I really like Sonic butt rock, okay?!
This week on the Frosty Canucks we usher in the new generation and then spend a long time talking about how video game music impacts the play experience as well as our favourite soundtracks. We also spend an unnecessarily long time dismantling what we both consider to be the worst generation of Pokémon.
I also spoil the ending to two of the games I mention during the games we’ve been playing section, so take note of those timestamps if you want to remain spoiler free on either.
If you’ve got any questions you’d like to ask us feel free. We more or less turned Mads’ question into the entire podcast. If there is something you want to hear us chat about, provided it is video game related, we’re open to it.
- 0:00:00 – Next Gen is Here PS5 and Xbox Series X/S
- 0:23:30 – Soundtrack Discussion – How soundtracks factor into gameplay
- 0:35:00 – Soundtrack Discussion – The Bad and the Good
- Games we’ve been playing
- 1:01:44 – Pokémon Pearl/Diamond
- 1:15:00 – Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince
- 1:18:41 – Lucifer Within Us (Spoiler)
- 1:21:25 – Raji: An Ancient Epic (Spoiler)
- 1:23:17 – Maize
- 1:28:42 – Revisiting Slay the Spire and Hades
As always, thanks for listening.
Okay, I finally got around to listening to the Podcast again, and boy, do I have something to say. You thought you had extensive notes on the soundtrack discussion? Allow myself…to introduce myself.
One of the first things you guys mentioned was that older games generally have more memorable soundtracks, and that Nintendo’s music is pretty awesome. I think the key factor to this is the heavy reliance on the soundtrack’s melody, rather than complex arrangements and textures. As you stated, older consoles had severe limitations on sound design, which made focussing on the melody a necessity. Over time, when technical limitations started to dwindle, soundtracks became more complex and ambience-focused.
There are a ton of cool videos talking about this issue, one of my favourites is Game Score Fanfare’s “What Happened to Memorable Game Music?”. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAdeqyGTyxg&ab_channel=GameScoreFanfare
On that note (no pun intended), you both smacktalk ambience music for a bit, and how open-world games generally do not feature memorable music. I do think that this is a bit unfair, and you even gave yourself the answer as to why: Remember when you talked about Stardew Valley and how its repetitive music gets annoying really, really fast? Pretty much any melody will grow stale rather quickly.
In open-world games, you spend hours in the same area, or at least are constantly going back. If you had a snappy core melody for that region, you’d soon start to dread going back there because the music will be extremely annoying. That’s why these games rely more on a general theme or “feeling” of music without a distinct start or ending, rather than memorable (and therefore relatively short) melodies on loop.
Melody-focused games are generally rather linear. You play through a level with a catchy melody, and once it’s over, you won’t hear that song again, or at least not for a while. A good example for this might be the first Pokemon games. They were, of course, reliant on melodies due to technical limitations, but in general, they came in “categories” rather than actual songs. You had a few songs in the travel-category, there were city-themes, battle-themes, etc. This hybrid-existence meant that you could spend more time in an area without the music getting on your nerves. On the other hand, you didn’t spend ages in any location. Mostly you dropped in and out of cities to heal or stock up and fight the gym leader. You never heard any single track for too long or in too quick of a succession.
Now, think about getting on the bike in the first Pokemon games. No matter where you were, the same song would play on repeat. I don’t know about you, but I grew to hate that tune, and I often just walked to my destination slowly, just to hear different music.
Let’s talk about Borderlands for a while, shall we? Specifically, Borderlands 1 since I played it extensively over the last weeks. It hurt my feelings when you said it had a bad soundtrack. True, even I wouldn’t be able to replay any of the songs (apart from the licenced ones and Mad Moxxi’s theme) in my head, but that doesn’t mean the soundtrack is not memorable. It simply is a different kind of memorable.
