What makes a great game? – Part 1: Music
Hi everyone! This is part one of my 435 part series, Better Know a… wait… wrong! This is the first part of some kind of series that will be however many parts I feel it will be until I’ve nailed down my perspective a bit.
I want to tackle what makes games great for me (specifically) and to touch on what makes them great for everyone else (generally). Obviously, my perspective is limited to what I like and that’s what this little project is all about so, well, deal with it. For context, I’ve provided links to some of the references I make.
Anyways, I was watching some clips on YouTube that contained some orchestrated video game music and I was wondering why I want to see my game music presented in such a fashion and why I enjoy it when it hits the big music halls. I think I might have an answer to that: I want my favorite moments to be presented in a format that is obviously and without question HIGH CLASS. Orchestrated music is always high class to me. The performers take it very seriously and the audience treats whatever they perform as a serious thing. This probably stems from the classical pieces they typically play which are by definition today culturally serious and historically important. Orchestrated music is the highest form of presentation that any music can achieve to be (my opinion, so nyah). The pure music just washing over you, letting it fill the room and flow in and around you, yeah, the orchestra is the best medium for this.
When I experience an event and it has music associated, I find it easier to recall said event. Music is a very powerful device that conveys emotion and thought and when associated with events that are powerful and poignant on their own, well, it’s a complete presentation.
In my past, I’ve played a great number of games. The games that I feel have incredible soundtracks weren’t the games I started on: Sim City, Civilization, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Starflight, Star Fleet, Empire, or any of a dozen other games. The earliest memory of a game with a fantastic soundtrack that still impacts me today comes from (well, there’s two) Final Fantasy VI (it was III back then) and Chrono Trigger, both on the Super Nintendo. When playing those games, I immediately feel the joy inherent in living through something that I experienced positively back then. When listening to the soundtracks, I remember every event that happened. When I want to relive the games without playing them, I listen to the music.
Off the top of my head, if I listen to the Phantom Forest track from Final Fantasy VI, I remember finding my way to the Ghost Train that carries the deceased away from our world to the next and Cyan watching his wife and son leave. If I listen to the Bombing Mission track from Final Fantasy VII, I remember riding on the train at the beginning of the game, wondering who the hell this spiky haired guy was and further wondering what this mission had in store for me (and what in the world was I getting into?). When listening to Frog’s Theme from Chrono Trigger, I see in my mind the mountain opening before Frog as he wields the Masamune and vows to defeat Magus. Music in video games is a powerful device…
…but it’s not restricted to video games. In Star Wars, when I hear the Binary Sunset track, I can envision a young Luke Skywalker standing and watching the suns of Tatoo I and Tatoo II set, wondering where his future is going. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Concerning Hobbits piece makes me think of the Hobbits going about their business in preparation of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday. So, when I want to experience a movie without watching the movie, I listen to the soundtrack.
It’s also not just memories of scenes. It’s the emotional connections that those scenes have for me. When hearing the Battle with Magus Theme from Chrono Trigger, I remember fighting him and feeling like the fight could go either way at any time as I struggled to keep my trio alive through the onslaught of spells Magus frequently dropped. When hearing the piece from Final Fantasy XIII called Blinded by Light, I feel excitement regarding the battle that MUST be going on right now. Every time I hear Chrono Cross’ Scars of Time (aka Time Scar), I remember the investment I made in that game and all the incredible experiences that went along with it as well as the successful strategies and terrible defeats I suffered while playing. For the record, the final boss fight in Chronopolis was a real pain. *shakes fist* Curse you, Miguel!
Growing up, PC games typically didn’t have great soundtracks. X-COM had a decent one that kept me excited or scared depending on what was going on. Wing Commander III was one of my earliest quality PC soundtrack experiences that sticks in my head. I didn’t experience the awesomeness that was The Secret of Monkey Island until later on (but chronologically, that’s years before WCIII), but that soundtrack is awesome and the theme for the game is nearly iconic for adventure games. So, yeah, they were there, but decent PC soundtracks didn’t come along until later (with Warcraft II and such and yes, I acknowledge that my game timeline might be a little off).
I suppose part of my want to hear orchestrated soundtracks of my games stems from a desire to hear my passions and pastimes validated in a public forum where a large number of people voluntarily pay to experience what I once experienced on a much more emotionally invested level. I want people to look at this music and wonder where such notes came from and then to seek out the original source with the curiosity borne of a desire to experience the emotions that the music provokes. When I hear music, it takes me places that I’ve been before. When I hear the Imperial March, I was there with Vader as he condemned the Rebellion. When I hear Forth Eorlingas, I was there as the Rohirrim rode to the rescue. When I hear Clash on the Big Bridge, I was there to fight Gilgamesh! Um, for that last one, yes in Final Fantasy V and later again in Final Fantasy XII when Gilgamesh is an optional hunt (they remixed the original song for the latter one).
I want to go there. I want to be there. Music is my vehicle that takes me where I want to go and helps me feel the emotions tied to those places and doing those things. For the record, Lost Odyssey has an awesome soundtrack, but it’s very sad (especially A Sign of Hope and Parting Forever). The thing is… well, orchestrated music speaks to me WAYYYYY more than the regular stuff we hear on the radio. Songs with words touch me, but not like A Sign of Hope does. The Indiana Jones theme speaks more of adventure to me than any song with lyrics that was in [insert recent action movie here].
A moving and powerful soundtrack is a must for a good game. The longer I play games, the more I find that I love a good soundtrack. When Final Fantasy XIII was still on its way out here in the U.S., I pre-ordered the soundtrack for myself. It’s awesome and the more I play the game, the more the soundtrack gains relevance and power with me. If the music is good, I suppose I’m more tolerant of the shortcomings of the game.
A great piece sends a tingle up my spine. It makes me go “wow” and compels me to listen to it all the way through. It makes me feel like I’m in the presence of something important or powerful or incredible or whatever. When I hear Frog’s Theme (look above for the link) performed amazingly well, it literally sends chills down my spine. THAT is powerful music. I have a theory that it’s the trumpets and/or the entire brass section, but I’m also a fan of the strings… so yeah, I think I’ll just claim it’s the orchestral nature and leave it at that.
Until next time, let the music move you!
P.S. Because I played the PC version of FFVII, I must admit that I heard/saw the intro far more than the rest of the game while I tried different sound card settings. Eventually I got it right, after experiencing the same intro cutscene at least six times.
P.P.S. A quick timeline of the release dates of the discussed objects in this particular post (this doesn’t mean I saw Star Wars in 1977 since I wasn’t born until several years later):
- Star Wars – 1977
- Star Wars Imperial March – 1980
- Indiana Jones – 1981
- Star Fleet I: The War Begins – 1985 (DOS)
- Starflight – 1986 (DOS)
- Empire: Wargame of the Century – 1987 (DOS)
- F-19 Stealth Fighter – 1988 (DOS)
- Sim City – 1989 (DOS)
- The Secret of Monkey Island – 1990 (DOS)
- Civilization – 1991 (DOS)
- Final Fantasy V – 1992 (Japan Only)
- Final Fantasy VI – 1994 (SNES)
- Wing Commander III – 1994 (PC)
- Chrono Trigger – 1995 (SNES)
- Warcraft II – 1995 (PC)
- Final Fantasy VII – 1998 (PC)
- Chrono Cross – 2000 (US Release)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – 2002
- Final Fantasy XII – 2006 (US Release)
- Lost Odyssey – 2008 (US Release)
- Final Fantasy XIII – 2010 (XBOX 360)
P.P.P.S. I forgot to mention Lunar! Gah! I fail!