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76 Trombones: Me and Game Music

October 30th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Music

Video Games Live has been on the nerd concert scene since 2005 and I’d never had any great desire to go. First, the idea struck me as a little like those K-Tel “Best of the Classics Compilations” where you can get your Bach smashed up against your Chopin, music chosen for no better reason than that people were already familiar with it. Second, I don’t listen or like the music in most of the games I play, so after giving it a go or two, I usually turn it off and resort to my own music. Sure, it might clash with the theme, but at least I already know I like it.

But VGL is doing a Canadian tour and Christopher Tin is conducting. Tin is a friend of Flash of Steel, a Grammy winning composer for his album (and my meditation music) Calling All Dawns, and the composer of what is, to my mind, the single best piece of music ever written for a strategy game – Civilization IV‘s Baba Yetu.

Though meeting him for the opening Toronto show would have been too hectic, Chris was able to get two tickets for myself and Jenn Cutter for the Kitchener-Waterloo show on Sunday night, and he even spent an hour before the concert talking to us about hockey and music and games.

I won’t say a lot about the performance itself, because I was mostly astonished Kitchener-Waterloo even had a symphony (or at least 2/3 of one). Show founder Tommy Tallarico was an enthusiastic emcee, Laura Intravia was an amazing soloist and the local choir was too muffled to hear how they were mostly not up to the larger choral pieces.

But I had a great time, it was a good crowd, and it was nice to finally meet Chris.

When the show ended and people started filing past us to get to wherever they needed to get to, Jenn turned to me and asked, “So how many of the games they played music from tonight have you actually played?”

Well, Civ, of course. And Mario. Legend of Zelda (but both of these games were represented by medleys from the entire franchise). Tetris. I own Skyrim, but haven’t played it yet, so that probably doesn’t count.

Fact is, I had never heard almost any of this music before, or at least not in its entirety. Final Fantasy? Chrono Trigger? Earthworm Jim? All great games, but not ones that I have spent any time with. I was, in fact, revealed as quite illiterate when it comes to game music mostly because I have spent most of my gaming hours with strategy games and Western RPGs.

Now, I can hear the Jeremy Soule fans out there telling me that I must like the music he has written for the games that I do know – Icewind Dale, Kohan II: Kings of War, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, Oblivion…and yeah. I do like some of his older work. Frankly, not a fan of the Skyrim score at all and part of that is because I think it suffers from one of the same problems that strategy games do.

Now let’s be perfectly clear. I am talking about original music, not scores that are comprised of non-original compositions. You can get a great score for an historical strategy game, for example, if you just pick amazing music from the time period you want to represent. Civilization IV did that very well (read about it here at Soren Johnson’s blog) and Europa Universalis II had an eclectic and excellent series of tracks, Fa La Lan be damned.

Now I can recognize a lot of tunes from games, and most of them are really themes more than anything else. The music from the 8-bit console era is instantly recognizable because it played all the damned time, on a loop, and would change depending on the type of map, whether it was a boss monster or what kind of cutscene you had to sit through. The great old RPG Betrayal at Krondor had themes for every new town, and I still remember a couple of them. The original Civilization had a different musical theme for every leader. But these were short pieces and I doubt I want to hear many of them looped.

Shogun 2 has great music, by the way, and I think it is helped because of its Asian theme. This allowed Creative Assembly to break out of the bombastic, brassy, marching music that typifies so many strategy games. It’s almost like many strategy devs treat their games like Hollywood movies that accompany all military action with martial music. This is entirely suitable in a two hour movie that will have a range of emotions. Try having trumpets, trombones and bass drums in your ear for 12 hours while you try to conquer Gaul, which was long gone before the trombone was even invented. Maybe the bass drum, too. I’m not up on my percussion history.

This is a thing with Soule, lately, as well. The games he scores are generally super serious, so the music is all foreboding and, often, blends into an indistinguishable wall of sound. Science fiction games, of course, used have that electronic sound but even they are now traditional Western classical music, and often quite free of personality.

Games that have many different levels or emotions, then, are much more likely to encourage composers to differentiate. It would be great if in, for example, Europa Universalis IV, the score varied depending on which nation or region I was playing, and if there was a war score and a peace score. Because, in games as in movies, music often serves a utilitarian purpose; it’s there to remind us of what is going on, to provide an extra sensory push to get us focused on the task on hand, or a “Oh no, not this guy again” cue.

