Thoughts on why videogame music might seem less interesting or good as it used to be

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[Editor’s note: Tascar takes a look at how videogame music has evolved over the years. What do you think? Has videogame music gotten worse, better or stayed the same? — CTZ]

New Dtoid poster lovemana23 made an interesting first post in which he talked about how music brought so much emotion into videogames, focusing on Hiroki Kikuta’s incredible music to Secret of Mana. In reading the post, particularly at the end, a sentiment is expressed that I have heard and read from many blog posts, friends, and myself: the feeling that there is something off or missing from videogame music today.

I have been trying to understand and sort out why I and many have felt this way. While I cannot deny that it is possible that this is yet another function of retrogoggles gone wrong, I do feel that there are at least two big reasons that may explain why videogame music is, at the very least, now a very different animal than it used to be. Hopefully this might inspires such discussion on the topic of how video game music has changed. 

1) The role of music as a means of telling a story, developing characters, or establishing the world environment has decreased over the years in favor of graphics and voice acting.

I think that this above point is self-explanatory. A good way to understand what I am getting at is to compare a game like Final Fantasy X with Final Fantasy VI. For now, let us ignore the actual text of the dialogue assigned to the characters as it is obvious that, regardless of game or time period, this is an important factor. It is not hard to see that in Final Fantasy X, characters are defined largely by their voice, their gestures and motions, as well as what they do in certain FMV sequences. Whereas in a game like Final Fantasy VI, they are defined largely by their music, especially since almost all of the techniques Final Fantasy X utilized were simply technologically infeasible at that point in time.

The villian Kefka from (Final Fantasy VI) could not expressed his madness through voice acting (unless you consider his signature laugh as “voice acting”). Nor could he have danced around in some CGI cutscene or given us a closeup look at his facial expressions. Instead, the pressure was on Nobuo Uematsu to tell us what type of character Kefka was with his music.

Just off of the top of my head, I can think of three interesting observations that can be made from the Kefka theme which I feel are fairly important to the plot of the game. First, the Kefka theme starts with the same three note progression (B flat, C, C sharp) that the music for the Empire is associated with in a variety of scenes, most notably the introduction text. Second, the Kefka theme starts off very silly in tone, develops into something with a subdued yet sinister sound, and then bursts into a joyous dance of triumph.

Anyone who has played Final Fantasy VI can see how the development of the theme mirrors the development of the character. Kefka’s introduction makes him seem like a complete joke. He is in the desert, seemingly harmless, moaning and groaning about sand in his boots. Yet as the game progresses, we begin to see his sinister and scheming side, beginning with his poisoning of the water supply at the castle and culminating with his betraying of the Empire and triumphant ascension to power. Finally, there is a stuttering in the rhythm and back and forth hopping around of notes that vaguely suggest that there is something mentally wrong with this character.

I do not want to imply or suggest that voice acting and cutscenes have made video game music worse but rather that when voice acting and other elements are added to the equation, the music may have to play a more complimentary role in order to not overload the gamer. First, having large big music pounding while competing with a serious dialogue as well as state-of-the-arts sound effects might be a bit of a sensory overload. Second, I would imagine that the overall effect of the scene might work better if the music was composed in such a way that worked with the arc of the scene and the dialogue as opposed to what did happen, which is that Nobuo Uematsu essentially wrote a standalone piece about Kefka that is dragged and dropped into the soundtrack as needed. Of course, this is exactly what happened with Uematsu’s latter work. The music to Final Fantasy X and Lost Odyssey are amazing but it is arguably true that much of it is more subdued, knowing that it is complimenting all sorts of sound effects and voice acting.

Yasunori Mitsuda at the scoring sessions of Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht

2) The advent of large storage media has freed and many composers from the limitations of sound chips but in turn has pigeon-holed many other composers into pursuing a particular “sound” and in turn ruining the uniqueness of videogame music.

This second point is a bit complex to understand and I expect a fair amount of disagreement about it.

Back in the days before CD-ROM or DVD-ROM technology was extensively used in videogames, composers wrote their music for their sound chips and worked with the sound engineers to milk the, often limited, functionality of the console’s sound chip. As a result, games tended to have a unique sound of their own, a function of what the composer and sound team could create. The composer’s style developed and grew as the capabilities of the sound team and the sound technology grew.

