Magical games (my description): games that I consider to have an ability to take you outside of yourself, outside of your life and problems, but somehow deep into your emotions and imagination, and to shine a wonderful light over your life. They affect you on a level akin to a great film, sometimes infused with the depth a book offers, though differently, as you interacted with them on a much more personal level. And the games themselves, from the core design to the aesthetic approach, are magnificently cohesive in a way that could almost be described as magical, as all the parts are synergistic like an organism. Examples from the world of films like this would be Lord of the Rings, or the original Star Wars trilogy. It is like the creators made something bigger and more resonant with people then they had originally imagined, and the factors that play into this are mysterious, hence 'magical'.
This is my first blog, so, it may meander a bit. This is a subject i've considered a lot over the years, so I figured it`d be a good subject to deploy my first d-toid blog based musings on games. Right....
Music adds emotion to a game. A lot.
When I first saw screenshots of Secret of Mana way back in the early 90s, I remembered being overwhelmed by its leafy green, earthy, ethereal gorgeousness. However, at the time, screenshots of most JRPGs made me salivate, and it was always the green pastures, little cosy towns and the promise of fantastical adventures in strange, wonderfully cute 2D landscapes that ignited my desire. I thought I wanted every RPG ever. But when I eventually played Secret of Mana, it was the music that entranced me. And, later on, when I did get to finally play other RPGs (Breath of Fire, Illusion of Gaia, Romancing SaGa etc.) they never drew me in as much, and it seemed frustrating, with no realisation why this was the case, as the games themselves ticked off all the RPG convention boxes, and had nice designs etc. However, it was only after a while that I realised why this was. For a while I just thought SOM was the greatest thing ever, without any dissection of why. But, on consideration whilst playing the game, I realised that half the reason I was so willing to sit there and play it for hours and hours, and wholeheartedly wish I was living in 'mana land' (I was 12), was the music. That gorgeous, gorgeous soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta. It had become more than just a game.
And I think what makes the great RPGs (of that time) so great was (is) their music. To a large extent, anyway. This is why Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 (or 3) are the best RPGs of their time, if not the best RPGs ever. They had an uncanny ability to transport you away, to engage you on a deeper level then most games, to make you believe that this world exists on some level, and, most importantly, to evoke emotion in the player
. And their music played a massive, perhaps somewhat covert, part in this, i believe.
Music is almost an entirely emotional thing. A collection of sounds that resonate with us on a level so deep and meaningful, yet so intellectually unobtainable, that it is more like a life form itself that we communicate with daily, out of emotional necessity. After all, it is a mystery why music effects us the way it does, or why we are drawn to create it, and it plays a mysterious role in our lives. Intuitively, one would say it is obvious what music does: it connects with your 'soul', your emotions. It 'speaks' to you. We all know, that on some level, we need it. It does us good. Yet it can be so subjective: one piece of music may communicate a mass of strange feelings, and trigger powerful perceptual changes and stir deep positive emotions in one person, while doing nothing for another, maybe even irritating them. And i`m not talking about 'oh, my parents liked Pink Floyd, so i grew up to like it too', or any surface issues of what styles or genres we like : i`m talking about the universal, biological and, perhaps, 'spiritual' factors that make music indescribably connect with us on levels beyond our present understanding of existence. And so it is obviously a powerful tool in the arsenal of any creative who wants to present to people an experience; an immersion in a whole other world. And to speak, directly, to their emotions. Like the medium of film, or our beloved medium of video games. And this is why i`ll be mentioning music a lot in this blog entry, as I am putting it forward that it plays such a massive role in taking a good game up to the level of being a 'magical' game - where the game becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. And we all know just how magical this can be, as gamers. Its just that the medium is only slowly being recognised for its potential to deliver life-affecting, emotive pieces of interactive art (which is what games are on some level). And its a shame that at this time, music is often overlooked in place of graphics.
So, magical games then. This is where this blog becomes personal, i suppose, though i intend to find some universality in what i`m describing, as i see it as almost a given that truly 'magical' games must usually have a great soundtrack. And that is my point to show you. And, i might throw out there, that this might be the reason the SNES was such a legendary console........
The following is a list of my 'magical' games - games that have stepped outside of just being a fun play thing to affecting my whole life. And i`ve listened to all their soundtracks outside of playing the games.
My magical games:
Secret of Mana
Fiinal Fantasy 6
Legend Of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Streets of Rage 2
Super Mario World & Super Mario World 2 (Yoshis Island)
Sonic the Hedgehog
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Castevania: Aria Of Sorrow
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
I may well be being too broad here with this list, as some of these are just the soundtrack trumping everything else. But all these games, in general, drew me into their world more because of their soundtracks, the first three especially so. And it`s only looking back that you realise: maybe the reason they were so special was their respective soundtracks. Like, take Secret of Mana. I truly believe this game wouldn't be the special, ethereal gem it is without its soundtrack. In fact, it definitely wouldn't!!! It was a great game by itself, but the music gave it the 'mana vibe' that is so unique to the game: that ethereal, folky, earthy vibe that is both uplifting and stirring, and so very synergistic with the games visual aesthetic and story. And anyway, how could we even tell if we would of liked it without the music being as it was? Maybe we wouldn't of liked the game anywhere near as much, and this is my point.....
