Sounds Important

written by Steve 'Thinman' Whitley on 7.12.13 andrewskeet

So, the next generation of consoles has finally arrived. Nobody can say that it has been a smooth ride getting to this point, particularly as it started with poor sales of the Wii U and then snowballed into corporate farce when the Xbox One and Playstation 4 were unveiled. The internet exploded with gamer rage, something that is all too common these days, and it has only got worse from there. The list of problems is a big one: DRM, DLC, micro-transactions, free-to-play mechanics in games that are not free, unfinished games being released, greed, lies, ignorance, ridiculous messianic presentations by men in suits, dishonest journalism, digital download price gouging…..and so on. To be honest all of these things are easy targets to complain about but are a direct result of what we humans like to call progress. It’s how we do it; smashing forward regardless of any damage that it can and will cause. It doesn’t matter because it can be fixed later with an update, right? Besides, judging by the sales figures attached to Microsony’s new machines, it would seem that gamers, in spite of all the online hate, don’t care and are willing to continuously put up with all the bullshit that goes with modern video games as long as they have the latest shiny thing. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t complain about the above issues but the constant noise it creates has drowned a more serious problem that has been around for many years and is the only real issue that I have. The magic has gone. Not entirely but it has all but vanished in the mainstream. When I say magic I mean the joy, the smiles, and the memories……the fun. It’s not just one thing that has been lost either but right now I want to focus on something that is rarely talked about or discussed, something that has been left behind by that bastard called progress: Music.

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I have seen videos on YouTube that talk about how we don’t get strong themes in game music anymore and the rebuttal is always the same; that we do have the themes it’s just that technology has advanced and now the options are far greater. This is dodging the problem though as music in games used to matter, it used to mean something. From the wonderful tune that plays on the Master System version of Hang-on when you fail to the unforgettable tunes in Super Mario 64, when done well music used to enhance the experience. It used to feel like it was an organic component of a whole that had a purpose. With the exception of two or three there has not been a game in the last fifteen years that I have booted up just so I could have an excuse to listen to the music. The games that fall into that category include Road Rash, Nights, Revenge of Shinobi, Mario Kart, Power Drift, Top Gear, Thunderforce 3 and many more. All games with fantastic tunes, all games from the Golden Age. I’m not saying that modern games have bad music but nearly all of it is just functional movie scores tacked on to a game, and if that is being disingenuous to the process then the result is that it sounds like that when you play. However well composed and put together it may be it just doesn’t sound like game music. Of course modern music shouldn’t sound like its being pushed through a Yamaha YM2612 but why shouldn’t it feel the same? Technological improvements have something to do with it but increased fidelity does not, something that can be proven by playing Fez. Personally I love the game. It plays beautifully and has one of the most enchanting game worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, but the music? Perfect. Not only is the fidelity up to modern standards but it captures the retro styling of the game without compromising the atmosphere. On the contrary in fact, it adds to it immensely to the point where the game would be worse off with any other music of any kind. Can you say that about the last Halo game? No, and if you can then I’d have to look at your arsehole when you did just so I could see your lips moving. A drooling, tedious fanboy rant has no place here or anywhere for that matter. If you love the game then that’s cool but your beloved Halo theme could easily be swapped with something from Mass Effect or another big budget sci-fi game (or film) with little or no effect to the immersion or atmosphere. Disasterpeace doesn’t do Mass Effect soundtracks, but if he did it would probably be the best Mass Effect soundtrack in the world.

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A nice piece of evidence that cannot be ignored is the introduction of custom soundtracks that began with the original Xbox and its hard drive. Playing your own music collection while playing games sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong again. The problem was that it was a good idea due to the amount of games that had bland music or even worse licensed soundtracks thumbed into them before being cynically under-armed into the hands of gamers. Did Microsoft simply think that music in games wasn’t that important or were they just giving that option to the consumer not really caring if they used it or not? Who knows, and even if it is fashionable these days to blame them for everything they are not responsible for the introduction of the dreaded licensed soundtrack. When Sony unleashed the original Playstation on the world it bounded in gurning and shape-throwing with Wipeout, the MDMA baiting racer that featured the likes of The Chemical Brothers and Orbital on the soundtrack. Yeah, it was cool I guess…..at the time, but the impact it had led to many years of unspeakably shit music cropping up in games. Electronic Arts can have the award for most prolific offender in this area with their library of audible mediocrity. Whoever is in charge of the soundtracks for the Need for Speed games must serve a custodial sentence on general principle alone. I would also like to meet Skrillex and simply ask why? You could argue that it’s what the kids like but that doesn’t mean that it’s good, suitable or justified. The kids may like it but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve better. I know gamers my age do. You could argue that it’s down to personal taste but I’ve never heard a bad word said about the Streets of Rage soundtrack, other than it having a spinning-around-the-brass-pole feel to it….which it does. Great game music is great game music regardless of taste. You could even argue that you could just turn the music off in the options but your defeatist attitude would not be appreciated.

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So, custom soundtracks suck, so do licensed soundtracks and the tedious pursuit of the cinematic has given us decent but over-familiar movie style soundtracks. Maybe you think I’m full of it at this point but let me mention one more piece of evidence. Where are the audio superstars of today’s video game music scene? In 1992 I bought a copy of Super Adventure Island because it had the name Yuzo Koshiro on the cover. Revenge of Shinobi and Streets of Rage made him a superstar with many gamers, including me, so I knew that even if the game wasn’t great it would be better with some Yuzo magic. Well, the game is now one of my all time favourites and it has a brilliant, head-nodding, toe-tapping soundtrack that represents the best that the Super Nintendo had to offer. If you own a SNES and you don’t have this game then buy it before the lowlifes of eBay decide that it’s “rare” and stupid people pay out of the ass for it and ruin things for you. If you’re anything like me you won’t regret it. How about Grant Kirkhope? Rob Hubbard anyone? Martin Galway? Now that game music sounds just like music found anywhere else the identity of composers has become far less important, certainly in the eyes of today’s gamers and certain industry types. Even if the likes of Disasterpeace and Jesper Kyd (check out Freedom Fighters for another lesson in how to do a modern game soundtrack) have the talent and brains to understand what needs to be done their type seems to be few and far between. Giving the job to an already well paid Hollywood composer is a poor choice too as it’s not like they need the work, especially when there are far better suited musicians and composers out there. Give Hybrid a call, or Trifonic, or Solar Fields. Send an e-mail to Grant Kirkhope or Disasterpeace. What’s the worst that can happen? I’m not even sure who I’m preaching to anymore.

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Maybe what you’ve just read means nothing to you. Maybe it seems like the musings of a confused nerd who has nothing better to do. It could be simply that I care enough about my beloved pastime to not want it to continue going in the direction it is. The music problem can easily be fixed too as all the tools needed to do it are out there ready to be utilised. The music magic can be restored. Games like Fez and Max Payne 3 leave me with a small amount of hope but it seems like the functional and the mediocre are here for the long stay. So while you all focus your attention on things like DRM, DLC, the LGBT and other acronyms spare a thought for proper video game music while you play the latest racing game and subject yourself to the finest EDM from EA’s colon. The Golden Age of gaming is behind us not in front of us as some (corporate types and teenage fanboys) would like you to believe, and you know it. Also, if anyone does ever run into the person in charge of the Need for Speed soundtracks I have two words for you: Citizen’s arrest.

Seriously.

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