There is no doubt that old school game music had a very distinctive sound. Some of that was simply due to the hardware capabilities of the time, some was due to good old fashion, well written music. Most of the music in today’s games is nothing like that old music, to be sure. The sweeping orchestral creations of today’s games are a far cry from the 8-bit Mario Bros. theme song. That said, I’d argue that this is less a loss of identity and more an evolution.
There are many ways in which one can compare movies to video games, and music is certainly one of those ways, as Chris pointed out in his article. His point about most game music being indistinguishable from most movie scores is true. You would certainly be hard pressed to compare the Skyrim score to the Lord or the Rings score and know which of those is the game score. Here’s where I disagree with Chris though; there are many different types of movie music, from the orchestral epics in films like Inception to licensed music like what Quentin Tarantino uses. All of that is considered “movie music” though. The same is becoming true for game music. Instead of being pigeon holed into creating music that only fits into one small genre, game music is expanding its identity, not losing it.
Realistic looking games need realistic sounding music. A 16-bit score would feel horribly out of place in The Last of Us, for instance. If I’m wrong, and game music is indeed losing its identity, then I blame graphics more than I blame the music itself. If the SNES was still the pre-eminent gaming console, then I believe that we’d still be identifying games by that very obvious 16-bit sound. As it happens though, graphics evolved and with them came the music. The music of today’s games is a product of the graphics of today’s games.
Licensed music in games is also becoming more interesting. Like in film, licensed music can give moments a very specific feeling. I’m not the world’s biggest Kanye West fan, but that moment in Saints Row: The Third where you’re diving off of a helicopter while “Power” is blasting in your ears is one of my favorite gaming related music moments in recent memory. The Bioshock Infinite music is another great example of games using licensed music in interesting ways. In that game, it’s not so much that the music exists (yes, the same music could have been used in a film) it’s the fact that the player finds (or doesn’t find) that music of their own accord. Those songs lend a sense of foreshadowing to interactive portion of the narrative. They’re a peek into what’s happening in that world as you play the game.
Not all iconic game music comes from the 8 and 16 bit era though. Chris mentioned the Final Fantasy battle music specifically. Final Fantasy XV is due out this year and I’d surprised if it doesn’t feature that little ditty after a victory; every other Final Fantasy game has it. It’s also worth noting that the iconic sound of older game generations isn’t completely lost. Indie titles like Rogue Legacy, Terraria and Hammerwatch all feature old-school sounding scores. Not to mention, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds features arguably the best music of any game from 2013 and most of that music is an updated take on classic Zelda favorites. I don’t believe gaming music is dead, in fact I believe the opposite. Gaming music is very much alive and evolving!