Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A More In-depth View of Game Music

I know I have a few posts about gaming music, personalfavorites, and why Angry Birds should not be on the “Best Video Game Music” soundtrack. Memorable, but not a “best.” But looking back at my posts I have never dove into the topic of gaming music as an art form, how it is utilized in the medium, and why it is an essential element in design.

My stance on music is simple. It needs to transport me into that fictional realm and be memorable enough that I can pick any song at random and know exactly there I’m at in the game. Easy concept but very difficult to replicate. Star Wars is a fantastic example of this. Would Star Wars be Star Wars without the music? The thundering roll of The Imperial March, the hum and lucid tranquility of Leia’s unrequited theme, and the pomp, clicks, and brashness of Endor: this is what makes Star Wars come alive. Without the music, Star Wars would have been just another space movie. But the music allowed it to transcend into cinema history.

It takes a lot of ones-self to make a movie or game soundtrack. Another movie example, Daft Punk score for Tron: Legacy. It was “Daft Punk light”, as friends would say. It wasn’t the thumping, grinding, innovative beat that we were use to hearing. It had to be tailored and trimmed to fit with a film. To which I give them a lot of credit. It is very difficult to take your sound and transform it into a different medium. I personally liked the soundtrack; it fulfilled my rules and gave a nice twist to movie music.

So when it comes to games, I do use the standard that I have always applied to movies. It’s something that I have always done with theater and art; I want to be able to think of a song, phrase, word, sight, smell, etc. and instantly be transported into that world. It’s quite easy for music to falter. For all of the “best selling” games out there, how many of us remember the music? We might have a song or two that are familiar, but until we sit down and play the game again, the recognition is limited.

Some of the most infamous songs that fall into my requirements would be Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda. We all know exactly what SMB sounds like. We, and by “we” I mean corporate America, made up lyrics for it! “Do the Mario!” Hell I still remember the lyrics and that was 1989. But isn’t that what a great song should be? You only have to hear the first few notes and it transports you back to the game. You relive those memories where you laughed, cried, and probably swore a few times as you tried to beat the boss, or jump up walls (Super Metroid…how I loathe thee. Your music will always force me to think about the walls.)

When you get down the to the bare essentials, you need music to help drive a game. The story, characters, and action are meaningless without music to back them up. Games began as a parlor trick and grew into an art that requires, in fact it makes it necessary, to pull the gamer into this new world. And the best way to ensure full immersion is to provide a musical experience that compliments the game.

Final Fantasy fangirl alert: Nobuo Uematsu is king of gaming music. He’s not just a genius using midi and 32 bits to create orchestra scores, but he has this innate ability to transcend the traditional and create magical experiences. You can listen to a Final Fantasy soundtrack and play the game in your head. That is how definitive Uematsu-san’s work is. No one today can compare to his talent.

This is where gaming music can easily diverge. Everyone knows Mario, Zelda, and the FF victory fanfare. But can you remember a tune from Teem Fortress? How about Call of Duty? Or Gears of War? Well known titles, but they don’t carry the same strength from a musical standpoint. Thus I would argue these games lose out on a critical aspect of immersion: the final push needed to get gamers to be fully committed to the game’s world. When I play Gears of War, I know I’m playing a game. I don’t feel involved in Dom’s life. He’s a character that I control to stop alien bugs. The music is an after-thought. It’s there to help enhance some of the battles, but as a whole, it gets left behind. Versus Shadow of the Colossus, a visually simple, but artistically stunning game with a simple story, it has a soundtrack that creates the atmosphere and tone of the gameplay. Without the music, the game’s themes of life, death, loss, mythos, and destiny would be well forgotten. The music developed the story; this is why we still talk about it today.

There is much more to be said about gaming music, but as a whole I think you all can see where I’m getting it. If you want Star Wars = music. If you want more Call of Duty = keep throwing in more explosions. Like Michael Bay. Hey, at least he’s good at something.

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