LEMMING: Good Music is the Sign of a Bad Game

Ever catch yourself listening to a famous video game song on Youtube? If you haven’t, you’re missing out on a lot. From the first time they could string together a series of beeps and boops to make music, video games have produced a nearly endless amount of memorable tracks and themes.

The other good thing about listening to them on Youtube is you don’t have to suffer through the games they’re attached to.

The unfortunate flipside to good video game music is it often comes attached to a game that’s about as fun to play as filling out your taxes while being chased by a pack of wolves. You want to listen to all the great music a game has to offer, but it’s just not worth it to suffer through a crappily designed game to get it. Sadly, this is a trend that has plagued gaming for decades, and will likely never change.

The bane of lazy game designers since 2005

The bane of lazy game designers since 2005

This phenomenon can be traced all the way back to the days of the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1. Ask any gamer wearing nostalgia goggles what their favorite games of that era were, and the two most common names that will pop up are Final Fantasy VII and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These two games were considered triumphs in game design and were adored by countless fans.

But were they really so good? Upon closer inspection, one can see that for all of their supposed fame and critical acclaim, neither of these games are actually all that great. Both games are exceedingly ugly, rely on clichéd, poorly-translated messes of stories, and have gameplay segments that are just no fun. Think about it: did anyone actually enjoy segments like following a stuck-up princess in an impossibly-convoluted dungeon, or going on a date with a big, scary, black guy?

Does this look fun? Play it with the sound off and see if you still think so.

Does this look fun? Play it with the sound off and see if you still think so.

It’s indisputable that these so-called gaming “classics” are definitely not all they’re cracked up to be, yet both still excelled when it came to music. Who could forget the first time they heard the catchy “Lost Woods” theme or the sampled bombastic choir of “One-Winged Angel”? To this day, just a short excerpt of any song from these games can cause a gamer to undergo a mass attack of nostalgia and fond memories that aren’t so fond under a more objective look.

"Me? Put in effort? That's a good joke."

“Me? Put in effort? That’s a good one.”

However, these games should be not be celebrated just because they were able to play a bunch of notes in such a way that they sound good. In fact, a closer look will show that the good music was not an impressive feat at all. Nearly every game on the N64 and PS1 utilized MIDI-quality compositions. In other words, they used the same technology already widely used on the SNES and Genesis. This meant that while the rest of the programmers had to bust their butt and scratch their heads as to how to make their games good in three dimensions, the composers could sit on their rear ends and plunk out the same sorts of melodies they had been creating for years.

It was during these days that developers came across a piece of knowledge that would ensure lazy design for years to come. Remember when I wrote about how fondly gamers look back when they hear an old song? It was only a couple paragraphs up (although if you really don’t remember, you probably shouldn’t be reading this.) Unfortunately, that nostalgia is exactly what developers want gamers to feel.

 It turns out that if a game’s soundtrack is good enough, it has the power to cloud gamer’s memories, making them believe that a game was much better than it actually was. After all, what’s easier to get stuck in your head, a clumsy snowboarding minigame or a sweeping score whenever you’re walking around the overworld?

In fact, if exploited at its maximum, this can even lead to games that focus on nothing but the music. Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Rhythm Heaven, and plenty other games stripped their games down to little more than rhythmic versions of whack-a-mole (note flies over a button, push it, repeat).

Let us not forget just a few years ago of the great duel between Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The masses flocked to these games like fat people on scooters to a half-priced bakery sale, earning their publishers ludicrous amounts of cash. It wasn’t after the market became flooded with peripherals and music games that the public realized they were better off just listening to their favorite songs through illegal downloading like they were used to and stopped buying them.

Sadly, this is the most enjoyable Final Fantasy has been in years.

Sadly, this is the most enjoyable Final Fantasy has been in years.

But even today, this mark of laziness can still be found in many a game. It could even be considered worse than ever, as live orchestral performances have replaced the MIDI keyboards of old. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples of great music found in otherwise mediocre games:

Shadow of the Colossus: It’s a bit old, but this game offers what could be considered one of the most breathtaking and sobering soundtracks of the previous gen. It certainly did a good job of hiding the fact that the colossi were little more than oversized walking puzzles that lost their value when they were killed. The developers even went so far as to tell gamers to feel guilty after solving these puzzles through means of a depressing victory tune.

Journey: You know the hallucinatory effects of good music in a game are real when a game like this is seriously being considered as game of the year in some places. Yes, Journey, not the band that is universally adored since that one episode of Family Guy, but the 2-hour $15 game where you win by walking forward in a desert. The lifting song at the end has the potential to bring a tear to player’s eyes. At least, it would if they hadn’t already cried them out from sheer boredom.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: The rousing barbaric chants and horns that comprise much of the songs in Skyrim do an excellent job of making players feel like they really are in a living, breathing world loosely inspired by the history our own. That is, until the numerous game-breaking bugs and puddle-deep combat show up and quickly remind everyone how much fun they’re not actually having. “The One They Fear” does not refer to the dragons and dragonborn; it refers to the developers and the gamer should he ever realize the truth.

Kirby here has been living off goodwill from his music for decades.

Kirby here has been living off goodwill from his music for decades.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: How can a game that is so easy it’s literally impossible to die in get so well-received? Simple. Songs like these relaxed gamers to the point where they would have found anything entertaining. This game proved that video game music is just like marijuana in that it makes even the dumbest stuff seem amusing while under its influence.

Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2: The Galaxy games’ bombastic orchestral offer an impressive mix of fresh songs and new takes on memorable Mario pieces. It’s unfortunate that the same cannot be said of the gameplay, which has not changed a bit since Mario’s first foray into the third dimension.

The moral of this article is an easy one: if you see an upcoming game with Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Austin Wintory, or any other famous composer on board (most likely from Japan), turn and run the other way. Like the sirens of Greek myth, these games will lure you in with beautiful music, only to entrap you in a sea of mediocrity. Games with generic, forgettable soundtracks such as Call of Duty and Gears of War are your best friends; you know they’re bound to be good if all the effort went out of the music and into everything else. No matter what, video game music is not worth it*, so just say no and buy your games for the one thing that truly matters: the gameplay.

*Unless it’s Halo. The music there is more epic than anything you’ll ever find in a Sony or Nintendo exclusive.

About the author: The Lemming is a die-hard follower of the Xbox. He started gaming with the original Xbox, and considers anything that isn’t M-rated and/or a sim racer to be games for children. Although Microsoft has since abandoned him as a target audience with the Xbox 360 and Kinect, he still feels satisfied playing his Halo rehashes and the various multiplats that he could get anywhere else.

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One response to “LEMMING: Good Music is the Sign of a Bad Game

  1. interesting perspective, but short-sighted and fallacious. Games like “Monkey Island”, older than the ones you mention, but after the MIDI era, were great, had awesome music, and the composition in it was ground-breaking and innovative, via the iMuse system, that would “blend” different themes together depending on the location, situation, part of the dialogue, etc. It is not true that “composers could sit on their rear ends and plunk out the same sorts of melodies they had been creating for years”. If a game “goodness” depends also on the graphics, it stands to reason that music should be an important factor as well. Good graphics alone don’t make a good game, and neither does good music, but they’re all production values that contribute to the overall perception of a game. Also making the “history of gaming” begin with the playstation is shortsighted at best. “The Last Ninja” had awesome in-game music (for the time — it’s very unnerving now).

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