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Hey OCRemix,

I'm a sophomore in high school and I am conducting a year-long research paper. My teacher said, "make your topic about something that you're interested in." I love music, I love video games, and I love video game music. Not only that, I also thought that OCRemix would be a great place to conduct research / take a survey. I've been listening to the work on this site for about a year now and I respect every one of the artists here and I also value the opinions. My thesis thus far is this:

The dynamic contrast and overall quality of music in video games has been a slow decline, since programmers have been able to feature better graphics, deeper plotlines, and more content than was possible on older consoles.

I would really appreciate it if I could get some feedback on this topic. I already have someone helping me on writing help so I'm fine there. Do you agree with my thesis? Why or why not (if not, please tell me specific examples)? What are important games that I should talk about that aren't blatantly obvious (Zelda, Sonic, Mario, Kirby....)?

Thank you, I really appreciate it

Mathias

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Hmmm. An interesting thought.

If you want a game series that supports your thesis, the Mega Man series would be an excellent choice. The classic and X series have some of the best music in the music world, but the quality has slowly declined. The Zero and BN series had good music, but not great, and Star Force, Legends and ZX series have generally forgettable music.

Now, this does not mean that every track in those series is exactly like that. There are some classic and X songs that aren't very good, and there are some ZX tunes at least that are pretty sweet (look for Green Grass Gradation, one of my favorite tunes).

And I don't know if I agree that it has been declining in quality, mostly because composers nowadays have FAR more tools at their disposal. Also, a lot of music tracks nowadays are very ambiguous and ambient (listen to all of Portal 2's soundtrack. It's really very minimal) due to the lessened limitations on their tools.

Also, there are some GREAT indie game composers out there, like Danny B of Team Meat, who still make dang good music. You just have to look around a bit.

Good luck with your paper! :)

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I think there was a Extra Credits episode about the "decline" of VGM. It pretty much said that the reason VGM nowadays is forgettable is because it lacks a strong melody.

Anyway, I my opinions on your thesis is mixed; if you mean that the aural production has declined, then I would say you're wrong, mainly because of all of the tech there is now. But if you say that the overall aural experience has declined, I would agree. Ask anyone what the Mario theme song is, and they'll know. Then ask them a theme from a modern day game. They'll look at you like an idiot.

Good luck on the paper!

P.S I agree on the point of indie composers being good, but unfortunately it seems as though they're the exception rather than the rule.

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this is a really cool idea for a paper and i think it's great that you're researching something you're passionate about. that said, i don't mean to be a total jackass, but i am going to strongly disagree with your thesis. i understand where it's coming from, but i think it shows a bias for a very particular type of music without regard to actual quality. gaming music has evolved in a number of dramatic ways because gaming itself has evolved in a number of dramatic ways. the fact that a lot of modern game music "lacks a strong melody" does not immediately mean that the music is bad or of a lesser quality than the melodic music of older games. it's a different style of scoring for a different style of gameplay. catchy melodies do not make music inherently good (especially if they're misused), and a score doesn't have to be memorable in order for it to be an excellent score.

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I'm going to agree with ambinate, and also point out that many of the opinions you're going to get here have an inherent nostalgia bias. Zerothemaster mentioned the Mega Man series. His comments could be strictly about the changes in scoring style leading to a lack of melody (does 'forgettable' mean 'bad' or 'harder to remember because of the lack of melody? Both? To what degree?). Or, they could be due to the fact that he may have played the earlier Mega Man games first, as a kid, and have fonder memories of them, and the music, because of the games themselves.

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@Kanthos: Both. :P As I said, there's some good stuff there, but it's not nearly as memorable as the early stuff. And that's kind of the key thing. How memorable is the song? That's probably the best way to go about judging the songs. Sure, modern stuff is far better in a compositional way, but it's not nearly as memorable as the older songs, with some exceptions. There will always be exceptions :P

(PS I actually came in on the Battle Network series. I've never played the Classic or X series :P)

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Something worth noting is the difference between how Western games and Japanese games handle music. Western games tend to go for more low-key ambient soundtracks that don't dominate the action. Japanese games on the other hand tend to go for the loud melodic stuff. Since Japanese games are on the decline and Western games are king more game soundtracks are the low-key stuff.

Personally, I think the Mega Man Zero and ZX soundtracks are just as good as the Mega Man OST's. Other newer games with good OST's include BlazBlue, Radiant Historia, and Parasite Eve The 3rd Birthday, and The World Ends With You. I'm not sure I agree with your thesis honestly. But then, I've never been head over heels in love with Zelda or Mario (MARIO ESPECIALLY)'s music.

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And that's kind of the key thing. How memorable is the song? That's probably the best way to go about judging the songs. Sure, modern stuff is far better in a compositional way, but it's not nearly as memorable as the older songs, with some exceptions. There will always be exceptions :P

this is where the nostalgia bias comes in, i think (and i don't mean that as an insult - it's just a preference thing). other than the fact that we grew up listening to this stuff and remember it really well, why is memorability the key factor in judging video game music of any era? higher on the priority list than memorability, i think, is effectiveness as accompaniment to the actual game. a memorable score that's not doing a good job of supporting the gameplay or story is a lot worse than an unmemorable score that supports the gameplay/story really well.

