I finally mustered the motivation to change my notification tones on my cellphone today. As much as I enjoy the mechanical “Droid” chime, I needed something more me.  Where did I go?  Video game tones.

I ended up with the tried but true Metal Gear Solid Codec sound for general notifactions and an amputated Lutece Twins tune for text messages.  Death sounds from Mario and Zelda were on the list but I quickly dismissed them as “not me.”  FF7 had several tones in contention but I decided I didn’t want to come off as too much of a fanboy.

My cellphone mostly stays on silent, why did I put so much time into something that rarely comes up?  Simple.  Because music matters to gamers.

The FF7 Fanfare isn’t just a victory tune, it’s an anthem for an era of gaming.  Terra’s theme wasn’t a disposable ditty but the embodiment of an entire summer of adventure and longing.  Pick a game at random from my SNES to PS2 collection and I will tell you specific songs and why they matter.  If you pick Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I’ll slap you for having to ask.  You should know better.   Not only is it one of the best soundtracks to a video game but it’ll play sweet remixes of the soundtrack if you put that horrible black disc in a CD player.

Even the original Halo Theme had an organic, original quality that became immediately identifiable.

What the fuck was the song playing at the beginning of Gears of War?  I’ll give you two minutes, without Wikipedia, to think about it.

Times up.

Do you know why I recall the Halo theme even though I hate the game?  Because of how incorporated that theme was into the game itself.  You’re running through the “epic” ending segment on your Warthog and the music kicks in.  The sounds of guns, roar of the ATV engine, all got quieter as the music ramped up with the tempo of the closing sequence.

I chose Halo, a game I’m not fond of, to illustrate a point.  Even mediocre games cared more about the music in that era than this current generation.

I just finished reviewing Darksiders 2 and it has a pretty good example of music going wrong in the current generation.  At the game start screen it plays a beautifully haunting melody… that I couldn’t care less about.  It’s a high production (perhaps overproduced), well composed piece of music that goes largely ignored because the rest of the game doesn’t care about the music.  The schizophrenic clash of steel in every minor battle and overall lack of music throughout the rest of the game cause that opening song to immediately fade to the back of your mind as soon as you press “start game.”

I still get Final Fantasy music stuck in my head.  One of the reasons I decided against a really awesome texttone version of One-Winged Angel was because I didn’t want to sing the entire song in fake opera voice each time I received a text.

The best current generation songs that come immediately to mind are songs that play after the game is over or before it begins.  Still Alive (Portal), Burning Jacobs Ladder (Rage), Fallout 3 Intro, and Cage the Elephant playing at the beginning of Borderlands are all examples.

There’s a number of factors going into the not-giving-a-shit about music conundrum.  A large portion of the blame can be thrust upon the video game industry.  Original music compositions cost money.  A shit ton of money.  Video games are already a multi-billion dollar industry.  As graphics get better, the need to lean on soundtrack diminishes.  Besides, graphics cost a lot more.  Millions are already being spent on making the game look pretty, sometimes it’s just not in the budget to hire Uematsu to compose your soundtrack.  When a game does put that effort into its soundtrack, it’s practically a gimmicky selling point.  Looking at you, Lost Odyssey.

There’s another factor of sound at play here diluting soundtracks.  Voice acting.  Voice acting costs a helluva lot more than hiring a full orchestra, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga to duet vocals, and having it composed by the reincarnated ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach.  That’s before you factor in having dubbed, and redubbed in multiple languages.  I guess what I’m saying here is… voice acting is to blame for killing turn based RPGs and good video game soundtracks.

Turn based RPGs died because kids with ADD got tired of reading text so an entire style of gameplay around that text died.  The industry got tired of paying for music and voice actors, so they let music die while turning up the sounds of laser blasts and sword smashes.  Okay, tangent, and personal rant about Voice Actors killing RPGs to come later.

Back on topic.

What I’m really saying is the big budget of triple A gaming – high graphics, voice actors, and the ultimately disposable approach to many blockbuster games (that “disposable” approach if you haven’t figured it out yet, is make reservation sales, move on) – is becoming an increasing issue for video game music.

The last factor of blame here lies with us, the video gamers.  MMOs quit putting the effort into soundtracks a long time ago.  Vent, Winamp/iTunes Playlists, and Pandora became our orchestra in MMOs.  The Industry recognized that and lowered their focus as our expectations lowered.  We settled for the near-famous celebrities voicing a generation of RPGs and stopped letting our head fill in the flavor of the characters we took on the role of… we didn’t need the music for guidance anymore.

I’m not harshing on voice acting or even loud laser blasts here… I’m crying out for balance.  Halo struck the balance between explosions and an orchestrated theme, I have hope that games this generation (and the next) can do it too.  Do I lament that Uncharted 2 doesn’t have that takeaway theme?  No, because that’s a different type of game.  Will I breathe fire on the next RPG that can’t create a memorable character theme or opening song?  You bet your ass.

One final Aside:

Pencil Test Studios hit their goal and their stretch goal bringing ARMIKROG to the Wii U.  One of the reasons The Neverhood ranks on my top 3 list of Adventure Games is because of the soundtrack.  An original music score was composed for the game.  The composer, Terry Scott Taylor, will be returning to the team for ARMIKROG.  Bringing hope to the next generation of gamers looking for great video game music.

Now if only Trent Reznor would sign on to do all of Doom 4’s soundtrack the way he did Quake’s back in the day…