Debate Club: Is Video Game Music Losing Its Identity?

Quick: Play some video game music in your head. What did you hear? The classic Mario tune exactly the way it sounded on the NES? Some variation of the Zelda overworld music? The Final Fantasy VII battle theme? Or maybe your brain wanted to show off a bit so it went to a slightly deeper cut, like a favorite Mega Man 2 track or the old people dinner party goodness of Sonic 1’s Starlight Zone song? I obviously don’t know for sure what you thought of, but I bet it wasn’t something from Mass Effect or Uncharted.

And why not? Those are two game franchises with epic, brilliant, award-winning soundtracks, not to mention two huge game franchises that are among both the highest-rated and best-selling games of this generation. Well, despite being music composed for and played in a video game, they just don’t feel like “video game music”. They are the same type of grand, sweeping orchestral scores that accompany movies or TV shows. If you played samples from any number of modern games, and mixed them in with music samples from movies and TV shows, unless you played specific pieces that people were already familiar with I guarantee they’d be indistinguishable from each other. Frankly, that makes me sad.

I feel that video game music should have its own identity. You always knew someone was playing NES or Genesis in the next room purely by the music that was emanating from it. Video game music was a genre in and of itself. In fact, the music was often so distinct and full of personality that you could tell if a song was from a Capcom game or a Konami game just by the way the music sounded, and it doesn’t take an especially expertly trained ear to differentiate between the music of an NES game vs an SNES game vs a Genesis game. But much like graphics had to eventually evolve beyond bits and pixels, game music had to evolve beyond boops and beeps. Still, even as hardware advances allowed for things like clear human vocals and non-synthetic instruments, for awhile game music still had an identity. The music in games like Gitaroo Man and Space Channel 5 technically drew from genres of “real” music, but they somehow still sounded distinctly “gamey”. And Parappa may have just been a rapper, but those were definitely VIDEO GAME rap songs, no doubt about it. Even as games like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid had movie-like soundtracks that gradually shed their last remaining electronic shackles and went full-on live orchestra, other game composers continued to produce game music that didn’t just sound like they were trying to be John Williams.

So am I suggesting that a game like Skyrim not have a soundtrack that rivals what you’d hear in a Lord of the Rings movie? Of course not. And certainly, the games that are the “summer blockbusters” of gaming should have loud music and a theme song by Eminem. I guess my problem is, that for as much as there is a part of the industry that is chasing Hollywood and considers movies to be THE goal, there is also a lot of designers who are pushing to be different than movies, if not better. They make games with graphics that don’t just look like real life if you squint at them, and stories that couldn’t just be turned into movie scripts, and experiences that movies can’t match. I don’t see why game music can’t follow suit, and not just take the lazy path of being exactly like movie music (or even just getting Hollywood composers). “Still Alive” from the original Portal is an excellent example of a very basic type of song, just a singer, guitars, and drums, only it’s sung by a robot and has a slightly offbeat sound that would seem out of place over the end credits of some Hollywood comedy. It sounds like a song that could only come from a video game. BioShock Infinite uses existing and well-know songs, only it remakes them in the style of an era different to the time of the original song, leading to a Beach Boys song being sung by a barbershop quartet or a Tears For Fears song that sounds like it was recorded in the 1930’s. This isn’t necessarily something that a movie couldn’t do, or hasn’t done, but it’s still an example of taking a more creative approach than simply filling the game with actual music from the early 20th century.

Which leads me to licensed music. Video games have been licensing music for a long time now, only it used to be done in a more creative and interesting way. When Twisted Metal: Black came out, it made absolutely brilliant use of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, and still stands as one of my favorite examples of a licensed song in a game. I feel like if that game were made today, the title song would just be whatever hard rock or metal song was popular right now. That seems to be the trend – get something “hot” in the game, something marketable, something to put in the commercial and on the box – not something that actually fits in the game in a creative and interesting way. In fact, the entire “music game” genre went from being all about having unique and creative and original soundtracks, to just being vessels for playing along to pop and rock hits. I’m as big a fan of Rock Band and Dance Central as anybody, but those games are more for throwing karaoke parties. As overwrought and cliche as this sounds, music games used to be about the music, maaaan. And the music was awesome. It was unique. It was video game music.

Ultimately, I just want the industry to try harder. I don’t have a problem with the John Williams clones. In fact, the movie-caliber soundtracks in games like Uncharted and Mass Effect are a big part of why I loved those games, and those were exactly the types of soundtracks those games needed. But I also don’t want that to be the norm. Just like for every summer blockbuster game or sports game, there are games that push the medium and do things that are unlike any movie or TV show. Video games aren’t all going down the path to just being interactive movies – so why should the music just sound like movie music?

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