Do You Hear the People Sing? – the Leitmotif in Video Game Music
I was planning on doing a simple ‘favourite tracks’ post on FFXIV, much like I did for SWTOR before, but when going through said favourites, it quickly became clear that it would not be enough for me to simply list some songs and write a few sentences as to why when what I really wanted to talk about was the way music is used in this game and why it keeps impressing me.
A “the best of” article is still coming — that will be part two then — but for now, I’d rather focus on one singular piece of music, or rather one specific theme and how it is woven through an entire expansion. The expansions in Final Fantasy XIV are pretty big. The amount of content they deliver are packed more densely and bring more quests and story to the table than many single-player games. And that is each. By now, FF XIV is de facto a quadrology of games that each have a very distinctive narrative and feeling to it. And each time, the music for the expansion plays a huge part in that.
I have to admit, though, I am not the biggest fan of Stormblood. It’s a decent game expansion, but for me, it easily falls behind Heavensward and Shadowbringers. One thing that was simply amazing about it — regardless of pacing criticisms — was its music. Especially the way the same motifs were used throughout the story to give everything a connected feeling. I collected a few examples here. (There is no need to listen through those long tracks completely, usually the first minute gives you a good impression of what I am talking about.)
There is the theme, the leitmotif, we keep hearing throughout the story. It is the musical way of describing the heart and soul of the region we are in. You hear it when you come to Rhalgr’s Reach in the day theme, a melody that easily stays with you.
Then, the night theme revolves around that same bit of melody, only slightly different, calmer and much more appropriate for quiet moments. This more somber bit also gets used in more emotionally taxing scenes as the background music. Exact same melody, whole different feeling.
But the games goes several steps further. First, with the main boss theme that combines both our already familiar theme and the second omnipresent melody bit that is all over Stormblood (including the trailers already). It turns the nice regular theme we already know into a fierce piece of battle music, simply by changing the orchestration. And the familiarity with the music makes every bossfight even more intense.
And then there is the anthem… The region we are trying to free is occupied, after all. And what better way of showing oppression and illustrating how colonizers just take whatever they want than to take our melody, that beautiful piece that is used to describe the land and its people, and just turning it into a literal anthem of oppression? The way they arranged this, the lyrics, orchestration and all the little details make this song incredibly powerful. Invoking the style of soviet hymns, it tells a very clear message: This belongs to us and we will take everything we want.
In the end, we get to beat the evil empire, we get to claim the land back for the people. Their freedom. And with that, their culture and their ability to express themselves. And the music of the game goes right along with that as the common people take back their theme, our main theme that has traveled with us through the entire expansion. And they scrub the lyrics of the occupation away and turn it into a freedom song. Much less polished than the anthem was. There are shaky voices, and it takes a moment until they even find together — quite the opposite of the militaristic precision of the empire’s choir before. But they do find a way and come together in the end. Not perfect, not polished but raw like the people that have just reclaimed their home and are finally free.
How much you can do, how much you can support storytelling with a singular melody will never cease to amaze and fascinate me. And the composer of Final Fantasy XIV is exceptionally good at this. It adds a whole different level of character to a particular storyline, and the theme stays with you, even long after you’ve finished it. And much later, when the game at some point brings you back to those areas, picks up a small story thread from that tale again, all it takes is a brief moment of the familiar theme playing to emotionally bring you right back where you need to be.