Time to bring to a close the very first tl;dr article series on this blog. Are you as excited as I am? No? Ok then, on with the show.
When I look back on my gaming history, I realize that I was very rpg focused. When I think back on the titles that influenced me, I don’t think of just the Super Mario Bros., the Metroids, or the Mortal Kombats — I think of more obscure titles, like Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals, and Earthbound.
When I think back on those titles, I immediately bring back to mind the great music that I heard while playing them (surprise surprise, considering this series’ focus). Each of those games had excellent music for my taste, and not even just for their heroic qualities.
Sometimes a game’s music, for all the heroism, and grand exploration involved, just needs to be fun. Believe it or not, many games forget this fact.
Everything is fist-pumping, action packed, pulsing music. That’s fine for action sequences, but a story should always have more facets to it than simply fighting and heroic deeds. Laughter and humor are what give stories their lifeblood. There should always be scenarios that deviate from a serious narrative, if only for a short while, to show you that the world is not just black and white — it can also be a little bit goofy gray.
I mean, seriously, if you were in the midst of a journey to save the world from the threat of an evil intergalactic being who wants to enslave your entire race, would you expect to hear something like this?
Earthbound – Hi Hi Hi
This was the music you heard upon reaching Saturn Valley in the rpg Earthbound. Home to one of the strangest, but oddly charming, races I have ever seen in a video game: the armless Saturns.
Seriously, the caption is a pretty spot on example of how they spoke ingame. These things were a race of, allegedly, genderless extraterrestrials whom you meet on your travels through the game. They are a peace-loving people, who sell a wicked form of psychedelic coffee in their shops that trip you out when you drink it (I don’t know what substances the developers were on when they designed the game, but I want some).
Does this fit in with a narrative whose focus is kids saving the world? Actually, yes. It fits quite well in a game where a photographer pops up out of nowhere to take a pic of you with your group, beckoning you all to say “Fuzzy pickles!” before taking the shot, and a game where you meet a slob kid inventor who creates brilliant devices, like a giant eraser that erases giant pencil sculptures that block your way (seriously, I want some of what the devs were on).
I think part of the reason that game stood out to me, despite the fact that it wasn’t a huge moneymaker in America at the time of release, was the fact that they tried to blend humor and a serious narrative, and it worked. Somehow they found a way to make that piece above, and this–
Earthbound – Snowman (Snow Wood Boarding School)
–fit within the context of the same narrative.
In my opinion, that is always how it should be. Stories should never get so serious that they forget to inject a little bit of humor into them. At least not rpgs.
It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure. If your narrative has more of a grand focus, then humor should be there as an accent piece. It should not dominate the landscape, or else you risk diminishing the impact of your dramatic focus. Nevertheless, I can think of very few instances where a story was made better by the absence of humor, and many, many instances were a story was enhanced by its addition.
This same philosophy (injecting a subtle amount of humor into a grand narrative) can be seen prominently featured in the best rpgs of the past 15-20 years. Moreover, the music associated with these humorous moments help to make the light-hearted moments stand out even more.
For instance: Lali Ho!
Final Fantasy IV – King Giott’s Castle
Final Fantasy – Chocobo Themes
Have a nice stay!
Earthbound – Enjoy Your Stay (In my opinion, THE best inn theme in an rpg. It just has a friggin sweet “Spanish villa” feel to it.)
Anyone for some Pazaak?
Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – Iziz Cantina
That last one has me expectant for some good light-hearted music in Star Wars: The Old Republic, because its composer, Mark Griskey, also composed that little catchy “Star-Wars-meets-1920′s-speakeasy” theme for the Iziz Cantina in KotOR II. I look forward to some nice easy listening in SWTOR cantinas (and based on the limited amount of cantina music I’ve heard from the game, I would say I won’t be disappointed).
