The Music of Metroid II

[This used to be under “articles” on the old website. Now it’s a blog post. The older category might have been more appropriate, but this is easier to manage – plus, it allows me to feel more at ease with occasionally coming back to the topic and noting down any thoughts that may drop into my head. Anyway, I think this is one of my few game design articles worth preserving; not necessarily because it is well-written, but because not much has been said about this brilliant little game.]

First of all, let me say that I don’t know too much about the creative side of music and sound. I don’t know all the right words and expressions. In fact, I know as much about the creative side of music as I know about how to sing; and trust me, I’ve been in enough plays to know I can’t sing at all, except when I’m playing a character who’s drunk. But the sound/music of Metroid II impressed me quite a bit, so I felt that I needed to write this article, if only to clear up the matter in my own head, and maybe give the people who actually do have an understanding of how music works (and are interested in computer games) something to think about. Furthemore, since music is intrinsic part of game design, this article is also quite relevant to game designers.

In some places, Metroid II has ‘traditional’ music – music, that is, which has a melody and a rhythm and is played by (digital) instruments, or synthesizers, or whatever – you know what I mean. This music is pretty good, but it’s nothing terribly original – and certainly not worth writing an article about. But, as I said, this traditional music is only played in certain areas; what truly interests me is the music played in the rest of the game, and how it works to create (in combination with and contrast to the other music) certain feelings in the player.

In Metroid II, you are exploring an alien planet. It’s a pretty inhospitable place, full of lava, and spikes, and a whole bunch of really weird creatures that you better stay away from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so close to being on a strange alien planet as when I played Metroid II. The graphics, although quite simple, manage to convey a certain amount of ‘alienness’ (and an article about this will appear at a later date). But I think that most of the atmosphere derives from the music.
Here the lexical gap sets in once more. It isn’t exactly music, you see – at least not by any standard definition. It’s very experimental/abstract stuff. Instead of traditional music played by instruments that has a rhythm and a melody, in Metroid II you have some very organic-sounding and insectoid-sounding (if that’s possible) …umm… sounds. And you also have strange humming sounds, and beeps, and something that sounds like little feet running, and similar… stuff (somebody shoot me, or give me a book of musical terminology). It doesn’t really form a melody. But believe me when I say it creates an atmosphere – an almost unbearably tense and sometimes extremely unpleasant one; which is just what the game needs, of course.

Personally, it reminds me in a way of Expressionist painting. In Expressionism, the artist tries to express an emotion by painting an image; the image does not have to make sense, or represent something physical – many Expressionist paintings are totally abstract – but it has to express an emotion to the viewer. (“An art movement early in the 20th century; the artist’s subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized” – says WordWeb.) Good paintings of this kind truly ‘radiate’ emotion, or, if you wish, atmosphere. The experimental music of Metroid II works in the same way. It is not so much music inspired by the game world and graphics (that would be Impressionism, or a bad soundtrack CD), rather than music which expresses these in completely abstract musical terms. Of course, music is by its very nature abstract, but most music does follow certain rules (melody, rhythm, etc, how many more times can I repeat this before somebody rips out my throat?). But in this case all that matters is the emotion of fear, or alienness – and what is more alien to man than strange insectoid sounds? (A brainscan of George W. Bush perhaps, but that’s not the point of this article.)

What makes it even better is that there is ‘normal’ music in the game – in certain areas. More specifically, there is normal music in the first large area where the game starts out, which branches into several other areas – and in the ‘ancient civilization’ areas, where you can save, or get various special items. Thus, normal music comes to be associated with the things we are familiar with, the things that make us feel relatively safe, while the experimental/abstract music/sound/noise/whatever comes to be associated with all that is alien, that scares us, that makes us feel insecure.

Super Metroid, the SNES sequel, was not a bad game, but I think that one of the reasons that it wasn’t half as scary as Metroid II was that the music was far more normal. It was scary at some points, yes, but it didn’t sound so alien, so horribly unpleasant and strange.

I think that Metroid II is a game that sound designers and music composers should look to for inspiration and a better understanding of how to make music for games. Metroid II proves that music/sound need not be nice or pleasant, but that it must fit the game and express what the game is about, and that in this case it is the feeling evoked that matters, not technique, or adherence to the rules.