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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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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)

I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my mother’s opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Battlefield: Bad Company
Xbox LIVE:kauza
PSN ID:santakauz
Mii code:kauza


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