GamesBeat

The Trouble with Video Game Soundtracks

Editor’s note: Dashiell tries to introduce his girlfriend to video game music…with disastrous results. Have you had a similar experience? Share your own failed attempts to get loved ones interested in game music in the comments section. -Brett


One of my favorite game soundtracks of all time is Yasunori Mitsuda’s excellent work for Chrono Cross. From the aching, wistful fiddle on opener Time’s Scar to the rocking guitar licks of Magical Dreamers, these tracks not only provided the soundtrack for my gameplay but for that period my life as well.

A few years ago, I decided to introduce the soundtrack to my girlfriend. With great aplomb and theatricality I set up the speaker deck. Costumes were considered. I unwrapped my iPod like an obsidian tome of wonder and placed it upon the altar that would soon transport us to a land of adventure and magic.

Shit was about to get epic.

 

I pressed play and the familiar flute and finger-picked guitar duet began to twirl its way through the air. I allowed a grin to play across my face. I turned to my girlfriend.

She looked at me and sighed. “It sounds like flat Riverdance,” she said. “Played on keyboard.”

Ouch.

I quickly objected to this statement, asking her to give it a further listen and maybe her mind would change. But a few tracks later she finally asked me to switch it off.

I didn’t get it. I knew that I had fond memories of the music associated with playing the game, but the soundtrack had taken on a life of its own for me. I loved the arrangements, the instrumentation, the melodies. This was music that didn’t need the crutch of nostalgia to be enjoyed; it stood on its own two legs.

I felt this way about the music from other video games, too. Great pieces of songwriting, from the spiraling marimbas of the Monkey Island series to the twisted ragtime of The Neverhood, were just waiting to be discovered by music lovers everywhere.

Well, times change.

I was recently flipping through Chris Kohler’s book Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life, and the chapter dedicated to game music caught my eye. Alongside his analysis of the enormous market for game soundtracks in Japan, he provides a critique of the discographies of several big-name game composers, focusing on Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.

ff4celticmoon_31709

One particular Uematsu album stood out to me. I’d heard the name before but had never tracked it down to give it a listen: Final Fantasy IV Celtic Moon. I’ve never been a huge fan of the fourth Final Fantasy installment, but the idea of Uematsu’s melodies interpreted by Irish folk musicians made me giddy. I had to hear this.

So I picked up a copy, zapped it onto my computer, and sat back, ready to experience an awesome album.

It just never clicked for me. I had planned to center this piece around the album, encouraging others to listen to it. But I can’t honestly say I would recommend searching it out.

The music is pretty, as you’d expect from Uematsu, but it also feels bland. The instruments are exactly what I wanted: squeaking fiddles, droning uilleann pipes, harpsichord, xylophone — the last two played by Uematsu himself. But it never really feels like these instruments are in the same room together. The music lacks soul. It’s inoffensive and sounds nice but does absolutely nothing to grab me emotionally.

It sounds like flat Riverdance. Played on keyboard.

Only one or two tracks particularly stood in my memory after listening, and they were tracks that had been recycled in other Final Fantasy games — games that I liked better than Final Fantasy 4.

Doubt began to set in. Perhaps I’d only ever really listened to music from games I already liked in the first place.

“Impossible!” I scoffed as I quickly looked over my collection of video game albums. There was not a single album from a game I’d never played.

Bugger.

This thought had occurred to me before, but it always seemed like the music was more than just a part of the game.

Yet there I was, confronted with evidence that without an emotional connection to it, this music could be damned hard to appreciate.

So I want to ask the community: Do you think that most game music needs the listener to have a grounding in the original source material to be appreciated? Is it merely a question of taste? Do you have your own war stories of trying to get Grandma to take that Super Mario World remix seriously?

-Dashiell “The Flat Riverdancer” Asher


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