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Opinion: What's Wrong With Game Music?

Opinion: What's Wrong With Game Music? Exclusive

May 1, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

May 1, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive

[Instead of the distinctive themes of the olden days, most of today's popular titles have indistinguishable soundtracks. Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield explores the reasons -- and possible solutions.]

Most game music these days is boring. I'm sorry, but it's true.

Music is one of the more pervasive arts. It's integrated into almost all our visual entertainment media, played in stores, supports our advertising, and obnoxiously decorates our social networking pages.

Rare is the person who does not listen to music. So with all this music interaction out there, why is so much video game music so consistently generic?

Music, of course, is very subjective. It may even polarize people's interests more than other traditional arts do, given that listening to music has far more universal appeal than does going to a museum, leafing through an art book, or for many, even watching movies.

Further, it's easy for people to be opinionated about music because all the artists' names are very visible, and much easier to recognize than the names of most traditional artists, and sharing an entire song with someone else is often as simple as downloading it or finding it on YouTube. Knowledge about music is easy to come by, and so too are informed opinions.

There are so many hungry musicians out there looking to get into games at cut rates, and yet I keep hearing the same flaccid John Williams-inspired scores, uninspired breakbeats, and generic guitar solos.

The fact is, these days it's quite difficult to identify one game soundtrack from another, and it didn't used to be so. Every video game fan recognizes the Super Mario Bros. tunes, the stage music from Mega Man 2, the main theme of Monkey Island, or the sweeping tones of Road Rash. Why have we moved away from that?

Some Initial Caveats

Of course, it's not as if someone simply stood up and declared, "let's not have interesting music."

One reason people remember the soundtracks of those venerable old titles is because of repetition. As an industry we seem to have moved beyond punishing difficulty as the default level of challenge in order to accept more players, and rightly so, I think.

But part of the reason we remember these songs is because of what Jesse Harlin cautions you to avoid in Aural Fixation in the April issue of Game Developer magazine - user fatigue.

Back then, due to a combination of difficult levels that players are forced to restart, frequent replays, or simply small ROM sizes, we heard these songs over and over, and they burned themselves into our brainstems. And where repetition once carried the responsibility of providing replay value, multiplayer gaming now takes up that mantle.

Another reason may be that there's a lot more going on in games now. When Mario was just jumping on the heads of Goombas and breaking blocks, he could only perform two or three actions at a time, and everything was clearly represented visually. In contemporary games, like an FPS for example, players are required to focus on multiple actions simultaneously--running and aiming in 3D space, while also firing and scanning for cover or reloading.

It stands to reason that you want there to be as few distractions for the FPS player as possible. Music needs to be in the background in this scenario, if it's there at all.

Where's That Melody?

So rare is actual melody in games that when I heard the opening riff for Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, I was shocked - a real tune! It wasn't just a random guitar solo, someone had written a song for this game. Series like Resistance and Call of Duty are all good fun, but it's unlikely that you'd hear the music out of context and recognize it -- and to me, that feels like a failing.

A lot of music is licensed now, which could be a contributing factor, but if you consider a game like Fallout 3, which has licensed tracks from the days of yore, when you're out of range of the in-game radio, an atmospheric and entirely appropriate post-apocalyptic soundtrack kicks in, hammering home the desolate and lonely nature of the harsh environment.

This doesn't happen in nearly enough games. Music is so powerful and emotive that simply recreating an operatic chorus with the same notes you hear everywhere is a terrible waste of aural space.

I can hardly remember the themes of any American game titles from the last two console generations, even in cases where melody would be warranted. I recently played Peggle DS, which is very good fun, but the music literally sounds as though it came from a vintage porno, complete with fuzzed-out bass synth and the stereotypical wah pedal guitar.

Casual games, with their simple, bright graphics, have the design space to use melody and more dynamic themes, as Mario did, and yet by and large they don't. Try the Ookibloks advanced course video on YouTube as a counter example. The music is distinctive, and perfectly integrated into the casual nature of the gameplay.

Out Of Your Hands?

Games often use temp tracks as they come together, and developers can become quite attached to the sound. This leads to requests for the music to sound, essentially, like every movie trailer and cliche soundtrack everyone's ever heard, because that's what's often in the temp files.

People put those tracks there for a reason, obviously. A lot of people like the stuff everyone's already heard, so maybe what I'm asking is unreasonable.

But if you consider player responses, you'll often hear things about how great the graphics are, or how the environments are destructible -- but you hardly ever hear about how great the music is. That's because it's so often generic that it can't stand out as interesting. Too much "dramatic" music ruins the drama.

It is very telling that Halo and Gears of War sport two of the most iconic soundtracks of the current generation, considering each has only one or two recognizable themes or melodies--the rest of it is filler. These days, all it takes is a little effort to make the music sound like something, and you can stand out from the crowd.

Yes, We Can!

When I asked Game Developer's audio columnist Jesse Harlin about this phenomenon some time ago, he mentioned that distinctive music can be created by playing against convention. Mario's themes are memorable in part because who expects swing music in an action game?

People remember BioShock's licensed music because it was so counter to the norm. So maybe when you're placing those temp tracks into your early builds, try a little Afrobeat, or a Celtic reel, or some Norwegian black metal -- something different. It might yield some interesting results when creating the final tracks.

And isn't standing out what we all want our games to do?

Ultimately, it may simply come down to a lot of folks simply having generic taste, and that's not something you can change. Players most likely have generic taste as well. But there's so much opportunity here, that it seems as though whomever is dictating what music is going into the game should be a big music fan, even if that person is not the lead designer or producer.

Often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected. Many players love and remember the Katamari Damacy soundtrack -- and the reason is that the team trusted the composers to come up with something interesting and engaging, rather than simple filler. It takes a little more foresight, and just maybe a little more trust in your composer.

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