Thursday, January 17, 2013

Leitmotif and Motifs + Gaming

Leitmotifs and Motifs + Gaming
by Tobie Abad

The use of  recurring music, symbols and phrases can give your game an added boost of depth and atmosphere.  These are called either motifs or leitmotifs (pronounced as light motifs).

Motifs are a recurring element with appears to have significance in a narrative.  Visual examples of this in literature include the use of green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, in television, the series Lost used eyes as a motif, opening many episodes with the eye, reflecting the importance of knowledge, observation, awareness and the depths of one's soul, while in film, Run Lola Run, the overall thematic color of a sequence is the motif, which suggests which character has "dominance" in a scene.  The use of clocks, clock faces, and counting numbers is another motif, regularly recurring to push the significance of time in the story.  Narrative examples could include recurring lines such as those uttered in Cloud Atlas, or 007's penchant to introduce himself as "Bond.  James Bond."

Leitmotifs, on the other hand, are recurring musical moments which are present in a song that tend to be tied to either a character, place or specific event.  A most popular Leitmotif is the Imperial March in Star Wars, or the thematic horns that play the moment the Great White Shark of Jaws comes to strike.  Wagner used what he called "hauptthemen" or principal themes in his Ring of Nibelung, with the whole body of work having recurring melodic cycles.


Why Use Them?
While similar to theme (and many in fact confuse theme and motif), the key difference lies in how a theme might be abstract and suggestive, while a motif tends to be deliberate and concise.   There are many benefits to using motifs and leitmotifs in your game.
  1. The can act as Game Master Shortcuts for Clues, Direction or Indication.
  2. They can make the story have more cohesion.
  3. They can give the player more to work with.
Game Master Shortcuts
The joy of using motifs and leitmotifs in your games is in watching how they can start to act like shortcuts for you in a way that does not break the immersive feel of things.   Like I mentioned in a previous article, The Song, a leitmotif can for example be playing a specific song while the characters are talking to some contact in a club, and then playing a variant of that same song (say, an acoustic version) when they are seeing the dead bodies of their allies who had been betrayed by someone.. allowing players to quickly suspect the said contact without you as the narrator having to throw his name in.  Choosing a specific flower for example, a red long-stemmed rose, to become the motif of an in-game relationship can be hinted to be on the verge of falling apart if you quietly mention the now wilted roses in the pots, and the garden overgrown with weeds.  In other words, Motifs can allow you to throw Clues to your players so they can get that added push to figure out things.   They can also be used to guide the player and give direction, such as when a romantic song you've established in the first scene with the character's paramour is played again to suggest another sequence with her.   Or when a specific song (like the Rendezvous track from The Devil's Advocate soundtrack which I use for my Lacuna games) song is played to suggest the scene has shifted out of one scene to another.   And lastly, as Indication the way the Jaws theme is played at any time the Shark is coming.

The use of such motifs save the game master the time and effort of having to say stuff like, "You can feel the shark is coming... but you cannot see it yet" and makes the emotional state of the player match that of the character's own, providing a very immersive experience.

Cohesion Through Repetition
It is due to this that motifs can get confused with themes.  But in my perspective, motifs are what are used to help support the desired theme of a narrative.  For instance, imagine a game that has to do with the Great Old One, Cthulhu.  Perhaps as a motif, always mention things to have a wet or moist or watery state.  Perhaps try to always make analogies in your descriptions that suggest the ocean.  Or nightmares.  Or depths.  Players might start to pick up on it and their brains will quickly start fretting over what sea-related monstrosity can be coming.

Or, the players don't notice it, but later when the big reveals are made, they will start to notice how you've been building up on it from the get go.

Consider giving your game sessions an "Episode" title, and use that title as one of the motifs in your narrative as well. A creative storyteller might even later reveal how the first letters of the titles of every episode actually become the very  title of the last episode, giving the game an interesting narrative touch.

Giving the Player More to Work With
Players who pick up clues, get guided by Directions and pick up on the Indications will start learning to work with the narrative flow, rather than just allow the character's personality to overwhelm everything else.  While there is an almost generally accepted consensus on how railroading is not recommended, to have games that flow like well-written narratives akin to novels we love, players would appreciate having some invisible guide work to use to their advantage.

So while you are "hinting" at the coming monster, you aren't railroading them since you're still giving them every freedom to approach that scene as they want.   The trick is knowing when to use the cues and when not to.  If you always, for example, play the villain theme before he shows up, the players anticipate it and use it as a weapon against the villain.  So instead, use it as a leitmotif for the scenes when the villain is the focus of a scene, but in times when his presence is meant to be a surprise leave the music silent.

Resourceful players can even use visual motifs or narrative motifs to further the game's cohesion.  They can opt to use the very motif itself as part of their actions to help give the narrative a wonderful push.  In a fantasy game for example with the bee being a recurring symbol or image to represent a clan's dedication and order, a player might kill a bee during a meeting intended to invade the said clan.   Or in a science fiction game where the human eye is a recurring symbol to represent the artificial intelligence's rise to independence, the players might decide to use the eye as the name of the program intended to defeat the enemy.

Explore the use of leitmotifs and motifs in your game and see how it can enhance the whole role-playing experience!

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