Friday, 7 September 2012

Video Game Music and the Independent Identity Issue

Between mountainous peaks of self-analysis I had an idea that was actually conducive to creative output. Hell, it may even lead to some degree of scheduled content in the not too distant future. In any case, bear with me as I lurch into Muddled Video Game Musical Things!

A long while ago it occurred to me that discussion of the music in video games was often pushed to the side in favour of, well, everything else. Video games are capable of many different things; they use the devices of prose, comics and cinema, and their own sets of mechanical conventions, too. Over the last two decades these elements have widened immensely; there are simply more capabilities than ever before in every direction. Music is one element among many that vies for priority, and I can’t help but feel saddened when it's left wanting. I wanted to take some time to look into the position that music holds in video games at the moment, explore how it got there, and share some notable tracks at the same time.

I struggled for a while with how to approach a topic as wide as music in video games, and then it hit me: it’s the huge breadth of possibilities that make the discourse so difficult to frame. There are only light conventions that link games to music style: the disposition of certain dominant developers (and the composers therein) is one thread, but it’s too unhinged, unintuitive and variable. And thematic-genre, too; it seems more likely to affect a soundtrack than gameplay-genre, but there is so little consistency—and such rapid changes and convergences over the years—that even this convention ends up being about as useful as saying ‘cinematic games have cinematic scores’. The conversation of video game music is mired in tenuous threads between genres and conventions that are rarely discussed in a way that encompasses video games as whole. It’s something of a quagmire at the moment. The issue of taste hangs more heavily here than with other elements, too; it is much harder to articulate and defend musical preference than it is to point at pretty graphics and tight controls.

I’ve come to feel that the best place to start might just be a simple question of independence: to what extent can video game music be separated from the whole and enjoyed by itself? I’ve liked many tracks from games I’ve never played, but veering towards what I’ve experienced seems invariable. There is something to be said for the effect on a piece of enjoyable music when it becomes synonymous with a pleasurable experience. That effect amounts to more than just nostalgia, though; some of my fondest memories in gaming featured an occasionally laughable  soundtrack. And there were many sequels—like Tekken Tag and Mario Kart: Double Dash—that were fun and massively accomplished but, I felt, sorely lacked in soundtrack against their predecessors.

The obvious (and simplistic) answer to the independence question would be that an individual track that is good enough should be able to stand on its own. But there are too many pesky tangents and variables to be content with this position. There is the very simple commercial fact that an album like this (some of Blizzard’s music re-arranged by Eminence Symphony Orchestra) isn’t going to generate much outside interest. Even if the music itself reached some non-existent plateau of objective excellence its primary audience would still be the players of Blizzard’s games. Music isn’t consumed in a vacuum, and there is a lot of music out there; people are pushed and pulled by association and platforms, and very rarely is anything plucked from obscurity and listened to without some linking thread. Video games are a legitimate avenue to music but they are also unconventional, especially when the music is so dissimilar to what one might expect to hear on the radio or TV.

It wasn’t until the Playstation that real tones and tracks were even a viable option to console developers. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made great use of mainstream bands and artists. Emulating a city environment with a believable radio was a ridiculously effective idea. Like-wise, loading up a game with artists who are popular among the exact people you want to play your skating game seems so obvious, but these practices had to start somewhere. By the time this new wave of ‘realistic’ games was in vogue, though, there was already a massive convention of simple synth and prominent melodies that formed into a genre of its own. This was originally a necessity of having precious little cartridge space; the composers had to make the best of a very limited set of tools and, in the process, a unique style emerged and many memorable tracks were produced. In more recent titles this convention seems clearest in throw-back indie games like ‘Castle Crashers’ and ‘Super Meat Boy’; stronger tones, way more voices, but still leaning on thick synth and prominent melody.

This style doesn’t just exist independently of games now, though; it flourishes. The fact of this chip-tune genre being created from video games speaks volumes about the significance of music to fans, developers and composers alike; the details, care and innovation does get noticed. A place like OCRemix (a superb site that I would recommend to, er, people who like music) wouldn’t exist without a multitude of folks ready to pull songs out of a gaming context. Musicians take memorable tracks and flesh them out, often into something more conventionally associable with standalone music. After all, what better way to get into music than by attraction to a well-known genre?

To bring things back to the independence issue, though, it can seem like this kind of objectivity isn’t absolute: potential listeners are going to be drawn to the titles they have played or experienced and, though a reinterpretation may be enjoyed, it was still dependent on someone having a reason to give a track a chance. But this is only a tendency I’ve noticed in myself from time to time. I’ve also come to love some fantastic remixes from games I’ve never even heard of, mostly on the strength of the artists’ consistency. I don’t think the link between enjoyed music and its constituent game can be fully ignored, but it can be overcome in the right circumstances; when the musical reputation of a game out-paces (or keeps up with) its other elements, or when dedicated musicians lift up their favourite pieces. All that’s really required—aside from a vague interest in music—is for people in the community to say things like, ‘Hey, I thought this was pretty good.’

 [Next time I'll be writing about nostalgia and the dread pandemic of 'rose-tinted glasses'.]

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