If Music be the Food of Love

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

ifmusicbethefoodoflove-finaIs it just me, or is video game music becoming less memorable? Now, I know that statement will get some people firing up their counter arguments in the form of standout videogame scores, but think about it a while. To my mind, we’ve lost the insanely catchy melodies of the 8 and 16-bit eras. What we have now are sweeping, epic rifts akin to movie soundtracks. That’s not a bad thing… it’s just not as memorable.

Movie scores can be memorable of course. Just hum the Indiana Jones theme in your local supermarket and you’re sure to snag someone willing to hum along with you. But think on the number of films produced each year compared to the number of film soundtracks that have stuck in your mind. Casting back, I’d note Christopher Nolan’s Inception as having an awesome soundtrack. But when I really think about it, all I really remember is that soul-disrupting blaaarrrmmmmm noise. The melody is a vague memory.

Increased game production values have rocketed their associated soundtracks into the world of movie-stardom. Big names can now be attached to projects and big blockbuster titles have soundtracks that are nothing less than impressive. They’re emotive, expressive, grand and highly competent… and lacking. It’s hard to define.

Some people argue that good music, when dealing with film for example, is unnoticeable – it should not intrude on the picture. It’s doing its job, building suspense, exciting, adding mood, all the time in the background. To notice it would be to say that its function had become obvious, thus destroying its very purpose. There is probably a lot of sense to that. And as games seek to convey a greater cinematic experience, perhaps they too must adhere to this. But what of the main score? The character theme that kicks in as the hero does something of note? Even the briefest flurry of the main notes of Star Wars is enough to tell us that Luke or Han had at least done something we should applaud. I’m not sure I could say the same for a slew of current-gen big-name game releases.

You might have thought that the longer playtime associated with games would embed their background music deeper within us over that of a film. The music accompanies our own personal actions and so should increase recognition. But that argument doesn’t seem hold these days. I played through (and loved every second of) Mafia II upon its release. I could tell you nothing about the soundtrack.

Alas, I can see the counter argument. The function of in-game music has changed. Mafia II’s music formed an entirely different function to that of say, Megaman’s. The score was tied up with the atmosphere of the game and the emotions of the characters. Megaman’s level themes on the other hand defined location and pace. They were not required to showcase the Blue Bomber’s range of emotional responses or convey his feelings towards his current predicament.

In the end, perhaps it is function that has dampened how memorable a game’s soundtrack is. That, and a fair amount of nostalgia. But while there are indeed sublime movie scores, they are not as prevalent as you’d suspect. And whereas I could name some great examples of video game music from the 32-bit era onwards, I still feel there is a gulf opening up.

Compile a list of the greatest game soundtracks in history. Look at how many were produced with a minimal range of beeps and bloops. Sure, there’s some potent nostalgia at play… but then again, it could well be telling of something more.