Examining videogames in a particularly anal kind of way, nearly all of them are flawed. A lot of Developers work extremely hard to suspend your disbelief; make you forget that you’re sitting in front of a television for a moment – but then the player can be all too easily shaken out of this reverie by a character trapped in some scenery, or a lengthy loading screen that exposes the seams. But there are a few special exceptions that manage to find a rhythm, where a world and its mechanics are so well realised that the ‘gamey’ elements are wrestled to the ground by raw immersion – and then you’re drooling at your television, too engrossed to notice.
A glittering example of this is the PlayStation classic Final Fantasy VII. I have always found it odd that the ‘oooh I hit you, now you hit me!’ random battles, where being it is entirely plausible to summon a galactic superbeing and instruct it to blast a city-scale crater into the surface of the earth for the sole reason of killing an aggressive radish, doesn’t sit at odds with the engaging storytelling and characters. The quirks ultimately do not matter, because of the sense of place created by a meticulously crafted world and achingly beautiful soundtrack.
I don’t believe for one second that Final Fantasy VII would have been half the game it became in the hearts and minds of gamers without its dark, incidental music – Nobuo Uematsu’s compositions connected with, and told its story better than the poorly translated script ever could. (Spoiler alert!) When mummy’s boy Sephiroth impales and kills poor Aerith with his ridiculous katana, it wasn’t the wonky cinematics that took me aback, but the melodic, wistful theme that kicked in at just the right/worst moment. Damn…
Imagine Silent Hill 1-3 without the chilling mandolin and pounding synthesisers. The vocals and acoustic work that would spring up in key moments elevated Team Silent’s game a class above its rival survival horror contemporaries. Silent Hill drips in a discordant, sexy, uncomfortable ambience, that envelops Silent Hill in a mood and fear that is unique
Music is a powerful nostalgic tool, and an warm way of reminiscing on a good ol’ game played way back when, without actually playing it again and potentially ruining great memories, because the game turns out to be not as good as you remember it by modern standards. Music in gaming is kind of a big deal to me, and it should be to you, too, and here are a few reasons why:
Super Mario Bros. – Ground Theme (Koji Kondo)
This addictive, maddening 8-bit number is arguably the most recognisable ditty in gaming. It’s impossible to resist every note burrowing into your skull and never, ever leaving you; this theme is pure, unadulterated happiness and the most devious earworm of all time (cry some more, Beyoncé ). It’s remarkable what artists like Koji Kondo could evoke with such limited hardware as the NES.
Metal Gear Solid 1-2 theme (Harry Gregson-Williams, Tappy Iwase)
Renowned Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams working on Metal Gear Solid 2 was big news back in 2001, and a feather in the cap for people defending gaming as a serious artistic platform. Harry took the main theme from MGS1 and produced an absolute powerhouse for its sequel. Everything about this theme screams heroic, patriotism and a resolve to do whatever it damn well takes to complete the mission. Not just a theme, but an anthem.
Metroid Prime – Phendrana Drifts (Kenji Yamamoto)
So, you’ve exhausted an hour wandering through Magmoor Caverns – the sheer heat fizzing from the spilling lava steaming up Samus’ visor, and the tenacious creatures nesting there not giving her a moments room for respite. Emerging from such a hell, the lone bounty hunter is greeted to a literally polar opposite surrounding. A ghostly ambiance accompanies you through a crystallised tunnel leading outdoors, until you reach open air and the atmospheric, lonely cues in the music hit me like a ton of icebergs, while I could only stand still and ogle at the tranquil, weathered and alien beauty stretching out before me.
Ridge Racer Type 4 (Asuka Sakai, Kohta Takahashi et al.)
In the late nineties into the early noughties (I really despise this word) developers (particularly the Japanese) experimented a great deal with genres and styles previously unheard of in games. Hip-hop, trance, drum ‘n’ bass, house and jazz were replacing the comforting chip-tunes and arcade-rock of old, and defined my musical tastes growing up. In the centre of this surge of innovation was Ridge Racer Type 4′s phenomenal OST — a huge departure for the arcade racer.
Type 4′s dreamlike drum ‘n’ bass and acid jazz complemented the smooth, arcade style racing to stunning effect, and pervaded a distinct atmosphere of futurism and flawless sunsets. It’s difficult for me to listen to this OST and not picture myself tearing through empty lit up streets at 3am, sliding around corners at absurd angles and never stopping until the sun rises. Rare as it is, when a soundtrack links to a game so completely, even a racing game can deliver powerful emotional expression.
Jet Set Radio Future (Hideki Naganuma, Guitar Vader et al.)
Jet Set Radio and JSRF are well regarded for their vibrancy and style. Smilebit absolutely nailed its representation of Japanese youth culture (no surprise there, with no single member of the original game’s team aged over 25) and the fight between expression and the establishment at the heart of the series. A pirate radio station favoured by the kids of Shibuya ‘Jet Set Radio’ is the voice of your roller-gang, the GGS, and that station helmed by the exuberant, wise-cracking Professor K plays some funky-ass tunes that never fail to get you in the mood. Music in genres spanning from hip-hop to J-pop are accounted for, and are so catchy that they’re probably illegal, and probably why they air from a pirate station. The authentic way one song transitions into the other is sickeningly cool (check out 6:00).
The bitter pill of my list is that all of my favourite music is from games over a decade old. What happened to original, creative music in the gaming industry? The current generation has heralded a new age of licensed the flavour of the month out of convenience, dubstep trailers, and an industry trying so desperately to ape Hollywood, with soulless, disconnected orchestra that is blighting cinema all the same.
The right music is as crucial to a game as any other aspect of game design – that seemingly so little thought goes into this in many AAA titles is saddening. Budgets for videogames may be spiralling, but I feel developers aren’t taking soundtracks as seriously as they used to, and composers aren’t communicating enough. Final Fantasy XIII is an unfortunate example of this – the campy air-headed lyrics and overdone instrumentals are so jarringly out of place with their respective scenes and places that they are almost alien. It became even harder to care about FFXIII and its world when the composer didn’t seem concerned with it either.
While there are still some great OSTs springing up of late, overall there is a marked lack of confidence and a narrow-mindedness in big-budget developers to go with music that is safe and ‘cinematic’; afraid of exploring interesting genres and giving their games a unique flavour. People in the industry need to take more risks in every avenue to avoid the stagnation gaming is facing, and realise that while not everybody appreciates it, gaming can provide valuable contributions to music, and many people are listening.
- Jason Borlase