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Dtoid Community Discusses pt 8: Evolution of Gaming Music

I hope you all enjoyed last weeks Dtoid Community Discusses on the front page! <3 It's another week, an time for another round of discussions! This week I've decided to assemble a panel to talk about videogame music. Now, I know that many of us love gaming music, and this topic is a very popular one, but I decided to focus in on the evolution of gaming music. How does the music of today compare to that of yesteryear? To talk about this, we have Naia-the-gamer, SurplusGamer, PsychoSoldier, and BunnyRabbit2!

Here is the prompt I sent to the panel:

This weeks topic is really preaching to the choir, but music in videogames is amazing. :D The production value of videogames has come a long way from the small development studios of the past to now huge budgets to bring out AAA titles. Therefore, its no surprise that the nature of videogame music has likewise evolved, from bleeps and bloops to the common full orchestra pieces.

What would you guys say were the milestones along the evolution of gaming music to what it is today? Do you all like the direction that videogame music is heading? Why does the common public still think of videogame music as 8-bit soundtracks?


Ah, the good old bleep. I think artists in general, but particularly composers, enjoy working within limitations; I know I do. Knowing that you've just got a limited variety of bleepy-bloops to deal with is a great motivator to use said limitations creatively and stop lesser concerns get in the way of putting out some decent, game-enhancing and memorable tunes.

It seems a shame to me that many soundtracks have lost that sense now. A composer can make any sort of sound they like for their game now, and being that spoiled for choice can cause someone to lose focus, or be so much about sounding 'legitimate' (perhaps in the hope of shrugging off game music stereotypes) that they forget to be enjoyable at the same time. I'm not suggesting that we should go back to the bleeps but I'd really like to hear some more stripped-down soundtracks. How awesome would it be to have a game with an entirely classical guitar based soundtrack, or just a choir or a string quartet ... anything, as long as it was the right artistic decision for the game?


I think what you are getting at is something that has pissed me off greatly as a composer trying to get into this industry. In the case of game music in the US, most developers want a particular sound, and it emulates a lot of film scores. They sound generic and use the same type of orchestration: lots of strings, brass and a big fake percussion sound (made from this one plug-in called Stormdrum. It's used in TV a lot too). When I went to GDC in 07 I was told at one seminar that this is what the guys want. Don't even bother writing for woodwinds, string quartet etc. This is the sound they want. As a result I think a lot of game music made by American composers sound the same.

This isn't to say I think they are bad composers. It's obvious with many of them (who are also my colleagues and I have met many of those guys) would be capable of something more creative, but the companies aren't willing to take the risk, or they are trying to appeal to the mainstream audiences by having the music sound more like a movie.

I truly think that within the limitations of the tech came more creative writing and as a result, more interesting music. To some extent since the Japanese aren't as willing to put in a huge budget to hire orchestras for their games, Japanese composers are still dealt with the challenge of writing something creative with limited tech. I think that's why I still find myself liking Japanese scores over American ones. I would love it if developers were more willing to take risks and have a different type of ensemble used for their music. The music for Braid as does the music for Bioshock. Braid for having a score mostly of solo strings and Bioshock for most of the orchestral music being inspired by music concrete of the first half of the 20th century. They were two of my favorite scores from the last few years.


I am basically going to pull this one right out but Final Fantasy music is just amazing, yes it's very cliche but I have my reasons. Final Fantasy X was my first Final Fantasy game I ever played, unspoiled and not knowing what to expect, and the first thing that hit me was how beautiful the music was arranged and placed. Each piece went perfect with each area and boss battle, I could just run around Besaid and listen to that since it's so calming and relaxing. *Spolier Alert*: During the final boss battle against Jecht they had this pounding hard rock song going on and it made that battle even more tense that it already was, with the guy screaming in song and the heavy guitars it made my heart pound, plus knowing that this is going to kill Jecht was just too overwhelming. The entire score in that game is just so amazing and I am extremely happy I finally found the soundtrack to it. Now every time I hear “To Zanarkand” I am going to ball.

Though I do love the symphony soundtracks, the classic 8-bit and 16-bit music will always hold a place in my heart and sometimes it's the most recognizable music around. Play the Mario theme and instantly everyone knows what game that is from and can name the character that goes with it; play a piece from Halo and only a select few could actually name the game it's from. Also choir and string quartet would be an amazing soundtrack but like you said the game would have to have the perfect atmosphere and story for it to work.

