On game music, and how I think it has lost much of its identity

I was looking at the past winners of the Spike VGAs Best Original Score award, and some of the nominees are downright baffling, while some of the exclusions are equally disappointing. I think Bastion absolutely deserved the award this year, though I also remember Portal 2's music being quite good.

For those who are interested, here are the past winners and nominees:

  • Bastion, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Portal 2
  • Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2
  • Halo 3: ODST, Assassin's Creed II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Fallout 3, Spore, LittleBigPlanet
  • BioShock, God of War II, Halo 3, Mass Effect
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bully, Electroplankton, Okami
  • We Love Katamari, Call of Duty 2, God of War, Indigo Prophecy, Perfect Dark Zero

I don't claim to have played all of those games, but man, the vast majority of those nominees have completely forgettable scores that I don't remember particularly enhancing the whole experience of playing the game. And BioShock won Best Original Score? How? I went back and played that game earlier this year, and the soundtrack is easily the least impressive component of an otherwise pretty great game. Not even a nomination for Super Mario Galaxy?

OK, I could argue all day about who should've won what, so I'll get to the point. This highlights a thought I've had for some time about game music. I feel it has lost any kind of distinct identity it might've once had. Sure, during its humble beginnings, game music was simplistic synthesized music being played directly off a sound chip, but I'm of the opinion that it gave composers a weird sort of freedom. They were writing pieces for a medium that didn't have any expectations. When arcades started out, game music was little more than brief jingles like a pinball machine might have, just to get your attention and be a unique signifier of a particular game. Then as time wore on, the hardware got better and those jingles expanded, and became some of the most enduring video game music to come out of the 80s and 90s, despite even the SNES/Genesis/Game Boy era containing songs that were still often on something like a 30-second loop.

The following generation was something of a transition period, and still contained some memorable musical scores. Then, by the time we reached the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, it seems most big budget games had now more or less made the transition into having an original score that just tries to be an orchestral Hollywood movie score, in the style of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and the like. Either that, or they had an all generic-instrumental-rock soundtrack. And that's largely how game music has remained. So I suppose my problem is an offshoot of the complaint that games are trying too hard to be interactive Hollywood movies. The point is, in terms of composition, instrumentation, and arrangement, game soundtracks tend to subscribe to some set standards based on music from other media, and I hardly even think of most recent game scores as "video game music" if someone asks me about games that have great music in them.

Occasionally, one of those scores makes a connection with me, but it's the exception, not the rule. Max Payne 1 and 2 give a huge amount of time to their one main theme, but it is incredibly good and suits the game well. However, it's the melancholy cello theme of the film noir movie that Max Payne is trying to be, and isn't useful for much beyond title screens and cutscenes. Similarly, the focus they give to the main themes in the Metal Gear Solid series works in its favour, but those themes are also very much a "here is the type of song you would play over the opening credits of a film" sort of affair.

And that highlights my issue with the scores of most modern games I've played. They seem to put most of their effort into a single main theme, as if they're Danny Elfman writing the Tim Burton theme song for Batman, and once that flagship song is polished to a shine, everything that follows is incidental, throwaway pieces. Recently, I don't find that I encounter as much quality in those tracks, the ones that should perfectly accentuate a particular story moment, capture the mood of a particular area, or suit a particular character just right.

I suppose my preference for the game music of yore may be a nostalgic yearning for chiptune instrumentation and musical stylings, and a trick of human memory, where due to the sheer repetition of some of those songs it becomes hard to forget them. But I can live with game music losing the particular sound and identity it had in its infancy, as long as there are still modern games that find a way to make a distinct game score that gives a stronger impact throughout the whole game. And thankfully, a select few do rise to that challenge.

