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Video Game Music: Make or Break? - Editorial

InstaTrentInstaTrent OpinionatorRPGamer Staff
edited November 2012 in Latest Updates
Music is one of the more downplayed aspects of video game design, but how important is it to the overall experience? Is video game music make or break?

http://www.rpgamer.com/editor/2012/103112ts.html
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Comments

  • TG BarighmTG Barighm Member Full Members
    edited October 2012
    I say it's purely a matter of taste. I look back at my collection now and I see nearly every game I own has an excellent soundtrack or sound design, so I clearly prefer sound over graphics. A lot of other people couldn't care less about the music and would rather play their own stuff, yet refuse to play a game that doesn't have superb graphics. I know a lot of people that still think video game music isn't "real" music. Technically speaking, it really isn't necessary, certainly not more so than key sound effects or dialogue when no subtitles are present.

    It basically boils down to whether or not you care.
  • riulynriulyn Member Full Members
    edited October 2012
    I agree with your editorial that videogame sound is underrated. I personally don't remember having an issue with Grandia 3's soundtrack (though it definitely wasn't great), but then again the thing I had issue with most was its plot. I do wonder if the music is one of the reasons why going through the Tartarus in Persona 3 Portable feels like such a grind; I almost always have something else playing in the background.

    I also think videogame sounds can really conjure those nostalgic feelings as much as visuals. As much as I hate the synthesizers used in FF7's soundtrack, I would find it incredibly strange to play that game with "better" sound.
  • ChickenGodChickenGod Overdosing Heavenly Bliss Moderators
    edited October 2012
    TG Barighm said:
    I know a lot of people that still think video game music isn't "real" music.
    Same here, TG. I've had people ask me what I was listening to before because they thought it sounded pretty decent. When saying it was from X game, they would just completely dismiss the song and act as if I was strange for not listening to a "real band" or something. Of course this was back in high school, though.

    Trent makes some excellent points here, particularly when he describes combat as less enticing or cutscenes and dialogue as emotionally imbalanced without the accompanying sound. For me, a good soundtrack helps the words and actions on screen. There are plenty of examples I can think of. Standalone, the music in Devil Survivor or 999 is not all that incredible to listen to. However, when you put the soundtrack together with the art while you're reading, those pieces work to create an incredibly strong atmosphere that may not have captured my interest so heavily otherwise.

    Most of my absolute favorite games all have soundtracks I'm very fond of. Besides those two mentioned above, Persona 3, FF13, TWEWY, and Ar Tonelico 2 are all games I love where for me the soundtrack played a crucial role in my enjoyment of them. In Trent's example, even though I didn't like Nier much as a whole, I doubt I would have even finished it without some of those somber tunes. That Melancholy vibe Nier emanates just wouldn't be the same, effectively killing what in my opinion is the main focus of that title.
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  • Strawberry EggsStrawberry Eggs The Bemused Administrators
    edited October 2012
    I have yet to play a game with music so terrible I had to turn it down, or even note. At worst, a game's soundtrack is forgettable. Music can certainly make a good game better, or even make a mediocre game more memorable, but I also don't think it can break a game. I do greatly enjoy video game music. Not only do many of my most favorite games have great OSTs, I also own many CD soundtracks. I can still enjoy a game with a forgettable, even if I don't enjoy it as much.
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  • TyphoTypho Knight Errant Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Yeah, Nier is definitely a great example of a game that wouldn't be the same without its soundtrack.

    To be honest, I don't know if I've ever felt like a game was broken by lack of a great soundtrack, although my favorite games tend to have great soundtracks. This is one thing I find lacking in most WRPGs that I play.
  • MacstormMacstorm Ysy St. Administrators
    edited November 2012
    Music can totally make an RPG. Nier's a great example and case in point for Japanese developed games. Fallout 3/New Vegas are great examples on the Western side.

    As far as breaking one, I've never had that happen. I've had games that I wished had better music, but it's never caused me to stop playing. I just turn down the volume and am fine.