Japanese scores > American scores...and we <3 Uematsu's work


I think Halo has plenty of memorable tunes, but I see your point. I can remember the music from dozens of games I was playing between fifteen and twenty years ago, but I can hardly remember any from the last few years. In any case I don't want us to turn into grumpy old folks lamenting about how it was much better in the old days... yet. Time to inject some positivity. I do think there are still excellent scores coming out and let's not forget stuff that would just never have been possible without the technological luxuries we now possess. Take the Grim Fandango score (even though that's 10 years old now), or all of the Katamari music for example [yes….I will take that Katamari music…and make sweet love to it –Tactix]

Maybe length is an issue, too. In the very olden days, music loops were often less than a minute in length and there would be about ten tunes in the game if you were lucky, so they had to write tunes that people could hear over and over again without throwing themselves out of the nearest window. That might be the real reason why I remember the old ones so well. Saying that there aren't as many good scores... is that just the retro goggles talking? After all we only remember the good music; the bad is quickly forgotten. In fact the more I think about it the more brilliant game scores I've heard lately. So many games come out now that there's a lot of mediocrity around but maybe the cream of the crop is just as rich as it ever was.


I was in the middle of typing about the awesomeness of the Halo soundtrack but someone beat me to it. My argument basically boiled down to the fact that it is one of the few soundtracks I have bothered to dig up and get hold of besides soundtracks made up of other tracks (GTA, Wipeout and the like).

Personally I want to see more soundtracks like the one for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which was all electronic music by a guy called Amon Tobin. His music fit so well with the game it made the game for me (as well as it being fun). I can't remember another game that has done something like this other than PoP: Warrior Within which took two Godsmack songs and used bits of them for some of the soundtrack. I would love it if the soundtrack for a game like Brutal Legend had some lines from known metal songs in it. Imagine sitting there in game and then as part of a song you hear a riff from Ace of Spades or You Got Another Thing Coming or something like that.


Electronica is also getting bigger or composers work in teams like Cris Velasco and Sacsha Dikiciyan where one does the orchestral stuff and another does electronic stuff. They did some music on God of War II and Dark Messiah. One of their most recent things is doing the trailer music for Starcraft II. Hybrid scores are awesome :D

I disagree with wanting licensed music in my games. That sounds more akin to what I would expect in a movie, and like I ranted about before, the last thing I want is Hollywood to shit all over the games industry. Psychosoldier pointed out, as did I, that the older tunes are more memorable because the composers/audio guys didn't have the technology to rely on. They had to write GOOD music that wouldn't get old after a few loops.

Also FYI, as a standard most loops are supposed to be around 1-3 minutes.


Well, you say you don't want licensed music, but you mentioned the Braid soundtrack earlier - and that's all licensed tracks. Anyway, I'm just being a smarty-pants, I think I know what you're getting at.

I think there's something to be said for the good old orchestral score, though. Shadow of the Colossus had one, but it was also exactly suited, meticulously composed and carries a style of its own. I think in the end it's more important that the music has a style in the first place, than what that style might happen to be. Again, Shadow of the Colossus is a good example of that because it goes from very, very quiet moments in the score all the way to the other extreme, but no matter what it still manages to sound “shadow-of-the-colossus-y”. It seems to me like a lot of composers just write a bunch of tunes, rather than immersing themselves in the game world and finding a style that really complements it and remains consistent.

Incidentally, where are you getting that 1-3 minute figure from? I mean, when I'm writing looped music I usually go for about that long but I remember from the NES days that you'd be lucky to get a minute out of it. Even some of the Chrono Trigger loops on the SNES were significantly shorter than that...

Shadow of the Colossus: "exactly suited, meticulously composed and carries a style of its own


The 1-3 minute thing is what people in the industry have told me is the standard now. This is also for the US and yes, was way shorter in the NES days. I haven't heard the Shadow of the Colossus score yet, but I think the immersiveness (is that a word?) [it is now! –Tactix] is something that separates good video game scores from good film scores. That extra level of immersion needs to be higher in a game. That may be a lot of what we are all hearing and why some tunes in current video games aren't as "memorable."

Sort of switching gears, I'm curious if any of you guys like recurring melodic themes in your games. One that comes to mind is the music to Final Fantasy VI (3 for the SNES). Terra had her own musical theme that appeared all over the place in the game. Sometimes it was the melody and sometimes it was part of the background. I never realized how much it occurred until I got a little older, but I thought it was pretty amazing what Uematsu did. I also loved the tune that intertwined Locke and Celes’s tunes near some spoilery parts later in the game.

It’s a different kind of writing but it fit perfectly with the game. I also think it's one of Uematsu's best scores.


I dunno. I think we only think the old soundtracks are more memorable because we only remember the memorable ones! It's kind of self-fulfilling.

