Editorial: Game Music Needs To Change

It was once again, dear LusiSlaves, a short experience with an indie game that made my nerd rage boil enough to become a topic for one of my editorials. I acquired Bastion through a recent Humble Bundle and finally sunk a decent amount of time into it. Like many, I was struck by the game and its unique voice. Like many, I was especially drawn to the soundtrack. While it made me happy at first, it soon caused me to wonder why so many other game soundtracks do not pay the same amount of attention to creating something as distinctive and well-suited as Bastion‘s OST.

Very pretty too.

Cool game. Great soundtrack.

It is a problem I have with modern movies too, there are many talented composers who know how to compose to fit a mood, but distinct arrangements and melodies are fading to obscurity. Indie games are helping to diversify the landscape, but the trend does not seem to be spilling over yet.

Full orchestra soundtracks can be powerful and moving, but the advent of such soundtracks in gaming has caused composers to get lazy. Games can hide behind a generic string arrangement and not get criticized for the soundtrack.

That being said, there are a select few examples of strong tracks using a full orchestra. Starship Mario presents a distinct melody, and each section plays a role to make the song more rich. While the Uncharted games are normally a perfect example of my frustration with modern gaming soundtracks, the main theme goes against the rest of the OST to give something more memorable.

But why is full orchestra (plus the occasional guitar) the default? A game like Assassin’s Creed II is oozing with potential for an unforgettable soundtrack. Combining futuristic technology and European history should make for an eclectic mix of instruments, clever use of leitmotif, and inspired melodies. Instead, the game is left sounding like a modified Gears of War. The soundtracks are not interchangeable, but both certainly play it safe.

Video game music used to make statements. Melody used to be king. A soundtrack would tell a story just as grand as the cutscenes. Now the mission statement seems to be “match your instruments to this picture” when instead it could be “let your music set this mood” or “let your music be a counter-melody to these pictures”. Music is such a strong story-telling device, but recently it has been nothing more than a background character.

As divided as fans may be about Final Fantasy XIII‘s soundtrack and that of its sequel, I applaud their choice to try something unique. The series is certainly not in its musical heyday, but it is nice to see them not fully fall victim to Forgettable Orchestra Syndrome. Plus, this experimentation led to the only non-Nobuo track in the series to contend for a spot among the best Final Fantasy tracks ever.

Do you feel the same way, fellow nerds? Do you think that modern games are missing out on interesting and varied soundtracks? Settings are so varied in gaming, it seems silly to me to set them all to the same sort of music. Sound off below!

17 Comments

  1. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 12:21 | Permalink

    I am sick unto abject despair of the Hollywood soundtrack…

    Also, the XIII OSTs are completely destroyed by Takeharu Ishimoto’s Type-0 OST – it is really properly good!

  2. Mel
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 13:15 | Permalink

    I’m sure we’re all aware of this, but earlier tech limitations in videogames meant that the music had to be more melodic, which made the music “catchier”. Now we can replicate, as SN noted, Hollywood style scores in games. Games today mostly try to replicate the Hollywood experience, sometimes for the better but usually not.

  3. Epy
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 17:41 | Permalink

    Best example: Castlevania (lol): Lords of Shadow. They take a series that is famous for its varied soundtrack that has everything from haunting piano melodies to orchestrated pieces to pumping jrock beats and give it… another boring serviceable Hollywood soundtrack. A lot of things annoy me about that arrogant asshole Cox’s God of War Castlevania re-imagination, but nothing like their choice in music. Then again, generic Hollywood-esque music is still preferable to dubstep.

  4. Mel
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 20:08 | Permalink

    lol, dubstep. I think of it whenever I see the “you’re getting old” south park episode. *thppppppppbbb*!

  5. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 21:59 | Permalink

    @Epy: 100% correct. Well-done, sir.

  6. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 22:05 | Permalink

    Ethos: totally in agreement with you about 13/13-2’s soundtracks. They are some of my favourites in the series now, despite the clamouring of a few people who have made such a show of hating everything about the games that they feel they cannot now praise any aspect of it without looking like hypocrites, and so despise it in principle alone.

    The list of ‘tracks I love’ on either soundtrack is much longer than that from nearly any FF game excepting 6, 7, 9, or 11: excellent company, if you ask me. Were I asked to pick one and only one FF game soundtrack to have, it would be a rough choice between 7, 11, and 13-2. Much agonising would be done, and no answer would ever truly gratify my desire.

  7. Mel
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 23:18 | Permalink

    There were some bright spots to 13’s soundtrack, certainly. But I had to go back and listen to them to realize that. Nothing ever particularly struck me while I played the game and I left feeling it had a forgettable score.

  8. DefChaos
    Posted 2012.07.17 at 23:29 | Permalink

    I can still find selections from current games that I really enjoy, but I’m in the same boat, games that I have a soundtrack that I can remember and enjoy from beginning to end are mostly from the PS1 era or earlier.

    Good ‘boss’ music can still get me pretty pumped up though. :)

  9. Deimosion
    Posted 2012.07.18 at 08:04 | Permalink

    Bastion was so good.

  10. Matt Dance
    Posted 2012.07.18 at 11:34 | Permalink

    XIII’s soundtrack is pretty good, although I do not find it as memorable afterwards as much as enjoyable while playing it. I just got vvvvvv on the Steam sale, and enjoy that well enough as a recent soundtrack, but it does fall into a very certain category of sound.

  11. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.07.18 at 22:46 | Permalink

    I really, really need to play Bastion. I own it on 360 and have yet to play it at all.

    Shame.

  12. Ethos
    Posted 2012.07.19 at 09:27 | Permalink

    I think XIII-2’s soundtrack is notably better than XIII’s soundtrack, but I think it also has more tracks I would consider to be “really quite bad oh wow I can’t stand listening to this”. But that’s because it takes risks and – like I said – that’s what I respect about it and why the tracks I do like, I really like a lot.

    @Epy – Actually, I would disagree with that dubstep point. I mean, I can’t stand LISTENING to dubstep, but I think most dubstep pays more attention to layering and rhythm than most Hollywood soundtracks. I mean, I think Hollywood has forgotten what a triplet is.
    So maybe I don’t actually disagree with your wording. I think Hollywood soundtracks are preferable to LISTEN to, but I have more respect for most dubstep.

  13. 7thCircle
    Posted 2012.07.20 at 12:05 | Permalink

    Dear Peethos,
    When I think of current gen console games that handled music fabulously and memorably, the only ones that come to mind are Little King’s Story and Nier. Have you played either of those? After answering “No,” care to explain why not? Their music multiplied is like 1,000 Flowers orgasming on auditory unicorns and rainbows while viciously slitting the throats of ABBA and Yanni.
    <3
    -Glenn

  14. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.07.22 at 05:08 | Permalink

    If we look at the handhelds then there are a few scant instances of memorable OSTs; such as Crisis Core, Type-0, Radiant Historia, and probably anything by Falcom.

    With consoles I guess we have Lost Odyssey, The Last Story, Xenoblade, and Nier.

  15. Ethos
    Posted 2012.07.24 at 09:41 | Permalink

    @Glenn – I’ve never heard of these games, why haven’t you mentioned them in the past?

  16. 7thCircle
    Posted 2012.07.25 at 00:43 | Permalink

    I’ve been waiting until after you finish Final Fantasy IX.

  17. Ethos
    Posted 2012.07.25 at 07:40 | Permalink

    Oh well that will never happen. That game’s horrible.