Some meet that expectation of mine by creating a more ambient, synthesized score, like Metroid Prime or Portal 2, or Mass Effect, with this piece that plays while you survey the vastness of space, choosing the next area to explore:

Others do it by getting away with making a chiptune, 8-bit style score, like Super Meat Boy, or Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, with this piece that plays just after you've used your supernatural powers to undo someone's death and now eagerly await the critical information they might have:

And some do it by writing a score that switches between several different musical genres and styles, to emphasize the different locales and regions you travel through, and to accentuate key moments in the story. And on that note, I'll leave you with a piece from a score that does just that, from Bastion:

21 Comments
22 Comments
Posted by BisonHero

I was looking at the past winners of the Spike VGAs Best Original Score award, and some of the nominees are downright baffling, while some of the exclusions are equally disappointing. I think Bastion absolutely deserved the award this year, though I also remember Portal 2's music being quite good.

For those who are interested, here are the past winners and nominees:

  • Bastion, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Portal 2
  • Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2
  • Halo 3: ODST, Assassin's Creed II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Fallout 3, Spore, LittleBigPlanet
  • BioShock, God of War II, Halo 3, Mass Effect
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bully, Electroplankton, Okami
  • We Love Katamari, Call of Duty 2, God of War, Indigo Prophecy, Perfect Dark Zero

I don't claim to have played all of those games, but man, the vast majority of those nominees have completely forgettable scores that I don't remember particularly enhancing the whole experience of playing the game. And BioShock won Best Original Score? How? I went back and played that game earlier this year, and the soundtrack is easily the least impressive component of an otherwise pretty great game. Not even a nomination for Super Mario Galaxy?

OK, I could argue all day about who should've won what, so I'll get to the point. This highlights a thought I've had for some time about game music. I feel it has lost any kind of distinct identity it might've once had. Sure, during its humble beginnings, game music was simplistic synthesized music being played directly off a sound chip, but I'm of the opinion that it gave composers a weird sort of freedom. They were writing pieces for a medium that didn't have any expectations. When arcades started out, game music was little more than brief jingles like a pinball machine might have, just to get your attention and be a unique signifier of a particular game. Then as time wore on, the hardware got better and those jingles expanded, and became some of the most enduring video game music to come out of the 80s and 90s, despite even the SNES/Genesis/Game Boy era containing songs that were still often on something like a 30-second loop.

The following generation was something of a transition period, and still contained some memorable musical scores. Then, by the time we reached the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, it seems most big budget games had now more or less made the transition into having an original score that just tries to be an orchestral Hollywood movie score, in the style of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and the like. Either that, or they had an all generic-instrumental-rock soundtrack. And that's largely how game music has remained. So I suppose my problem is an offshoot of the complaint that games are trying too hard to be interactive Hollywood movies. The point is, in terms of composition, instrumentation, and arrangement, game soundtracks tend to subscribe to some set standards based on music from other media, and I hardly even think of most recent game scores as "video game music" if someone asks me about games that have great music in them.

Occasionally, one of those scores makes a connection with me, but it's the exception, not the rule. Max Payne 1 and 2 give a huge amount of time to their one main theme, but it is incredibly good and suits the game well. However, it's the melancholy cello theme of the film noir movie that Max Payne is trying to be, and isn't useful for much beyond title screens and cutscenes. Similarly, the focus they give to the main themes in the Metal Gear Solid series works in its favour, but those themes are also very much a "here is the type of song you would play over the opening credits of a film" sort of affair.

And that highlights my issue with the scores of most modern games I've played. They seem to put most of their effort into a single main theme, as if they're Danny Elfman writing the Tim Burton theme song for Batman, and once that flagship song is polished to a shine, everything that follows is incidental, throwaway pieces. Recently, I don't find that I encounter as much quality in those tracks, the ones that should perfectly accentuate a particular story moment, capture the mood of a particular area, or suit a particular character just right.

I suppose my preference for the game music of yore may be a nostalgic yearning for chiptune instrumentation and musical stylings, and a trick of human memory, where due to the sheer repetition of some of those songs it becomes hard to forget them. But I can live with game music losing the particular sound and identity it had in its infancy, as long as there are still modern games that find a way to make a distinct game score that gives a stronger impact throughout the whole game. And thankfully, a select few do rise to that challenge.

