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Andrew Kauz avatar 11:08 AM on 05.07.2009  (server time)
When Music Surpasses the Game

Gamasutra recently wrote a nice article about what’s wrong with modern game music. The conclusion? A lot. It seems that much of the music presented in games is made specifically to be unobtrusive and, in essence, forgettable. As a music lover, I agree that this is a huge problem. Games can do better. I know this because they have done better many, many times before. Luckily, some games are still doing music right.

One example from recent memory is Tales of Legendia. I first played through this game about two years ago. In those short years, I’ve already mostly forgotten the game. I have very little idea of what the plot was about, and I only remember two or three of the characters. I wouldn’t call it a bad game, but it wasn’t fuck-awesome.

What IS fuck-awesome about the game is its soundtrack, crafted by none other than the completely unknown Go Shiina. His incredible tunes stick with me to this day in a way that even Mario tunes don’t. It’s one of the most musical, diverse, and enjoyable collections of tunes in the history of video games. In fact, I still regularly put it on because it’s just so damn pleasant. But just why is it so good?

Bow to your flame-headed god.

The primary reason is the melody. As the Gamasutra article discussed, melody should be the driving force of game music. In fact, it should be the driving force of all music. In fact, it is melody that makes music memorable; there’s a region of the brain that links music, memory, and emotion. Therefore, if a developer is in the business of making its games memorable (which one would hope all developers are), then it’s in their interest to get some real music into their games.

Tales of Legendia certainly succeeds in the melody department. The game has a repeating melody (or musical leitmotif) that is used in various songs, often played in the faster, more upbeat songs, but also appearing in slower, more emotional songs. Besides the obvious effect of making a melody more recognizable, this sort of repetition can bring back memories of its previous uses: repeating themes were actually used in Metal Gear Solid 2 when a “disguised” character came onto screen.

The main theme of “The Meeting Place Is the Fountain Plaza” is the theme that you’ll hear most often in the game, and this is a very, very good thing. Simply put, the melody here is catchy as hell. Listen below.

Now dance, cretins. Dance.

All joking aside, I absolutely love this tune. But apart from the melody, the instrumentation is also worlds above most game music. The instruments actually sound real (because, in many cases, they are real), which is something sorely lacking in many other soundtracks. But above all, this is a real song: there’s progression (it’s not just one repeating melody throughout), and it’s something that a person could genuinely listen to outside of the environment of the game.

Other standout tunes:

The jazzy-as-hell “A Cheerful Bandit”

”It’s Not a Bluff.” Notice the repetition of the theme from “Meeting Place”

”Whisper of the Crystal.” Pretty enough to give you goosebumps.

”Chasing Shirley.” Last one, I swear.

Fuck! OK, Now last one. “Big Sister Honwaka” Ron would be proud of that jazz flute (bonus points if you catch the reference)

I’m not joking when I say I could go on like this for ten pages. But I won’t. Just know that the awesome can’t be fully contained in this blog post: the whole damn soundtrack is fantastic (other than a couple of vocal pop tunes that I could do without). But trust me when I say that it’s really hard to restrain myself here. I could go on.

So, despite the game’s many shortcomings, I still have incredibly fond memories of my time with it, and I think the primary reason is the quality of its soundtrack. I can honestly recommend playing the game for the sole reason of experiencing the soundtrack. Then again, you could also just buy it. However you manage to do it, you should hear this soundtrack.

The soundtrack even manages to make the characters dance.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that every game soundtrack needs to be like this. A game like, say, Call of Duty simply doesn’t need a catchy soundtrack. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t benefit from an actual soundtrack: give a strong symphonic theme at pivotal moments in the game. Give us a memorable theme that recurs throughout the game. Just put some damn thought into the music, please.

Now, I’m a sucker for music like this in games, but considering my categorization as working adult human, I’m not able to play every game that has such as kick ass soundtrack as Tales of Legendia does. So, what other games soundtracks slap you sideways? (And I mean that in a good way.) Also, if you played Legendia, what was your personal favorite track?

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