New Battlefield, new car, new boss. What is „new”? From the point of view of intuition, we could say that it’s any combination of experiences fused into something we haven’t seen before. An album with a differently sounding piano, a tie with a weird mix of colors. There is also „new” being the polar opposite of „old”, although we won’t be discussing this case. It’s not hard to guess that in this article we’re going to take a look at the originality within video game soundtracks, although it might not end there.
What is illustrative music? It’s the whole of the music layer that enhances the player’s experience, gives them clues (different and varying based on context), enhances the aesthetic, influences their mood. For that all to happen, music has to find a common ground with the player, because instead, it won’t be understood or will be misunderstood. Thus it is clear that originality is risky. It does not mean, though, that the risk never pays off. Let’s take a look at the third Witcher game, for example. It has a traditional folk instrumentation and sound, symphonic orchestra and the cinematic spirit. Wild Hunt on many grounds strikes a balance between the known and the unknown, and looking from a broader perspective, we could assume that it is this balance that got the soundtrack the international approval.
„The most important factor behind the „cinematicness” of video game music is the difficulty of finding it’s own language.
Originality in itself is a virtue that the game composers pursue often more fiercely than their movie colleagues. In part, it’s because the influence of games on the universal recipient remains in the shadow of the film industry. There is, because of that, not as much pressure as one would expect from the Hollywood G-Men. From the filmmakers’ point of view, and even more so the box office giants, such safety is forced by huge financial risks.
There isn’t much difference between those and AAA games, but the VGM industry differs from the film music industry on one important ground: moving pictures are the descendants of classical music, games, though… not entirely. Before they came into existence, film music had already built it’s kingdom and naturally could serve as a foundation and reference in any illustrative discourses. On the other hand, the chips able to generate simple melodies weren’t at all in a position to imitate the classical performances. The first video game battles against sound are not even music, just simple sound effects (like for example in Space Invaders).
This difference, combined with (usually) not as much financial pressure or other factors like longer production time, lets video game composers spread wings. It does not, though, justify the direction that game music in the biggest titles takes in the recent years. Is it money speaking? Is it taking the path of least resistance and relying on film music to lead the evolution of VGM? Probably the sum of all those factors. I believe, though, that the most important of those is the difficulty of finding its own language, its own vocabulary that would serve as counterpart for the only real difference between film and game music at the moment – the disparity in the pacing (VGM tracks work with time in an entirely different way than film tracks do). A language that, at the same time, would not be hermetic and infantile.
Here, to the rescue comes mentioned earlier The Witcher, which gracefully refreshes the fantasy-RPG aesthetic. Beside it walks Far Cry 4 (with Cliff Martinez’s music; a composer, to make it funny, of film scores), where we will hear an amalgam of aggressive electronic soundscapes and any type of drums you can dream of; Doom (2016), being both a postcard to the past and conscious of its times; Machinarium; Cuphead; Silent Hill series; Danganronpa series.
In all those albums there is a certain „game feel” present, and although stylistically this list resembles a shotgun shot and the originality of the soundtracks can be brought down to the simplicity of ideas, all those examples show that video game music can have its own voice – even if it’s just audio director’s whispering or composer’s pantomime. It just needs to be found, and in doing so, not to blindly follow cinema.
In a way, it’s comforting to know that a certain part of „okay” soundtracks is only okay from the perspective.
Of course, what is new, original and revolutionary today, tomorrow might even be archaic. That’s why Assassin’s Creed: Origins does not shock as much as the first or second instalments did. That’s why the jaw does not drop when we listen to the newer Splinter Cell games or Starcraft II (…at least not to the very ground!). In a way, it’s comforting to know that a certain part of „okay” soundtracks is only okay from the perspective of not film, but games, whose solutions they rely on. It’s a sign that the games are starting to speak with their own voice – and it’s not only baby mumbling.