Videogame music is pure magic.
You can listen to all the punk rock or butt rock you’d like, but there’s no denying that videogame music has contributed to some incredible musical moments over the years. However, some have argued that in recent years, videogame music has been largely forgettable. Not bad, mind you – there are some truly excellent pieces out there popping up in many titles – just not memorable.
Everyone remembers the Super Mario Bros. theme song. Even before it was shoved down our throats thanks to the internet with people desperately trying to find an inanimate object that has yet to perform the legendary tune, this song was branded into our brains. While a game like Modern Warfare 3 can have an exhilarating score, the songs will likely be forgotten as soon as the game ends. With such great music, what prevents us from remembering it? What was it that made so much of the music of previous generations stick in our head, and how can more modern game music reach that level of infectiousness?
This is seriously getting out of hand.
The first and most obvious answer is that songs need to be catchy. If I told you to hum any videogame song from the late 80s or early 90s, you wouldn’t know where to begin. If I told you to hum a videogame song from the late 00s or early 10s, you wouldn’t know where to begin. Songs just had a way of getting stuck in your head then. Obviously, the limited technology of the time meant shorter songs, so pieces needed to be easily looped and make an impact quick. When a minute-and-a-half song is looped over the course of a ten-minute level, it’s going to live in your head – if it’s catchy.
Bear in mind that a catchy song isn’t always a good song. However, when a tune has a melody that strikes you with notes arranged in such a way that your brain is ensnared by it, it’s catchy. Good or bad, that song will live with you longer than you think. The main theme from The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare was very fitting, considering its composer clearly wrote it after experiencing night terrors. It’s jarring, obnoxious, and unbelievably grating, and yet the song is undeniably catchy and has stayed in my head since childhood.
On the good end of the spectrum, the aforementioned classic theme to the original Super Mario Bros. is a shining example of video game music done right. The Mario Bros. theme is a quick song that loops before the clock strikes one minute. The song is made entirely of beeps and boops; it sticks with people for a lifetime. And to prove that videogame music can STILL be catchy, look no further than modern Mario titles. Super Mario Galaxy 2’s Yoshi Egg Galaxy song, or the main theme of Super Mario 3D Land, are like old Mario songs, bouncy, fun, and exciting jams that are tough to forget. It can still be done!
An issue a lot of games have now is that the songs shoot for ambience or attempt to score a player’s assumed actions the way a film score would. The songs for certain moments in BioShock, for example, are expertly composed pieces of music that highlight the action well. But the problem is that these songs aren’t even remotely memorable. You’ll certainly remember that the game’s songs were outstanding, but I can guarantee you wouldn’t be able to hum the songs to yourself if you were trapped in a room full of splicers. You may say that a song in a modern, more serious game shouldn’t be catchy, and that could be true. But where there’s rarely even a central theme to these songs, their stay in your head will be brief.
Going off the concept of a catchy song, I’ve mentioned that a tune’s catchiness comes in part from repetition. The repetitiveness of a song is a whole other element that makes it memorable! When a song is used in a game a LOT, you’re going to be remembering it even if it’s not the catchiest of songs. I think the finest example of a repetitive song is the battle theme in any Final Fantasy game. Whether you’re in the opening sequence or storming the main villain’s castle, the one common thread over these 40+ hour adventures is the battle theme. In a game where battles were fought at random for the first ten entries, this is a song that pops up CONSTANTLY. Thankfully, every Final Fantasy has a great battle theme. But even if these songs were rubbish, the frequency of these songs is what makes people remember them the most – it was as much a part of the journey as the members of their party.
If you played a lot of Call of Duty, this song will certainly bring back some memories.
There’s actually a really good modern example of this, a game I derided earlier for not having memorable music – Call of Duty. All the recent Call of Duty games have one massive exception as far as having forgettable music goes, and that’s the multiplayer menu. The multiplayer menu is a place where competitive players live. It is a screen to hang out on between matches, edit your classes, and compare stats. Every Call of Duty has its own song for its multiplayer menu, and for people who spend long nights online shooting ignorant 12-year-olds, these are songs they will never forget.
