Videogame Music

Damn, this one’s hard subject to begin with, but without experience one can’t improve himself, right?

Before I start let me ask you one simple question; How does the classic tune of Super Mario Bros. differ from, say… Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony? Quite a lot might come to your mind, but ultimately only few matters. One of them most likely is that the Mario theme is a primitive 8-bit tune utilizing massive five channel audio that the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, could produce. It’s not a massive minutefest, but a humble few ten seconds of looping music. It instantly gets stuck in your head, while out of Beethoven’s you might remember that one and only dramatically striking sequence. I actually know no one who remembers completely Beethoven’s symphony, but I know fair share of people who recognize and remember Mario’s theme. It’s a modern classic even on NES’ soundchip.

Why am I talking about videogame music and talking about something almost every single person on this planet knows already? I will come to that later on, but let’s continue.

Music is, bluntly quoting, an art form whose medium is sound. There are vast areas that music is utilized in from simple enjoyment to causing physical harm. Music in videogames, or more accurately, in electronic games has been used mostly as simple background music. However, background music as such is incredible device which can convey situational pressure or emotion inducing device. These terms are quite archaic, but these are terms coined here and now by me. However, they serve their purpose in this post.

Situational pressure usually comes into play in most action games, where the music changes it’s pace, style and beat according to what is going on in the game at any given moment. There are tons of action games utilizing this, like Transformers on PS2. The game’s music is usually quite peaceful and beautiful, but when danger comes near it steps up a bit and becomes slightly more tense. In direct action it kicks up another notch, inducing faster beat and much more hectic pacing. It serves as an indicator for the situation, but also enhances it. Alone the music doesn’t really sound that convincing, but the elements are there. The music serves as a support pillar for the game. It does not become it’s own entity, but enhances the gameplay and feeling. Not to say it’s bad music, on the contrary it’s quite good and beautiful, even is somewhat generic.

The music itself may set a mood. However, it only enhances what you see on the screen, a matter that is in total loss in this video while you are watching it. note; it changes gradually to more pressing tune

However, it does not affect the player’s emotion directly. In Transformers the plot, scenery and characters do it. The music is there to support it. There are numerous games that use music as emotion inducing device to get the player in certain feeling. This is more akin the way how films and TV shows use their music; rather than merely supporting the atmosphere the music may be the one to induce desired emotion into the player. A good example, and personal favourite, is Nihon Falcom’s Ys series. Note; Ys rhymes with ease. Ys is well known for it’s simplistic gameplay mechanics and incredible music. Ys itself is quite hectic game, but it would be far less interesting without its score. Nihon Falcom chose to interact with the player’s emotions and they usually create a score that induces certain emotional factors into the players. The player will think “I must overcome this,” “This is pretty scary, but I can do this” and “Goddamnit what the hell?” As such Ys’ music is deceptive to an extent, but it means well. The experience is far more richer and enjoyable than without the score.

This is To Make End of Battle. It’s from Ys II‘s opening, which sets pressing feeling for the rest of the game, and with it’s one small but important part still manages to awe us in beauty, only to kick in as hard as ever to remind us that this game needs brave attitude to overcome fiends and demons on the floating continent of Ys.

There isn’t a major gap between the two given ways to use music in games. Mostly score’s a mix of these two, supporting each other more or less. The slight difference between these two isn’t anything noticeable to those who play games then and now and even less to those who generally dislike repeating tunes. It’s still there.

In modern day games music has taken more traditional role and is usually treated as mere background noise, like in movies. Beautiful as it might be, it’s still there only to fill the score gap. There are numerous games that could work just as well without their tracks, like Street Fighter, Doom3, Halo, Crysis and so on. They still have a musical score serving its purpose, and it might even have few nice tunes. There are weird gems like Guilty Gear, which basically is built on musical jokes and personalities. However, Guilty Gear’s score is used in traditional descriptive way to mirror the fights’ characters and/or fights themselves. Image song is a term coined by somebody to describe these songs. There are many other names for these kind of character descriptive songs, but image song happens to pop into my mind first. However one must know something about the character to understand why the song is structured the way it is and why it tells such image. To illustrate this I’ve chosen Awe of She Vocal as an example. Lyrics can be found via Google.

Basically the theme tells a tale of Dizzy’s search for acceptance. Gears are monstrous creatures of immense power who started a war after humans had created them via science and magic. Finally Gears were beaten. Dizzy is one of the last, but is merely three years old and has no part in past events. She is banished from her home village where her adopted parents let her live for Dizzy’s early years. The song is rock, but it has certain down pressing melody. While this song induces a small emotion it is mainly used as Dizzy’s theme and is only associated with her.

