Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Appreciation of Music in Games

It happened again at lunch today. I was talking about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with a coworker, and, unprompted, one of the first things they brought up was how good they remembered the music being. A couple of other people have said the same thing, and I have even read a preview comparing the music in our game to the music in SotN (in quality, definitely not in style). Unlike me, these people played the game when it came out (XBLA gave me a second chance to redeem myself), and they still find the music memorable. Trouble is, I can't for the life of me remember a single track from beginning to end, and I have just recently beaten the game a second time to get 200.6% and once more with Richter to get the full 200 achievement points. And then some to get 99 of everything the librarian sells including duplicators (I used the sword familiar glitch, but it still took a while). And then some more to grind up some levels. Fantastic control scheme, brilliant use of gameplay mechanics to implicitly branch the story, and support for a variety of play styles make this game one of the best of the PSX era. But wait, there was music playing in the background? I do remember some area had music that sounded like it would be better on an elevator than in a Castlevania, and the ending theme was far more emotional than the rest of the game tried to evoke, but the remainder of the tracks have not managed to stick in my memory.

I have begun to wonder if I am not giving enough attention to the aural aspect of game consumption. If ten years from now someone was to bring up SotN in a conversation, the first things I would laud would be the castle design and the risky decision to put so much effort into implementing and not advertising the second half of the game. The background tracks, while fitting and mostly just as polished as the game, would not even come to mind. But my experience has shown me that Symphony's music is in fact one of the first things people remember about the game. If you have played this title, what do you think? Is the music memorable to you? Is it as good as the gameplay or better?

That out of the way, there are a few titles that show me that I can notice and appreciate music in games. Eternal Sonata immediately comes to mind, as do many older JRPGs (almost any FF, Chrono Trigger, Lunar, Xenogears - pretty much anything done by Uematsu, Mitsuda, or Iwadare). I recently started playing Banjo Kazooie and marvelled at how the music changes dynamically from an ominous version to a softer version of the same tune when you approach the door to a world, or when you transition underwater. I even found myself relaxing recently to the title screen theme to the XBLA port of Uno when I left it running in the background. Conversely, when I played the original Castlevania again recently, I was cringing at how grating the three-channel NES tracks were. We put up with a lot back in the day...

How about you? What games have soundtracks that you remember years later (or will likely remember years from now if they are recent)? I would have to give mad props to the original Nights for having some of the most original, uplifting music in video game history (the sequel does a good job in this area as well) and to Doom64 for trading pop melody for darker atmospheric tracks (best in the series, imo). Another interesting question: is it possible for game music to be "too good" - that is, to be so outstanding that you are pulled out of the immersion and start appreciating it for its own merits? If this occurs, is it a good thing for the game as a whole?

2 comments:

eiyukabe said...

Addendum: Or is memorability a necessary and/or sufficient criterion for quality in game music?

Also, shame on me for forgetting to mention Braid during my ramblings on recent games with outstanding music, particularly because the tracks were integrated in such a way as to sound pleasing even in reverse.

Eric Ritz said...

I do actually find the music of SotN to be memorable, but it was hardly the stand out aspect for me. Rather it was the exploratory depth of the game I always remember most fondly.

I think many games simply play background music and make no effort to incorporate it with the experience. Shadow of the Colossus and all the Silent Hill games jump to my mind as examples of titles which not only had good music, but which exercised that music at just the right time to make the whole experience more memorable. Neither game would have been as great if it played some unfitting but nonetheless great music---e.g. "Dopeman". Picture that in SotC...