Wednesday, September 29, 2010

re: Extra Credits and the world of videogame music

“sound designing is a human-to-human business... you have to tackle gamers’ feelings, which is something we've never been able to grasp completely.” - Metroid composer Hip Tanaka

For awhile I’ve had an idea to write a article that’s sort of my own personal history of game music. Right when I was about to sit down and start writing, I saw that Extra Credits was about eight steps ahead of me and has already posted a video discussing how game music has changed over the years. So this article is partly a response to that video.

While I agree with many of the ideas that are brought up in each video, often they are presented simplistically and the constant need for corresponding visual aids to whatever is being said tends to reinforce easy stereotypes and gloss over important details. One example, in the “Innovation” video there was a picture of a few laptop carrying 20-something males as a visual representation of the indie game community “which bewails its unrecognized genius and screams ‘SELLOUT’ whenever anyone in the community actually manages to make a hit (eye roll)”. And then there’s a white guy in a suit wearing expensive sunglasses who looks douchebaggy (Tommy Tallarico? haha just kidding) to represent a games industry that says “we can’t afford innovation” (ok so maybe that’s more representative of them). I don’t know if his portrait of the indie games community is fair, though. It seems like he’s trying to paint them as equally as flawed as the games industry so he can talk about how the two can combine resources. The problem is that this sets up an easy false dichotomy to be subsequently easily knocked down. I even agree with the basic points that the games industry should try to have outlets to distribute indie games at a low cost, it’s just seeing the stereotyped potrayals of each sides, as if that is a respectable or reasonable presentation of reality pisses me off. And I worry, in general, that talking about very broad subjects of game design in a format like this is really oversimplifying questions of game design that should be inherently challenging and without easy answers. I know that the point is partially to introduce big ideas to a mass audience, as if it’s a lecture being given at something like the GDC. But I question the ability to teach people about important ideas in that kind of format. It’s akin to powerpoint, and I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything important from a powerpoint presentation because I don’t like being bored to death.

This is a very minor thing, but his high-pitched voice also bugs me. Since he doesn’t really have a distinctive character, like yahtzee, I don’t really see why it needs to be that way. I guess he’s sort of a cartoon character of a “reasonable guy”. But he feels more like a professor giving a lecture. Zero punctuation works for me because yahtzee has his own voice and take on things, even if it’s a grumpy one. If I don’t feel challenged or invigorated by watching one of his videos, I’m at least entertained. He represents an “I will not take your bullshit, Mr. Big Game Company” kind of attitude that I find admirable. I have a harder time getting behind Extra Credits, because I never feel particularly challenged or entertained. I would like to, though, if only because many of the things he talks about are important, and I agree with many of his positions. I guess that’s just the difficulty of tackling big subjects in one video.

Anyway, getting back to game music. sephire’s point is that game music hasn’t gotten worse, just less memorable and maybe less distinctive. If game composers want to write something that should be remembered, he says, they should strive to write good melodies and then build on top of that. Ultimately, he says that game music has moved forward from its roots and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue to do so. I don’t feel a strong objection to what he’s saying, but it still makes me uncomfortable to hear it. Maybe I romanticize NES and SNES music a lot (very likely), but often the fact that the music is so simple and unique means I have a way to engage with it in on its own terms. There’s little frame of reference in older games, you just have to accept all the quirks of the game world as it is to enjoy the experience.

A lot of game music now seems like it was stamped out from a template. And I feel like it wants to impress me. I feel like the developers want me to say, “wow this game must be serious, cuz listen to that orchestra”. The game is telling me to take it seriously because its music sounds very much like something that I’m already supposed to take seriously, movie soundtracks. NES/SNES/Genesis/etc music was a new frontier in a lot of ways, the very limited soundchips or samplers didn’t really sound like anything that preceded it. It had nowhere near the amount resources to accurately imitate “real” music, so games were stuck with that. But the byproduct was that composers had less expectations and often veered off into their own direction of weird amalgamations of prog, pop, orchestral, electronic etc music, stuff that there really isn’t anything like made before or since. Once games had more processing power and became capable of doing things “the right way”, people stopped doing music like that.

I’m part of a community that rearranges game music, and I’ve noticed that the average age behind the people who are part of the community gets older year by year. There are new faces, but the great majority of people who are around are people who’ve been around for a long time (in internet years, anyway). I really think this has something to do with most people growing up now not forming the same attachments to game music that people my age and older have, because they’re playing newer games. People aren’t really experiencing anything like the Earthbound or Secret of Mana or Mega Man or Castlevania or whatever, at least not in the same way. I mean, I’m sure people are still playing those games and hearing that music on emulators or on virtual console, but the attachments aren’t the same as when there was no other option but to hear that music. The kind of music in those games is a peculiar one borne of technological limitations, and it’s dead now. It was inevitable, but it still makes me very sad.

In the Extra Credits video, sephire talks about the Halo theme being memorable because its so melodic. This is incredibly subjective but I find the Halo theme boring, and the only thing I remember about it is “ohhhhOOOOHhooohhhhhh OHHHH EPIC CHOIRSSSSS LISTEN TO MY EPICNESSS”. But there’s nothing in the Halo games that I really associate the choirs with, something that somber just sounds goofy and not appropriate for the game world of a fairly fast paced FPS game. I don’t know if it’s really moving forward to strive imitate the kinds of music that has been in movies for years, especially at the expensive of developers not finding better ways to integrate the audio with the game world. It seems like there are only ever a few genres that get done in the same few ways over and over and over. If it’s not orchestral, its some kind of electronic or rock/electronic hybrid. Maybe it’s just because that’s the only type of music that people seem to want to have in their games anymore, so that’s what gets made. Or maybe it’s because they think it’s what people want to hear.