Some meet that expectation of mine by creating a more ambient, synthesized score, like Metroid Prime or Portal 2, or Mass Effect, with this piece that plays while you survey the vastness of space, choosing the next area to explore:

Others do it by getting away with making a chiptune, 8-bit style score, like Super Meat Boy, or Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, with this piece that plays just after you've used your supernatural powers to undo someone's death and now eagerly await the critical information they might have:

And some do it by writing a score that switches between several different musical genres and styles, to emphasize the different locales and regions you travel through, and to accentuate key moments in the story. And on that note, I'll leave you with a piece from a score that does just that, from Bastion:

Edited by Sooty

No fighting game nominees? Wow, that is criminal especially given how good the last few years has been for fighting games.

Posted by dekkadekkadekka

@Sooty said:

No fighting game nominees? Wow, that is criminal especially given how good the last few years has been for fighting games.

Guile's theme wins every award forever:

Posted by Sooty

@dekkadekkadekka: So good

Edited by NyxFe

Some games still have incredible soundtracks, like the aforementioned Bastion, as well as 2010's NieR. The fact it was not a contender last year is sickening.

I also like how the nominees are all essentially the big western releases, completely ignoring various japanese/other games with excellent sound design. Phoenix Wright games, Rhythm Tengoku, various JRPGs.

Posted by Harkat

I am a huge fan of the original Mass Effect's soundtrack, but I felt Mass Effect 2's music got very generic . Everything was so bombastic and in-your-face all the time, whereas Mass Effect one's OST had a distanced, trance-like vibe.

For reference:

Posted by McGhee
Edited by BisonHero

@Sooty said:

No fighting game nominees? Wow, that is criminal especially given how good the last few years has been for fighting games.

Yeah, I was aware that there were a few genres this blog post wouldn't address, because I don't play every type of game out there. Thanks for the info!

@NyxFe said:

I also like how the nominees are all essentially the big western releases, completely ignoring various japanese/other games with excellent sound design. Phoenix Wright games, Rhythm Tengoku, various JRPGs.

I noticed that too, and was equally disheartened by it. Apparently this is the VGA Advisory Council, which I'm sure Jeff can attest to. It's hard to believe that that list of gaming journalists and commentators somehow came up with those nominees for best original score, but I guess they can't all be Jeff, Gabe & Tycho from Penny Arcade, and Stephen Totilo. It's actually really bizarre that 2006 (the year where Oblivion won) was the last year to contain less mainstream nominees (Bully, Electroplankton, Okami), and then it's pretty much wall-to-wall big budget Western retail releases right up until this year when Bastion won.

But I guess that's what you get when it's an awards show based in America, in the same way that the Academy Awards mostly focus on Hollywood and other American-made films, and give a small fraction of their time to "foreign films".

Posted by ImmortalSaiyan

it seems to mostly be big budget western games that have highly produced but forgettable music. Last year gamespot awarded Red Dead Redemption best soundtrack largely because it sounded like a movie. Way to be backwards, guys.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

No nomination for Sonic Generations baffles me.

Posted by PeasantAbuse

The only time I remember a games music is when it's really simple and played constantly. Like Battlefield menu music, or stuff from the old Mario games.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Wait, BioShock had an original score? Weren't all the songs just 1950s era public domain stuff? Wasn't that the whole fucking point? And why no Radiant Historia nomination? Am I the only one who's played that?

Posted by Irvandus

I understand Bastion, Red Dead, MGS 4, and ODST (Go listen to it if you don't think so). I feel like video game music has grown and is different for whatever the video game is. Similar to how an original soundtrack to a movie is.

Edited by SlightConfuse

@Video_Game_King said:

And why no Radiant Historia nomination? Am I the only one who's played that?

no i played it but an JRPG at these awards is stretching it. Also im sure none of the judges played it

i feel like Videogame music has gotten better now.