    So basically, good music can make a good RPG into a great one...but bad music just makes it quieter around the house.
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  • DarkRPGMasterDarkRPGMaster A Witness to Destruction Moderators
    edited November 2012
    I have never once played a game that had its entire soundtrack annoy me to no end. The only game I can think of that I thought was dead annoying in terms of the music playing was Home in FFX, but that was because of that annoying voice. Sounds like it says "I'm annoying, huh!?" Yes mysterious voice, YOU ARE ANNOYING.
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  • RyumoauRyumoau Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    i used to enjoy listening to the background music in rpgs back in the ps1 and early ps2 era. But i began to not be very interested in game soundtracks anymore. I find myself just muting the TV and listening to a podcast instead. The stories in most of the rpgs i've played recently aren't interesting enough to pay attention to, so i don't feel bad listening to something else while i just play the games for combat (most recently Graces F).
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  • QuinQuin ne cede malis RPGamer Staff
    edited November 2012
    To me, a good OST can definatly add to a good RPG experience. Both FFIX and FFXI would feel pretty strange without their soundtracks. However, the lack of a memorable OST doesn't detract much from an RPG. I highly enjoyed ME2, but the OST was mostly forgettable, with a couple of exceptions.
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  • FrozenbabylonFrozenbabylon POW! Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Doesn't even matter to me. On portable games I always always have the sound turned down, even at home. On consoles, it really depends on if I'm home alone or not, If I'm home alone, I sometimes just play my own music while playing, other times I have the games music on, but it's always just background noise to whatever I'm doing in the game. Even with Nier, I just didn't even care about the music.
  • flamethrowerflamethrower Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Dragoon X Omega is a romhack of Dragon Warrior [NES]. Everything has been changed, including the music. The game has a terrible soundtrack. Guaranteed, this is the worst soundtrack you've ever heard. That's about the only one I can think of. You can search for it on Youtube to see what it sounds like.

    At a minimum, developers will usually hire the music done. Developers usually have graphics and programming expertise and not music. And it's easy to hire it done. Even indie developers seem to be able to scrape together the cash to hire a composer (or whatever they call game music developers these days). The horrible soundtrack quality in Dragoon X Omega almost certainly comes from the developer trying to do everything themselves. Developers should avoid that approach.
  • SlayerSlayer Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    I think V.G.M. is important, but it doesn't make or break the game. Nier was a great example of an OST elevating a game.
    Special songs can really make difference. I was really blown away by FF6, especially the long ending music.
    ---
    I simply must say this: I wish RPG's would let me change the battle music to any track in the game. Or shuffle different tunes. Its long overdue.
    Cool editorial.
  • DravDrav A Serious Man Full Members
    edited November 2012
    It mostly depends on what kind of game it is. Good music adds a lot to the more simplistic genres like 2D action games, platformers and JRPGs, but the more game trend towards virtual reality (free-roaming games, WRPGs, the horribly named "immersion sim" genre), the more important it becomes for the music to seamlessly blend with the rest of the experience. The less you're reminded that you're experiencing something obviously staged, the better.
  • bmesickbmesick New Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Video game music is very important, although any game will have music that serves different purposes, like what Drav said.

    Movie soundtracks are more likely to be more integrated with the action on the screen (like the famous Jaws theme that builds suspense while the shark is homing in on its victims, or loud and abrupt sounds during a surprise event, etc). Movies also can have a traditional song that plays during a long sequence of shots with no critical dialog or sound effects... this is more like an anthem that sets the mood for whatever is happening.

    Traditional music doesn't need to fit a mood for a scene and has a lot more freedom to build to a climax and then slow down, then build to a climax again (like a chorus) or do whatever the musician wants.

    Video game music is inherently a style of its own. It's can be both cinematic at cutscenes and more ambient at long stretches. Game music used to have very short melodies because you didn't spend hours on the same screen like you do in newer games with more fluid mechanics. The way a song in an older RPG seems to immediately pick up tempo is kind of unnatural sounding when listening by itself. While I do enjoy those songs (like old final fantasies) they tire on me quickly, but I think they were good for the medium. I think music in general is very under-appreciated in all media for setting the tone of whatever it is.

    If the music is bad in a scene, it will affect the story for me. A game with good story and bad music is very unfortunate. Good dramatic music can really ramp up my enjoyment of a game. In a game like Chrono Cross, I think the music is so important to the enjoyment of the game that I could not even imagine enjoying it without it. Bad music would make the game unplayable to me. It doesn't necessarily make or break every game, but it certainly can greatly enhance the game. Every once in awhile, it actually becomes one of the strongest points of the game and makes a mediocre game more interesting.