As someone who composes electronic music, I feel like there’s an immense amount of possibility of the world of sound out there that we have easy access to now with programs like FL or Reason. Sitting with expensive high-end orchestral sample libraries trying to painstakingly recreate something that would be played by an orchestra, when you can’t exactly pretend to imbue the kind of emotion in every part that a bunch of individual professional musicians would be able to (though it’s cheaper, sure) seems like a very limited use of the technology. The same with making the same kind of electronic music with the same kinds of structure and effects and synths and just doing it over and over and over when you know that music is never going to be played in clubs. There is really no rule that says people have to make those kinds of music. There’s no rule that says those kinds of music are even more legitimate because they’re more prevalent in the real world. We could make any kind of music.

Of course I’m not denying the amount of work and passion that gets invested into that music. And I understand that composers are completely limited by the desires of the developers and the demands of the industry. But it is completely within a developer’s power to want unique sounds in his game and closely monitor how they correspond to the game world, and it completely within composer’s power to use his tools to explore different kinds of sounds.

One of the biggest problems with game music of today is that it often serves as a kind of background dressing to the action, rather than feeling like another part of the game experience. Game composers on average don’t seem to have much knowledge of what they’re composing for, so coordinating their music with the game is basically impossible for them. I bet when it does match, much of the time it’s incidental. Developers need to pay way more attention to audio. Pay more attention to audio and more people will remember it. That should be obvious. Everyone remembers the Portal ending theme because the developers had the brilliant idea of getting GLaDOS to sing a song at the end and found a good songwriter for it. If they hadn’t made a decision that was so jarring and unconventional to do for the end of a videogame (and something a lot of developers may have been afraid to do because it breaks the fourth wall), then it wouldn’t be remembered. If they just had a generic techno track play while the credits ran, I doubt many people would remember or care.

I won’t make it a secret that I want to write music for games, at some point. At different points I’ve looked at the boards on places like tigsource to see if anyone was looking to hire game composers, and 90% of the posts I see there are aspiring game composers looking for work instead. I’ve been told that there’s an influx of people going into film music programs with the specific intention of composing music for games. And I wonder why. Why, especially, is it a dream job if so many people aspire to do music that sounds like every other kind of music in mainstream games? Is that really all they want to do? Is part of it to have a credit at the end? To feel a sense of self worth? It makes me think of a Greg Costikyan quote, where he says “What's typical is desperate game dweebs circulating their resumes in the forlorn hope that they might be allowed to participate in the creation of Spider-Man III”. Do people really want to be part of something that badly?

I know people are really attached to music from NES or SNES games, so if you love that kind of music so much, why not take the initiative and try to embrace a kind of music like that? Why not set out a path for yourself as someone who composes the kind of music you really want to hear instead of doing what you think other people want to hear? Sure, it’s risky. But if it’s your dream, why the hell not do it? Who knows what is best for game music better than you, the composer?

I have an immense problem with people’s desire for legitimacy. It makes me very sad, for example, that in the art world music tends to be only considered “legitimate” by cultural ministers if it is associated with an orchestra. We have an infinite number of possibilities of sound and we’re getting stuck in old forms and formalities. It’s causing people to care increasingly less about classical music, to feel less attached to it, to feel like it’s not relevant. But I guess it’s very very hard to break from that. Unfortunately that attitude seeps down to other people and makes game developers or game composers think they have more credibility or integrity by imitating “real world” music, and it’s very silly. Any kind of music is obviously “real” music, regardless if its in a game or not.

There is also something special about NES/SNES/Genesis/etc. music, something that can be learned from even if we can no longer imitate it. I don’t believe it’s just the good melodies, like sephire mentions (though that’s certainly a big part), I think it’s also the unconventionality of structure, the willingness to merge any and all kinds of genres together, the odd sound choices that choose us to reevaluate our preconceptions about sound, the immense amount of freedom, the willingness to try many different things. All of this made older game music unique and memorable to people. All of this can add to the to the game world and interact with player desires and emotions in new and interesting ways. These things are all tremendously admirable, and things that I wish more people went to the effort to explore, instead of being boxed in by a need for false legitimacy.

To close I just want to link to some music from older games that I think are representative of many of the good things about older game music. I think there is something in these that isn’t captured in other kinds of music, and I think they’d lose a lot of character in being translated to another setting. Thanks and Enjoy!

Gimmick! (NES) - Good Weather
Solstice (NES) - Title Screen
The Smurfs (NES) - The Swamps
Sonic 1 - Green Hill Zone
Super Castlevania IV - The Rotating Room
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA) - Offense and Defense
Earthbound - Coffee Break
Earthbound - Pokey Means Business!
Secret of Mana - Into The Thick of It
Secret of Mana - Danger
Metroid - Title Theme
Mega Man 3 - Title Theme
7th Saga - Field Theme
Donkey Kong Country 2 - Stickerbrush Symphony
Mario Paint - BGM #1

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