I think the point of this last part was to emphasize the importance of having all sides of musical atmosphere represented. Yes, it is important for you to know how heroic your characters are in an rpg, but you should also have musical indicators that let you know your character is not tasteless, and neither is the world in which they roam.
On a selfish level, I hope — and even expect — that there will be music that emphasizes the humor of the situations in SWTOR, just as there will be music to emphasize the romance, or heroic action. I always look for this same thing in any movies I watch, or video games I play. I hate when media neglects humor in an effort to be taken deadly serious. Granted, there are stories where such music would detract from the message (for instance, I don’t think Schindler’s List would benefit favorably from a Cantina Band-esque little ditty), but I can hardly think of one rpg that has ever benefited from ignoring humor.
In the end, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a story endearing. Some love their stories to be dark, full of complexity, with humor nowhere in sight. For me, I prefer stories that find some way to balance drama, humor, and romance. It is not an easy feat to achieve, but it can be done effectively. I’m positive of that fact. It’s one of the reasons I love rpgs over any other genre.
My sincerest wish for the future of rpgs is, I don’t want them to ever lose their flavor.
Part of what makes an rpg worth playing is the total package. It isn’t just being a hero/heroine, it isn’t just saving kingdoms, or romancing companions. It is not just bombastic leitmotifs over grand boss fights that emphasize how awesome you are. Creating a tangible, flavorful world — that’s what makes rpgs worth playing.
–It’s watching an old wizard beat a “spoony bard” over the head with a staff while slinging spells at him (Tellah, R.I.P., you magnificent old bastard).
–It’s drinking a psychedelic cup of coffee with your grade school-age friend, in a village populated by armless, bow-wearing, androgenous beings that speak as if they have ADD (please someone from the dev team get back to me).
–It’s going off to fight a boss who wants to destroy the world riding on the back of a chicken — with a silly theme to match (jk, I love you chocobos).
–It’s about teasing the hell out of that ice queen Bastila just because you can, or jumping into a threesome with Isabella & Zevran on a whim (I love you, BioWare).
Most importantly, it’s about creating memorable musical cues to accent these great moments.
As one member of the orchestra working on SWTOR stated so perfectly, “The music leads the experience. Always. Emotionally.”
Music is universal. It forms the backbone of any form of media in which it is present. It pushes any story forward, makes you care for the characters, and it makes you feel the full breadth of a situation.
Music also gives you a tangible bookmark for your memories. Show me one person who doesn’t have a deep memory associated with music, and I’ll show you a poor, unfortunate bastard.
In video games, it is even more apparent how integral an aural identity, a musical identity is to the essence of a video game. I’ve long ago stopped thinking of video game music as some niche medium that has no artistic merit. For me, music in video games is as important to my identity as a story lover as books were to people from my grandparent’s generation, or films were to people from my parents’ generation.
Video games — some of them — have every right to be considered worthy for consideration as a valid form of artistic work. Rpgs stand at the very front of this line.
I’ve played video games with narratives that rival novels. Hell, it is not even surprising to find a game with a story written by a novelist, anymore (shout out to Drew K and the talented writers at BioWare).
The music associated with these works are equally as deserving of accreditation as serious works of art. Many video game pieces have even been played by symphonies, and inspired people to pursue careers as composers, or musicians. As video games have grown more intricate with the technology that allows them to do so, music in video games has also grown and matured. In all honesty, what makes–
–so different from–
–? Nothing. Yasunori Mitsuda was trying to interpret the feelings of a boy who had traveled to another world; Bach was driven, arguably, by his desire to interpret music as a testament to the glory of God. Each was driven by a different inspiration — but both are deserving of their artistic merit.
Video games exist to give gamers an escape into a fantastical world which we can mold and shape to our liking. Music is there to give that world color, and vibrancy.
In conclusion, here’s hoping that as video games age, composers continue to improve the audible landscape of them for the better.
I really believe that Warren Spector was right on the money when he said “video games are the medium of the 21st century.”
Video game music will be the flavor of that medium.