Remember back when there was a time in the not too distant past where you and your friends could hum the theme melody of a video game just by simply mentioning the title? Think Final Fantasy, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Kong...and of course Super Mario! There wasn't really much thought needed to recall the melody from the depths of our memories. In fact, they were so memorable the tunes unconsciously became the "audio identification" of that particular game.
These days, most games across the range of indie, console, mobile are suffering from a very cancerous disease - Lack Of Originality aka "everything sounds the same" and/or "the music is there for the sake of being there". Why are we experiencing this and how do we remedy this? Hang on, I'll get there.
The point of this article here is not a melodic or thematic one, but of originality, uniqueness and attachment. Sure, some may argue that not every soundtrack needed a melody or theme per se. That is true, I can think of a myriad of games whose sonic characteristics transcend that of what we traditionally associate as the melody/theme - Case in point: "Journey". The soundtrack is mostly "soundscapish" with melodies and themes interwoven in it - Though not the kind of melodies that are easily "hummable". But it's the unique approach and sound palette that gives it its exclusive attachment to the game and a Grammy nomination.
Another great example of a well crafted modern game soundtrack: FEZ by an old roommate of mine: Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace. http://disasterpeace.com/ <- Check him out!!
This soundtrack is nothing less than a work of a genius. Its sound palette and themes blend so seamlessly with the art direction and story of the game, immersing players into the world of FEZ - That's what I'd call a great game experience!
And the fact is, its not hard to achieve. I was in the same apartment when this soundtrack was made and I witnessed the creative dedication and effort that went into crafting something original and exclusive. The result? This game won multiple accolades and both the game designer and Disasterpeace were well recognized and commended for their work.
The sad truth is, most modern game soundtracks are just downright boring and lifeless. More often than not it felt like they're there just for the sake of being there. You can almost always point out how similar they were to another game minus the awesomeness and attachment.
So, how do we solve this and make video game soundtracks across the board great again? It's actually not a herculean task to solve this problem: JUST GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE FOR THE JOB.
1) This includes having composers, producers, creative directors, game designer/directors, audio directors or whoever that's actively involved with the music to actually understand the function of music and how it enhances the gamers experience, thereby artfully utilizing music as an experiential source instead of viewing music simply as...a space that needs to be filled. Most audio directors are from a sound design background and employ a very sound design vendor like approach when handling music and composers with the revisions and variations - This is a very detrimental process both to the project and the composer. And how do I know this? I know many and had worked with many who are as described.
2) Get the right composers for the job! Many companies/developers these days select their composers solely based on price without consideration of their suitability and ability. Naturally this type of toxic environment will spawn a price war and usually the lower bidders will win out, and by the virtue of their price range they are usually not very well versed at their craft and aren't truly passionate about adding value to the projects - Because they're usually trying to line up as many low priced gigs as possible. As the market forces always suggests, high quality items never come cheap.
Find a composer that's easy to work with and whose style and artistic sensibilities matches with your project(s). Good composers who understand and are passionate in adding value to your projects are worth every penny, and the kind of experience it will deliver to the audience will make the return of investment worth it.
3) Composers need to start being artists and not "copy machines". I agree with the notion that "good artist copy and great artist steal". But only to a certain extent as means of learning from the masters. Even the "thieves" eventually outgrow that by creating their own signature sounds and become high value artist in the market place. Copycats can almost never truly leave a mark and make it big. To composers: Take pride in your work and strive for individuality.
4) Refrain from providing reference tracks to composers. Composers, especially the good ones are amazing artists on their own accord and they'll be delivering a hell lot more than what they're paid if they were given an appropriate autonomy to do what they think is best for the project with as little as possible external influence/interference. They are hired because of their unique artistic approaches, not to be a tool of puppeteers. Plus...there's a reason why they were chosen in the first place, right?
Reference tracks in itself is not the prime killer, but too much of it is.
This video is about how blockbuster Hollywood movie soundtracks suffer from lacking character and originality. This is a good example of how over-attachment to reference tracks or in film terms "temp tracks" can truly ruin or undermine an otherwise amazing film. And I think both the film and video game industries are suffering from this problem.
I've worked with countless producers/creative directors/audio directors in the past that just get way too obsessed with the reference tracks that they pretty much just want a recreation of it with minor changes so as to avoid legal and copyright scuffles.
5) Stop trying to play it safe, don't be afraid to be original! Some people argue that there's just too many games out there and it's hard to be original. I staunchly disagree, I think they are just afraid to step out of the realms of sonic safety and be original. Granted that being original presents a level of risk and the results can't be predicted, so they always fall into the cushion of safety and play it safe by referring to the closest thing out there to the genre of the project and "reference" it.
That's not how great games are made, only mediocre ones. These games will not enter the annals of great video games and will be forgotten as quickly as they were made. Great games become great because of their commitment toward originality and uniqueness of storyline, game design, combat etc. Same goes with the soundtracks. No one will remember a mediocre soundtrack that's just there simply because. Most of the best games out there have amazing and memorable soundtracks, not just because they have the budget, but because of the commitment towards making something great.
I'm sure most of these lackluster games will still go on to make a lot of money and the mediocre music certainly still does the job. But I'd like to encourage and beseech developers and composers alike to step up a notch in creating something truly great that they can be proud of for a long time to come. If not for ourselves, do it for our customers and audiences who deserve great experiences in return for keeping our lights on and stomachs fed.
I'll sign off with what I consider one of the best modern game soundtracks I've heard in the past couple of years - The Last of Us(Music by Gustavo Santaolalla)
If you got this far down, thanks for reading! And I'd love to hear your opinion if you agree or disagree and why.
Kian How - Audio Specialist for Visual Media