    ...did any of that make sense? O_o;
  • CidolfasCidolfas Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Music is not a "make or break" thing, but there are several games whose music almost ruined the experience for me (the one that comes to mind is Xenosaga II, although Professor Layton games also grate on me) and several others which were mediocre but were elevated thanks to great music (Valkyria Chronicles, Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile). And other good games were just constantly enhanced by excellent soundtracks (Chrono Trigger, FF6, Okami, Phoenix Wright, Mega Man games).
  • Rya_ReisenderRya_Reisender Solipsist Snowflake Full Members
    edited November 2012
    For me video game music is the most important aspect of a game. If I like the music, I usually also like the game. If the music is really bad, the chance that I quit the game fast is very high.
    Even worse than "not so good" music is "no music", though.

    It can indeed ruin a game. A horror game for example can be incredibly boring if it doesn't use sound effect and music properly.
    Also an RPG that is pretty grindy -> if it has really amazing music I can grind for hours, if I don't like the OST, I can barely endure to grind even 10 minutes.
    And generally my playtime per day also depends on the music strongly. The better the music, the longer I can play a game without taking a break.
    I even caught myself quitting most games in regions where I didn't like the music as much as in previous regions.

    Switching off the music and playing some other music is usually not a good option for me. The music needs to fit the game and the scenes after all.
  • KiralynKiralyn Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    The one that bugs me on this topic are the people who say "Oh, I turn the music off. It's more realistic and immersive - you don't have a soundtrack following you around in real life after all!"..... and they're saying this about the Elder Scrolls games. The ones with the fantastically awesome & atmosphere-enhancing music. ._.


    ------
    Personally, I've always found music to be an important part of a game. Yeah, bad music can be annoying. But good music can really improve the atmosphere & experience. The only times I turn off music - let alone play other music - are when it's really, really repetitive and/or over long periods of times. Long tower defense flash games, or the fifth hour farming the same mobs in one corner of a grindathon RPG/MMO, for example.
  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited November 2012
    Kiralyn said:
    The one that bugs me on this topic are the people who say "Oh, I turn the music off. It's more realistic and immersive - you don't have a soundtrack following you around in real life after all!"..... and they're saying this about the Elder Scrolls games. The ones with the fantastically awesome & atmosphere-enhancing music. ._.
    I'm going to have to agree with this. I'm not quite sure why people would deliberately mute a Western RPG. It's not as though the music is terribly invasive.
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  • EthosEthos Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Music is part of the story. If story is important to you in an RPG, then music is important to you. It has an important a role in world-building as the graphics and art style and as an important part in story-telling as the words. It is integral to a good RPG. I do not believe a great RPG can exist without great music.
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  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited November 2012
    I will say that I don't understand the argument that music "elevates" games like chrono cross, but isn't make or break.

    If chrono cross wouldn't be as good without its amazing music then clearly music does affect quality.
    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited November 2012
    To that effect if chrono cross' soundtrack was replaced by Weird Al songs and its sound effects replaced by fart noises, would you really still be interested in playing?

    Poor sound design makes for poor gaming experience.
    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
  • JormungandJormungand Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    Typho said:
    Yeah, Nier is definitely a great example of a game that wouldn't be the same without its soundtrack.
    You're right, it would be a lot better!

    From the ed:
    Nier, I believe, represents a solid example of well-crafted music with emotional relativity to gameplay. When you cut Nier's music completely and replace it with your own (something I have done recently on my Xbox 360), some of the game's finer elements are actually lost in translation; the combat feels less enticing, cutscenes seem emotionally unbalanced, and some environments actually lose their intrigue.
    I try not to get caught on discussions about Nier's music because I know how popular it is. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with this part. It didn't take me long to cut Nier's music and do my own sound direction. And my selections worked a lot better.

    Now, I should preface this by saying I rarely use custom music. The music in a game would have to be especially annoying. However, if I do decide to replace it, I use other game music.

    In Nier's case, yes, the music is lovely and well-produced. But it's also paper thin. I came to this conclusion pretty quickly--I think it was about when I reached the tower for the first time and realized, "wow, that's about a 40-second loop that plays over and over again" and then "wow, every track so far has been a 40-second loop that plays over and over again". The village theme and its variations are just about perfect; but elsewhere the game is scored with the same predictable chord progressions from beginning to end. It's incredibly boring. It's pretty, yes, and also atmospheric, and all sorts of other adjectives. But one thing the Nier score certainly is not, is enduring. Its severe lack of musical substance really robs the narrative for me. Otherwise, I really love the game.

