Traditional Japanese Music

So far throughout this project I’ve had a pretty good idea of what I wanted Hanami’s music to sound like, so it was about time that I actually gave the game some sound.
The music has really been inspired by two things:

Traditional Japanese Music

This is very typical of the sort of thing that comes to mind when you mention traditional Japanese music. The music is held together by hand-beaten percussion, accompanied by the plucked strings of instruments such as a koto and a woodwind melody. The music is then layered with additions of extra percussion from bells and wooden blocks or clappers. There are a couple of things that really stand out from the examples above. The second piece from Traditional Japanese Music 2 shows a very steady drum beat, unlike a lot of the examples I’ve listened to in research. This has resulted in a very “full” sounding tune throughout, in contrast to other tracks that use minimal percussion. I liked Flower because although it probably isn’t the best example of “traditional” music, it uses the same instruments and elements. This is a lot thinner, but often uses a harp sound as a base, rather than percussion.

Studio Ghibli Soundtracks

A lot of the Studio Ghibli films are set in or based on locations in Japan, and as a result have ended up with traditionally Japanese-sounding OSTs. One of the most obvious examples is the soundtrack from Pom Poko. The film itself is about a struggle against a modern way of life which destroys tradition, and this trailer showcases about three of the different types of music that the film captures. My Neighbour Totoro also shows a very traditional way of life, set in rural Japan. The track I found most inspirational from Totoro is Kaze no Toorimichi, “Path of the Wind”. The composer Joe Hisaishi, who also wrote the soundtracks to many Ghibli films including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, manages to balance traditional Japanese instruments with a modern orchestra brilliantly. This is an orchestral version of Kaze no Toorimichi, which is just as good as the original but unfortunately without the sound of traditional Japanese instruments.

It’s very difficult to find examples of Ghibli OSTs online that haven’t been met with copyright restrictions, so there’s not a lot more I can show! You can listen to some of Hisaishi’s music here.

Traditionally, Japanese instruments were tuned to pentatonic scales which consist of five notes per octave. This is why if you punch out a tune using only the black keys of a piano it can often sound very Eastern! The Western piano is tuned in C major, which uses seven notes per octave. Most traditional Western music is played in a major and minor heptatonic scale key signature, which is partly why traditional Western and Eastern music sound so different even on similar instruments.

There are various types of pentatonic scales which have specific names in Japanese. One example is the In Sen scale, which is often used as the tuning for wind chimes. In the key of C, In Sen plays:
C Db F G Bb (repeat C…)

For Hanami, I’ve chosen to use the E flat major pentatonic scale. I’m not sure if this was a scale that would have been used in traditional Japanese music, but when I was trying to work out the key signature for Hisaishi’s Kaze no Toorimichi it was the one that seemed to fit best (I’ve tried to work this out from the video, but can’t really be sure…) The scale of E flat major consists of Eb, Ab and Bb, and the pentatonic scale looks like this:
Eb F G Bb C (repeat Eb…)

Because it’s a major scale, it can have a very “happy” feeling. When I’ve asked other people what they think the music should sound like, they’ve mostly all agreed that the music should be calm and create a light atmosphere, rather than being too dark or energetic. Some of the examples in the first video Traditional Japanese Music 2 sound very serious, but Flower definitely shows a more relaxed and carefree musical experience.

Hanami Idea Explosion!

I guess this is a little like brainstorming, only it’s more of an explosion of words. I can’t think of a better name for it, especially one that sounds as exciting!
I got this idea from Gabriel Verdon at the beginning of his Devlog for The Archer. He begins development with a quick introduction to the concepts behind the game, and his objectives for the finished result. As a quick introduction to the characters and settings for the game, he takes a simple statement and pulls apart separate words to explain further details. With the ideas I’ve got at the moment, I guess my opening statement would be:

A lone girl travels empty streets collecting cherry blossoms.

To make the statement a little more specific, I thought I would expand it to:

A long girl travels through the empty streets of Japan collecting Cherry Blossom after Hanami.

It’s still quite a vague overview, but I’ve left room for improvement ^_^.


-Hanami- Gameplay is based around environmental obstacles. The player must find blossoms in hard-to-find or hard-to-reach locations, although I’m not sure yet whether this will be with the aid of special abilities or if the challenges will be fairly similar the whole way through. This will ultimately depend on what I manage to program.

-Feel of the game- There will be a conflicting sense of both loneliness and serenity throughout, achieved through lack of player communication and a peaceful setting.

