Editorial: Music Again

Using modern technology, but not abandoning the power of good composition.
I didn’t care for this game, but I still listen to the soundtrack. Step in the right direction.

Hello LusiCharms. Longtime readers of my weekly column (yes, I am aware how falsely prestigious I make my patchwork self-serving editorials sound by phrasing it as a “weekly column”) will be aware that video game music has no small rotation in my thoughts regarding the medium. I started something called The Nobuo Review that I never really got up and running, and even tried to dissect the way that gamer and symphony cultures interact. In fact, it was just over a year ago when I posted my claim that game music needs to change. My point is similar to that one, dear LusiDuos, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. A lot can change in a year.

There are two works specifically that has changed the way I look at what game music could be. One is a thirteen minute track written by a guy only known as PanchoVeda. There was a time when I was considering using a tracker to write a few tracks for LFoPD, and this overly ambitious effort would have been a long-forgotten chapter in my life were it not for the serendipitous posting of Sans Deli in the forums. I think the track is a masterpiece. It uses simple premises to build something more complicated and it gives the unique feeling that it was specifically written for an 8-bit sound. That might sound like an obvious observation, but many tracker tunes that I have come across give the sense that they are written in 8-bit for novelty or nostalgic reasons, not to take advantage of the medium’s unique sounds.

I do not think that Sans Deli would necessarily be good video game music nor is my point that games should try to revert to the 8-bit sound. I was rather taken in by the realization that there are still composers who are dedicated to all that music can be. Somebody with PanchoVeda’s musical skills and sensibilities would be able to speak to producers and writers on a game and actually get inside the themes and moods of the title to not just support the game’s intentions, but to be an extension of them. A character’s theme should be as essential to who that character is as their dialogue and actions. Music has that potential. Technology has been such a double-edged sword for music composition and creation. On one hand, it is easy for almost anybody to write music in increasingly creative forms, but on the other it has also become easier to make something dull sound impressive. Competence has been accepted as good or even great to some gamers as they seem to forget what music is capable of. To me, PanchoVedo provides an example that good composers and video game sensibilities have a symbiotic relationship that was initially taken advantage of but is largely forgotten now, especially by big budget titles. People now appear to be so used to competence that they have forgotten what “good” actually is.

We are capable of more.
I now plan to watch this at least once a year.

The second work that reinstated my disillusionment with video game music was something that is even further from the medium: Fantasia. I encourage anybody who has not seen this film as an adult to do so as soon as possible. It is a shocking reminder of how Walt Disney himself, while an extremely competent businessman, was an artist first. Fantasia can be watched by children, but it is not intended for children. It is intended to be a work of art and it succeeds almost entirely. Better than any other attempt I know of, Fantasia gives music and picture equal respect and value. Re-watching it for the second time in two years initially frustrated me because it reminded me of how little patience modern society has for letting themselves truly delve into great works, seemingly more interested in something novel to have an immediate reaction to instead of forming a relationship with a complicated piece of music or the beautiful layers of animation. But then, as my mind tends to do, I related Fantasia to video games, wondering what would happen if a game found a truly talented composer and dedicated their game to match the form and themes of the music. Of course it would be a different process than something like Fantasia because video game music usually has to loop, but why not give music the respect that Disney did over seventy years ago?

I hope I am not misunderstood, dear LusiScores, because it is not my wish to have classical music overtake video games (although I would not be opposed), but rather that both game-makers and composers step up to the plate to unleash the potential of both.

Do you feel I am being dramatic? Perhaps I am, but so is Beethoven’s music, and I like it that way. I also challenge you to watch Fantasia or listen to Sans Deli multiple times over the course of a few weeks, and not just in the background. Either way, sound off in the comments below with your opinions on the state of video game music. Indie games are starting to get the right idea, but I feel we still have a long way to go. Do you agree?

12 comments

  1. I think there’s a lot that games can do to grow as a medium, including what’s currently being done with the music. Right now we’re stuck in a rut, in that most of the major players in this industry are too busy trying to get bigger and overcome the competition. If that’s the ONLY focus then you’ll find an industry where new ideas are rare and when one does manage to surface it gets dog piled by everyone trying to be the next biggest thing. We’re in that industry now. Maybe it’s been that way all along.

  2. As I’ve experienced with the Persona series, terrible music can truly destroy a game experience.

    One of the few games where I’ve had that happen.

  3. The World Ends with You *blech*

    Xenosaga II *barf*

    What do you guys think about the effect of OSTs that may not necessarily be bad, and may not necessarily be unpleasant to the ear, but still don’t particularly grab you? Do merely passable OSTs have a neutral impact on a game’s enjoyment, or do you think they actively detract from a game’s enjoyment?

  4. Without a doubt, awesome music raises any game up one tier of enjoyment. SiliconNoob, I’m actually having playing such a game right now, and my experience leads me to believe that it depends on what you value most in games. In any game I play, the most important thing is the gameplay systems, which is why I like a lot of games that have crappy stories. I’m at the beginning of FFXIII-2 right now and so far, there have only been a couple of stand out tracks. Even though the music isn’t really my type, it is not ruining the experience at all because I am enjoying running around, killing things at light speed, and filling out map percentages too much. Now, if the music were some kid pounding on frying pans with Lusipurr in the background saying, “children” over and over again, I might put it down.

    I agree about Xenosaga II. Xenosaga III got it right though!

  5. @SN – They don’t actively detract from the experience for me on a local level. It’s only when I think about what a missed opportunity it is that it irks me. I think “merely passable” sums up the vast majority of AAA OSTs.

  6. IMO the majority of AAA is drastically under-par.

  7. Absolutely no argument here. Some astounding visual and technical achievements, but that often means little.

  8. [Typical AAA approach to making music]: repeatedly bash together a pair of saucepan lids until you’ve composed the score, and then have an orchestra arrange it.

  9. I should clarify that “merely passable” and “drastically under-par” mean the same thing to me in this arena. Par should be something like Bastion or Swords & Sworcery, unfortunately two of the better examples of recent(ish) soundtracks.

  10. Two game soundtracks in my mind right now are FF XIII and Dark Souls.

    For XIII, I found that the OST was pretty… well, boring. And it reenforced my experience of the linearity as being boring, too. I remember thinking it sounded like elevator music, but it’s been some time since I’ve listened to it (aside from Lusi’s podcast opening, of course)

    For Dark Souls, that game has very few moments where any music at all is present. In Firelink Shrine at the beginning and during boss battles… and that’s about it. The rest is silent, and I think it provides a very desolate feeling throughout the whole game.

    Also, it’s been a while since I mentioned Skies of Arcadia here. Ethos, what are your feelings about that game’s music? Good? Ok? Bad? I think back on it fondly, it certainly did the job for me.

  11. I thought XIII was good regarding variation, sound quality, and epicness of boss music. Most of it is not particularly catchy or my type though.

    Dark Souls is an oddity as was Demon’s Souls. The only time there is music is basically during boss battles and I was too enthrall end in the battles to notice it. I have no idea what that game’s soundtrack sounds like even though I played that game to platinumization.

  12. I generally hated the XIII OST, though I have come to adore March of the Dreadnaughts.

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