Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts ahead.
I’m not much of a gamer, mainly because I already have an expensive habit called books. BUT. I super duper love Kingdom Hearts (the original), which I play on a tired old Playstation 2 that loses 80% of the image when it’s at the wrong angle.
I tell you, fighting your evil ex-best friend with nothing but an oversized key is hard enough with full vision, it’s nearly impossible when most of the screen keeps bursting into static.
Anyway. I want to talk about Kingdom Hearts’ skillful use of music to create acoustic space in the absence of diegetic sound (sound with an apparent source in-world). Acoustic space being the player’s awareness of more than just the limited 2D visual they are provided on-screen, developed by sound as hearing is three-dimensional (Elsaesser & Hagener 2010).
Most of the game doesn’t have diegetic sound that is unrelated to cutscenes (mainly dialogue) or player actions. Sora (the player character) can elicit sounds from objects by interacting with them, such as the scrape of a crate as he pushes it, and all of the player’s team (Donald, Goofy, and some world-specific companions like Aladdin) have their own battle cries, weapon sound effects and responses to healing. However, the rest of the game is largely void of sounds that would be considered natural for the surroundings, like wind in Agrabah’s desert. Instead original orchestral compositions and remixed Disney tracks accompany the player through various Disney worlds.
While this approach simplifies the overall feel of the game, Kingdom Hearts still creates acoustic space by developing and building upon musical associations. By using songs from corresponding Disney films on each world, users that have seen the films have the associations drawn to mind to help locate them within the pre-existing story- at least before Sora comes along. For example, ‘This Is Halloween’ proved impossible for the PS2’s sound system to properly reproduce, so Yoko Shimomura experimented with song’s arrangement in order to keep its spooky atmosphere rather than compose a new piece (RocketBaby 2002).
While Disney songs are calling up memories of movies gone by (or just setting the scene, for those who haven’t seen the films), the original compositions are busy at work as well. Each world, and the different spaces within, have a set of songs specific to its space- Traverse Town’s jaunty accompaniment sounds very different to the ominous music of Hollow Bastion. Players travelling back and forth between world can quickly come to associate tracks with their space and visualise their surroundings based on the music that is playing.
This awareness of the acoustic space is further developed by the use of audio cues, or ‘stingers’ (Marks cited in Crook 2012 p. 177) that alert players to impending combat. Whenever Heartless materialise the music immediately quickens and becomes darker, regardless of whether they have appeared within the player’s field of view. Certain Bosses even share the same music- ‘Shrouding Dark Cloud’ and ‘Destiny’s Force’ most commonly play during Heartless Boss battles, while ‘Squirming Evil’ is the track of choice for Disney villain Bosses. This leads to increased player awareness of their surroundings and the chance to sometimes recognise danger before visual confirmation. All may seem clear ahead, but if the music has changed the player knows that turning around will reveal a sinister change to previously safe space.
Crooks, T 2012, The Sound Handbook, Routledge, New York.
Elsaesser, T & Hagener, M 2010, Film Theory: an introduction through the senses, ‘Cinema as ear- acoustics and space’, Routledge, New York
RocketBaby 2002, RocketBaby’s interview with Yoko Shimomura, archived at Wayback Machine, viewed 22 May 20117, <https://web.archive.org/web/20021205101437/http://www.rocketbaby.net/interviews_yoko_shimomura.shtml>.