Like, imagine Star Wars or Indiana Jones without John Williams` majestic score, would they have been as hugely popular, and resonated so deeply with people? I think not. And i know many of you will probably disagree, but think about it. And this is my point, and one i've heard few people talk about: I really believe music can often make or break games, and certainly films. It is like the emotional dressing for the games story, and either 'draws out' emotions from us further connecting us to the characters, stories and locales; or it puts us off subconciously (initially), putting us in an immediately un-emotional, non-receptive state and thus less open to the game. And a lot of newer developers would do well to realise this!
Case in point: Seiken Densetu 1 on Gameboy, remade as the rather tasty looking Sword of Mana for GBA. The music on the GBA was basic, passable but generic, and in no way emotive or attention grabbing. Sorry, but in other words the composer was less then talented, and just churned out something obvious. So, in other words, a million miles away from Hiroki Kikutas gorgeously emotive, serene, other-worldly soundtrack in Seiken Densetu 2 (Secret of Mana).
So, then, what if Sword of Mana had had Hiroki Kikuta score the game? I believe the game would of not only resonated massively with SOM fans (as sword of mana looks like SOM graphically) but it would of made the whole experience more enjoyable, and would of drawn out the facets of the games story that made the GB version so popular with people. It would of carried the Mana vibe once again, and infused the game with it, especially if H.Kikuta had decided to make a similarly ethereal soundtrack like SOM. This really bugged me when I played the game - some people just said 'it's missing something'.....well, let me tell you, its the music!!! It seemed like such a shame, especially as the original Seiken Densetsu is held in such high regard. If Sword of Mana had a score by Hiroki Kikuta, i bet it would of gained 10% on its review scores, and would of been a very enjoyable entry in the mana series. Damn!
Ultimately, in RPGs, a lot of wondering around is needed, and so it goes without saying, (and becomes fairly obvious with consideration), that the game will be far more enjoyable if it has a soundtrack that is both enjoyable, and synergistic with the games 'vibe'. Because, after all, you`re going to be hearing a lot of it. Yes indeed you could listen to your favourite band or whatever whilst playing, but this is like watching a film with the subtitles on, whilst doing the same: yes, you've seen the film/played the game, but you haven't experienced it in its entirety, and you certainly haven't allowed yourself complete immersion in the world it's offering up. It's an issue of atmosphere. Yes, this doesn't perhaps apply to more action orientated titles, but, I suppose i`m kind of leaning towards taliking about JRPGs, just because they`re often the most immersive and grand games you can play. But, in general, the soundtrack is one of the first things I look for in a game, after its general story/style. It is always a joyous thing to discover that what is reportedly a great game for gameplay also has a superb soundtrack to boot. The games soundtrack has to be unique, suited to the game
, and it has to enhance the games appeal to me. And when this is achieved, then there`s every chance the game could become a 'magical' game, if all the other factors of great game design are in place.
So, i`m meandering a bit, need to refine my point here. I suppose i feel the need to talk about this, because most of the time I find modern games to be less then inspiring musically. Often they just use generic bands and established artists, or ramped up arcade style gimmicky music that has no long lasting or emotional appeal. Maybe this is why, overall, and perhaps counter-intuitively, older games seem to have more depth and feeling; more soul. Anyone from the 'SNES era' will fully agree with me. Most games back then always had a dedicated soundtrack composer, who clearly worked hard at what they were doing, with limited resources. Chip music clearly brought out the best in these composers, as Nobuo Uematsu surely hasn't surpassed some of the work he did for the SNES Final Fantasy incarnations (specifically FF6), even though now he has access to all the orchestras and resources he wants, and few technical limitations. A banal melody can be overlooked if an orchestra is playing it, but will be glaringly obvious when expressed through limited chip technology. Though I haven't played FF8 - FF12 so I can't comment too accurately. And the Castlevania series is one of the only other franchises to take its music really seriously, and specifically its composer, Michiru Yamane, making sure that every single game can be looked forward to for its soundtrack. I mean, really, would Symphony of the Night been as immersive and gothic an experience without that gorgeous orchestrated soundtrack? No! And I may well have given up on Ecclesia's tough difficulty if it were not for the superb music drawing me to seek out the next area. To be fair, the Mario series, and to a lesser extent the Zelda series, have musically kept up a consistent vibe and quality too (Super Mario Galaxy springs to mind). And bear in mind i`m fully aware there are plenty of games with great soundtracks, i`m just highlighting when the soundtrack becomes the 'final piece of the puzzle' of a games design - completing the game, so to say, and making it the unique piece of holistic interactive art it is.
I hope my point isn't too vague. Maybe I will return to this topic, as it goes deep. Maybe this is all obvious to you guys. Maybe this is all just a lament for a time when more feeling and emotion was injected into games, and you felt like you really were enjoying and interacting with something of a unique, shining gem of creativity, from the graphics right through to the soundtrack. Or maybe it just bugs me that developers overlook or take little time with the music side of things these days. Because, like I said, it is this special, essential ingrediant that takes a game from being good to being magical. It is the factor that raises a game from being fun, to something that your 'soul' benefits from playing, and will remain, cherished, in your memory for ever.
There are plenty of good games around, but few that could be classed as 'magical' or unique. So, to any developers reading, pay more attention to your creations soundtrack!!! After you've refined the gameplay, of course.......
That was quite a serious rant.....I shall do something more lighthearted next time, like an article on the merits of marios testicles' width and height ratios compared to Luigis, or something :)