Music in the Mainstream Game

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I’m still alive. I know you were probably wondering about that, given how long it’s been since my most recent post. Well, yeah, still here. I’ve been fighting long work-weeks, the flu, and two other posts that are taking more time than I expected to finish properly, hence why you haven’t seen much life from me lately. But we’re going to change that right now! We’re back baby, yeah!

So here’s a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while: what exactly happened to video game music? At least in broad market AAA titles, a game’s music barely seems worth noticing. It wasn’t always this way. Whistle the first two bars of the Super Mario Bros. theme, and any gamer who’d even touched that game will be instantly brought back to to those memories. It’s a very distinct and memorable song, that perfectly captured the mood of World 1-1. And they did that using only a small selection of bleeps and blorps. Compare that to Skyrim, where outside of the main theme and its various remixes, they didn’t even bother giving most of their music melodies. Most of the background music is simply long chords. It’s basic, incredibly boring, and most of the time you’d probably have to be reminded that there was music playing in the first place. Skyrim is definitely the worst case I can think of right now, but other modern AAA games aren’t much better. Think of Mass Effect 3, where most of the music was an incredibly simple one- to two-bar melody played repeatedly over basic chords. There’s no progression, the song doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s just kind of there. And it’s seeming to me that most games aimed at hitting the mass-market are doing the same with their music. Think of a modern AAA title you’ve played. Can you even remember more than one song from the game? Music is one of the strongest weapons in a game developer’s arsenal towards guiding the player’s emotions, and the tools to implement music in games are better than they’ve ever been before. There are definitely great composers in the video game industry. Why is it then, that the titles that are getting the most attention are getting the worst music? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a few ideas under the cut.

Video game music is similar to music for movies and television. It’s primary purpose is not to entertain, although it can do that too, it’s to create a mood. You create tension by throwing in dissonant chords, energy with a swiftly moving melody, aggression with rapid percussion, etc. Music has been used in other forms of entertainment to increase the emotional impact of what’s going on on-screen for decades, and those who study such things are well aware of the “rules” of emotional music. However, music is still an art, and the more complex any art is, the less predictable its impact on the audience is. Good artists will be able to manage this. Through experience and skill, they’ll be able to manage the complexity in their piece, finding the right level for their audience. Unfortunately, not all businesspeople are good artists. To them, complexity is a risk. While risks can pay off, they don’t like to see too much of them in the big game they’re counting on to keep their stocks above their investor’s entry points. AAA games seem to play it safe in a lot of design aspects, music is no exception. The rules about emotional music I mentioned above? Those will be followed to the letter, and no farther. They’ll put in the bare minimum to reach an emotional point, but won’t work on crafting anything memorable or worthwhile. That would involve more complexity, and complexity is a risk. They save the risks for those lesser titles. That’s why something like Mass Effect 3 can have an utterly bland soundtrack while Dragon Age has a fairly good one, even though they come from the same developer and publisher Mass Effect 3 was not a property with which they had the liberty of taking risks, while Dragon Age was.

Another issue, for games set in modern times, is licensed soundtracks. It is incredibly simple to get licenses to use copyrighted music; most songs put out by a major music publisher go to the library of a company whose sole purpose is to provide those licenses to producers of video games, movies, television programs, what have you. It’s so common, that I’d be surprised if most major video game publishers didn’t already have an ongoing licensing agreement to use at least one company’s library of songs. So if one of their developers is making a game in which modern pop music would fit just fine, I imagine it’s really hard for them to justify paying a composer when they’ve got access to however many thousands of songs already.

Part of the problem is that the Japanese are no longer dominant in the video game industry. I know I’m generalizing, but it seems to me that most of their games, including the broad-market ones, definitely valued the importance of a good soundtrack. Just last generation, I remember listening through a great many JRPG soundtracks simply for entertainment. Their video game culture did not seem satisfied at just establishing a mood through their music, they actually created progression through their songs, created music that was both memorable and listenable. Not every Japanese soundtrack was good, of course. But they effort was usually there.

I ragged on Skyrim above for having only one song and its remixes have an actual melody. And that’s very true, and Bethesda should be ashamed of itself. That does bring to light an important point about something that when used properly (i.e., not as an excuse to get lazy with the music) can be a very good thing. Music connects with memory very easily. That’s why you can remember marketing jingles better than you can the commercial they appeared in, that’s why you know who exactly I’m talking about when I ask “who lives in a pineapple under the sea?” and that’s why you can’t get that stupid song out of your head now. You remember music. It’s how your brain works. At least when the music’s not incredibly basic, just a repetitive one-bar melody over long chords like a lot of games are satisfied with. It’s also easy to associate other things with music. That’s why jingles are so effective, because you can easily associate them with the product. You can also do the same thing with events and emotions. So if you have a solid song, that you keep playing at the appropriate times, you’ll be able to carry over previous feelings through the strength of musical memory when you bring it up again. Mental Gaming has a solid analysis of this sort of thing here if you don’t mind the spoilers. Essentially, you keep playing a sad song, or a variation thereof when a game hits a sad part, that song will have greater emotional impact on the player when it comes up again. Thing is, in the case Skyrim and several other games I’ve noticed, they’ve focused all their attention on that one song. Either because they didn’t want other songs to distract from the main one, or they didn’t care so much about the others, the rest of the game’s music is not nearly so well developed. They’re essentially sacrificing the rest of the soundtrack to that one bit of music that actually carries the emotional connection. So on the one hand it’s a step in the right direction. But on the other, it’d be nice if they could carry the rest of the soundtrack with it.

And of course, music may just not be as important to the mainstream audience as it is to me. Video game music can help get the tone and moods of the story across, but what if the game isn’t worried about that? It can help transmit atmosphere, but that’s not what all games are about. Good music isn’t going to sell a game to the degree that tight shooting controls will. Music will make good games just a bit better, but it’s not going to salvage a bad one. I could easily see how many developers would pursue just the bare minimum of musical implementation, then devote their resources to matters that are more important to their audience. And if their audience isn’t that concerned with music, they’re not going to be either.

And there’s a variety of unsorted ideas about the plight of music in AAA games. Good music is definitely out there. Indie games are making good use of music to help make give themselves a distinct style. Bastion had one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in years. And relatively recent JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles had a soundtrack that I’ve probably listened to for far longer than I’ve played the 80-some hour game. Unfortunately, good music is not something that’s applied well to modern games that are trying to hit the mass market. And now, I’m going to give my flu-addled brain a rest. Hopefully I’ll have one of the more substantial posts I’m working on ready for you guys soon.

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