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The art of reviewing: Aural pleasure
Posted on Sunday, February 3 2008 @ 21:05:26 Eastern

Since nobody was interested in hearing about how I'm invited to the opera and then later will appear on national radio, I suppose I'll just continue talking about the different aspects of my reviews. And of course, having recently talked about opera music, it's only natural that I now get to everything that has to do with sound.

Music first. Now, apart from specific music games like Guitar Hero and Rez (which will not be discussed in this particular article, by the way), music will often be one of the aspects of a game that gets the least attention, ending up in the second last paragraph for most people's reviews. Which to me is a pity. See, if the music is hardly ever mentioned, then it probably "does its job" as far as most people are concerned. And I find that if it only does that, then it has actually failed a bit. Mind you, I've got five years of experience with local and student radio. I don't collect music as much as most people, but when I listen to it, I pay good attention.

And i believe that game music should have me pay attention, especially when we're talking about plot elements. Without spoiling too much (especially since it was early in the game), I mentioned the scene of Black Mages falling from the sky in Final Fantasy IX, because that's exactly the thing I want from my game.

Apart from the game scores commanding attention (except when it's more fitting to have it stay in the background), my usual music genre preferences usually don't apply as such. The very thing that has made Nobuo Uematsu - hey, you didn't think I'd write this article without mentioning him, did you? - so goddamn famous in the video game world is that he understands so very well that music isn't about putting in rock or opera for the sake of being rock or opera. You put in rock (or opera) if that's what the scene as a whole demands. Or a simple piano score. Or ukulele. Or a cheesy love song. Do it right, and you get away with plenty that I'd otherwise never listen to, like the opening songs in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. "Sanctuary" in particular is somehow just right for that opening FMV, no matter how cheesy it might be on its own.

A final word about music is that I turn into a green giant of rage if you don't loop your tracks properly. Yes, that still happens, believe it or not. Listen to the music in Mos Eisly's bar in LEGO STAR WARS: The Complete Saga for the latest grievous example of bad looping. Or don't, it's a pretty bad game overall.

Of course, games that are completely without any plot - like car games or skating games etc. - won't receive that much critical attention from my ears. Those type of games tend to have a selectable soundtrack in any case, and they're almost bound to have at least a few songs I enjoy listening to. Unless I'm turning music off because I need to be able to hear the engine sound so that I know when to change gears.

However, speaking of sound effects, that is something I hardly ever mention. That is probably because it's almost impossible to go actually wrong with sound effects these days, and unlike music, I believe indeed that it should be heard, but not noticed (if you know what I mean). Suikoden V managed to be noticed with its horrible alternate menu sound effect sets (I'm convinced at least one sound effect was made by scraping a fork against a blackboard), but since those effects were indeed an alternative to the perfectly normal default sounds, I didn't bother mentioning it. There were so many other things wrong with this potentially good game anyway.

And then there is voice acting.  I don't think I need to talk too much about it, because I think we all know how incessantly annoying - sometimes even enraging - bad voice acting in itself can be. However, I'd like to touch upon a subject that is often overlooked: That the game developers forget to make it not sound like they're in a radio studio.

Again, I didn't mention it because there are several other, larger issues with the game, but Dragon Quest VIII: JotCK contains an especially aggravating example of this. In the Monster Arena mini-game, there is an announcer that does a slightly less-than-adequate job to introduce the combatants. But much worse than that is that it doesn't sound like he's in an arena at all. There should be echoes from the walls, there should be the acoustics of a large arena in stone. Instead, it sounds exactly like he's sitting in a completely sound-proof studio reading his lines with as much enthusiasm as his paycheck motivated him to.

And trust me, it's not hard to add those echo and reverb and "big hall" or "outside" effects. Even the smallest local radio station has the kind of equipment necessary to fake this. It takes ten seconds to put on those effects before starting the reading. There's simply no excuse to sound like you're inside a small, stuffed, wooden box (which is what recording rooms generally are) in this world where voice effect machines are so readily available. Well, unless the character is in fact stuffed inside a box in some scene Then it's OK to sound like that, of course. But it should still sound muffled when the camera's located outside the box.

In any case, bad voice acting is, I'm afraid, still so common in certain types of games (games in fantasy settings, to be exact), that for example doing what Zelda does - text only, with each person having their own personal sounds, like a sigh or a well-placed "Hmmm" - actually seems to me to be a better choice. But then again, I'm an avid reader.

To be fair, I do sometimes grant the voice actors a small favour, in that I also notice if they are being made to say something incredibly stupid. It's probably hard to put in the effort when your role seems to consist of repeatedly crying out the hero's name a lot for no good reason, or reading lines so cliché-filled that you almost feel like a voice prostitute for taking the job.

So to summarise, I almost always pay attention to the music and the voice acting, but might even pay more attention to the former. Which is why quite a few of my reviews tend to talk about music fairly early on. Heck, music can very well affect the grade I give a game, but you should be aware that I play games as much or more for the experience than for the challenge it might give me. If you're not that kind of gamer, then you can safely skip whatever I have to say about this or that game's soundtrack.
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