Why it’s time for a video game music Renaissance

Hum a melody from a video game that came out in the past 10 years.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Chances are, you can’t, unless you cheat and use melodies from a Mario remake or the Halo anniversary edition. But why is that?

Well, let’s give a brief history of video game music (again [again {again}]). You had bleeps and blips with pacman, then someone came along and invented MIDI (woohoo!). Gameboy and Nintendo had 3 wavetable oscillators (pronounced “instruments”) and a noise machine for percussion. Then you get 16-bit stuff, samples, FM synths and some pretty rad stuff with Super Nintendo, Sega, etc. etc. Playstation comes around and supports digital audio! Woohoo again! Then from PS2/Xbox/Gamecube onward, you get mostly high-quality crystal-clear audio with amazing processing, either recorded by a live orchestra or painstakingly crafted from magnificent music libraries (like the main theme of Game of Thrones. You thought it was live, didn’t you? Nope, libraries). With the most modern consoles, adaptive music has come into play that defies the very idea of a soundtrack and offers a smooth blend of music from one place to another.

Whew, that was a crash course if I’ve ever seen one. Point being, the blinders have been removed, the constraints are nonexistent, and the audio processing capabilities of the newest consoles/PCs are so powerful that it’s the compositional equivalent of a kid in a candy store. It really is that good. And therein lies the problem.

Taken straight from the gameplay of Skyrim. No trailer-quality graphics here, folks.

Taken straight from the gameplay of Skyrim. No trailer-quality graphics here, folks.

Look at that landscape. Just… look at it. It’s beautiful! I see postcards from Yosemite and they’re not that beautiful. I get to walk around in this amazing world without leaving my desk chair. It INSPIRES me as a composer to look at scenes like this. I look at this image and imagine: soaring violins with other strings driving underneath, maybe an oboe solo, and some killer ethnic drums with big, boomy reverb that makes it seem like they’re coming from the depths of the mountains below.

Cool, right? I mean, I can practically hear the piece in my head. AND IT’S BORING. I am this magnificent painter with an even more magnificent palette, with thousands of colors and shades to pick from. And I pick four or five of the most WONDERFUL shades… and then I start painting.

Do I know what I’m going to paint? Nope.

This is the attitude most triple-A game composers take when planning their soundtracks. The atmosphere is the most important thing, memorability and musical content be damned. To their credit, it is partially the game developer’s fault as well. Open-world games have become much, much more popular in recent days, and adaptive music isn’t conducive to musical development. How deadly is that to creativity, though? We have as our NORM something that is in essence un-develop-able. There can’t be any contrasting sections, there can’t be any key changes, there can’t be any long melodies because– what if the player gets into a battle? “Time to end the melody, boys, he’s got his gun out!” The musical idea of that melody is kaput.

And it’s not only that. The idea of this overly large, “epic” music is literally soaring strings, more strings with an 8th-note pattern, and some ethnic drums. Maybe brass swells sometime in the middle. If it’s sci-fi, put in a solo electric guitar. Those are futuristic. Everybody’s doing it, and while it makes you feel super cool and epic in the game, you forget about it as soon as you press Save & Quit.

The triple-A market for video game music stifles a lot of creativity, just with the infrastructure of the games it makes and the standards it sets. The music serves a purpose, and ironically, that purpose is not to be musical.

After railing against the modern music in large titles, you’re probably wondering what I mean by “Video game music Renaissance.” (Please note, not “Video game Renaissance music,” a la “The Place I’ll Return to Someday.”)

Back in the “good old days” of gaming, soundtracks had severe constraints, simply on the audio engine that was making your game work. My friend and fellow blogger (and fellow tubist) at Classical Gaming is an expert on these old systems and often goes on about not only the capabilities of these systems, but how composers MAXIMIZED them, worked within them, and created good music before considering how to make “good video game music.” Whatever that is.

Consider the Game Boy or the original Nintendo. 3 wavetables and a noise machine for percussion. So, one wavetable goes to your bass, one goes to a sort of chordal accompaniment, and the third wavetable is… the soaring strings and epic ethnic percussion, right?

Of course not, you uncultured swine! It’s the MELODY. This is how the system worked! There are lots of examples where they get around this system by not having a melody, etc., but usually it’s in less significant portions of the game that you’re not going to be spending a lot of time in. The melody is king, almost always.

The melodies for Mario, for Zelda, for the original Final Fantasy, for Megaman, for Poke’mon Red and Blue, for pretty much any game you played from that era, you remember the melody. You probably remember 10 melodies from different songs in those games, even if you haven’t played them in years.

Even in the “triple-A game industry” of the time with Starcraft and Warcraft II, there were GREAT melodies in the same company that now forsakes them. World of Warcraft is hit and miss, but initially, the music of Stormwind and the Barrens stuck with me, as well as the opening theme. That opening theme, by the way, has changed with each expansion, and where it used to be a little more melodic and singable, it’s now something of a musical monstrosity that you can only identify as being World of Warcraft’s. No singing allowed.

This is the reason we need a musical reforging of the ideals present in video game music. We as game composers have striven to get far away from the concept of a “soundtrack,” when that concept still resonates strongly with gamers today. We don’t want to shatter the illusion that players feel when in Skyrim… but will playing an actual soundtrack do that? I don’t think so. I remember my days of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy and think about the rich worlds which I played in, and the music with its strong presence and haunting melodies enhanced my experience. I don’t think you can play those games and disagree.