    Think back to Nier's predecessors Drakengard 1 & 2. Drakengard the first had one of the most innovative and protean scores a video game could ever (and will ever) have for its electronic transformation, displacement, and reformation of classical music using sources from Wagner to Tchaikovsky to Debussy. Drakengard 2 pulled a 180 and returned to the traditional composition approach, but each of its tracks were utterly packed with exciting content that echoed--in triumphant fits--the classical roots of its prequel.

    Then comes Nier. OK, sure--the narrative's pared back a bit from the penetrating character studies of anti-heroism and near-psychosis that comprises the first two games, and instead visits its tortured characters through a soft-palette lens of melancholy and muted longing, and maybe that deserves a calmer, more austere soundtrack to match. I wouldn't disagree with that.

    But Nier's soundtrack goes well beyond "austere" and into to the realm of "impoverished". Because proper development is absent, the soundtrack sounds more like a series of condensed vignettes that fizz out and loop before ever becoming fully-formed. I find little satisfaction in listening to half-baked music, and this unfortunate quality really hurt the aural atmosphere of an otherwise beautiful game.
    In that sense, I do believe gameplay, or even an entire gaming experience, can lose its luster without the right music to accompany it.
    I have to agree with this. But what I might ask the author--and everyone else--who decides what the "right music" is? I don't think Nier had the right music; but the author and many hundreds of others clearly do.

    However, on the ultimate point of whether it's a "make-or-break" facet, I can't say it is. Despite how important music is to me, as a discipline, as an art, I couldn't let it completely ruin a game (or movie, or whatever) for me. It would have to be truly appalling. I didn't like Nier's soundtrack, but the game's great. On the flip side, no soundtrack, no matter how brilliant, could save a bad game. Final Fantasy XIII, anyone?

    Still, I would continue to urge developers to not just accept the lowest common denominator when it comes to selecting a composer for their project. However, I believe developers also need to recognize that the person they hire to do the music is the expert on music. Too often composers produce carbon-copies of the current popular sound, and that's why we get so many generic game soundtracks in general (especially in the West). They do this not necessarily because they lack talent, but because their "boss" asks nothing more of them.

    Some composers--the really good ones--will take it upon themselves to pursue excellence.

    Masashi Hamauzu, after having scored his first full-length game at Square (Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon), decided he would like to produce an arranged album for the soundtrack. He took on the daunting task of arranging and orchestrating the music himself, a feat no Square composer has taken on before or since (composers have of course arranged their own music, but not for full orchestra). This impressed staff at Square at the time, and it's no small wonder he moved up in rank year after year until his career at Square culminated in being selected as the sole composer of Square's thirteenth Final Fantasy entry.

    When Makoto Ikehara and his team at Capcom were working on Breath of Fire III--their first playstation entry--Akari Kaida was chosen as lead composer. She was initially asked for traditional orchestral music, but instead (perhaps in defiance?) gave the game jazz. Her audacity is appreciated, as BoF3 has one of the most unique and invigorating RPG soundtracks to date.

    And Drakengard? Nobuyoshi Sano served as music director and co-composer of the score. Instead of producing something traditional, he said, screw it, I'm going to cut up classical music samples from the London Symphony Orchestra, smash them together, and let the resulting controlled chaos of pure orchestral texture and electronic timbre become the basis for a totally new genre of music. You see, he recognized just how f'ed up this game's story and characters were, and how necessarily violent--yet focused--the music must be, and he and co-composer Takayuki Aihara came up with something frightening and beautiful all at once.
  • DarkRPGMasterDarkRPGMaster A Witness to Destruction Moderators
    edited November 2012
    Jormungand said:
    On the flip side, no soundtrack, no matter how brilliant, could save a bad game. Final Fantasy XIII, anyone?
    HEY! ...I liked FFXIII, it was so different that it fit the FF series like a glove. XD

