their own musical accompaniments. Upon entering into the towns, the music seamlessly switches into different tones for the merchant, governor, tavern, and shipwright. But it’s the way the music adapts that got me again.

One of the gameplay themes of Pirates! is making money for certain nationalities. You can do this in many ways; become a pirate and plunder gold, trade professionally with merchants, or even send in some pirates or natives to raid towns.

This creates wealth disparity between ports with some being filthy rich (with the nation’s flag above being crisp and clean) while others are desolate (with the same flag being dirty and torn). The music reflects this with rich towns having beautiful renditions of the nations tune while poorer towns have maybe a single instrument with some notes being off-key. For example, here is the standard British theme and here is the poorer version.

Conclusion

All the parts I’ve talked about are small parts of the games. Most of these are not even needed as far as a minimum viable product; they are there as nice additions to the final published work. But that makes me love them even more.

They are so small but they create a much better product by having it adapt to the changing landscape and react to the player’s decisions.

It’s almost comfortable; a change that doesn’t jar you out of the experience but lets you settle into it. And with even the shortest Civ games taking place over a good few hours it helps aid that sense of progression.

Edit: This comes to an apotheosis with Civ VI, with the themes for the countries adapting and adding instruments as time continues. Similar to Civ Rev the themes are traditional songs from each civilisation, but these variations are excellent additions and aid that sense of passing time. My favourites are the Americans, Indian, and Greek.

[Back to original text].

We’ve all played games where the same two or three sound effects are used for battle sequences or playing over menus and load screens. Some of these soundtracks are great and I love them just as much.

But that reactive quality that I previously mentioned gives Civ Rev an extra quality that I never thought about let alone be able to vocalize a need for it.

It’s such a small touch and elevates Civ Rev in my mind to a much higher place for having it in.

 

Bibliography

Fritsch, M. (2013). History Of Video Game Music. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p.11-40). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.

Liebe, M. (2013). Interactivity and Music in Video Games. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p. 41-62). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.

 

Banner Photo Source: gamerati.com.