So where do we go from here? The simple answer is to make games with melodies. And that really is a SIMPLE answer. Unfortunately for us in the game development world, sometimes it’s not always that simple, what with adaptive music and quick-paced games that don’t have clear boundaries between soundtrack numbers. BUT! It is always possible to make a game’s music memorable. It is always possible to be true to musical ideals while creating a soundtrack. It is always possible to be ORIGINAL, even in an industry where the creeping vines of “add soaring violins and storm drums and serve” threaten to choke everything.

Since no game composers read this blog, it looks as if I’m going to be leading by example. When my first game comes out (and it’s on its way), I have a feeling you’ll all understand a little bit better what I’m after. But perhaps I’m not the only one who’s figured this out and sees a need to write video game music that players can latch onto. We can only hope!



About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on October 4, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Also, I’m a game composer now too so I totally understand what you’re trying to say. (http://ap0c.bandcamp.com/album/signature-strike-original-soundtrack) and so now you have a game composer reading your blog haha!

    One of the main issues, I believe, is the fact that most new games require atmospheric music. There’s not much to Deadspace’s OST but it is used effectively and scares the living crap out of me every single time. On the other hand, Doom for DOS was JUST AS SCARY and had up-tempo music that never quit blasting. Both created an atmosphere.

    I think a lot of reason for being obsessed with soaring strings and that orchestral sound is the fact that they CAN use that now. Live music is basically mainstay now and people EXPECT massive orchestral movie-type scores. Atmosphere is created by these scores and the realistic nature of the game.

    Therefore, the issue is that most of today’s games are trying for realism. Realism + chip-based soundtrack = … not quite sure- probably bad. We’re at a point where FM Synthesis, wavetable, PSG, etc are all antiquated. We don’t see games with sprites, parallax scrolling, etc. The older soundtracks just don’t fit well together with realism. I hate saying it but it’s true.

    These older composers pushed the limits of the systems to be impressive. Today, it’s a lot easier and there’s no particular reason that a composer would have to push the envelope on EVERY SINGLE SONG. Some NES soundtracks are like: intensity 11/10 for EVERY SINGLE LEVEL. Here’s a calm lake… WITH SOARING CRAZY 25% PULSE ARPEGGIOS AND MASSIVE DPCM DRUMS! HELLZ YEAH.

    To that point, a lot of these older composers were programmers first, musicians second, so they keyed in on melodies and found inspiration in the rock/synth music of the time. They were not classically trained composers. Hell, Tim Follin wrote music for games he NEVER EVEN SAW. He just programmed it and shipped it out.

    Furthering the idea that they are programmers first, most of them, today, when preparing to have their music arranged for live game concerts HIRE arrangers to write the music. They can’t even conduct the orchestra because they really have no clue how – they just programmed stuff they thought sounded good. It was a much simpler time, really. They had no clue it was going to become a mega-industry. Games had a staff of 12-18 people total. You see the credits list for Borderlands 2? It’s like, 10 minutes long.

    Today, programmers are not asked to compose music. A specialized composer is brought in. These composers tend to be classically-trained or at the very least MUSIC FIRST kinds of people. This vastly changes the playing field. A lot of them are NOT inspired by the original soundtracks to old games; they are inspired by their classical background, film music, and the current music being made for games today.

    What does this all have in common, though? Realism. These guys are composers seeing realistic backgrounds and gorgeous animated models and NOT 32 x 32 sprites. They are going to think realism and they are going to draw from their own ideas of what that means, regardless of the history of gaming.

    So throw me into this situation, as a classical trained musician. I’m given a game with incredible realistic graphics and an epic storyline and told to compose music.

    My idea, immediately, would be that the REALISM of the game needs to have an OST based in REALISM to complement it. That doesn’t excuse some of the boring atmospheric tracks I’ve heard from games lately but it does explain it. I’d want action when you FEEL action, I’d want calm when you FEEL calm. It’s part of the immersion. To be immersed in realism, we need realism, unfortunately.

    Just some thoughts, really.

    • I definitely understand where you’re coming from! And you’re partially right that sometimes composers for triple-A games have a musical background, but in reality that background doesn’t matter nearly as much as the background in electronic music (ironically enough). To be a game composer you’ve got to be an expert in digital audio, processing, mixing and mastering, and recording techniques. If you hired people who were excellent COMPOSERS to write soundtracks, you would actually get a hugely different feeling from some of the same games (in my humble opinion).

      In response to your other comments: you’re right! Not having limitations… seems to present its own limitations in a creative sense. And the atmospheric music absolutely serves its purpose.

      My gripe is that atmospheric music is DEFINITELY a choice, and it seems to be the easiest choice to make (and not necessarily the correct one). Unifying themes and melodies can pervade even an open-world game like Skyrim or a thriller like Dead Space. (Btw I would say that Dead Space’s soundtrack is an excellent example of how to use WELL the tools of today’s video game music.)

      Point being, the tone color can change, that’s fine. I don’t need FM synths, I don’t need noise machines and choruses of square waves with different duty cycles. Realism of instruments isn’t the same thing as realism of music.

      Imagine if Strauss had written Ein Alpensinfonie the way people write video game soundtracks, with 8-bar loops and large sections of silence. The feelings and ideas associated with realistic games we have aren’t necessarily spacey and minimalistic.

      Seems as if game composers nowadays tend to sacrifice musical integrity and interest in favor of flexibility during gameplay. And I say, “Why not both?”

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