Nowadays games are abandoning chip tunes and synthetic music and using more and more symphonic or real music instead or mechanically created. This causes conflicting recreations from old tunes to newer ones that are more or less successful. Most old game series have re-used their old music in new games. These songs might sound good, and other times they sound completely different depending on the platform. There are numerous games or game revivals that have changed a classic tune into symphonic form only to lose the basic tune the song was known for. A well made song will sound good as long as the artist puts effort and love into it. Few songs have survived and have become better time after time. A good example of re-used music is Castlevania’s Bloody Tears. However, you can notice how the last version in this movie is rather disappointing after series of well made re-entrys.

However I must ask what exactly makes a good game music? This is an essential question which is very hard to answer indeed, as game culture and development has just barely risen from infancy. As mentioned above, music is mainly alongside the game supporting the whole package. Naturally this changes in games that mainly use music as the gameplay device, such as Sega’s famous REZ. A good game music firstly must suit to the game’s overall appearance and support gameplay as it can, yet it must be identified as unique song. A hard task for a game music that sits in the background. Still, even your mother would recognize Super Mario’s theme. Perhaps it has something to do with popularity, or lack of it. NES was awfully popular console in its time, which surely is an understatement, but the status it had must have had something to with immortalizing that certain tune. A simple answer would be that the tune was just that good. I can’t remember any tunes from Doom, but I can remember some parts from Wolfenstein 3D. Similarly I can’t recall a single theme from Final Fantasy VIII but I vividly hear Mega Man Battle Networks Title and Battle themes. It’s not that Doom and FFVIII had bad music, it was just unremarkable, a remark that could ignite flame wars. It’s worse being unremarkable than bad, because people can remember bad tunes. Unremarkable tunes just gets forgotten, like most film musics. This is most likely the case in FFVIII, which had more cinematic score than game score. However I can’t say completely whether the music is unremarkable shit or not, as it is merely my own point of view which classes with hundreds upon hundreds fangirls and boys across the globe. Sadly.

Times have sure changed and so have videogame music. From simple bleeps and beeps we’ve gone to full frontal real instruments in mere thirty years or so. Most game developers have abandoned chip tunes completely, only to use them on Nintendo DS or other low-budget games. Midi is much cheaper than mp3, thou even midi can be used extremely skilfully (eg. Metroid Prime.) Younger gamers might recognize certain tunes, but they’ll never appreciate older chip tunes, as they have much grander scores at hands. It’s a sad fact that while gaming has evolved it has also become part of masses games have become less and less of themselves and remind more and more films and other form of entertainment rather than being themselves. We can only blame giant corporations for this, but also some of us game hobbyists as well. It’s hard to point why and how the music on games have changed other than “it has become more film like.” Gaming has always had hard time to grasp what kind of medium it is and how it works, let alone decide what kind of new uses it can invent for music. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are steaming pile of shit and are rapidly becoming partially blame of further destroying electronic game’s own image.

Game’s never completely grasped what to do with themselves, and now developers are letting go and establishing that games are a hybrid of literal and visual elements combined with sound. Basically games are that with interactive twist, but that interactive twist is starting to remind more and more 90’s Full Motion Video (FMV) games. High profile games like Metal Gear Solid offer nine hours of video footage which are completely unplayable, meaning that the gameplay only serves as a method of jumping from video to video. Music follows this trend and while it’s creation might take big bucks and create some seriously awesome soundtracks they are ultimately offered the same way films soundtracks are and will lose their identity as game music altogether.

Double Dragon had an awesome opening, remade my Vertexguy here.

In the end videogame music doesn’t separate much from music used in films. It has it’s similar yet separate purpose. Too many times game’s music is simply there, which is a relic from the film industry. However, sometimes it is alive, as in case of Transformers. How alive it is depends on those who make it. We might recognize big names in the game music industry, but sometimes we should just stop and think whether these people are making game music or just general music for games. As in case of most Final Fantasy games the music fits. Like that opera song in Final Fantasy VI. However, it is mostly and mainly an opera song and not a game music. If it fits, it’s good. Mostly it doesn’t matter what kind of music is used in games as long as it accomplishes what it is meant to do. Yet I can’t but to wonder how long we will hear music that has a soul of game and not the other way around. It seems that music becomes more cinematic and nonchalant as games get more cinematic. In the end, in cinema the music just sits there, never interacting, never changing, just sitting in the background filling an audio void. In games the music should be in more important role, and now that we can create songs that are increasingly complex and program them to become something more than a simple repeating song, why can’t we use it more creatively? It was understandable in the 80’s and most of 90’s to have static music, but now I’d like to hear far more creative music in my games, and feel it while playing. Feel its effect not by physical means, but through gameplay and interaction with it somehow. Again, music games that interact with music are rare and few, but usually extremely polished. A “normal” merely makes it sit there, wastong much of potential it could have…

Let’s Watch one last history lesson and listen how these tunes have changed in the last twenty years from basic tinny tune to full fledged band beat out, but never losing its soul and identity.

I recommend you to visit The Spoony Experiment to further indulge yourself in FMV games.

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