Where Did the Groove Go?


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

One thing’s been really bothering me about games released over both this generation and the last. As someone who grew up obsessed with the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage, I have to say that music has always been a big part of my gaming experiences. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 still has one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time, and cemented my belief that a good tune is the perfect component to fun gameplay, and can even enhance it in the right circumstances. That’s what’s bothered me during more recent years — music in videogames is pretty shit these days.

Yes, the budgets have gotten bigger and the scores far more impressive. We are at a point where huge orchestras and famous composers like Hans Zimmer can be brought in to add majestic walls of sound behind our favorite interactive entertainment. However, for all their ambition, for all their complex instrumentation and celebrity names, the soundtracks of most videogames are pathetically forgettable. I can still give you any tune from any Final Fantasy game … up until Final Fantasy XIII, the music of which I have completely forgotten. The Castlevania theme tune rings in my head as clear as day, yet Castlevania: Lords of Shadow might as well have had no music at all, as much as I give a shit about its soundtrack. Modern game music is in the pits, and I think that’s a direct result of it actually getting “better.”

Back in the old days, when games could only store a tiny amount of data on a cartridge, developers had to be incredibly conservative about their music. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and the need to keep music simple led to them relying on something most games have forgotten these days — memorable melodies. When you can only have one or two MIDI-quality noises happening at any given time, when you can’t make use of multiple instruments to create a lush atmospheric score, you’re forced to do the one thing you can do, and just create a really enjoyable tune. There’s very little, if any, background accompaniment to the game scores of twenty years ago, and that meant composers had to communicate everything they could with the foreground tune. Even when games got a bit bigger, the music still relied on simple digital sounds and had to keep the tune great to make up for it. The result of this? Final Fantasy, Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Mega Man, Castlevania. The list goes on. Games with memorable fucking tunes, things that catch on, make us hum along, and stick with us forever.

Compare that to nowadays. Do you remember the Killzone theme tune? Call of Duty’s? Most console RPGs? I’m willing to bet the majority of you do not, and I think the reason for that is an ironic one — budgets are bigger, music is more lavish. It’s “better” in terms of scale and production, but without the restrictions, composers don’t need to make a memorable tune anymore. As good as it’s gotten, it’s only become worse.

Instead of infectious tunes, most videogame scores are now indistinct walls of sound. They are now supposed to be oceans of atmospheric noise, and I just don’t find the vast majority of orchestral music memorable for that very reason. Sure, it sounds “beautiful” at a basic level, but it sounds like everything else that’s been released in past years. It’s just the same sweeping orchestral pomposity – technically deep but emotionally shallow — intended to wash over the player and drain down the plughole as quickly as it poured from the faucet. I don’t like it. I need to say, right now, that I do not fucking like it. I grew up with Nobuo fucking Uematsu, damn it! I grew up with music that had a voice! Music that meant something. Music that didn’t sound like everything else. Music that could be attributed instantly to certain environment, certain characters, and certain stories. I grew up with music, real music, not this fucking noise that people put in games now, just because “orchestral” has become a stand-in for “heartless, pointless, hollow.”

Not all orchestral music is bad, of course. The battle theme for Lost Odyssey is orchestral and it’s one of the most beautiful, memorable pieces of music to be released in years. Of course, Uematsu created it, so that’s hardly surprising. I’m currently playing Xenoblade Chronicles, and it has a terrific score despite the full instrumentation. The gorgeous work of Video Games Live and similar concerts prove that the memorable tunes of our childhood can translate well to orchestral settings. It’s just that so few games are doing it nowadays. The fact tunes don’t need to be created have led to complacency.

The indie scene has some really good music going on, and it might again be a case of necessity forcing invention. Danny Baranowsky has made a name for himself composing amazing digital tunes for Super Meat Boy, Canabalt, and many other projects. Games like Aquaria, Jamestown, and Sword & Sorcery are rightly praised for having some amazing tunes in their soundtracks. There’s great music happening, and it’s coming, yet again, from the most restricted quarters with the least amount of resources — developers who can’t afford to get lazy and need to squeeze as much as they can out of what they have. Once more, this leads to relying on melody, since you can’t get a full orchestra to bang out something derivatively “rousing” to manufacture a title’s atmosphere.

I miss the days when many games had memorable tunes … even the ones with bad soundtracks. I miss playing a game where the music is stuck in my head for days thereafter. It’s become such a rarity, and I think it’s all down to the inherent comfort that comes from having a lot of money to spend on getting a huge orchestra to churn out something for you. I wish the spark of audio invention would come back to our biggest games. Right now, the indie scene is shaming the composers of some of the biggest games around, and possibly because they have only a fraction of the resources. Developers need to stop relying on the same product-line orchestra shit that is in every big game nowadays, and find some actual musicians.

It’s time videogames got their groove back.

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3 Comments on Where Did the Groove Go?

Mazzle

On March 21, 2012 at 10:14 am

Finally someone said this.
I grew up with SNES and N64 and I will never EVER forget the tunes of my childhood. Tunes you will remember forever. Yeah orchestra is awesome and gave me sometimes goosebumps, but for the most time, they are not as momorable as tunes from the old days or from composers which made the music for NES and SNES.

The best example to show what I mean is Metroid Other M. The Metroid Series has some classic VG tunes with one clear melody. Without this clear melody, something like Metroid Metal wouldn’t work. But Other M!? There was sound? All I heard were some noises to create an atmosphere and it failed. The funny thing, the composer of Super Metroid and the Prime Trilogy wasn’t making the OST of Other M, he was creating the OST for DKCR.

I want memorable soundtracks, tunes which can define a whole game/series.

Daniel

On March 21, 2012 at 10:22 am

Great piece, Jim. Something I have thought about for years myself.

I think there is the possibility for huge sweeping scores to become memorable, but they generally are far too ambitious to do so. I think a great example (to add to yours) of a recent orchestral score which *is* memorable can be found in the Uncharted series. With a similar quality to the tune from Jurassic Park, I think whoever wrote it knew what they were doing.

In terms of good old-fasihoned repetitive but infectious MIDI-ish melodies, I think in recent times another good place to look is probably somewhere you haven’t and that’s the Pro Evolution Soccers series. Granted, I haven’t played those since around 2008, but the worst part about switching to FIFA was that EA’s series simply uses songs by relatively well-known indie bands or R&B artists, which often proves disastrous as most of it is complete cack.

Pro Evo music on the other hand had the quality of tune you’d get when you pressed “Demo” on your keyboard as a kid. By no means amazing, but superbly – almost scientifically – made to keep you somehow enjoying it. Myself and my flatmates would spend much time making up words to it, which we’d sing to “entertain” eachother between matches. Magic stuff.

DrJinjiro

On March 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

I still think the Monkey Island games have one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, especially The Curse of Monkey Island (#3). The games had charismatic, meandering tunes that instantly portrayed both location and mood, and were also catchy and memorable. When the intro in Curse kicks in at the right dramatic moment, it always gives me goosebumps of nostalgia. It captures the spirit of adventure so well, and it’s essentially just steel drums, pipes and other percussion. You don’t need sweeping, orchestral music for everything – especially not with ludicrously excessive amounts of some soprano bint singing ‘OOooooOOooo’ over every ‘poignant’ moment. Eventually the music from all these games just blends together like one big musical fruit smoothie – it tastes nice, but you can’t really tell what you’re drinking.