To quickly mention that point about the immersivitudinality (I'm pretty sure that's a word) [“Your search - immersivitudinality - did not match any documents” :P –Tactix], I really think that LucasArts was doing things with music in 1991 that not many people really started to imitate until years later. Their iMUSE system allowed them to dynamically control the music in all kinds of ways that had never been done before. Play the first chapter of Monkey Island 2 to see what I mean. Way ahead of its time. I was reminded of it recently when I played The Maw, which also has parts of the musical arrangement fade in and out depending on what's going on. More of this sort of thing, please!

Anyway, I LOVE recurring themes. Anyone remember the 7th Guest? Mediocre puzzle game but it had a field day with character motifs and some good tunes to boot. ... I should let someone else talk for a while.


One game that I think really immerses you into the game is Okami. Everything just flows together and the music fits in perfectly no matter where you are in the game. Even the boss battle music just helps the atmosphere and gives it a little something extra and makes it different. Another game that I think that does this well is Persona 3, I never played the other games in the Persona series so I am going to use this one as a example, the mix of different genres in the different locations are excellently placed. I also like in Persona how they use the same music for the 12 big shadows, but it still fits perfectly with them.


I think that I would prefer a soundtrack that immerses me more than one that is memorable though. Sure I can't pick out tunes from Dead Space’s soundtrack (it did have music) but it was so immersive, I loved it for that. In the perfect world, we would have completely immersive soundtracks that are memorable, but one problem will probably be that balancing the two is pretty hard.

This is probably why I enjoy music games like Rock Band so much. The tracks are memorable because they are actual music I listen to anyway but also immersive because in essence, they ARE the game. Sure this might not be a soundtrack in the proper sense of the word but it is a soundtrack of sorts in the game.

Dead Space: Not memorable but immersive


It's true, I suppose we can count it as a blessing that you can have all sorts of types of soundtrack, now. Sure, you can have something like Katamari which reminds me of older games in the way it presents so many catchy tunes. Then, as BR2 noted something like Dead Space had a soundtrack that barely had any identifiable melodies, let alone catchy ones, and yet it still did a great job for that game. Perhaps immersion is more important than having identifiable tunes, but my absolute favourite ones manage to do both.

Soooo... I think that over all game music is going in a good direction, even if that direction means that not every game is going to have music that will stick in our heads all week. Oh, and did I mention I really like the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack? [Yes. Yes you did <3 –Tactix]


My final two cents:

Technology has been wonderful to help with immersiveness and atmosphere in later games, but I hope that composers don't rely solely on it and still make it a point to write creative music.


I hope you enjoyed that discussion! (I know I learned alot!) To read past discussions check out the side bar, and to be a part of future discussions, send your email to me via PM or find me on IRC :D!
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About Jesse Cortezone of us since 4:34 AM on 01.13.2007


I am a Ph. D. chemist from the University of California, Berkeley. I have been playing videogames since as long as I can remember! My past favorite games include Secret of Mana, TMNT: Turtles in Time, the Resident Evil series (Jill is SUCH as master of unlocking), FFVII, Smash Bros Melee, and many others.

I've definitely gone through phases in my gaming "career". I used to LOVE fighting games in the time of Tekken Tag and Marvel vs Capcom II (my favorite fighting game), but now I find myself drawn to the more story driven games, and very recently, the music games....:)

But....fighting games are making a comeback! SFIV! MvC3! BlazBlue! Beware everyone, Tactix has put a quarter on the screen and is challenging you for battle!

It was mere chance that brought me to Destructoid back in early 2007, and through it all I've stayed because of the great writing staff, a community that cares, and lots of new internet and IRL friends. Destructoid has changed my life. True story.

If you live in the SF Bay Area, check out the DtoidSanFrancisco C-blog and join the Google Group!


Check out the past installments of my DTOID COMMUNITY DISCUSSES! Series:

Part 1: DLC
Part 2: Achievements
Part 3: Gaming Journalism
Part 4: Next Next-Gen Consoles
Part 5: Retro Renaissance
Part 6: Games That Suck
Part 7: Educational Games
Part 8: Evolution of Gaming Music
Part 9: Gaming Merchandise
Part 10: Iconic Games
Part 12: GDC
Part 13: Videogame Movies
Part 14: Competitive Gaming
Part 15: Level Design
Part 16: Emulation and Game Modding
E3 Edition: Microsoft
E3 Edition: Nintendo
E3 Edition: Sony
Part 17: Triple A Titles
Part 18: Fighting Games
Part 19: Digital Distribution

Card courtesy of TheGHost

Rock Band tag courtesy of CutieHoney

Thanks guys!

Last but not least, Chad Concelmo and I are the same person. Go ahead and ask him. :P

Xbox LIVE:Tactixpimp
Mii code:0680 0947 9731 1775


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