Modern game music as a whole has found a way to utilize repetition to create memorable songs through themes and motifs. While this is an approach that’s been taken since the retro days, it’s a lot more common with serious or adult-oriented games that might not lend themselves to fun, bouncy tunes. By having a main theme for a game and inserting it into pieces throughout the adventure, a song can indeed have the same strong sticking power to it. This is especially true in franchise games. The main theme to Uncharted, made familiar through the main menu, pops up at just the right moments in the main game, getting you pumped up and ready to shoot people far more times than it would take a normal person to die. And Harry Gregson-Williams’ incredible main theme to Metal Gear Solid 2 serves as a beautiful and emotional bookend to this fantastic game, forever associating the emotional heights of Snake and Raiden’s adventure with this glorious tune.
Occasionally, something in a game could strike you in a way that, upon recalling it countless times, brings a song right there with you. This is where licensed music comes into play a lot as well. Whether it’s something as emotionally impactful as connecting the final battle with Sephiroth to the gorgeous “One-Winged Angel” or simply recalling hanging out with pals playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and instantly thinking of Goldfinger’s Superman, gaming memories both personal and game-related connect you to music in a very unique way. Licensed music may be considered cheating, but if it can still be used to associate with a game in your mind, it’s still a success. On top of that, games like the Tony Hawk series and even sports games have done wonders for bands gaining new listeners. I wouldn’t be a fan of bands like Primus, Less Than Jake, or Bad Religion if it weren’t for certain games. Everyone wins!
One final thing that makes game music unforgettable is if it’s just something different. I’ve said before that it’s going the extra mile when facing limitations that can create excellent art, and that certainly goes for music. The music in the underrated SNES classic ActRaiser tries desperately to sound as if it is performed by a live orchestra, but the sound chip on the SNES could only go so far. What we were treated to instead was a unique sound all on its own, making ActRaiser’s most memorable element its music. Grant Kirkhope’s brilliant scores on the many N64 games he composed for Rare are similarly unique in their dynamism – a level will have the same song playing throughout, but the instrumentation and tempo will change seamlessly to match new atmospheres as players enter different areas. Sometimes a downright bizarre song can stick in your head forever just because you’ve heard nothing like it – a recent example being the Sushi Lamp song in Shadows of the Damned. It’s so damn weird that you’ll be recalling it hours after you shut off the game.
There’s a lot of different parts that can make game music memorable. Why is that so important, though? Who cares if we remember game songs? Well, I honestly believe that’s where a good chunk of our warm and fuzzy memories of old games come from. Of course you’ll remember the amazing gameplay and graphics of older games, but it’s a different, and awesome, feeling when you remember the music. I feel like, while modern games have so much going for them, it’s the music we’ll end up forgetting more than anything, and as a result our memories of this generation won’t be as incredible as they deserve to be.
Game music can still be saved, though by making catchy songs and making FUN songs. If a game is far too serious, you can still give the game a musical theme to stick with throughout the game to give people sounds to connect to their memories of the experience. Orchestras are great, but they’re not necessary. It’s okay to still use MIDIs or outdated soundchips in modern games, or arrangements that don’t require every instrument known to man. If there’s one person who is keeping it all alive, it’s Grant Kirkhope. He no longer works for Rare, but he recently scored Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and it’s absolutely brilliant. He DOES use a full orchestra, but he’s managed to make music with a more serious tone that has enough of a melody and enough character to be remembered for years to come. Even the more ambient stuff still has an infectious ring to it.
And of course there’s always our beloved indie composers. Guys like virt and Danny Baranowsky have used their limited resources to create amazing songs for independent games that have all the qualities great game music has always had. The same way independent developers keep older styles of gameplay and graphics alive, indie composers keep the same musical sensibilities with game soundtracks and deserve boatloads of praise for that.
When it all comes down to it, game music is great but far too forgettable. There are many ways to take game music to the standards where it once was, with plenty of modern examples to prove it. The argument can be made that, since we remember things better at certain ages (namely before puberty), game songs from that era will never be beaten for those of us in our 20s and 30s. Maybe it’s even impossible for great game music to be remembered at an age where things aren’t magical and awesome. And while that’s a strong argument, there have still been enough amazing pieces of music in recent games to show that others simply need to try harder!
The skill is absolutely there, considering many forgettable game songs are still amazing examples of musicianship, but composers need to take a step back and realize just what it is that makes specifically videogame music so memorable. And then we can all have a new library of music to hum, and people can stop covering the god damn Mario theme.