Posted by GunstarRed

@Video_Game_King: Bioshock doesn't have that much music in it, maybe ten or so bits on the soundtrack, but what there is is pretty unique for a game. I think the music in Bioshock 1 and 2 is some of the best out there.

Posted by AckbarTheGreat

I actually really liked the music from ODST it was very dark and somber and really sold the feeling of loneliness and desperation. It was a nice change of pace from the usual triumphant space opera music the Halo series is known for.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@GunstarRed:

I'm not saying that the music is bad, but calling it original is certainly a stretch.

@slightconfuse:

You don't even have to play the game to listen to it. I'm pretty sure you can look it up on YouTube. Also, Tactics Ogre. Wish that was on there, too, but I'll continue being pissed at the judges some more.

Posted by SoldierG654342

I miss the days of loops. They helped give portions of a game individual personality.

Posted by Hargreaves93

This may be nostalgia getting the better of me but music like the ones I'm going to post can't be beaten in my opinion.

A great piano song and it really makes the game better.

So catchy and one of the best songs in the game

These are two of possibly the most impressive games of their respective generations and the music plays a big part into why they were so effective.

Posted by Sayishere

@Hargreaves93 said:

This may be nostalgia getting the better of me but music like the ones I'm going to post can't be beaten in my opinion.

A great piano song and it really makes the game better.

So catchy and one of the best songs in the game

These are two of possibly the most impressive games of their respective generations and the music plays a big part into why they were so effective.

Just listened to the orchestral version of Gerudo Valley on that cd you get with Skyward sword...so beautiful.

Edited by MikkaQ

You say they're all forgettable scores but I have played all those games, and I'd agree with almost all of those winners' choices. Some of those are my all-time favorites, like the Katamari soundtrack, the MGS soundtrack, the Halo 3 soundtrack, Oblivion had a great score from Jeremy Soule, etc.

I would agree Bioshock wasn't the best choice though. And probably between Bully and Oblivion, Bully should have won..

Anyway my point is video game soundtracks are only getting better now that they can afford real talent who know who to orchestrate a song properly.

Posted by fisk0

I think the Hollywood movie conventions are what's making many game soundtracks less and less interesting. As games have strived to become more like movies over the past 20 years, they have adopted cinematic conventions that really don't apply to the video game medium, like the Hollywood conventions for soundtracks, in which one major idea is that "the best music is the music you don't notice is there" in order to not distract the viewer. There is one major difference between movies and games though - games are interactive, movies are not, and movie scores are generally written to fit one particular linear course of events, something that obviously can't be adopted into most games. And when you're passively watching something instead of actively participating it's far easier to get distracted, I read a study a couple of years ago, which I sadly can't remember the name of, nor find through google-fu, that pretty much said that there's no need for the Hollywood convention in video game music, as the active player isn't as easily distracted by the music (there are of course exceptions, the music and sound effects shouldn't be too similar, i.e. keep overlapping over the same frequency ranges or have samples or sound cues in the music that sound close to anything you need to keep track of while playing the game).

Around 20 years ago most video game music was inspired by various bands and music genres the composers liked, rather than striving to sound "cinematic" - Chrono Trigger's soundtrack for example is heavily inspired by progressive rock like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and modern jazz, the same is true for many JRPG's, and Doom infamously used pretty blatant rip-offs of Slayer and Pantera, and other highly regarded soundtracks like the original Command & Conquer soundtrack and the music of the Persona games (particularly Persona 3 and 4) mainly consisted music in the vein of contemporary popular music, and to me it seems like the soundtracks receiving the highest praise today are also those who stray away from the cinematic conventions - the GTA games have been licensing popular music since GTA 3 (and before that they went the Persona/C&C route and had original music written very much in the style of or parodying the music that was popular at the time), Deus Ex 3 and Mass Effect both go for the late 70's/early 80's style of electronic music by Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, and the Jeremy Soule's Elder Scrolls soundtracks, while orchestral, generally stick to the conventions of classical music rather than movie soundtracks.