Why bit depths and CD-quality matter little in the world of pixels and polygons.
Were you to ask gamers today if they’d enjoy listening to music playing in three-track MIDI from a system with no dedicated sound chip and a tiny mono speaker, they’d probably respond with some variation of:
“Of course not you absolute cretin, and who jammed an HB pencil through your neocortex?”
But I bet nearly every one you know can hum at least one song from Pokemon. What is it about songs from videogames that make us look past our audiophilic tendencies and embrace retro chiptunes and MIDI so wholeheartedly?
Well, in an elaborate boomerang, it’s that old stalwart familiarity from yesterday’s video. You see, it’s essentially a small scale conditioning effect, whereby certain songs evoke good feelings because we associate them with having fun. This proves so overpowering that even songs which are quite repetitive and dull otherwise suddenly become masterpieces.* I’d put good money on the odds that Friday would become a work of artistic wonderment if it had played over Robot Unicorn Attack. Instead, we came home tired and overworked and found that all the fame and recognition had been taken by a thirteen-year-old with her nose in a clamp.
Mind you, that’s not to say all game music is good. War games, specifically ones set in a certain period between 1939 and 1945, have an irritating tendency towards such mournful and heroic trumpet wails and string movements that one is often left wishing the composer was on the front lines killing people and the player directing the orchestra, because they could probably both do a better job.
The best songs seem to be from those who are established as working within a franchise, such as Nobuo Uematsu’s compositions for Squaresoft/Enix, Koji Kondo for Mario and Zelda, Keiichi Suzuki from the MOTHER games (no, I won’t shut my trap about those works of art) and Normand Corbeil for the Quantic Dream games (excluding that thing with David Bowie). This is probably because they already know the style and emotion of the games they are trying to score out, so have an easier time crafting appropriate music.
The bad music comes from committee designed, uninspired, derivative messes that are all ripping off Saving Private Ryan. However, this shouldn’t discourage any up-and-coming songwriters from trying their hand with a small studio, since we could use a few more young gamers willing to give games those few more banging choons.
One word of advice to said choon-creators, though. Don’t feel that every game has to have a masterful orchestrated score or powerful heavy metal soundtrack. It doesn’t. And to see that, you need only look to the past- to Mario, to Zelda, to Earthbound, take their simple, memorable songs that bring back so many good memories, and work for a new gaming experience.
In conclusion: Let the composers get to know the games first, stop ripping off war movies, don’t take yourself too seriously, and once again: INNOVATE!
Signing off for tonight, but I’ll leave you all with an example of how simple, emotive and memorable game music should be. Enjoy humming!
*Nobuo Uematsu is a wonderful composer, for whom One Winged Angel is only a small blemish on an otherwise excellent blah blah blah please don’t flame me.