You said it yourself, simple tunes are easier to remember, and melody-focused songs are even easier to do so. But I’d be willing to bet if I played you 20 different ambience-pieces, you’d be able to tell me which ones are from Borderlands and which ones aren’t. The game does feature a lot of unique elements and tons of cool details that set it apart from other soundtracks. For example, the throat-singing in some tracks, the general “scruffiness” or desolateness of many of the sounds, and the “fluctuating” tunes. Those things are not easy to recall on will, but they do create a great atmosphere of a rund-down crapsack world, while still hinting at the action-fest that the game generally is. I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but it is hard to describe something that I can’t even put into proper words in my own language. 🙂
On to your “controversial statement” of big stories being bad and only saved by the music. Well yes, but actually no. We have talked about this on Discord already, but creativity is a limited resource. Once a story has been told, you can’t really re-invent it. Every time you re-tell it, it’s just a more or less interesting copy. And if you do find another original take on it, then you have eliminated another option for everyone else. The same goes for individual scenes of that story. And since a lot of the stories in games focused on entertainment are pretty similar in the grand scheme of things, people can (and will) get bored of classic story elements at some point. So yes, in this way you are right that stories are losing in originality (and therefore quality).
However, when combining that same scene with a different music, it can change the meaning completely. Stories and visuals are a way less abstract concept than music, so it’s easier for us to recognise the same patterns in many cutscenes, but it’s harder to pinpoint how the background music affects our perception. And since we recognise that we have seen the events of a story already, we come to the conclusion that the stories must be bad and the music must be what saves it. And in that sense, you are right with what you say.
However, someone had purposefully arranged that cutscene with that particular song, so in a way, it becomes a whole new thing in the narrative perspective, more than the sum of its parts, even if those parts are technically is derived from many other places. Again, I hope this makes some sense, because I’m trying to keep it as brief as possible…Although I’m more than happy to elaborate, should you need it 🙂
This ties in to one last thing you said: Less complex visuals can tell less complex stories, so those games need better music to communicate with the players. I 100 % agree, but this only proves my point that we can’t really view the story and music separately for narrative purposes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Why do you do this to me? XD
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that exact video in the past and that more or less was what I was trying to get at. Though I’m sure my drunken ramblings trying to recall a video from almost 2 years ago won’t ever do the video in its entirety justice.
You’ve got me there, but what if the same idea was applied to open-world games? If you had numerous melody focused soundtracks written for each area that you cycled through after a set amount of time? I don’t actually know how well that would work given every open-world I’m thinking of uses ambient noise because we’ve collectively decided that works and therefore there is no reason to push the envelope and try something different.
Though as I wrote that I did remember Fallout: New Vegas had a radio that sort of functioned like that…though it played nothing but licensed music and only had about an hour of tracks. That is, however, one of the only open-world games where I actually enjoyed the music, so now I’m really curious if having a “radio” style of music in other games would work.
To your point, I don’t actually know that I would. I know Borderlands has a few twangy tracks which is always a good sound association with run-down western styled places, but if you arranged a list of Fallout, Red Dead, and Borderlands ambient music I’m not certain I’d be able to pull out all of the Borderlands ones. Just down to all of those games having somewhat similar theming, which is part of why I don’t think ambient music is super great. Sure it can help to set the mood and atmosphere, but it has less of its own personality and flavor as a result. Though in saying that, I don’t know that we’re going to agree on this.
We spoke on discord (again!) about the story stuff. While I appreciate the argument you’re making in favour of music and stories being linked my point about video game stories was made…for entirely different reasons. Would have derailed the podcast to mention them, but for anyone skimming the comments here’s the exec summary of why I think most game stories aren’t great in the first place:
-the over use of visuals in an interactive medium
-recycling plot structures from movies which don’t work when stretched out over a game’s length
-an over-reliance on film techniques that don’t translate super well to video games
Music, as you say, helps to make the stories in a lot of cases. It is an intrinsic part in how we understand and enjoy stories in not just games, but all types of media. However, my comment was more about the inherent flaws that exist in video games, in general, and less about how the music works with them. Obviously that’s on me for not being more specific.
I think that’s it? How’d I do? You’re always around to keep me on my toes. 😛
LikeLiked by 1 person
I still have to disagree on the inferiority of ambience music. I give you that: Ambience music has it a lot harder in terms of raw memorability. However, I think you can’t just take ambient soundtrack on its own. It is an important part of the narrative, be it world-building, storytelling, or atmosphere. It does only work in the context of that specific scene or area. For example, I love the World of Warcraft soundtrack to bits. It’s magnificent and epic, revisits many of the themes of prior games, and captures the essence of the game perfectly. However, when I downloaded it and listened to the tracks during a car ride, it did nothing for me.