Which raises the question: If your music is good enough to stand on its own outside of the game is it game music? I listen to Baba Yetu probably three or four times a week, but I don’t think of it as The Civ Song, at least not in the way that the Imperial March will always be The Darth Vader Song. Baba Yetu is the first track on one of my favorite albums, an album about the course of a day leading to the triumphal Kia Hora te Marino at the end. I have a hard time thinking of it as game music.

But many of the pieces played on Sunday night did have that pull for the audience, reminding them of games they had played and the moments when Aeris died or Guile punched that dude. And, for me Tetris song will always be the Tetris song, even with Ms. Intravia’s operatic version. (Though I kept hearing another version in my head.)

One of my secret powers is that I am perfectly willing to admit when I don’t know enough to have a truly educated opinion. I have a lot to learn about game composers beyond Soule and Uematsu. Here’s hoping I have a patient teacher.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Josh Hall

    Two points, and I’ll hit the shorter and sure to be more controversial first.

    I think you’re right on Soule. He’s incredibly prolific and certainly skilled, but his scores have tended to blend together recently. His work on Morrowind stands out to me, but everything since then has fallen a bit flat.

    Which basically leads to my second and more general thought – I think part of the issue with game music is that it benefits from a positive association. Ideally, you’re playing a game and enjoying it – the music adds to the ambience, but rarely is a main focus (JRPG 30 minute cutscenes aside). Still, your mind is registering it, and eventually you snag the OST or what not and as you listen to the music, you associate the enjoyment of the game with it.

    Which is why I hedged a bit on if Soule’s work with Morrowind is or is not actually strong enough to stand on its own. I loved the bejeezus out of that game – playing through various mods and expansions and sometimes just tooling around in the world itself. It’s impossible for me to separate my feelings for the game from a critique of the music. Oblivion and Skyrim have both fallen well short of how much I enjoyed Morrowind, and I find that I’ve completely ignored the soundtracks for both.

    In general, a probably safe and perhaps apt comparison would be to liken game scores to movie scores. An enjoyable companion that can enhance the experience, but very rarely strong enough to stand on its own.

  • Alan Au

    I like Soule’s music, but I have the problem that all of his music starts to sounds similar after a while. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just how it is, and of course the same can be said of film composers.

    The problem I’m increasingly having is that I tend to recognize music from the games I’ve played, but I’m also playing fewer games now. It helps that some franchises reuse themes and motifs, but there are huge swaths of the gaming soundscape that I simply haven’t had time to experience.

    To be fair, I do try to seek out some of the more interesting music, but these days I barely have time to play most games, much less dedicate time to their soundtracks.

  • CraigM

    I am admittedly a music snob, so for me most game music is ignorable trash. It’s not as bad as that infernal ‘Sexy and I know it’ song, but neither does it often rise above tolerable.

    That said when a game gets it right, it can be wonderful. Uematsu is a good name to bring up, as his work is one of the few I listen to as a stand alone experience (in the form of his 3 Black Mages albums). There was craft and composition enough in that music that I enjoy it, even though I haven’t played the games.

    A recent game that stood out was Bastion. If you want an example of music that stands out, that is it. Some tracks are marginal, but several songs are strong enough to make me listen. Perhaps it’s my own bias towards anything with a solid blues background, but I actually picked up the soundtrack.

    Now noting this it shows how largely unimportant music is treated. Most games are really just providing generic noise to pass time. When a game devotes time and effort to song writing though, it can take a very good game, and make it fantastic.

  • Zoe M.

    One musical group I can wholeheartedly recommend is Dynamedion. While not immediately familiar by name, their work should be: Anno 1404, Anno 2070 (which, incidentally, has a brilliant soundtrack); Paraworld (Again!); Settlers 7; Spellforce; and also Modern Warfare for some reason.

    Their work tends to have a trailer reel quality to it – a real structure beyond the semichaotic ambience that plagues many game soundtracks. Almost all of their individual tracks would work as full theme songs.

    Anno 2070 is especially notable in this regard, and well worth a listen.