VGM Review #4: flOw

I couldn’t help myself.  After listening to and talking about the previews of Austin Wintory’s work for the upcoming Journey, I needed to buy, play, and, most importantly, listen to the soundtrack to flOw, the other game from thatgamecompany for which he has composed VGM.  And now, having experienced the music in a variety of ways, I have to review it and spread the news of its greatness to those, like myself, who are unfortunate latecomers to the game and its sound.

The first time I listened to the music from flOw, there were two problems.  The first one was that I went in with extremely high expectations.  After having listened to and having allowed myself to be captivated by music from Journey, I went to Wintory’s website hungry for more excellence.  So I listened to the track once.  And once again.  And I was dumbfounded because I simply didn’t understand it.  Go ahead and take a listen for yourself.

I would describe what you just listened to as being very “transparent.”  I was at work when I first checked it out and typically, even though I’m busy doing something, there will be a part of whatever I’m listening to that pulls me way from my work, even if only for an instant.  There was no such pull with the flOw sample.  It passes through and is over before one even realizes it, and it certainly did so before I was able to grab onto something in it.  Much of that is due to how the reverb makes the piece sound like it’s being performed underwater in a fishbowl.  The result is an effect opposite that of Journey’s.

Like I said, I was dumbfounded—in ways I was even disappointed.  I listened to some of Wintory’s other featured tracks for films and the like and found myself wondering why flOw sounds the way it does.  Then, I found a live version of what one might call the theme on YouTube (which I’ll post below—I will be talking about it) that just didn’t sound like what is on the website, making me more confused.  In hindsight, what’s on the website is “The World of flOw,” not its “theme,“ so it was a dumb mistake on my part.  Regardless, at that point I figured that I just had to go play the game to see what was up.

Luckily, I was correct.  The second problem was that, to enjoy the music of flOw to the fullest extent, one has to play the game.  Period.  No exceptions.  You may have listened to the track on the website or heard something on YouTube despite the fact that I just said I would post what was relevant and talk about it below; you may have even liked what you listened to in your defiance.  But I guarantee you that you’ve only understood the tip of the iceberg.

Don’t leave just yet.  Yes, you should go purchase and play the game, but allow me to explain myself a little more before you stop reading and go do that; that way, you’re a bit more enlightened when you play.

“Life could be simple” is the tagline of flOw, and a very fitting one.  You the player start as a small organism and you try to eat other organisms in order to grow and dominate larger creatures until you reach the height of your growth.  You clear a layer, grow, and then go down to the next layer.  When you’ve reached your apex, you start all over again with a new organism.  The game is extremely simple and breaks down life to its primal roots.  Actually, it's a sort of terrifying allegory, as, while most other organisms get along just swimming around, you go break up the peace and devour for power.

flOw is mostly relaxing, fun, and yeah, the creatures are cool and game is visually artistic.  I’m not going to rave about that, though.  What I will rave about, though, is the wonderfully fitting audio presentation.

Check out the “theme” (I don’t think it’s so much a theme as it is very particular music from one area the game, but I’ll refer to it as such… please correct me if you have another idea as to what I should be calling it):

The music is very pretty.  Those flute flourishes throughout are a gorgeous touch to the delicacy that the chorus and the strings bring.  Couple that with a soft cushion of brass that the other layers effortlessly melt into and you have the base of the theme.  It’s an unobtrusive, wispy – yet full-bodied – work.

Listen to the way the chorus and the strings move both separately and together—they both weave around each other and enter and exit audibility counterintuitively.  I first noticed that the strings threw me off very early on.  At 0:17, the chorus starts and soprano voices sing a minor third.  Afterwards, the strings start and play the first note that the chorus sings, but then doesn’t complete the interval despite my expectations.

One of my favorite moments is at 0:28.  There, the chorus starts, the strings complete what the listener expects the chorus to finish, and then the chorus reenters, pushing the phrase into new territory.  Not only does it sound beautiful, Wintory’s decision to cut out the chorus to make room for the strings is a very thought-provoking conscious decision.  The line would have been lovely even if he stuck with just the chorus; but instead, Wintory makes an incredibly simple choice that is in turn incredibly creative.  It makes the extension of the phrase that much more powerful.

