Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Game Design: Music in Games and Film

After having gone to the Distant Worlds Concert, it’s really inspired me to talk about the music in games. I feel like it’s something special, that many gamers overlook though I still know there are plenty who greatly care about it. There are many songs that instantly get recognizable such as the Mario theme, but there is plenty of music out there that is absolutely beautiful but is not allowed the spotlight simply due to it not being as known as these “popular themes”.I wanted to dedicate a post solely to the music present in games and the kind of bonds they forge with the game that can completely change the experience.

Music is extremely important to a deep game experience. It’s often an overlooked part of a game and not always given the attention it deserves by gamers. There are tons of games out there that have excellent music but are often not widely recognized. There are gamers who will simply play the game and the music will just be in the background, sometimes not even paid attention too. Once the game is over, the music goes along with it. On the other hand, there are other gamers who recognized the great pieces played in some games and will seek out the soundtracks. I am one of these kinds of gamers.

I will be honest, game soundtracks are the main form of music I listen to. I am not into pop, rock, or any form of mainstream music usually, at least nothing on the radio. Sure I will listen to it and I enjoy it, especially some songs but my entire music collection consists of either film or game soundtracks. It’s partially my taste in music that is the cause for this, but there is something else. And that is the experience between the game/film that the music provides.

Glorious Charge : Memories of Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers

Lord of the Rings The Two Towers : Glorious Charge

I remember when I first watched Lord of the Rings : The Two Towers. The end of the film at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, our heroes were surrounded by Uruk-Hai, with little hope left. Aragorn convinces Theoden to lead one last charge to delay the Uruk-Hai from reaching the woman and children in the caves. As soon as the charge starts, one of the most heroic pieces at the time for me played. Aragorn and Theoden led a glorious charge, cutting through Uruk-Hai to the great music. It only got better as Gandalf arrived with Eomer and over 2000 riders of Rohan. Suddenly the music reached new heights, I can’t even describe how I felt the first time I saw the scene and heard the music. Gandalf led the charge down the hill, the over bearing sun light behind him while some of the most “holy” feeling music I have ever heard played. It was just amazing, I felt chills down my spine when I first saw the scene, it was just so breathtaking for me. What really hit me was the music. It was short, but it was amazing, it fit with the scene so perfectly.

LOTR: TTT OST - Theoden Rides Forth

This scene alone sold me into watching the Two Towers at least five more times in theaters as well as rewatching the movie every year and also fast forwarding to this scene every now and then. The music along with the scene created just the best moment for me, one of my favourite movie experiences. I am sad that I will never be able to experience it the same way I did when I first saw it in theaters. Of course the entire movie was fantastic and the music is beautiful in every scene, but that was the one scene that stood out the most to me.

Lord of the Rings The Two Towers Video game

This love for the movie got me to buy the Two Towers video game. The movie tie –in that, in it’s day was actually a pretty good action game. I had a lot of fun with the game and the music helped quite a bit, but one thing was missing. First off the game didn’t feature all the scenes from the movie, nor my favourite scene, and second it didn’t have most or any of the Two towers music if I can recall correctly. It was all music from the Fellowship of the Ring. Of course I love the Fellowship of the Ring as well, but I wanted to hear the Two Towers music going right with the scenes. The Battle of Helms Deep has a certain battle music in the film that I was hoping to hear as I fought along the walls of Helm’s Deep. But I didn’t get that and so my experience was not as great as I hoped it would be. I wasn’t able to relive the moments of the film the way I wanted to. 

That’s because it wasn’t the music I remember hearing in the film, and so with that mindset, though I enjoyed those sections, they just weren’t the same. (I did however play through the game over 20 times anyways).

The point I am trying to make here is this connection to the experience. Because I had a mindset of wanting to hear Two Towers music and instead heard Fellowship, my experience was changed, it could have been greater. That’s the strength that music had on my mindset. It’s like playing a game with a certain soundtrack and then trying to play through again but someone changed all the songs. It just feels different.

Games and Mainstream music

Games like Final Fantasy have had some fantastic music. I know there are many out there as well that know this music is beautiful, especially the arrangements provided in Distant Worlds. Even games like Uncharted and Gears of War have some pretty good music. But for even the greatest video game music, the only public form we see them in is concerts. You’d never dream of hearing them on a radio, because they never seem to get the recognition that “mainstream” music gets. Even fantastic orchestral pieces in Final Fantasy you wouldn’t hear on classical radio. Now I don’t know if video game music will ever get that kind of recognition, I highly doubt it.