-Symbols- Japanese written characters (Kanji) will appear throughout, as well as traditional Japanese symbolism such as the Sakura blossoms themselves, which are an ephemeral symbol of mortality.

-Music- I would like the music to sound like a typical “game soundtrack” (repetitive, electronic, catchy yet annoying.) But I also want to base it one traditional Japanese tunes, to help the game feel authentic. Throughout the project I will be listening to a lot of Gackt and Nobuo Uematsu for inspiration, but no changes there really!

-Movie Influences- Studio Ghibli’s so-called “Blue Sky, Green Grass” films- Laputa, Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service… but also My Neighbours the Yamadas for a little insight into Japanese life, and anime like Angel’s Egg and Cat Soup for the sense of journeying through strange, lonely worlds (these second films also add a sense of darkness, which is something I’m currently toying with.)

-Game Influences- The Archer for its incredible use of Game Maker and beautiful concept and asset artwork, Ninja Senki for its Japanese themes and simple graphical style which create a great example of everything a platformer should be, and Nevermore 3 for its representations of isolation and loneliness in a beautiful world.

-One thing I really want to get across is problems with communication in a foreign place, and a lack of understanding of signs and symbols. I want there to be minimal dialogue throughout the game AT BEST, the player will have to rely on their own interpretation of symbols, imagery and gestures in order to get through the game. Some will be more complex than others!

-Verdon goes into a lot of details on his post about the inventory system, and how it acts as a means of providing higher-resolution details of items and characters which don’t appear very detailed in the actual game. This is definitely something I will consider! There will be items and pick-ups to help the character along, however I’m not sure what these will be yet.

“What About Japan Inspires You?”

Be Bamboo My Friend
Japan is a great source of inspiration for creatives, geeks, gamers and dreamers (among others!). When I first got my Playstation, I could see that there was a difference between Japanese and Western games. The Western games I played, including Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, were all very fun and had me playing for hours. But it was games like Final Fantasy VII and Tekken 2 that I started to get really immersed into. I felt connected to the characters and in tune with their back-stories, and noticed how relevant narrative was in gaming. Graphically, Japanese games seemed to concentrate a lot more on small background details in order to define the setting of the game. The graphics in FFVII didn’t push the limits of the hardware by any means, but as a player you could tell that each background detail had been individually placed in order to tell a story about its location. And while the game-world was set in a fantasy location, to me it had a unique feel which set it apart from games based on Western fantasy.

The insight into Japanese gaming led to a little insight into Japanese culture. Which over the years has become an understanding of Japanese culture, and a real appreciation for how it has affected Japanese games, films and other media. One of my sincerest dreams is to visit there- I’ve already planned out a few of the locations I would visit including the Square Enix store which sells Final Fantasy merchandise, the Studio Ghibli museum and the island of Izu Oshima which is famous for its volcano suicides and played a huge role in the Japanese novel Ring. For me, I think creating a game set in a Japan-inspired location is a way of bringing the locations and culture a little closer. Games create a virtual reality which the player immerses themselves into by taking control of a character within that virtual world.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been scribbling down little character ideas as and when they come to me, but as I’m still not sure how the game will look or feel, I never settled for anything. Because my game setting was inspired by Japan, I looked to Japanese character design in games and manga for a design solution.

I tried to think what a Japanese character might look like, and chose a female protagonist based on the slightly feminine game concept. The Chibi style is simply a Japanese drawing technique which doesn’t involve placing a lot of detail, so for initial designs I thought it was very appropriate.
However, in a real lightbulb moment of inspiration, I realised that this was no appropriate at all. I would like to keep a female protagonist as the main playable character in my game- as a developer I would like to reach out to female players. It occurred to me that the main character should be an outsider, someone who is unfamiliar with the environment, the customs of the people and their lifestyle. This makes the character more relatable to the player, who is also immersing themselves into the unfamiliar setting. The thoughts and feelings of the character should reflect the feelings of a tourist, slightly confused and nervous, but willing to step into an unknown world. It’s also one step closer for anyone who has ever wanted to experience what it’s like to visit Japan ^_^

At the beginning of his Lessons From Bamboo presentation, Garr Reynolds asks “What about Japan inspires you?” I discovered this slideshow on another blog, and immediately felt peaceful while scrolling through the amazing photography. This is just one side of Japan, in contrast to its big city lights, but its one which I hope to represent as well as I possibly can, down to the smallest detail.

You can watch the video of the presentation here, which makes explains a nice little metaphor about bamboo!

be flexible, tough, adaptable and able to recover with even more strength, like bamboo.