During one of many conversations about our interests I have with my colleagues at my ‘regular’ job, an interesting subject came up that I would like to share. In fact, the point in which I brought it up, my colleague was entirely bemused by the concept. That subject was the importance of music in video games. He is a very big music fan and was surprised by the fact that, in my opinion, music is one of most important benefactors of a good game.
The best way to approach this is to look at some of the games that have had incredible music over the years, even been defined by it. Of all of the games that have been released that have been greatly enhanced by their soundtracks, none in that field compare to the Final Fantasy series. Nobuo Uematsu has forged himself a legacy in the gaming world for creating some of the most incredible soundtracks, not only in gaming history, but in the history of musical soundtracks. In fact, and I don’t think I am alone in this, I regularly find myself listening to the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VII and I never cease to be impressed by it. The music is just simply incredible, from the beginning all the way through to the end.
However, that isn’t the only success that Nobuo Uematsu has achieved with every Final Fantasy score. He has not only created soundtracks where every track perfectly fits the location or event that it is tied to, but (like a true master of his art) he has made it so each individual game’s overall feel pervades the entire score from opening track to final. For instance, VII has a very epic, industrial feel with a natural undertone to express the damage to the planet caused by technology. But, VIII has a very regimented, military theme running throughout perfectly summarising the military applications of SeeD.
The success of the Final Fantasy soundtracks is worldwide and unanimous, and with very good reason. The music from this series is played in concerts by full orchestras across the world, selling out venues with scores upon scores of fans. The recent Distant Worlds concert in London being a perfect example of the reach of these concerts. In Japan, as with most crazy ideas, they regularly hold concerts containing cross-platform and developer musical showcases, taking in titles such as Metal Gear Solid and others outside the expected sphere.
Speaking of concerts, I had the immense pleasure of attending The Legend Of Zelda: 25th Anniversary concert in London last year, and I was entirely blown away. The music that Koji Kondo has created for the Zelda series is beautiful enough, but sitting in an audience of like-minded fans listening to some of the most brilliant songs of gaming music history being played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra was an absolute delight. Despite taking the songs out of their original setting, they remain wonderfully written pieces of music.
If you add to his the fact that some modern games have even been scored by a full orchestra. Listening to the soundtracks of games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario Galaxy comes with a sense of timelessness, like the music in these games will far outlast the fact that the graphics will eventually become dated. The emphasis on music in games has become more and more important with time.
There have even been games that are centred around music, to take things in another direction. It is almost impossible to ignore the success that games like Just Dance or Rock Band have garnered in recent times. But you also have more subtle attempts at making music the integral core to the title, such as rhythm-action titles Rhythm Thief and Elite Beat Agents, giving the players a goal to achieve through the means on music. These are played by tapping on the screen, in both cases, to the time of the music giving the player something more to aim for than just dancing (excuse the pun).
But, what if a soundtrack gets it wrong? Being a music fan myself (like my colleague), my enjoyment of a video game can be diminished by a terrible (or worse, forgettable) soundtrack. An example of this problem is the unfortunate Resident Evil 5. I love the Resident Evil series, even defending Resident Evil 6 against the waves of criticism it has suffered. However, the fifth instalment is not only a poor excuse for a Resi title, but has one of the worst soundtracks in gaming. Sure, the composer did a very good job of relating the musical score entirely to the setting, but he also succeeded in creating one of the most forgettable video game soundtracks I have heard. Also, I am pretty sure the tagline of the game was ‘A Fear You Can’t Forget’, but the entire score does nothing to inspire any kind of fear, apart from maybe the fear of mediocrity.
I think that a large part of the appeal of music in video games is the simple fact of nostalgia. The music, when heard out of it’s usual context can bring you back to a memory or a feeling. This is usually something like the sense of triumph that listening Final Fantasy VII’s ‘Ending Credits’ gives you, or returning you to the bewildered feeling you had when you first ventured out of the Kokiri Forest in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with ‘Hyrule Field Theme’. Needless to say that the music is the most important factor that rings with connotations in your head.
The enjoyment of video games comes from the entire experience that is had by the player, and a big part of this can be accredited to the music. Sometimes having a subconscious affect, however sometimes being the main aspect that the player notices. The music in video games can make the player feel scared, safe, happy, basically any feeling it wants to. Basically one of the same tricks employed by the makers of films.
It could even be argued that music in video games is now becoming more ‘mainstream’ and accepted with the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s ‘Greatest Video Game Music’ albums. The first of which was released to great critical acclaim worldwide and contained orchestrated versions of songs from Final Fantasy, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls and even Angry Birds. The second album, which was released on 6th November this year, has also been warmly received worldwide marking a departure from the usually niche audiences that experience this kind of music.
So next time you fire up a game, any game, just listen to the score. You might be very pleasantly surprised.