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"Has Video Game Music Lost Its Way?"


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When someone asks you “what’s the best piece of video game music you can think of?”, what do you say? The theme from Super Mario Brothers? Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s Chemical Plant Zone? Gruntilda’s Lair from Banjo-Kazooie? But would you ever think of a game like Mass Effect, Resident Evil or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell? Probably not. Some of the most legendary gaming chords to be strummed have emerged from those retro games, those pixelated classics that gamers love playing, those beeping symphonies that have since been remixed dozens of times by avid online musicians. But why is that? Why do we think of those aged classics when we think of fantastic music in video games? The answer is pretty simple: gaming music has taken an unfortunate nosedive in quality since then. It’s been drained of creativity and has simply become a faceless score behind an action-packed visual foreground.

Some of the most memorable video game themes appeared during the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming. During the age of the NES, gamers were given such musical gems like “Dr. Wily’s Theme” from Mega Man 2, “Brinstar Theme” from the original Metroid, and the now iconic Super Mario Bros. theme. The Genesis and Super Nintendo followed suit with 16-bit legends in “Guile’s Theme” in Street Fighter II and the classic “Green Hill Zone” theme in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Even handhelds were getting respectable representation in gaming music like the infectious Tetris theme on Game Boy. The Playstation and Nintendo 64 brought us gems like “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII and “Bob-bomb Battlefield” with Super Mario 64. Game music’s catchiness during that age masked its steady complexity. More and more instruments were appearing in game music (like the multi-instrument gem of the Banjo-Kazooie theme), but in the case of games like Final Fantasy VII, games were becoming cinematic and epic, with their musical compositions following suit.

Upon the sixth generation’s debut, however, game music was becoming cinematic to the point of irrelevancy. The compositions were becoming more and more layered, more and more epic. The bombastic symphonies of Shadow of the Colossus, the J-pop arias of Kingdom Hearts, and choral psalms of Halo: Combat Evolved were certainly wonderful themes. Halo specifically demonstrated music that’s become iconic with its series and memorable to any passing fan. But while these examples are truly wonderful performances, ignore them for a second. In the big picture, what exactly were we getting? The music during the sixth gen was well-produced, but was it memorable? As stated before, there were a select group of musical pieces implemented during the sixth generation of consoles that could stand just as tall as their predecessors. However, this shift with more advanced tech and a bigger scope sucked away a great deal of creativity and memorability of music in gaming.

The seventh generation followed this path as well. Games became bigger and more cinematic, and the music clearly suffered because of it. Games like Uncharted and God of War, for all their gameplay polish, demonstrated barely any effort in making themes that people would remember in games. The songs were so big and so boldly produced that they could rival the triumphant scores of mainstream film. But they didn’t need to do that. There’s been a recent argument in the industry about games trying too hard to be movies, and the music is a real example of why this has become so much of an issue. AAA titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield have barely any personality in their music. It’s enormously produced, but undeniably forgettable. The generic drums and brass scores are devoid of placement or proper integration to the game; there’s simply nothing worthy of note.

In 2005, Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico debuted Video Games Live, an orchestral performance of a number of musical pieces from various video games. The gambit ran from age-old classics like Super Mario Bros. to more modern games like Tomb Raider, World of Warcraft and…Headhunter? Need for Speed: Undercover? Afrika? While I won’t go after why the terrible Advent Rising is in the setlist (Tallarico himself composed the music for that game, so…yeah), looking at the different games chosen for orchestral tribute in Video Games Live shows us that music in games has steadily been losing its soul. These are the compositions that are supposedly representing the musical record for modern gaming. If you can distinguish between the themes for Civilization IV and End of Nations, you deserve a medal. We have the staples, the games that appeared during the 80’s and 90’s that anyone could remember. Even if you’ve never played a Mario game, you probably know at least a bit of its theme. But looking at series like Medal of Honor, Mass Effect and various Tom Clancy games, it’s clear that the formula for making quality gaming music has shifted. It’s all about cinematic boom instead of quaint memorability. These days, it’s all about being bigger, not about being better.

But despite AAA titles displaying their lax approach to music, there have been a number of notable musical gems in contemporary gaming, mostly from smaller projects and independently organized developers. For example, Portal’s “Still Alive” remains a cornerstone in modern gaming music, a quirky, snarky little ditty that’s just as goofy and playful as the game’s humor demonstrates. Jonathan Coulton’s composition has been synonymous with the game itself not just because the song was catchy, but because it was full of personality. It was a labor of love to the Portal universe, making it a perfect fit for the game’s vibe. “Want You Gone” from Portal 2 followed the similar notion, filled to the brim with personality and clear attention to musical vivaciousness. It certainly was catchy, but you can tell that it was specifically made for Portal. “Still Alive” was a smart creation because you could identify it. It had substantiality. It had an immediately notable essence that automatically makes you think “Portal.”

But you can’t talk about modern gaming music without talking about Journey. Composed by Austin Wintory, Journey’s music was the only game soundtrack to be ever nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. While this is certainly a triumph for Wintory and trust me, Journey’s music is certainly well-produced, why was it nominated for that Grammy? Did the Grammy committee use their understanding of video games to determine that nomination? Was it because the music in Journey was purely representative of the game? Was it memorable? It’s very easy to praise Wintory’s nomination as gaming finally being recognized as an artistic equal to film and television, but when you set Journey’s music alongside the other nominees like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Hugo, are there distinctive differences? Is there an identity in this music, one that can be tracked to its source within an instant? Journey’s situation really is an odd case. The music is incredibly produced and sounds great, but that spark of unique identity is harder to find than more legendary musical compositions. While it doesn’t suffer from the chronic redundancy of other modern games, Journey simply can’t hold a candle when it comes to true placement and purpose. To the mainstream, Journey’s music is representative of the best music the gaming world has ever made, and that’s a serious problem.

With games becoming more and more like cinema, there’s an urge to constantly mimic it. It’s like designing a giant robot to fight another giant robot. But in challenging cinematic music in that way, it’s mechanical. It’s artificial. It’s another bot on the assembly line. There’s nothing memorable about it. The musical moments that have remained the most iconic are the ones that ooze charm and creativity. Super Mario Bros.’ theme, “Green Hill Zone” and “Gruntilda’s Lair” are some of the first things gamers think about when it comes to top-tier gaming music because they were 100% built with the game in mind. They have a placement that’s refined and thought-out, while other AAA titles are just random concertos without any consideration for the game itself. If anything, Portal was an example that game musicians can make something memorable without relying on booming percussion and triumphant brass chords. It showed that charm and personality will help people remember you, not sheer scope.

Will we ever have a modern gaming soundtrack that can rival the timelessness of Mega Man 2, Sonic the Hedgehog or Banjo-Kazooie? Maybe, but it’ll take much more than a couple chamber orchestras to make it happen.

The piece by Alex Carlson mentioned Journey as being a poor representation of modern game music, implying that a failure with it was the soundtrack not having the same character of old-school video game music, e.g. strong hooks. Couldn't disagree more, given that Journey, much like Super Mario World for example, was a soundtrack that used variations of a common motif pretty often.

@konec0 on Twitter mentioned that the article had a large nostalgia bias toward older material, which was the initial impression I had as well. They also mentioned that much of today's game music is meant to serve a more immersive role, and felt it was wrong to judge it without taking the purpose it serves into account, which was another good point.

Just as classic video games had a lot of unmemorable music, so do modern games. But there are plenty of titles with strong, memorable music in the last 15 years or so, not just Halo, Portal, Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus and Bastion, but Katamari Damacy, PaRappa the Rapper, Super Meat Boy, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Perfect Dark, Shenmue, Metal Gear Solid, Metroid Prime, Okami, Phantasy Star Online, Ragnarök Online, Viva Piñata, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, Guilty Gear, ChuChu Rocket!, Breath of Fire IV, Capcom vs. SNK, SaGa Frontier 2, LocoRoco, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, and more stuff I either don't recall or just haven't heard of.

It's more difficult for any game music to gain recognition with so many more games out now, as well as other forms of entertainment to pay attention to, but I don't believe that needs to be held against modern game music.

Anyway, just sharing some thoughts. What did you think about this article? Debate away!

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Some of the most memorable video game themes appeared when music was at least half of the experience of the whole game and much was left up to the player's imagination. The sound of a character's voice, some unexplained holes in a game's plot, what the level to the right of the character looked like. Players used to have to think more when they played a game because there were far fewer elements. Now that everything is being handed to them the music is getting pushed back just as it happened to cinema.

While I agree with his points on Mass Effect (sorry BGC but I don't recognize any character themes)Medal of Honor and Tom Clancy games, I have to question why he thinks "better" is more memorable. To this article "better" is Pop-ier sounding apparently. The art of videogames is in the combination of sight, sound and interaction. If there is so much going on that a poppy sounding tune from Masato Nakamura would be distracting to the player then why would it be written for it? I may not recognize anything from Mass Effect's OST other than a few short works that played when there was nothing else happening... the ship flying out of a hangar, I think I remember that one. But I don't think I would enjoy anything more than that as Mass Effect was still my favorite trilogy of this generation.

Mentioning Shenmue was a great example as that game was really the start of the AAA game, player pandering, and tons of voice work. But there really wasn't that much going on in the game but long periods of walking with little ambient sound. No NPC's having conversations with other NPC's. Certainly no explosions or gunshots. So the music was there to fill a huge void. It had to be more than your generic sounding filmscore.

While it is disappointing that music is taking a back seat to the entire experience in some ways, music is coming back in importance in indie games where limitations are once again forced on developers, players must rely more on their imagination and music is a much bigger part of the whole experience.

One thing I really wish this article would have addressed is why "Classic Sonic" music from Generations meant "Dance Sonic"?? What sense does that make?! How is that classic?! And why are people doing "Classic Sonic" remixes all over youtube?!

Somewhere Nakamura must be ragin'...

"You mean I lost my job to Michael Jackson's sound team and now this?!"


Edited by Garpocalypse
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The old music was inherently more interesting since the limited amount of polyphony pushed composers into a writing style which is very uncommon in modern western-based music: counterpoint. The people who made the music were generally also music nerds who were into stuff like progressive rock, Tangerine Dream, Vince DiCola etc.

The move towards cinematic scores hasn't been helped by the fact that movie music in itself has become much more dull and conformist than it used to be. Everything nowadays is a set of nondescript stacatto strings. This is also tied in to the extreme inferiority complex gaming culture suffers from when comparing itself to movies, which bothers me to no end.

There was also much more regional variety in the past, both for the games themselves and their music. You could generally tell if something was Japanese, European or American. In some cases you could even tell if the games came from a specific region in Europe or the US. Now the European and American game development cultures have merged into this single blob which you can't tell apart from eachother. Japan retains its quirks but it is also much more isolated so we don't get as much of it.

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It has definitely become less interesting. There are exceptions, but it's objectively harder to become enthused about cinematic underscore than olde timey melody driven songs. I don't think it has to be this way. Soundtracks like Kings Bounty the Legend are lush orchestral tracks, but have memorable melodies. I would say the trend has become more like forgettable TV scores even more than film.

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Oh no he di'int just badmouth Mass Effect's music! Time to get my shankin' knife!

Knee-jerk response to Mass Effect being mentioned as bad music aside, I think he's generally correct to a point. Yes, game music in the modern era has lost a lot of its focus on multiple melodies a la Uematsu and Mitsuda, but that doesn't mean it's inherently worse. Yes, games like Battlefield, CoD, Tom Clancy, and their ilk don't have particularly memorable tunes, but then again a goodly amount of the players of those games don't even play the story campaigns, and - last I checked - the MP doesn't play music, so the need for good music isn't necessarily there as strongly. Some game genres, like sports games, have never truly bothered with great music anyway.

It's important to note that most AAA games aren't necessarily writing music for just one game, either, and that many - like, as he mentioned, Halo - concern themselves more with writing music that can be recognizably identified as "Halo" across every installment of the franchise rather than as "that one map in Halo 2 where Master Chief did all the sniping and his friend died" (I've never played Halo, it's a made up example) the way that Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger music can be. That's part of why I take offense at him lumping Mass Effect in there, because yes, I may not be able to identify where, exactly, 50% of ME music occurs in the story, but you can play 95% of the soundtrack to me and I'll be able to peg it as Mass Effect. And there are certain tracks off of it that I'll always be able to recognize, like Suicide Mission from ME2 and the galaxy map theme.

Plus, just because games don't concern themselves as strongly with strong locale/character themes, doesn't necessarily mean they're bad. I mean, hell, I'm an old-music lover more than the modern stuff, but you can't look at Bastion, To The Moon or FTL and tell me those have bad soundtracks. Are they vastly different from Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy and Sonic in style? Yes. Does that make them bad? Heck no.

The old music was inherently more interesting since the limited amount of polyphony pushed composers into a writing style which is very uncommon in modern western-based music: counterpoint. The people who made the music were generally also music nerds who were into stuff like progressive rock, Tangerine Dream, Vince DiCola etc.

This, and I think it's also important to recall that music - particularly in RPGs, but in other games as well - also used to carry a much, much heavier part of the burden of storytelling than it used to, back before the days of 1,000,000,000,000 pixel high def photorealism with real physics movie games. Game designers had to communicate more about the environment, the characters, and what was happening in the story (if there was a story) through music. One of my favorite examples is Descent: Destination Saturn. You really don't get a whole lot of story in that game - maybe a five-page intro at the beginning and another five pages' worth of "transmissions" throughout the rest of the game. It falls to the music to set the atmosphere, create tension, inform you about the environment, and it accomplishes it beautifully.

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Composed by Austin Wintory, Journey’s music was the only game soundtrack to be ever nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media

Wasn't Christopher Tin nominated for this too? And won? Or it might have just been for one song so maybe not.

Either way, I can't disagree more with this.

But while these examples are truly wonderful performances, ignore them for a second. In the big picture, what exactly were we getting? The music during the sixth gen was well-produced, but was it memorable?

Yes it was. A lot of stuff wasn't memorable for it's catchy tunes, mind you, but the beautiful thing about music is that it doesn't always have to be a catchy j-pop melody or a few good sounding chords to stick with you. It's music. There are absolutely so many things you can do with it and you'll always find people who love it.

I still use the original World of Warcraft example as an argument for this. It's all opinion of course, but that soundtrack, with pieces like

, tops out as one of my favorite video game soundtracks ever.

It does the only thing that video game music ever should have to do, fit in with the video game.

I hate the argument that the old console limitations use forced old composers to be more "creative".

Ok, with melody and chord writing I guess they had to make catchy tunes because trying anything else would make no sense behind most of those old games.

But limitations at the end of the day are limitations. I'm glad composers got to grow into stuff like Super Metroid, Halo, and WoW. Ironically more hardware capabilities actually allows the composers to be more creative, because they pretty much take whatever is in their head and put it in the game.

Saying that, there is still a place for catchy, "memorable" music now. Just as a completely obscure example, but it's on my iTunes playing right now so why not, this japanese visual novels music:

It's has a nice melody yes, just like an old game would, but the most important thing it does besides reaching the "catchiness quota" that people put on game music now-a-days is that it actually fits behind the video game. That's what matters at the end of the day.

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The argument surround console limitations definitely holds a lot of water. I dislike the "catchy" argument because it's such an arbritary term and almost no one asks the question why it is percieved as catchy and how they went about doing that.

If you take the time to analyze a lot of the typical Capcom and Konami NES music it will suddenly make a lot of sense. They had 3 tonal channels to work with. And to make a typical modern chord which only serves as a way to harmonize other things, you usually use 3 or more tones from that instrument so it's obviously not going to work out if you have to devote all 3 of your channels to just that one function. So instead you have to emphasize how the movement of the intervals between these 3 tones in a more melodic manner and have them work more independently.

There's a lot of modulation going on between the two main pulse channels in the sense that one of them is pretty much constantly switching jobs. Sometimes it will just harmonize the lead or play some arpeggios, sometimes it will be a more complex countermelody, and sometimes it will be a faked echo to help accentuate the lead more. All of this helps create a lot of contrast in the arrangement. It's pretty much just the triangle channel which is used mostly like how a modern bass section is, but even that one will often wander away from the root note for some specific notes on the lead(s) to help create a quick "chord" with them which is what often happens in counterpoint-based music.

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There are still some bright spots, but in the big picture, yes game music is not as strong as it used to be. I think it's a gross oversimplification to say that it is because game composers try to be cinematic however, it also has to do with voice acting becoming more prominent, directors wanting the loopy nature of game music disguised, polyphony and sound limitations being removed...and probably many other factors that I haven't considered even. There's no rule that says cinematic music can't be interesting, I think most of us would agree that John Williams has made some pretty good film scores

I'd also disagree that it boils down to catchyness, while that is a product of more melodic emphasis, what I really feel like listening to a lot of modern game and Zimmer-clone film music is that it lacks feeling. A lot of it is very well produced and is aesthetically pleasing but it just doesn't evoke the same emotional response, as consistently at least

Edited by liquid wind
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I strongly disagree that quality is in ANY WAY getting worse. Just because music isn't limited to 4 voices and overly catchy doesn't mean it is worse at all. If anything, that means it is better.

Now, for anyone who doesn't listen to modern OSTs, here's some personal highlights from recent games:

Ni No Kuni -

Remember Me -

Call of Duty: Ghosts -

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag -

Devil May Cry -

BioShock Infinite - nuff said

Killzone Shadow Fall - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_l_Wo0EJRU

Lightning Returns FF13 -

Beyond Two Souls -

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Major titles may be declining in musical quality, but I don't think the same can be said for video game music as a whole. I mean, have you heard some of the stuff coming out of indie gaming these days?

Fair point, the distinction should be made. Bastion, Frozen Synapse, Dustforce, Neotokyo, and many more, some great stuff there. It's still worth calling attention to the major players in the industry missing the ball however-I don't totally agree with the contents of this article(I thought Journey's soundtrack was pretty good from what I heard of it, haven't played it yet)-but I do like for the issue to be discussed because I have had similar thoughts, the bigger developers could be doing better than what the current trend is

Edited by liquid wind
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The argument surround console limitations definitely holds a lot of water. I dislike the "catchy" argument because it's such an arbritary term and almost no one asks the question why it is percieved as catchy and how they went about doing that.

Yep. Catchiness is NOT limited to melodic contour. Rhythmic interest is easily another example of catchiness.

And I think it's a coincidence that the examples the writer picked were not memorable to him. Indie games these days have quite creative soundtracks. Globulous and Dungeonmans come to mind.

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I think it boils down to taste. Modern gaming music tends to be more atmospheric and subtle. Old-school gaming music tends to be pronounced, melodic, and catchy. This is not always the case, but the tendencies are there for anyone with discerning ears. I think it's good, but I still get chills when I dive into the water playing Mega Man 2 in Bubbleman's stage. Nothing current does that for me to that degree. I like older tunes more, but I think a lot of current music is really good (and fitting for the games), and there are modern artists like Jake Kaufman who carry the old-school spirit.

Plus David Wise is still kicking ass, so it's not all bad.

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I think it's funny video games are still aspiring to Hollywood, in a time of declining interest and innovation in AAA productions. Now's the chance to break away from that and become the new leading entertainment industry, and we get.. massive, forgettable scores.

That said, the guy seems to narrowly define the appeal of game music. Now that we have the technical option of putting any type of music in games, why wouldn't we? People are going to expand styles and not just rely on strong melodies.

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Catchy does not automatically equal memorable.

Halo: Combat Evolved was memorable. Skyrim was certainly memorable. Being catchy can contribute to being memorable, but if you want someone to remember your music and think of it right when you mention the game, simply being catchy isn't going to cut it. Whether it's the instrumentation, the tempos, the rhythms, or anything else, something needs to stand out. Catchiness can't carry a piece of music to the Pantheon of gaming music. Something else has to. That's why music from Sonic, Banjo-Kazooie and Assassin's Creed are all so good; it's not just catchy. It's layered. There's a lot of creativity in presenting itself.

Every single genre of music has something worth offering, even pop music. Yeah, I said it. As a fan of progressive rock and progressive metal, I know that complexity can give music a lot of appeal, but that doesn't mean that I automatically hate pop music.

And that's definitely a problem that I see with modern gaming music: they denounce that pop appeal. Should they always use it? Absolutely not, because having a catchy theme would be ridiculous in a game like Ico. But why does everyone hate pop music these days? Is it because it's played on the radio so they're tired of hearing it all the time? Of course there are crappy songs played all the time, but there are also some great ones.

Hate the song, not the genre.

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I dunno... nearly everything Brandon just posted (the best examples of modern gaming probably) just sounds like nice orchestrated sweeps but no catching melody or anything to really remember. AssCreed 4 is close to having a melody... and DmC oh my god that sounds terrible.. I was looking forward to playing that one when I get around to it but I hope the whole game doesn't sound like that.

I just beat Beyond Two Souls for example, and I couldn't tell you any of its music. It was nice sounding for the situations, but I wouldn't remember it if someone played it. It was just there, almost hidden. I definitely have no interest in its soundtrack. (and I grab soundtracks from nearly every game I like). I've also played and beaten Bioshock Infinite... nuff said? I don't remember any of its music. Maybe that one choir/hymn thing at the beginning. If I had to recall, probably a lot of forgettable orchestrated sweeps, and one terrible corny singing duo part I want to forget. The only memorable parts are the cover remixes of music into different eras, but that wasn't as memorable as say Fallout 3 / Bioshock 1's flat out licensed music (even if it was more creative, the covers were used too sparingly). I'm still very angry with Infinite so I could be mentally blocking it, who knows

Outside some awesome indie stuff and some of Nintendo's recent outings, the last game I personally remember having a super strong and memorable soundtrack (outside of your average jrpg) was Shadow of the Colossus. That games music was amazing. We don't have anything like that last generation that I know of. (Please someone prove me wrong)

Edited by Crowbar Man
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