When indie games were trying to break through into mainstream more than a decade ago, trying to compete with AAA titles on equal terms, not a lot of people believed it would actually succeed. After all this time we can safely say that it did and indie games are a crucial part of gaming’s mainstream, with some of them setting new trends in the general industry.

Most game music these days is boring. I’m sorry, but it’s true. – Brandon Sheffield.

Indie games boom provided a huge chance for many composers to promote themselves and their work, what was a godsend compared to walking from one door of a big and well-known studio to other. But the price is still high and needs to be paid years afterwards.

Brutal truth

It’s May 2009. After several major events that occurred at the beginning of the year (closing down of Ensemble Studios responsible for Age of Empires, Eidos getting take over by Square Enix), a brief moment of relaxation followed. Brief, because in a few days the market will see the release day for one of the most games of our times – Minecraft. Before it happens, Gamasutra website publishes an entry by Brandon Sheffield, a game director from Necrosoft games. He came up with a bold argument in the very first sentence: „Most game music these days is boring. I’m sorry, but it’s true”.

In his commentary, Sheffield expressed grudge towards musicians whom he judged as being unable to move past well-worn cliches, „[…] the same flaccid John Williams-inspired scores, uninspired breakbeats, and generic guitar solos”. This accusation appears further in the text in context monumental music present in massive productions, where sublime sounds are accompanied by powerful choir. According to Sheffield, the same sounds can be heard in numerous games, making them alike to movie trailers. „[…] if you consider player responses, you’ll often hear things about how great the graphics are, or how the environments are destructible — but you hardly ever hear about how great the music is. That’s because it’s so often generic that it can’t stand out as interesting”.

The Diasporic Identity of Game Music

„Too much “dramatic” music ruins the drama.” – he sums up. It speaks volumes that Halo or Gears of War include one of the cult classic soundtracks of the current generation, while they actually have one or two recognizable themes with the rest of it being filler. „These days, all it takes is a little effort to make the music sound like something, and you can stand out from the crowd” – writes Sheffield.

To support his argument that soundtrack pieces are barely distinguishable from each other, Sheffield lists games like Super Mario Bros, Mega Man 2 or Monkey Island’s main theme. He argues that the sole reason for their strong presence in players’ memories is their frequent reception, what in some cases was a direct result of people repeating the same level ceaselessly. Classic games had a certain level of high difficulty and that caused some players to replay certain levels endlessly, while the music was drilling into their heads. Thus, some still remember some melodies.

Other aspect that Sheffield names as a cause for modern game music being boring is that in games…there is a lot of things happening. The point here is that classic games were simple when it comes to mechanics, design and graphics, while modern games bombard the player with a lot of stimuli, making focusing on one selected element of the game a tough feat.

Does it mean we are sentenced to boredom? Not necessarily. Composer Jesse Harlin talked to Sheffield and mentioned and that it is possible to make characteristic music playing against conventions. „Mario’s themes are memorable in part because who expects swing music in an action game? […] People remember BioShock’s licensed music because it was so counter to the norm. […] And isn’t standing out what we all want our games to do?” – Sheffield asks. He summarises in a very unexpectable way: „Often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected”.

Creative freedom

I bring back Sheffield text from 11 years ago not without a reason. It appeared during the very beginnings of the indie games boom – soon after huge successes of Braid, Super Meat Boy, Fez or Word of Goo, and not that long before equally notable games were released, so: Minecraft or Plants vs Zombies.

Indie games had an undeniable advantage over AAA titles.

Initially we looked at independent productions as some sort of curiosity but it quickly grew into something. Suddenly we realised that small inexperienced teams or even one person can achieve success comparable to those of big, professional studios.

Indie games had an undeniable advantage over AAA titles: their creators weren’t afraid of experimenting and breaking the rules. It resulted in many original games that you can’t find in your typical videogame store. Creative freedom of game-makers and willingness to break conventions seeped into the entire production process, including music-making. Indies gave aspiring composers a chance to freely create original music, and to us, players, it gave hope to experience something free of banality.

