Under the Scope – Music

Ever since the original Super Mario Bros., we’ve been treated to music in videogames. Well…before then as well, but I wanted to put something out there you could see, nod your head at, and move onward without getting totally lost. Not to sound conceited, but there are any one of a number of other titles that came out before Mario that have done the same, but you probably don’t know what…oh my Jesus I sound like a hipster so I better stop.

In any case, music, in my opinion, can drastically enhance or kill a gaming experience entirely, depending on how good or bad it may strike the particular scenario. For example, unless it’s meant to be sarcastic or funny, there shouldn’t be a reason why happy, campy music is playing when the hero dies. And unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time.

Worse still, a tendency to have either no music or tracks that weren’t even made for the game (i.e. actual lyrical music that already exists in popular media). And that’s not to say lyrical music can’t work for a game. Brutal Legend is a perfect example of it being juuuuust right. However, more often than not, it’s like GTA3…you have a bunch of stations to select from, but no idea what will actually pop up when you scroll to the station.

Admittedly, you may not be playing the game for the music.

It may or may not fit the situation. The ability to change it at will means that maybe you don’t want it to or that maybe the game can’t predict the situation anyway so whatever, but the developers should at least TRY…and they don’t. It can also be argued that a lack of music is a good thing. If you’re in a sneaking mission, sniping, or playing a survivor horror game, a chilling lack of sound allows for concentration, imagination, and goosebumps.

But see, even in games like Silent Hill, they don’t completely throw music by the wayside. No, they use it when its necessary, opting to go for ambience and chilling silence to keep you on your toes. Lately it seems like the only developers that truly care about having great music in their games are Japanese. And no, I’m not trying to shit on American developers, but let’s be real here.

Brutal Legend is seriously the most recent American made game I can think of that had such a brilliant soundtrack and to be honest, it’s kind of a cheat. It was a game ALL ABOUT metal, so all they had to do was bring as much eclectic metal as possible and in a variety of ways and there you go. Granted, the brilliant artistic mind of Schaffer was behind it too, but it almost seems like such an obvious title that you almost wonder why it was never made before.

Fuck yeah.

What I’m mostly getting at regarding Japanese developers is regardless of whether the music is good, bad, or ugly, goddammit at least they TRY to have a soundtrack in their games. Who can forget such soundtracks as Persona 3, Ys – Oath in Felghana, and even the Disgaea series? Hell, I can even dig up ancient history and quote games like Final Fantasy 6 and find nonstop hits.

With American developers lately it seems like a lot of them are going for the mainstream lyrical music just being slapped on with no real thought put into it or just having a few tracks here and there that are utterly forgettable and may or may not match the scene they’ve unfolded before you. Yes, there are exceptions, but very few I find. Were it that I only play Japanese mainstream titles this wouldn’t be a problem, but sadly it is.

Really, the only American developers that have gotten it spot on lately are, you guessed it, indie developers. But the saddest and most telling part here is that the only reason this is the case is because more often than not they’re attempting to portray gaming “as it used to be” rather than “how it should be.” Allow me to explain myself.

But does it only have music as good as it does because that’s the way he remembered these kinds of games?

Let’s take an utterly bizarre and ultimately offensive, though still addictive as shit title, Binding of Isaac. When you take one look at it, the first thing you should think is the original Legend of Zelda. There are also various other videogame references (mostly to Zelda though). While the music is still pretty good and not like Zelda at all, I can’t help but wonder that if they were making something modern and totally original, unlike anything we’d ever played before, if it would have had as good or even as much music.

Here’s what I mean. Contra archetype: rock music, possibly techno in some areas. River City Ransom archetype: the same. Oldschool Final Fantasy archetype: eclectic mix of many different kinds of music, usually with orchestrated instruments. Almost any FPS: what fucking music? And I’m serious now, what happened? Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, Doom 2, and many other great FPSs from the yesteryear ALL had individual music tracks per level.

Were they brilliant or memorable? No, not all of them, but they still ranged from acceptable to damn awesome. And the fact that there were so many, of course, meant that OCRemix could have a field day with them. No, I’m not saying developers need to make more music so we can mix it; I’m just saying they need to make more music, period. Ah, but there is a little asterisk here.

Again, admittedly, you may not be playing the game for the music.

I honestly don’t care if the music is good, bad, or ugly. I don’t even care if it’s memorable. What I care about…is if it’s fitting. Remember what I said earlier about happy, campy music playing when the hero dies? What I really care about is if the music fits the situation. I look at game development as an art and with great respect. Just like a Hollywood movie director or professional chef, you’re putting together several elements all at once for the gamer to enjoy and savor in each passing moment of the game.

Music…is part of that. Not just music, but also the sound effects, voice acting, timing, and much more, but yes, music. Was the music for Aeris’ death really all that great? No, but it was fitting…and each time I remember even the music itself, I’m immediately reminded of the scene, the first time I played it, and how it made me feel then. I almost always tear up a little.

It encapsulated the scene so well and so brilliantly that now, years later, it still brings back memories. THAT…is exactly what I’m talking about. Recently I’ve been playing Ys – Oath in Felghana, which is a massively overhauled remake of Ys 3, which I’ve droned on in length about (though not necessarily here) regarding its amazing music. The best part of playing this game is not replaying a classic; it’s hearing the awesome shit they did to remix the original OST.


Not only does it immediately bring back awesome memories of playing the original for the SNES, it allows me to rock out to something a little more modern while playing a game that, despite it being based on a classic, is still an entirely new experience all its own. We owe a lot to the music in videogames, to be honest. I strongly encourage you, gamer to gamer, to go back and listen to your old videogame music.

And if you’re a developer, mainstream, upcoming, indie, or whatever, I strongly encourage you to think before applying your music. Do us all a favor and create instant classics in the form of music. Even if your game ends up being the biggest load of shit ever, we will still appreciate it for the music for years to come.


Filed under Retro, Under the Scope, Videogames

2 responses to “Under the Scope – Music

  1. The note about whether the music is “fitting”, and not necessarily good, is definitely how I’ve thought about it myself. Good is subjective, obviously, but it needs to work with the mood/environment first of all. The Secret World actually has dynamic combat music to fit the location or mob type. I have a lot of game soundtracks on my iTunes, and TSW’s is the latest entry.

  2. Pingback: Important Things Suspiciously Absent From Modern Games | Gun Sage's Blog

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