The Decline of Good Game Music
I am a huge video game music nerd. Ever since I played Space Station Silicon Valley on the Nintendo 64 and fell in love with its cheesy elevator tunes, I have paid much more attention to the soundtracks of games. I love game music so much, I sometimes force myself to play a bad game just to hear what new songs it has. For instance, the only reason I bought Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2 and 3 for Gamecube was to hear the music, and the only reason I suffered through Drome Racers as long as I did was to unlock additional race tracks and, consequently, additional music.
From the Nintendo 64 to now, I’ve listened to a lot of soundtracks, and I must say, the first few years of the Wii’s life were some of the best of the entire industry when it came to video game music. Off the top of my head, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz had a fun soundtrack. Elebits had a fantastic soundtrack. SSX Blur‘s music was some of the best Junkie XL has ever made. Same goes for Mark Mothersbaugh and his Boom Blox soundtrack. Hell, even Line Rider 2 had really good music.
The reason why these soundtracks worked so well was that they embraced the medium. Everything else of Mothersbaugh’s I’ve heard I haven’t liked, including his many movie soundtracks. Here’s the thing. Movie soundtracks suck. They are too busy trying to tell the same story as the movie and don’t work well on their own. Game music isn’t trying to tell a story. In fact, game music doesn’t need to be there at all (as was evident in Ico, where the lack of music made the game more engaging). It’s only there to provide background noise but has to do so without being annoying. It has to be repeatable in a tolerable sense, because, who knows, a gamer could be listening to that particular song for hours before they move on.
Unfortunately, the heyday of good game music is coming dangerously close to an end. As video games strive to be more like movies, so, too, are the soundtracks. “Epic” music is all the rage now, even in games where an epic atmosphere isn’t warranted. I know the LEGO games want to rely on their source material, but the straight-from-the-movie music drained almost all the charm out of them. Epic, movie music is just distracting. Gears of War, for example… Holy crap, the music in that game was so overbearingly dramatic, I couldn’t even concentrate. I finally turned the music off (thank God for games that let you adjust the volume of the music/sound separately) and found myself enjoying the atmosphere a lot more in its absence.
I know “epic” games call for music that’s a little more relatable than any of the Sonic soundtracks (which, by the way, have been consistently good for the most part). But just because a game is serious doesn’t mean it needs to have crappy, forgettable, generic music. Halo 2 (I can’t speak for the other Halo games, because I’ve forgotten what they sounded like) proved that a serious game could still sound good. Not only was music used sparingly, it had a strong enough beat to it to make you excited about the next battle rather than feeling like a sappy scene from a movie. I cannot stress enough how transparently manipulative movie music ends up being, and that’s why I hate it seeping into games.
In situations like this, though, where the music sucks and is actually ruining the experience, it’s fun to switch to a custom soundtrack, maybe something completely inappropriate like The Beatles or even the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack, and chainsaw aliens in half to a different tune. You may not like Microsoft’s presence in the industry, but the mandate that all Xbox games have to support custom soundtracks was manna from heaven. I can’t count how many times I’ve been irritated with a game purely on the awful music it provided but, on switching to something of my own, could finally enjoy the game the way it should be enjoyed: with fun, catchy music. Now that game music is going downhill, it looks like I’ll be switching more often.