And so it happened. Monumental sounds and choral voices that Sheffield mentioned had to step back for electro-rock sounds of Bastion, Limbo’s minimalism, psychedelic Hotline Miami, melancholy of Journey’s melodies, not to mention chiptune, which we can hear in countless games, beginning with Fez and ending at Celeste.

We can say that diversity was a brand mark of an indie game soundtrack. Additionally, majority of them were created by people barely doing their first steps n gamedev (like Darren Korb in Bastion). After some time we may have gotten crushed by all this diversity, and we got to a point when Sheffield could write another opinion for Gamasutra.

The cost of having no fame

Technology race gave birth to many tools that allow aspiring devs to create games in their households, while young composers no longer have to set up garage bands. It’s estimated that 10 years ago Steam had around 350 new games appear in their store. Currently, it’s 8 to 9 thousands a year. It’s difficult to estimate how many of them are indies among all the big names, but it surely isn’t a small number.

Indie games market was supposed to help beginning artists.

And here I want to point out a problem that indie game composers have been struggling with. The numbers I presented show that the supply significantly outweighs the demand. That means a lot of artists who created for a videogame won’t even have an opportunity to show off their art, mainly because not a lot of people will know of them. The paradox here is that indie games market was supposed to help the beginning artists with promoting themselves, but in reality it burried most of them underground.

Great amount of games that come out yearly brings another problem to the table. On Gamemusic.net we took on a rule that review high-budget videogames scores first. When it comes to indie, we need to go through a tough selection process, because there is too many of them and not all of them are worthy of attention. Yet, finding an outstanding soundtrack in this pile of music is borderline impossible.

Sure, we’re in awe of music from Celeste, Gris or Night in the Woods. Of course I consider music for Undertale or Cuphead as one of the most important albums of past years. However, you had to struggle a lot to find one that will consist of mostly memorable pieces, not only „main theme”. And when we do, a voice at the back our heads reminds us that we unfairly chose one over other. We can resume our search, and the effort begins again.

How to support independent artists in lockdown

Truth is, the developers of indie games work in guerilla conditions and, for the world to notice them, they have to take care of promotion and find (pray for) a good publisher who will ensure publicity without getting too much into the creative process. Composers find themselves in even worse position as they themselves have to fight to be get noticed. Presence in a released videogame is merely the beginning.

If someone wasn’t lucky enough and their game didn’t make its way into the Steam most wanted games, he faces a fate of having to arduously convince people to listen to their work, That’s why social media are an important means of communication, with Twitter leading, with other services for independent artists, like Bandcamp. It’s their only way to show their art off, while letting the audience know that they are willing to participate in a gamedev process. For a majority of composers such lifestyle is to be or not to be.

Indie recession?

The amount of games appearing yearly on the market caused a distress at some point. I started wondering if this will cause for indie games slowly lose what made them special in the first place: diversity.

Often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected.

From my point of view, I can say that they haven’t. Sure, there are games that are heavily inspired by their predecessors or just copy from them. Fortunately, the gamedev scene is huge and grows with each year, while game jams are filled to the brim with remarkable ideas that only wait to be fully realized. Even from music’s standpoint it’s difficult to talk about any sort of premature end – composers have drawers full notes waiting for an opportunity to be played. Sure, the industry is groaning under all this chiptune music in every third game, but people like Jake Kaufmann can make his music sound differently with each game he scores.

Can the soundtrack push potential buyers towards purchasing a video game?

So, diversity will remain as a key factor of indie games existence. It’s worth noting that the massive influx of games won’t stop, nor will it slow down any time soon, and we will have to comb through piles of them to find that special one. A sad thought follows me around, and it’s that many composers haven’t really gotten a chance to show their work to wider audience while some of them may have already given up and put composing away. Loads and loads of creative energy are wasted each year as we still have no idea how to prevent that. Sheffield rightly said that „often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected”, but good does it do if no one will hear it.

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Deputy editor-in-chief

Paweł Dembowski

He’s been playing video games since he recall, and writing about them for quite some time, too. An addiction, hands down. Yet he can’t say that he regret any of these. Also a journalist with passion and calling.