Has Video Game Music Lost its Way?

When someone asks you “what’s the best piece of video game music you can think of?”, what do you say? The theme from Super Mario Brothers? Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s Chemical Plant Zone? Gruntilda’s Lair from Banjo-Kazooie? But would you ever think of a game like Mass Effect, Resident Evil or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell? Probably not. Some of the most legendary gaming chords to be strummed have emerged from those retro games, those pixelated classics that gamers love playing, those beeping symphonies that have since been remixed dozens of times by avid online musicians. But why is that? Why do we think of those aged classics when we think of fantastic music in video games? The answer is pretty simple: gaming music has taken an unfortunate nosedive in quality since then. It’s been drained of creativity and has simply become a faceless score behind an action-packed visual foreground.

Some of the most memorable video game themes appeared during the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming. During the age of the NES, gamers were given such musical gems like “Dr. Wily’s Theme” from Mega Man 2, “Brinstar Theme” from the original Metroid, and the now iconic Super Mario Bros. theme. The Genesis and Super Nintendo followed suit with 16-bit legends in “Guile’s Theme” in Street Fighter II and the classic “Green Hill Zone” theme in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Even handhelds were getting respectable representation in gaming music like the infectious Tetris theme on Game Boy. The Playstation and Nintendo 64 brought us gems like “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII and “Bob-bomb Battlefield” with Super Mario 64. Game music’s catchiness during that age masked its steady complexity. More and more instruments were appearing in game music (like the multi-instrument gem of the Banjo-Kazooie theme), but in the case of games like Final Fantasy VII, games were becoming cinematic and epic, with their musical compositions following suit.

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Upon the sixth generation’s debut, however, game music was becoming cinematic to the point of irrelevancy. The compositions were becoming more and more layered, more and more epic. The bombastic symphonies of Shadow of the Colossus, the J-pop arias of Kingdom Hearts, and choral psalms of Halo: Combat Evolved were certainly wonderful themes. Halo specifically demonstrated music that’s become iconic with its series and memorable to any passing fan. But while these examples are truly wonderful performances, ignore them for a second. In the big picture, what exactly were we getting? The music during the sixth gen was well-produced, but was it memorable? As stated before, there were a select group of musical pieces implemented during the sixth generation of consoles that could stand just as tall as their predecessors. However, this shift with more advanced tech and a bigger scope sucked away a great deal of creativity and memorability of music in gaming.

The seventh generation followed this path as well. Games became bigger and more cinematic, and the music clearly suffered because of it. Games like Uncharted and God of War, for all their gameplay polish, demonstrated barely any effort in making themes that people would remember in games. The songs were so big and so boldly produced that they could rival the triumphant scores of mainstream film. But they didn’t need to do that. There’s been a recent argument in the industry about games trying too hard to be movies, and the music is a real example of why this has become so much of an issue. AAA titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield have barely any personality in their music. It’s enormously produced, but undeniably forgettable. The generic drums and brass scores are devoid of placement or proper integration to the game; there’s simply nothing worthy of note.

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In 2005, Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico debuted Video Games Live, an orchestral performance of a number of musical pieces from various video games. The gambit ran from age-old classics like Super Mario Bros. to more modern games like Tomb Raider, World of Warcraft and…Headhunter? Need for Speed: Undercover? Afrika? While I won’t go after why the terrible Advent Rising is in the setlist (Tallarico himself composed the music for that game, so…yeah), looking at the different games chosen for orchestral tribute in Video Games Live shows us that music in games has steadily been losing its soul. These are the compositions that are supposedly representing the musical record for modern gaming. If you can distinguish between the themes for Civilization IV and End of Nations, you deserve a medal. We have the staples, the games that appeared during the 80’s and 90’s that anyone could remember. Even if you’ve never played a Mario game, you probably know at least a bit of its theme. But looking at series like Medal of Honor, Mass Effect and various Tom Clancy games, it’s clear that the formula for making quality gaming music has shifted. It’s all about cinematic boom instead of quaint memorability. These days, it’s all about being bigger, not about being better.

But despite AAA titles displaying their lax approach to music, there have been a number of notable musical gems in contemporary gaming, mostly from smaller projects and independently organized developers. For example, Portal’s “Still Alive” remains a cornerstone in modern gaming music, a quirky, snarky little ditty that’s just as goofy and playful as the game’s humor demonstrates. Jonathan Coulton’s composition has been synonymous with the game itself not just because the song was catchy, but because it was full of personality. It was a labor of love to the Portal universe, making it a perfect fit for the game’s vibe. “Want You Gone” from Portal 2 followed the similar notion, filled to the brim with personality and clear attention to musical vivaciousness. It certainly was catchy, but you can tell that it was specifically made for Portal. “Still Alive” was a smart creation because you could identify it. It had substantiality. It had an immediately notable essence that automatically makes you think “Portal.”

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But you can’t talk about modern gaming music without talking about Journey. Composed by Austin Wintory, Journey’s music was the only game soundtrack to be ever nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. While this is certainly a triumph for Wintory and trust me, Journey’s music is certainly well-produced, why was it nominated for that Grammy? Did the Grammy committee use their understanding of video games to determine that nomination? Was it because the music in Journey was purely representative of the game? Was it memorable? It’s very easy to praise Wintory’s nomination as gaming finally being recognized as an artistic equal to film and television, but when you set Journey’s music alongside the other nominees like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Hugo, are there distinctive differences? Is there an identity in this music, one that can be tracked to its source within an instant? Journey’s situation really is an odd case. The music is incredibly produced and sounds great, but that spark of unique identity is harder to find than more legendary musical compositions. While it doesn’t suffer from the chronic redundancy of other modern games, Journey simply can’t hold a candle when it comes to true placement and purpose. To the mainstream, Journey’s music is representative of the best music the gaming world has ever made, and that’s a serious problem.

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With games becoming more and more like cinema, there’s an urge to constantly mimic it. It’s like designing a giant robot to fight another giant robot. But in challenging cinematic music in that way, it’s mechanical. It’s artificial. It’s another bot on the assembly line. There’s nothing memorable about it. The musical moments that have remained the most iconic are the ones that ooze charm and creativity. Super Mario Bros.’ theme, “Green Hill Zone” and “Gruntilda’s Lair” are some of the first things gamers think about when it comes to top-tier gaming music because they were 100% built with the game in mind. They have a placement that’s refined and thought-out, while other AAA titles are just random concertos without any consideration for the game itself. If anything, Portal was an example that game musicians can make something memorable without relying on booming percussion and triumphant brass chords. It showed that charm and personality will help people remember you, not sheer scope.

Will we ever have a modern gaming soundtrack that can rival the timelessness of Mega Man 2, Sonic the Hedgehog or Banjo-Kazooie? Maybe, but it’ll take much more than a couple chamber orchestras to make it happen.