(For all music mentioned here, please see the bottom of this post in the "References" section to hear them!)
Gaming since the Atari ST games (Ok I admit though I was like a toddler though!) and being a musician/composer myself I had to ponder the question of the direction of which our music is going in video games and for that matter the legacy it leaves behind.
So pretty much games nowadays have turned a profit to be more lucrative in some cases than making a Movie/TV series and definitely a music record.
Back in your 8-bit and 16-bit area we had music limited by technology. Alot of what your kids nowadays relate it's sound to "chiptune" sounding music. This was because it was mainly created via synthesizer and programmed via MIDI. The results of which of course never had a atmospheric dynamic which could compete with say a 60 set Orchestra conducted by John Williams.
However something profoundly influential and memorable came from this simplicity:
For example, I guarantee if you play somebody the Metroid "Save Room" theme people will remember it. Even people who are not gamers by nature know how to sing the Mario theme! Castlevania has had so many reiterations and re-imaginings of it's series but alot of people just remember the first NES Castlevania's "Vampire Killer" Theme.
The move in technology meant we could start uploading higher quality pieces of music into video games and could start focusing on depth and dynamic in those pieces to convey atmosphere and feeling in our video games, but was the move onto better technologies a healthy one for music and video game's marriage of the two arts?
Take for example our theme concept again. Still composers were taking the opportunity to create a series of games with a theme which people could still remember, for example Monster Hunter series, DragonQuest, Starcraft, Persona, Halo, Resident Evil, God of War, Fallout (This is a dual victim this case, early years had themes and latter is in the following opposite camp - Read on for more info!) etc
We have the opposite camp which sprung from this advancement in technology. Outsourced composers who took it upon themselves to try and bring gaming into a Film-like or TV quality experience in likes of games like The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, Resistance, Gears of War, Call of Duty Modern Warfare etc
However did we remember those latter pieces of music?
The problem nowadays with music in a general format in gaming is the problem that music has on all entertainment mediums of how its experienced firsthand, be it video games, film or even just simply music itself: Memorability.
So we got a split of camps. People who thought thematic music still mattered and of course brought a depth of sound and atmosphere to their music however kept in mind they needed to create something unique for this game which wouldn't necessarily be common place in a Film/TV.
The other camp felt we needed to be closer to Films/TV experience and took therefore 90% of their influence from the latter medium looking up to and paying homage to composing legends like John Williams (Star Wars) and Jerry Goldsmith (Total Recall) or even Vangelis (Blade Runner) - (Examples are of films turned into video games already or closely inspired by them).
However when the PS3/XBOX 360 was first released I started to feel a certain lifelessness within' some of the PS3's/XBOX 360's (The "NU-GENERATION") franchise music. Most of the game's started to have a "set standard" I felt. I felt that the composers felt either obligated to write an orchestral style score for the game OR were thinking very business minded "a la' George Lucas style" about how they could make this art form or entertainment experience a profitable income without putting too much new concepts into it.
A depth of orchestral sounds I started to hear on every game coming into the 21st century. It became a standard on ALL games, trying to convey something the films/TVs had done oh so many times before, but did I remember it? No I certainly did not. Did it inspire me as a musician/composer like their film/TV counterparts did? Yet again, No...I felt NOTHING.
A funny example is people always talk about EVE Online being boring in the sense of its game mechanic and or its overall premise. Does this game even have music?! It doesn't have a theme that's for sure, on that level there is nothing to remember this weighty game by. It's like a incredibly detailed alien spaceship with no crew or individual purpose - So ironically the premise and backbone of your concept and universe is based on a lack of identity which funnels users into a one-way street of limited identity and choice with no soul.
In space, no one can hear you scream. Oh wait...they can cause nothing else is playing in the background.
The dullest soundtrack I heard in my life was when I listened to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion soundtrack. The dynamic of the fights had no impact, it all felt very light and not weighty/strong - Compare this to the fight music in Devil May Cry or the recently made Total War: Shogun 2 which conveyed aggressive battle themes - (Though of course don't throw Devil May Cry Industrial Metal into The Elder Scrolls please, Squid Bear is confusing enough as it is!).
I started to wonder where we had gone wrong. Final Fantasy became duller and duller and surprise surprise less popular or memorable when their key composer Nobuo Uematsu resigned.
I would play a game like Bioshock or Red Faction and think it was great but after not remember ONE piece of music from it.
The "Sweeping Orchestra" music formula became as formulated as a factory line. I felt like how FPS games and JRPGs were being churned out, the same went for these dull, lifeless, soulless composed music that came with them - All created for the love and worship of money as its first priority.
This made me question:
Will we remember these games on EVERY level? Also, where and why is their this sentiment of yesteryear and the word "classics" being tagged to older games?
It suddenly dawned when newer games like Super Meat Boy, Assassins Creed and Mirrors Edge were released. They didn't follow a formula and yet again went above and beyond having themes.
Super Meat Boy harked back to the "retro" (Now "Chip-Tune") era of video game music as a pure homage, but the soundtrack consisted mainly extremely strong melodic pieces of work which to be honest could be just released as a record by itself never mind it being related to a video game in the first place - To boot it slotted in perfectly with the game's overall artistic feeling/vibe.
Assassins Creed and Mirrors Edge thought about how they were going to 1: Relate their product to gamers with a Thematic piece and 2: Bring it into a modern era. What did they do? They used real musician's music:
Assassins Creed used the band MASSIVE ATTACK's "Tear Drop", the sequel boasted JUSTICE's song "Genesis". Mirrors Edge used Lisa Miskovsky's (In collaboration with "Teddybears") song "Still Alive" to give their work a face.
This brought a sense of identity to what they made and made it stand out amongst the rest. In a way the developers were celebrating their influences and I guess the PR/Advertising guys were rubbing their hands at two popular mediums working cohesively.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow's music was all Orchestrated - However the composer realized that to give depth you need music to relate to your subject matter. So each character had a repeating theme throughout the game. Yet again themes saved the day in this one.
After playing Fallout 3 and feeling though it was a slightly enjoyable game, it had NOTHING which made it feel like the original Fallout in the context of "Feel". Everyone related this to the script which was 50% of the problem. However when I played New Vegas and heard the old Fallout music thrown in again, I felt the Fallout experience had slowly came back somewhat.
There are a few examples of music going beyond both camps. Games like Silent Hill 1-5 are more of art pieces and genuinely unique or the bizarre yet ingenious Deadly Premonition - However to an extent their originality is a theme within' itself of how they stand out.
"Yo yo yo yo yooooo!! Check it out! All dis' equipment and I made ma' money monies makin' the same soundin' shit yo!"
As you can tell by now my point here is that your artistic work needs a face on every level. It needs its eye's (visuals), it needs a creative mind (story) and it needs it's voice (music).
We need more composers who realize that churning out deep atmospheric pieces of work does not equal instant success or cohesiveness for video games. They need to go back to the drawing board and focus on how their music relates thematically to subject matter.
Without a theme tune we don't have something to remember no matter how much or less our memory capacity as human beings is. Without a theme there is no "classic" or "legend" born, nothing to remember and nothing to inspire.
The success of a game is based on how memorable and influential it is. The same goes for when you go to the cinema to watch a movie or when you go to a concert to watch a band. If you got moved enough and remember it after - We as entertainers and artists have done our job.
This is the problem in Video Games now, we need to appreciate all our arts and realize a good video game does not come between a balancing of scales of visuals and story but also what our soul will feel hearing beauty and feeling sadness through memorable music which we will be humming to ourselves after years to come.