    And since we're speaking of Drakengard here, some notable music from Drakengard 2 that I can think of.
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  • TG BarighmTG Barighm Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    I didn't like FF13's soundtrack much. There were a few nice songs, but I can't think of any one I liked a lot.
    Poor sound design makes for poor gaming experience.
    At one time, sure, but in this day and age when I can turn off the music and sound volume? Doesn't really matter anymore.
    But what I might ask the author--and everyone else--who decides what the "right music" is? I don't think Nier had the right music; but the author and many hundreds of others clearly do.
    When it comes to something so relative and varying in taste as music, I can understand why many businesses grab the least expensive composer as possible and expect them to produce what the dev. feels is the most appropriate music. The best a dev. can do in such a situation is stick with the vision and hope the artist assigned to the task meets it. If he/she exceeds it, great, if not, then try someone else. It's really just an extension of focusing on developing the best experience possible rather than trying to appease everyone. That will just lead to frustration.
  • BalanceBalance Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    It used to be, that in computer games the only sensea we have are sight and sound, the feedback controller hmmn... Anyway I agree that music elevates a great game into a memorable experience. I've spent days and nights hearing the game music even when I'm not playing it. When I heard the music on Fire Emblem trailer brand identification smacks me between the eyes and anticipation of a great time starts the unrequited hunger :p.
    The most memorable music at moment of writing is the haunting chronocross, th enext is the stupid victory tune of Final fantasy, other music seem to be trigger response.
    Last of all , I would like to say that RPG backtrack, which I think of as Phil's show always has awesome music from the legendary eras of gaming, 8bit? 16bit channel sounds, there isn't a day when I wish he had the rights or whatever to release a compilation album ha! The musical interludes from various contributors including the Might Zoltan in the main show are brilliant too.
    Conclusion-music doesn't make the game- I won't buy a game just for the music, but it's an important part of the over-all aesthetics.
  • retrodragonretrodragon Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    I really enjoyed this editorial. It got me thinking about the games I own, and in particular, the games I tend to complete. I would say most of the games that I have really stuck with all the way through had good music. Nier really pops out to me as having great sound, but I also think that compared to many jrpg's the Final Fantasies have always stepped it up and brought amazing music to the genre. Crono Cross is a good example of a game in which the music actually made the whole package really stand out. It kind of provides a back story to the world you are in.

    I would also say that turn based rpg's are probably in need of good music more than any other genre, both because of the length you play them as well as the fact that your probably noticing it more in a strategic gameplay session. Currently playing the Digital Devil Saga games on my ps2. Wow great soundtrack, very different than the usual stuff. I think music is an important element, and yes I do think it can make a mediocre game great, or drop a solid gaming experience into a lowball one.
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  • RealityCheckedRealityChecked Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    It surprises me so many turn down/off the music…I think you take the whole package for better or worse.

    But if you want to try to determine its importance, try this oversimplification:
    1) Consider the most powerful scene in your favorite rpgs that you haven’t seen/heard in a while.
    2) Which would create a stronger response: A) hearing music from the scene or (B) seeing it with no sound?

    For me it’s a mixed bag, but I learn toward the music.
  • XR2XR2 Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    For me it depends on what I'm doing in the game. If I'm fully engaged and fully enjoying the game, I want the full experience. However, if I'm doing something more mindless, like farming or grinding, then I will also be listening to a podcast or watching a show.
  • HyphyKezzyHyphyKezzy The Best Full Members
    edited November 2012
    I'm a fairly habitual muter and for a long time thought I just didn't like video game music but I've revised my opinion on that somewhat recently. I think I just don't like video game music the way it plays in video games. It's like the radio which I also can't stand, too damn repetitive. When I listen to music it has to be mixed up constantly. Even a song I love I don't want to hear more than maybe two or three times in a week. And never two or three times an hour like it is on the radio or every time I hit a battle or go back to the overworld like it is in games.

    But I have taken to loading whatever random preorder bonus soundtracks I end up getting onto my mp3 player because, hey, why not? And I've noticed that a lot of the time when those songs pop up on the random shuffle I'll end up listening through and enjoying the whole song. Which is more than I can say for all that random bluegrass I got from someone I used to share an apartment with. Automatic skip every time on those.

    So I guess it's still neither make nor break for me in games, I'm still gonna continue muting, but I have come around to admitting that some of it is good when separated from the game.
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  • SalfurionSalfurion New Member Full Members
    edited November 2012
    I find video game music to be a rather important aspect of video games. A good soundtrack can keep me immersed in the experience. I have never understood why people mute the sound when playing, it is understandable when you are grinding levels for hours at a time, but it baffles me still that people do this. A good soundtrack adds to the experience of the game.
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