By BisonHero 22 Comments
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: