Is Video Game Music Headed in the Wrong Direction?

It is no great secret that videogames have come a long way in the past few years. No longer are they five minute diversions, but now are vast epics spanning across many hours. Videogame music has changed as well. The simple bleeps, bloops and zings of early videogames have been replaced with huge sweeping orchestral scores. And yet for all that change I can't help but fear that videogame music might be headed in the wrong direction.

For all the grand and ambitious music that's being written for games lately, much of it has, what I consider, a deficiency. A lot of it is trying to be like movie music. I know that composers want to flex their muscle and show just how capable they are and emulate their movie brethren. However, here is the problem: Videogames, no matter how much you want them to be, are NOT movies. Ergo they should not be treated as such musically.

In a movie you'll never be stuck in one scene for two hours because you decide you want to explore. Likewise you'll never spend 20-40 hours with a set of characters in a movie. Movies are not a user driven experience and can get away with having nebulous music that serves as pretty background noise. However, games are user driven and require more than just pretty background noise with a few good themes. Some videogame composers' eagerness to grow their music into movie soundtrack clones is driving VGM from being easily palatable to being forgettable.

Look at the recent disappointment of the FFXII OST. It was indeed large, and ambitious at points. But can anyone really remember anything more than a few bars of music from it? No. Would most people, even VGM fans, go out of their way to listen to it? Not really. The entire thing, though technically strong, was completely and utterly forgettable. Why is this? It's because a difference of paradigm.

Uematsu was very right in his likening videogames more to opera than movies. His use of strong, albeit simple, themes through out his OSTs made them instantly memorable and infinitely playable. I still remember the town tunes from FFI-VIII. Can the same be said about Soule, Sakimoto, Iwata, others?

Now don't let me be misunderstood in saying that forgettable is bad. But the fact is, if you're playing a game for 20+ hours you should be able to enjoy the background music a bit and not feel like it's some annoying background drone. Nor let it be said that I have something against technical music. Fact is my favorite VGM composers, Sugiyama and Hamauzu, are shining examples of how VGM can be both highly technical and enjoyable. Technical music doesn't have to sound bad to be good. Many forget this.

Videogame music has definitely grown up. But I fear that in its hurry to show how mature it has become it's losing that sense of fun and enjoyment that made it so intriguing and garnered so many fans. Don't get me wrong, I don't long for the days of simple eight note themes. It is a good thing that game music is maturing. But it should grow the right way, and expand on its strengths instead of making itself weak by trying to be something it's not.

11 comments on Is Video Game Music Headed in the Wrong Direction?

Hmmm this is an interesting

Hmmm this is an interesting topic to think about. I can see where you're coming from. You're absolutely right about the Final Fantasy 12 soundtrack in that it is so unmemorable. Although IMO the game itself is unmemorable, so the music is as well to me. I think part of the problem is that a lot of the big wig game composers like Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo and Yasunori Mitsuda have been stepping down or putting themselves in a smaller role for their projects. Uematsu and Kondo are now leaving the majority of the composing duties up to the young guns for the final fantasy and zelda series, and Mitsuda still does some game soundtracks but you hardly ever hear from him anymore.

I was reading something yesterday about film music and I said to myself 'hey that's a lot like video game music'. But you're right in that there are some definite differences and they shouldn't try to emulate each other. I think with film music the individual tracks play onto the audience's emotion for specific scenes, whereas video game music resonates on more of a personal level. And I think that's what video game music has been lacking lately. It's great to see VGM becoming more accepted as a legit art form though. It just needs to be pushed in the right direction.

Well I'm not entirely sure

Well I'm not entirely sure that the problem is that the old masters are stepping down. Don't get me wrong, definitely it has an impact. However there is new talent in the wings that are just as good or sometimes surpass the old talent, such as Hamauzu and Tanoika and others.

I really think it's a wanting to make games more like movies and such. Companies want their games to be big and epic and want them to compete against movies. Also there is that whole "new school" of composing lead by those such as Sakimoto and Soule who are more concerned which shuns away themes in favor of nebulous music.

Interesting little tidbit I

Interesting little tidbit I just ran into.

This organization called "Midem" is holding a conference in France discussing the future of video game and film music. I wonder any topics brought up in your article will be discussed there.

Funny thing... you made me

Funny thing... you made me think about this in a whole new light. Here's my opinion:

The Final Fantasy XII soundtrack is great to listen to sequentially (such as when you're doing the dishes or something), and it's great if you want to listen to tracks on cue. It would make great background music to a movie.

It's only if you try to use it as video game background music that it falls short. Some of the tracks work great for that, but a lot are like you said. Forgettable. Compare that to the 'Dwarven Village' theme from Secret of Mana that I've still got bouncing around in my head.

Update: Actually, come to

Update: Actually, come to think of it, the SNES has a lot of great VG music on it. That's really the way to do it. I particularly like

Super Mario RPG

Secret of Mana

Chrono Trigger

Tales of Phantasia

Lufia II - Rise of the Sinistrals

and Kirby Superstar.

I've noticed this as well. I

I've noticed this as well. I wasn't as awestuck by FFXII's score. I find myself from time to time humming the golden saucer theme from ffvii around work and loving every second of it. The one game from a long time ago that had an amazing soundtrack but was very unforgettable was Star Ocean. In fact, the entire star ocean series has had forgettable music, but it wasn't the same as the FFXII score. The music actually fit to me, and I was very pleased and never bored of it. I think that it really depends on the feel of the game. The real problem with the FFXII score is that it didn't fit. It was meant for another game at another time, and they just didn't compose it to work well with the game. Thats my view.

You have only just made me

You have only just made me think about it...i mean yeah, the cinematic kinda feel is good for like these recent top of the range graphics FMV's or cutscenes but i still think background music should be good enough to be memorable...hell the METROID background music is still in my head, i love it. but i would say that the Metroid prime games take on a very Film music feel...and the background music in HALO is filmy and yet superb!
well...thats what i think...

the worst example of terrible

the worst example of terrible video game music is the soundtrack of ff13

...meaning FFXIII's

...meaning FFXIII's soundtrack is one of the best examples of great video game music?

All kidding aside, what do you have against Masashi Hamauzu? He's a great composer.

Are you kidding me? The Music

Are you kidding me? The Music was great in that game!

I've had a lot of the themes stuck in my head and kept on replaying over and over again. In fact for that game, the only things I remember Is the world that it is set in (Scenery, backstory, and the overall flavour of the world) and More so the music, What really let me down was the mundane storyline and recycled characters with a dumbed down version of final fantasy where you spam the select button and the game does all the work for you!

Some of the pieces were really powerful and worked really well, agreeably there were quite a few that I had forgotten, But pieces such as Yaschias Massif, Hopes Theme,The Promise and Heck even Lightning's theme were all beautifully crafted...

arcana has amazing music.

arcana has amazing music.