The rubato time of the piece also adds to its interest.  There are many phrases in which one can find a sort of “common time,” but, as rubato does, the note lengths expand and contract at the will of the conductor.  For instance, one can count those notes from 0:17 to 0:28 as having lengths of four beats, three beats, and then something like three-and-a-half beats, but then after that many of the notes extend through three beats.  Therefore, the listener is unable to anticipate the movement of the piece well; instead, s/he has, for lack of a better term, to flow with the tide that the conductor creates.

So what about the rest of the music?

Everything else is extremely minimalist and is part of this greater blend.  It almost drives me crazy, playing the game and trying to hone in on any music, because, aside from there not being much, there is that fishbowl ambiance that bounces all of the SFX around, making the reverb just highlight its prominence in the mix.  It’s hard to discern what’s a sound and what the actually music is.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, though; it certainly fits with the vibe of the game—you’ll hear.

One of the things I like most is that there are many sounds that are just acoustic instrument tones.  When the player is eating another organism, if done quickly enough, a series of tones will sound in succession, creating a cluster of sounds.  Some creatures emit tones when performing a certain action that adds to the blend in different ways.  Sometimes, those two things run together.  In the end, the player hears sparse music coupled with “music” coming both from his/her own actions and the actions of the other creatures.  The atmosphere is so simple and so minimalist that the SFX tones add to the music itself.

These musical tones create an almost acousmatic effect.  “Acousmatic” is basically a term to describe hearing a sound without knowing its point of origin/what has made the sound.  It’s based on the concept that humans essentially become biased towards sounds by tying them to physical objects instead of just listening to sound as it is—sound (here’s the Wiki on it for more description).  In flOw, one may say that the music is experiencing a sort of variation of acousmatics—the music itself is being added to by things unknown to it.  These tones are being played and added to the overall body of the minimalist pieces, but the point of origin is skewed because an instrument isn’t “really” playing the tones that sound like, say, a vibraphone; rather, the point of origin is from the creatures in the game.  In this way, the music is absorbing these sounds without bias—it matters not whether an instrument plays them, they become part of the music.

Just listen to how the SFX made by the creatures translate into an orchestral arrangement on the theme:

Go play the game.  Hurry!  And come back and listen to, first, the theme above and then to this live performance again.

I absolutely love, love, love this arrangement.  Wintory could have just gone with what we heard earlier, but instead he decided to arrange the theme to fit in the sounds of the beings.  It wasn’t until I played the game and came back to listen that I knew what he had done.  The listener really gets the whole environment of the game in that live performance, which is astounding to think about.  People can listen to orchestras playing the Mario theme over and over, but the arrangements are mostly just a theme with maybe a quirk added here and there.  Wintory’s flOw arrangement is practically the game as a whole.

I’m actually really interested to know what is on the instruments’ parts for some of it.  For example, in the first minute or so everything sounds very cohesive, though I imagine that, until a point, the players are given a way to articulate certain notes and are left to play off of each other.  Whatever is happening, they do a hell of a job capturing the spirit of the game.

By the way, were you struck by the choral voicings from 1:53 to 2:07?  ‘Cause I was.  That and the sheer wildness of the creatures created by the orchestra leave me feeling immersed in an amazingly rich environment of sound—an environment of sound that is equally submerged in uplifting consonance and sharply cutting dissonance.

I can’t praise this arrangement enough, and it makes me love what I hear while playing even more.  Now that I think about it, this is probably what orchestral arrangements of VGM should be doing.  Not only should we love the arrangements because they are of music we already love, and not only should they make us want to play the games from which they come, they should make us want to listen more intently and love what we’re hearing from the game more deeply.  The Zelda 25th Anniversary CD does that to me; the “Greatest Video Game Music” CD does not.

Thanks for the great music and sound, Austin.  Listening to all of this makes me wish Journey were here sooner.