Sure, some were still aweseome (i.e. Stormwind) and I could identify most tracks, but most of them just felt off because it was missing its context – in this case, mostly the visuals of the areas. On the other hand, I can listen endlessly to different remixes and versions of Tetris Theme A or the Super Mario Bros Overworld Theme. These tracks exist almost completely separate from what is happening on the screen. At the very most, these songs can be put into different categories, like Pokemon.
Take a look at one of your favourite games, Hollow Knight (please take into consideration that I haven’t played the game, so I only listened to a few parts of the soundtrack). As you mentioned, it has a lot of different moods (or categories, if you will), but all in all, the songs are more focused on creating the atmosphere (an ambience). In this regard, it is very similar to games like it, like Ori and the Blind Forest. Of course, both games have different themes and styles, so I’m by no means suggesting that I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between them. You probably know what I mean, though.
But they are a lot closer to ambience-music than to Nintendo-soundtracks. I have a theory to why you (and, after playing it, me probably too) find it a lot more memorable. Because it is tied to the narrative, and those games have a very dense narrative. They feature great visuals, expressive gameplay, and subtle storylines. And as much as the narrative is influenced by the soundtrack, the soundtrack is influenced by the narrative.
Back to Borderlands: Granted, it does not have a great narrative, so I guess it could come down to personal preference how memorable the soundtrack is on its own for each person. As I said, I couldn’t replay any track in my head, and that is after I have listened to the soundtrack a mere 2 hours ago. But I’d still wager that I’ll be able to tell the Borderlands-soundtrack apart from any other, similar one.
Other examples for “passively memorable” music would be Vampyr and Of Orcs and Men, composed by Olivier Dereviere (fun fact: Of Orcs and Men had me complain so much to a friend that he suggested I should start my own blog). Both soundtracks lean heavily into being ambience-music and I could only replay the music of very few parts of select key moments in my head, but I’d instantly recognise not only each game within a second of hearing the music, but I could even tell you at which moment or location that track would play. That’s because they’re so strongly tied to the narrative, even if that narrative isn’t all that great.
Now, on to your idea of a vast array of melody-focused soundtracks in open-world games. I could very well see that working, since strutting through an area does require a lot less “specific” atmosphere-building than emotional key moments. One problem I’d see with it is that if you don’t like one specific track, you’d get annoyed every time it played. Even if you could skip it, you still had a split-second of discontent, which might not be much at first, but it will tamper with your final thoughts of the game.
That is a general “problem” with melody focused soundtracks, or at least it can be. You either like a melody or you don’t. Nobody actively dislikes ambience-music, you’re indifferent about it, at the very most. For example, take the TemShop theme from Undertale. Yes, it is designed to be annoying, but what if it wasn’t? Then you’d have that track as a defining part of your game. If it is just one level in a six-hour long game, then people can live with it. But what if you had to sit through that track every 10 minutes or so in a 60-hour game?
That being said, all of this can be circumvented, so it would be cool to see devs try this approach. A few examples come to my mind where it has worked: We have the Fallout and GTA games, where you have different radio stations, playing licenced songs on a loop. Don’t like a song? Switch to another station! Or Assassin’s Creed IV with its sea shanties? They are hella memorable, and you can tell your crew to skip songs or fall silent altogether.
Some puzzle games have different “styles” of track loops that you can choose from. Naturally, in strict puzzle games there is no narrative element to keep in mind. Brütal Legend also let you collect different Metal songs and play them while you roamed around. Crypt of the Necrodancer even let you upload your own music!
Still, having set tunes makes it harder to adapt the soundtrack to what is going on at the moment. In Super Mario 64, the calm underwater music is beautiful, no doubt, but it is the same music, no matter if you’re swimming calmly, jumping around like a madman, or fighting goombas. Mario 64 is designed in a way that the music will fit most of the time, but at the same time, it has very focused levels, which make designing around a certain element easier. Big open-world games don’t have that luxury.
I think the radio-style approach only really works during exploring the world and other non-narrative-focused segments. Also, in “realistic” settings, the music should stay in the background, otherwise it would break the consistency of the world. Sure, if you’re in a car, radios make sense, and sea shanties on a ship fit perfectly, but laying a strong melody over the “boring” part of a game? How will you get the (musical) attention during the important moments? Still, I’d be open to test a few games trying out that approach.
All in all, I think ambience-focused music can be just as memorable as melody-focused tracks, but in a different way. In the end it comes down to how well the soundtrack was created, and what it is meant to do.
LikeLiked by 1 person