Real Composers Do It 8-Bit

I came across a pair of interesting game music articles on joystiq over this past week by Jesse Gregory: “Game Music: Enhancement Through Limitation” and “What? Game Music is Evolving!” These articles talk first about how the limitations of the original game consoles stimulated the creativity of those games’ composers and that by contrast modern game music is largely incidental and unmemorable. His follow up article clarifies a bit that modern game music doesn’t have to be so weak–there are some good examples of excellent modern game music. I’d argue that the same musical devices that made retro game soundtracks amazing are applying in the exact same way in successful modern game music.

When working with severe hardware constraints, retro game composers were forced to stretch their imaginations and abilities in entirely new ways. This forces a composer to experiment and learn new things, so when truly skilled composers like Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu, and Mari Yamaguchi are unleashed in this environment, the result is (and was) many highly memorable and amazing soundtracks.

…now for the flip side of this.

Gregory’s article points out what I believe to be a sad but true fact: we are faced with a largely declining quality of game music. Absent the restrictions of the early gaming systems, composers are no longer forced to innovate, and a lot of contemporary game music is nearly indistinguishable from generic movie music, which is far less interesting than, say, music from Mega Man 3. This modern type of incidental or background music is largely unmemorable and as Gregory puts it, “…you’d be hard pressed to guess which game it even belongs to.” However…

Writing all of your game music as 8- or 16-bit doesn’t automatically make it good.

So I’m not suggesting that we go back to 8- and 16-bit soundtracks. In fact, trying to superficially emulate the sounds of older consoles could teach an unsuspecting game producer a lesson in composition: despite it sounding like beeps and bloops, these composers were highly skilled and their work consists of significant creative artistry.

Writing all of your game music for an orchestra doesn’t make it automatically good either.

When there is such a focus on hearing this music performed by live orchestras, I feel that all too often the incredibly creative work the composers put in is forgotten, and people are mainly happy that it is finally being played on “real” instruments.

Here are a few things I think are actually critical to the effectiveness of video game music:

Popularized in classical music by Richard Wagner and in video game music by Nobuo Uematsu, this technique involves recurring themes associated with specific characters. In the best games, this often includes said leitmotif being a catchy, wandering melody.

Dynamic Music
Musicians reacting to the feel of an audience in jazz and modern classical improvisation is similar to this technique, which can be extensively used and easily abused in video games. This involves the music changing based on events that occur instead of as a static composition.

While some scenes in game necessitate incidental music, a soundtrack only really stands out if it is memorable in some way. I had the privilege of seeing Nobuo Uematsu in person at MAGFest recently, and the most important thing in game music to him is melody. The point here is, it shouldn’t all just sound like generic “movie music”!

Perhaps video game producers need to start limiting their composers to encourage music that really stands out on its own as an independent piece of music. However, it is still a fine line as trying to simply emulate retro gaming music isn’t a walk in the park either.

What you really need is a talented composer experimenting and stretching his or her creative limits.

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