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Maybe changing my mind from my first post, but it seems to me that the quality of "good" VGM is that it fits the game and the scene well. Obviously if the Green Hill theme was in a game like Bioshock, then it doesn't do it's job as a supplement to the video game itself. Therefore, one could consider it "bad." HOWEVER, this all depends on whether we're analyzing these as compliments to a video game or as individual pieces of music themselves. In the latter case, you could argue that many modern day songs are grand in production, but lack a compositional aspect that makes them truly great and memorable. It doesn't have to be catchy per se, but if you forget a piece of music shortly after hearing it, then it must be lacking in some regard. It is the good pieces that you remember and want to hear again.

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Oftentimes, strong soundtracks tie musical motifs to in-game themes. This is what gives the music its memorability and strength. Modern soundtracks do sometimes eschew the use of motifs for a more grandiose feel, or simply for a set of standalone songs; while these techniques may be simpler, they don't always lead the relative emotional hooks gained through the solid use of motifs.

Not saying modern soundtracks are worse or better, but it's worth noting that, as everyone's saying, nostalgia will act as inherent sample bias; your thesis is already pretty skewed towards a specific conclusion. Try to find sources among professional composers, if you can, as well as within other game communities, especially ones that aren't focused on music. Also try to tweak the thesis, and approach the paper from a neutral direction. Let your findings direct the paper's tone, not the other way around!

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The aforementioned Extra Credits episode.

I don't agree that the decline is due to "better graphics, deeper plotlines, and more content". That would all be conducive to better music, really, and while music hasn't developed to the same extent as graphics, we've still seen loads and loads of improvements in sound and music.

It's really just a shift in aesthetics (Extra Credits has an episode about aesthetics in graphics, too), where we've gone from the simplicity of chip music to music that support a more movie-like experience. Turn off sound and voice in Left 4 Dead and just listen to the music. It's an experience, and it's changing depending on what happens in the game. I mean, it's not like real orchestras can't play melodic stuff, or that adaptive music systems can't use melodic content. it's just that for most games, the experience doesn't call for strong melodies.

Whether a more movie-like experience is a good thing or not is another matter, tho. But we've got tons of great indie games (that tend not to offer movie-like experiences) that give melodies a far greater emphasis. Aquaria has one of my favorite soundtracks, and it's recent and rich in melodies.

Then there's nostalgia and selective memory. How many games with terrible music do you remember? How many games do you remember because of the music? how many old games do you remember just because you've heard a remix or two? Palpable's Pilotwings remix fired up my memory for that particular source, and the same thing happens all the time with other songs you haven't heard in ages.

So there's some of my thoughts. I could write for hours about this, so I'm gonna stop here before I've spent a day on a single post here. :D

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I don't agree that the decline is due to "better graphics, deeper plotlines, and more content". That would all be conducive to better music, really, and while music hasn't developed to the same extent as graphics, we've still seen loads and loads of improvements in sound and music.

Game development shops often work in terms of CPU budgets: percentages of time that the CPU of the game system spends doing various tasks. We're well past the point where anyone cares about the CPU load involved in playing a piece of music (the only exception I can think of being music that's part of the scene and needs sound treatment to affect its perceived placement and so on, for example, the radio that's sitting on a table in Portal 2; as you move around the room, that should get quieter. The audio being played would have to go through the audio pipeline to get the right perceived placement, so that would be slower).

Basically, once we hit the point where pre-recorded music could be played back, without relying on the sound chips on your computer or console, all limits on music were gone, and all of that is completely independent of graphics processing, plotlines, content, etc. How good the music is depends on the skill of the composing team, and, for the biggest of big-budget triple A titles, whether there are funds to record an orchestra.

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You can't immagine how much I appreciate all of this feedback! I have taken all of your ideas into account and will reformulate my thesis (I was going to do that soon anyways, but now that I have a more guided and informed direction, it will be much easier). I was worried that I'd be laughed out of here with this idea, but it's nice to see that you've taken such a vested interest in helping me out.

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Basically, once we hit the point where pre-recorded music could be played back, without relying on the sound chips on your computer or console, all limits on music were gone, and all of that is completely independent of graphics processing, plotlines, content, etc. How good the music is depends on the skill of the composing team, and, for the biggest of big-budget triple A titles, whether there are funds to record an orchestra.

Excepting adaptive music and all the cpu work and implementation involved in that, of course. Adaptive music requires a different approach than linear music, and this approach probably eschews longer melodies in favor of more easily crossfaded soundscapes and rhythms.

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Here's a little longer post about my view of the "decline" of video game music:

Speaking technically, we can't say video game music is declining. Same like every other aspect of the game is improving, so is the music. But the problem isn't really in it's improvement, it's the direction towards which it is improving to. Today's big budget games' soundtracks are all going for the same "epic" feeling. Arrangement-wise, it's awesomely composed, it is played by experienced musicians, ensembles and what not.

So what's wrong with that? Well, as much as I love that kind of music, having the same (genre-wise) stuff in every game can get pretty monotonous. And in that monotony, you don't notice an occasional gem, and therefore you won't consider the music as good as all those masterpieces on for example the SNES. For example: I played FF 12 before I played FF 5, and while battling Gilgamesh in 12 I noticed some cool tune playing in the background, the orchestral version of "Battle on the big bridge", but I quickly forgot it. Later when I played 5, and battled against Gilgamesh again, the tune immediately stuck in my head but I didn't even notice it was the same (well, with different arrangement), I only realized it later after searching for it on youtube.

So basically what I'm saying is that today's mainstream VGM is not lacking the melody, but the musical diversity of old games' music. True that there are always some new games with soundtracks that don't comply to that "rule", but those are mostly not some big budget games that everyone in the whole world has played, and therefore don't get the recognition, unlike old games where a hit game was sure to have a diverse and melodic soundtrack, mostly because of technical limitations.

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