I feel that this is why games such as Metroid, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc. are viewed so highly in the videogame music world — they represent the best of sound teams working together with a composer to create a unique series of compositions built around a certain sound. When you listen to any of the music to these games, you not only hear a cohesive style that can be attributed to a composer, but also a sound that is a function of everyone involved with the sound team as well as the sound technology itself.

I am not personally of the option that the ability to have a composer work with an orchestra is a bad thing. I love the work that Koichi Sugiyama has done arranging and rebuilding his work on Dragon Quest in a symphonic context. I would say the same of Uematsu and others such as Yasunori Mitsuda, whose symphonic and choral work to Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht is without a doubt one of the greatest videogame scores of the decade. In the latter two examples, it is interesting to hear how Uematsu has increasingly brought rock into his music and how Mitsuda has increasingly ventured into the Celtic style and sound. However, I do feel that the ability to free the composer from the limitations of a sound chip has also had a detrimental effect on the creativity of videogame music, especially in Western videogames.

Harry Gregson-Williams conducting the scoring sessions of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Let me use an example to illustrate this nuanced argument I am trying to make. The original Metal Gear Solid has a very unique and memorable sound to it that is completely of its own. I almost cannot pin down the music as any one genre but to call it the Metal Gear Solid sound. I will admit that there is a very MIDI-ese sound chip limitation to the soundtrack, such as that weird synth moaning sound. However, I would have been interested to hear how this sound might have been developed with a different audio palette.

However, with the second game onwards, the “sound” of Metal Gear Solid was almost completely abandoned (and in my opinion somewhat worsened) when Hideo Kojima brought in Harry Gregson-Williams as composer. Now, I will state for the record that I love and respect Gregson-Williams as a composer and many of his film scores are amongst the best scores of this decade. However, I think that it is disappointing that Gregson-Williams was not brought in to develop the music and sound of the first game (aside from arranging the main theme): he was brought in for the specific purpose of replicating the same action film sound that he and Hans Zimmer and others developed for Hollywood films and repeating it in Metal Gear Solid. While I am glad that Kojima was able to make his games sound like the Hollywood action movies that he obviously wanted, I cannot help but feel that there is a severe lack of originaliy in this approach. That it is yet another example of a trend in videogames where developers are continuously abandoning the unique ideas and principles developed over the years in gaming in order to chase down, pursue, and ripoff what Hollywood has done.

As I am looking over what I have written, I realize that much of what I have been moaning about here has to do with the role that composers have in videogame music as an art. Uematsu, Mitsuda, and others such as Koji Kondo have started out and developed their entire career in the world of videogame music, developing and expanding the nature of videogame music as an artform. They pick and choose the projects they want and they bring their musical voice or whatever new ideas they have into these projects. In contrast, it seems that Western developers, having already been very late to the game on the whole videogame music art scene, seems largely disinterested in videogame music per se and are simply content to be a subordinate of Hollywood film music. Famous composers are brought in for the sole reason of replicating the same sound they did for a particular movie. When the money does not exist to hire a particular composer, they simply ask the composer they can hire to do nothing but imitate that particular sound. One of the more puzzling things I have tried to understand is the big deal Bethesda made about having Inon Zur onboard as the composer for Fallout 3 when it is obvious to anyone playing the game that he didn’t do very much at all and that the musical experience of the game is meant to be the 1950s licensed songs played on the radio.

Martin O’Donnell talking about the music of Halo 3

Of course, this is not to imply that Western developers are completely clueless. I am not a fan of the Halo games, but I am an enormous fan of the work that Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have done with Bungie. The music is unique and interesting without sounding like yet another ripoff of the Hollywood sound. Especially with the third game where the two composers, like many of the other composers I have favorably discussed, took their unique sound and style, explored it with an expanded sound and orchestral palette, and greatly furthered videogame music.

The above musings are the entangled mess of thoughts that have emerged as I tried to understand why, like so many people, I feel that older videogame music sounds better than the newer work. I feel that the first reason I gave provides a possible explanation for why the works of composers such as Uematsu and Mitsuda have been very different over the year (perhaps gotten more subtle and subdued). The second reason I gave is an observation that I have really noticed in many Western and Western-influenced games that I feel is potentially very damaging to videogame music as an artform. Videogame music is a subject that is obviously important to gamers but I feel that much of the discussion about it is backwards looking and does not look at how the music has changed over the years. I hope that this post might inspire some discussion and thoughts on this subject.

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