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[In this op-ed, game designer and researcher Douglas Wilson offers a different way to think about the relationship between music, games, and meaning.]

The best music game of all time is neither a rhythm game nor a synaesthesic puzzle game. It’s not Dance Dance Revolution, or Lumines, or even Rock Band.

The best music game ever made is Civilization IV.

OK, so admittedly my claim seems somewhat untenable. But a number of powerful game-music experiences have recently led me to reconsider the way I fundamentally think about games.

As an avid music collector, music plays an equally important role in my life as do games. And given that I grew up as a console RPG nut, I have long been a dedicated fan of game composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda.

Civ IV features its own top-notch soundtrack, largely comprised of Classical masterworks spanning medieval times to the present.

The catchy opening theme, “Baba Yetu” (composed by Christopher Tin and performed by Stanford University’s Talisman a capella group), captures the epic, world-encompassing scope of the gameplay. And for my money, any game that incorporates J.S. Bach’s BWV 1041 deserves attention.

But to be fairly labeled as a “music game,” a game needs more than just a great soundtrack – its music must also interact with the gameplay in some sort of deeper way.

From History to Alt-History and Back Again

From a music perspective, the crowning success of Civ IV comes during the late-game “Modern Age.” Whereas the earlier ages of the game feature a diversity of composers and styles, the soundtrack for the Modern Age is entirely assembled from the works of John Adams – not the President, but the minimalist composer who figures as one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century.

Given the heavily meditated nature of cultural memory, Adams is not just “of” the 20th century; in some sense, he is the late 20th century. Not only do his works possess historical importance, but the very ethos of his signature style echoes the trials and tribulations of 20th century American history.

In short, Adams’ music is a perfect embodiment of one typical type of Civ IV game that has just entered Modern Age. If you’ve made it this late into the game, chances are your empire has become a major world power. The technological and civic progress that has led you to this age continues at a steady peace. Sitting on an uneasy peace threatened by limited oil and uranium resources, as well as the looming specter of ICBM development, you race towards a potential cultural or space-race victory.

This is where Adams shines. Channeling the folksy spirit of Aaron Copland and the minimalist grooves of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams captures the ambiguity and cautious optimism of the times. His music, oscillating between the pastoral and the industrious, evokes the unstoppable onslaught of progress, and includes just enough whimsy to be comfortably placed into a game setting.

My own personal favorite moments come during the second movement of “Grand Pianola Music.” In a rare section of quiet repose, grazing horns wistfully mark the past and look towards the future. Filtered through the counterfactual yet familiar history of these fictional civilizations, the music opens up a fleeting glimpse of the full weight of modernity and human progress – at least from my own vantage point as an American.

As an alternative history game, Civ IV always maintains a degree of fiction. But remember, its simulation is partially based on real history. For me, the game works as an interactive commentary on human civilization, and particularly on the tragedies and triumphs of the 20th century. Set to and feeding off of Adams’ soundscapes, it’s the kind of emotionally charged experience that makes you want to simultaneously laugh and cry.

Game with a Soundtrack, or Soundtrack with a Game?

Of course, we shouldn’t neglect Civ IV’s brilliant game design. In terms of pure gameplay, the Civilization series might very well be the most addictive games ever made. At times, the gameplay becomes so engrossing (and the UI control so demanding) that the soundtrack fades out of consciousness almost entirely.

But in those more “in-between” moments – nervously waiting between rounds, indecisively mulling over potential strategies, building terrain improvements, or stepping back to admire the beautiful empire you’ve built – Adams takes center stage.

When soundtrack and gameplay reach a perfect harmony, transcending the sum of their individual parts, one might wonder whether the song was chosen for the game, or whether the game was chosen for the song. Hit the Modern Age at the right time, and it almost seems as if Civ IV was designed some sort of interactive music video celebrating Adams’ career.

Note that Adams’ music was not simply thrown into the game, but carefully selected. In “Grand Pianola Music,” for instance, the brash crescendos and boisterous climaxes have been spliced out; in “Christian Zeal and Activity,” the entire spoken word section has been removed.

The music direction must in part be motivated by user-experience wisdom – loud crashes and spoken word would detract from the flow of the gameplay. And yet, the music selection also suggests design choices motivated by aesthetic concerns.

This more recombinant assembling of Adams’ works better facilitates the dialog between soundtrack and gameplay. Deprived of its full catharsis, the edited version of “Grand Pianola Music” no longer resolves the quiet tension and ambiguity of its introspective passages – a perfect mirror of a typical early Modern Age gameplay experience.

Between the Notes, Between the Mechanics

On the surface of things, this analysis may seem like nothing more than an account of my own subjective experiences. But ultimately, the point is not about me, Civilization IV, or even John Adams. The hope is to more generally share what it feels like when bold music direction, in concert with good game design, blurs the boundaries between listening and play.

Even though the music of a more “traditional” game may not affect the gameplay on the level of the code, it can certainly affect the way we experience the game mechanics, just as the game mechanics can alter our understanding of the music.

Indeed, since experience is ultimately what matters, I would argue that any deeply synergistic soundtrack-gameplay relationship that acts on an emotional or cultural level can be just as "musical" as the formal mechanisms of rhythm games – physical game controllers or no.

Just ask Adams himself, who writes: “the real meaning of the music is in between the notes.” Take a closer look at Civ IV, and you’ll see that the real meaning of the game lies somewhere between the mechanics, at those interstitial places where gameplay slides into and intersects other forms of expression.