[SWE3tMadness, one of the Destructoid community's resident music experts, shares her thoughts on why game music ends up being so memorable, using the Legend of Zelda series as an example. Want to post your own thoughts on this month's Musing? Do it! -- JRo]
Video games and music have a very unique relationship when compared to other media that incorporate soundtracks. Because the flow of the action in a game is entirely dependent on the player’s actions, the background music that accompanies these actions are separated into individual, recognizable tracks. You have an overworld theme, an underworld theme, battle themes, boss battle themes, really important boss battle themes, character themes, themes for love, sadness, and victory, etc, etc, all repeated every time its corresponding action takes place and all are differentiable from each other.
It’s mainly for this reason why video game soundtracks are so much more memorable than soundtracks from movies, TV shows, cartoons, etc. Read on as I elaborate.
If the action in each storyline is fixed and predictable, then the soundtrack can organically move in exact rhythm with the development of the storyline. To illustrate this point, imagine a scene from any movie. You can probably remember the characters involved, what they were talking about, and where they were at. Now try and remember what song was playing in the background during the scene. It’s quite a bit harder, isn’t it? Sure, you may recall specific pieces -- themes from Star Wars, Pirates of the Carribean, or Lord of the Rings perhaps, but that’s only because those pieces are performed numerous times outside of the movie where it originated, and they become recognizable through that repetition. But in the vast majority of cases, soundtracks to movies or TV shows are not meant to stand on their own but instead only to provide a backdrop to the action they accompanies, and thus are generally one-off melodies with that flow into one another.
Video game soundtracks are forced to repeat themselves over and over again as the player visits the same town, fights the same enemy, or encounters the same character time and time again. Like Pavlov’s drooling dogs, the players are then conditioned to recognize those songs and more easily associate them with specific parts of the game. After a while, video game developers started to notice this pattern and began manipulating it to elicit specific emotional reactions from the player. Whenever you hear the original level 1-1 theme from the Super Mario Bros. start up, your mind instantly snaps back to 1983 when you were a happy kid lost in the innocent fun of the game. The musical cue is purposefully engineered to make you nostalgic and connect your experience playing a game now to that happiness that came from playing a game over twenty years ago.
However, sometimes these nods to older soundtracks can be used to add much more to an experience than just simple nostalgia (although that definitely helps). There are many video game series that use recurring leitmotifs that span across multiple games in the franchise, but the Legend of Zelda’s soundtracks are especially unique in that their repeated musical cues are ties more to the game’s setting. Take for example, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A good proportion of the soundtrack borrows from its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. Many people accused this game of simply trying too hard to be OOT, and this use of its recognizable tunes could be interpreted as nothing more than a cheap way of latching onto people’s fond memories of it. If you think for minute though, it actually makes a great deal of sense within the game’s universe to recycle its soundtrack.