Gears of War 2 : Hope Runs Deep (Main Theme)

There are a lot of things that keep them out. It could be the age and audience, a lack of awareness of the game music, or just a lack interest. The lack interest also stems from lack of awareness because a lot of game music doesn’t get circulated very well. Some people just have an immediate biased to discovering a piece of music is from a game versus being not being made for a video game. Even if it’s a great piece of music, some people may not like it just because it’s from a video game.

Halo Reach : Overture

Also not everyone can get into a game’s soundtrack like that and maybe not even those people spread their knowledge around. People who listen to game soundtracks are generally in much smaller niche than anyone listening to other forms of music. That makes it a little harder to spread all the knowledge of great soundtracks around. Also with so many games out, it can be hard to keep track of all those soundtracks anyways. I know there are some out there I still should hear but I just don’t know what they are.

Music and Memories

Continuing on with experience that music provides, there are actually quite a few games out there that provide instant familiarity. For a lot of people, the themes of Mario and Zelda immediately invoke nostalgia. There is a reason these themes are remixed so often, because everyone loves those themes. Same with the prelude of Final Fantasy, which has been present in every game except some of the more recent ones. Within those themes invokes memories and a link to a franchise that everyone has grown to love and know.

Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword : Main Menu theme. An iconic track in every Zelda game

Even in standalone games not part of a franchise, particular great pieces of music can stand out to represent a moment in a game. For myself, Terra’s Theme from Final Fantasy VI will always play out in my mind as seeing the three mechs walking in the opening of the game. I can easily piece it in my mind with the music. Even music in Tales of Vesperia, one particular theme played whenever there were sad moments and I particularly liked the piece. I can still remember many of the moments it played in the game. For me, the music invokes these memories if I was attached enough to the game and the music and experience was powerful enough.

Final Fantasy VI : Terra's theme. It will always remind me of the opening of FF VI

This is what popular and mainstream music can’t do for me, it cannot invoke those memories for me. I like music that invokes a memory or an attachment, like if I played Street Fighter music, I immediately think of Street Fighter and can help set me in a certain mood. If I want to draw a Street Fighter character for example, I will put that music on. This is what both video game music and film music can do for me.

Super Street Fighter II : Guile's Theme. It immediately sets me in an energetic mood

Even if it’s a really bad game, if it has really great music I still might be able to have a positive experience. Or at least listen/buy the game’s soundtrack. For example, I criticized Sonic the Hedgehog(2006) a while back and I stand by that. But one thing that redeemed it partially for myself was the final boss music. I love it, it’s actually one of the video game songs I listen to fairly often.  The game itself is a dark moment for Sonic but this song helps me get into a “Sonic” mood if I feel like. It reminds me of the days when Sonic could be badass and the song just overall fit’s into any times I want to be inspired by something “epic”.

Sonic 2006 : Solaris Phase 2 (Final Boss theme)

So really, even a bad game with great music can help elevate it the experience for me. Before writing this blog I didn’t think too deeply into this, but really, video game music is really important for me. I never thought about how it sets these moods and memories for me but now I know for sure that it truly does. That’s why I have never been interested in popular music. Character themes, great epic music for cutscenes have always been my cup of tea because I just connect with them so much better. Video games are my life and these songs help me relive those memories and feelings and keep me in a great mood depending on the song.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 : Main Theme. I still listen to it frequently

Like the main theme of Final Fantasy XIII-2, I have been listening to it pretty much every or every other day since the beginning of the semester. I am still not tired of it and I listen to it because it’s a great piece, it just sounds absolutely beautiful. Though the game wasn’t the best, this theme invokes all my favourites and more emotional memories of the game. If I don’t think too deeply into my memories of the game, then the song just sounds so uplifting and helps my mood lighten up. It’s also particular calming so it’s great for studying and doing work as well.

Final Fantasy XI : Distant Worlds. I have not played Final Fantasy XI before but this song is absolutely beautiful. It doesn't matter that I haven't played the game before. The song itself is great enough to enter my collection of music that goes on repeat forever.

I am not too sure where I am going with this blog but I guess I wanted to say how much of an effect video game music has had on me that I hadn’t fully realized until now. Even films get this effect as well, particularly my Two Towers experience. There is just something about video game music that mainstream music will never be able to fulfill for me. And even if they are not from a game I have played before, the music can be just so great anyways. The work of these fantastic composers should be recognized even by those who have never experienced the game.

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