by James M. Potter

I came across this excellent post by Kevin VanOrd at GameSpot. His categories for defining the various functions music performs in games align closely with mine, discussed in the previous post.

A word that keeps coming back to me, from this post and my own thoughts, is aptness. This, surely, is the ultimate criterion with which we should judge whether music for a game is successful or otherwise. It must fit, it must chime (pardon the pun) with everything else that is going on in the story. VanOrd refers to music ‘earning the right’ to manipulate your emotions. If done well you shouldn’t even feel like you’re being manipulated. Games have to judge when to deploy that lush romantic string texture which commands you to feel sorrowful. Games that drop you in medias res and expect you to care about characters you’ve only just met need to tread very carefully to avoid bludgeoning you round the head with the unsubtle mace of emotion, or gassing you with a pungent cloud of unsolicited and generic ‘sentiment’.

It’s this factor, the appropriateness to the setting, that is ultimately how we must judge game music. This is why I believe that reviews of game soundtracks – found more and more often on enthusiast websites – are fundamentally misguided. If the music stands up on its own, all the better, but the final determinant of its value  must be within its context in the game. It is not designed, in general, to work as stand-alone music. If it does, then quite often it’s because the listener is reminded of the in-game experience associated with that music. Advocates for the ‘games as art’ theory do themselves no favours when they point to, for example, the increasing popularity of concerts of video game music featuring pieces divorced from their original compositional context. In any case, most of these beloved themes have been heavily re-arranged and orchestrated, to the point where one is forced to wonder whether it really is still game music, or whether it is simply ‘music featuring themes from video games’ – not nearly so catchy, I know…

Just one example off the top of my head: Seymour’s Ambition, from Final Fantasy X. Taken separately, to my ears, it’s just dark, repetitive and a bit unsettling. In the game though, it functions perfectly. It’s a the first time we really meet Seymour, a character whose motives and past are unclear and quite possibly dangerous. It’s a texture we haven’t thus far in the game heard, dry drums and electric guitar, and a harmony of unsettling, incomplete chords. Later on in the game we’ll hear this theme in other, weirder, darker manifestations as we learn more about Seymour’s plans. Just don’t do the piece the disservice of listening to it on its own.

So I won’t be reviewing any soundtracks here. If I take them apart to find out how they work, it will be firmly within the context of the game – looking at the choices a composer made, what he tried to convey, where, and how, and why. And that’s far more interesting anyway, isn’t it?