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GR Showdown: Have Video Game Soundtracks Gotten Worse?

Posted on Friday, April 5 @ 19:00:00 Eastern by GR_Staff

GR Showdown pits the Game Revolution staff against each other in a passionate debate on a particular hot-button gaming topic. Our self-imposed rules? There is no middle groundall must take a side. All debates will have an equal number of representative on both sides: either 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 . And all our arguments must be made in 350 words or fewer; 500 or fewer, if it's 1-on-1. Which side are YOU on?

This Week's Topic: Have video game soundtracks gotten worse over the last console generation?

Nick - YES: When was the last time you hummed a song from a modern video game? I rarely do. Most of the songs I remember are from nostalgic franchises during the retro era. But if we're talking about the current Xbox 360 and PS3 era, I can count the number of soundtracks I care to remember on both hands, and the majority of them are for indie titles.

Many of the songs I do remember from the modern era of video games, say from Saints Row: The Third or Fallout 3, are actual songs, not original compositions with melodic hooks. I can point to the themes for Skyrim and Civilization IV as wonderful highlights, but if I'm evaluating their soundtracks as a whole, it's difficult to recall any songs other than those "one-hit wonder" themes. The rest is forgettable.

The trouble is that I don't believe video game soundtracks have gotten worse intentionally. Back during the early eras of gaming, composers were limited by the type of sounds and instruments they could use, so they were forced to use simple but catchy melodies. But as we've reached the modern era, composers now have access to the full orchestra (and then some) and have abandoned these themes. Or worse, let PR reps on stage...

Unfortunately, it comes with the price of not being catchy at all. Chiptunes are unique to video games, and unless we're talking about an indie title, composers are now creating symphonic soundtracks that are more streamlined and less original. Sure, there's more depth and a ridiculous amount of layers, with sheet music that goes on for pages and for multiple parts, but the sheer quantity has come at the expense of memorable quality.

The shift in sound design has also contributed to this decline in memorable tunes. Modern-era video games tend to employ "aleatoric" sound design, where sound effects and musical tracks are meant to rise and fall depending on the moment-to-moment gameplay. The intense, more visceral sounds are saved for battles while the calmer sounds (perhaps even no sound at all) are saved for the moments in between.

There's nothing wrong with this approach, but its frequency in triple-A franchises is numbing. It's now more about creating "soundscapes", rather than creating a soundtrack full of concrete melodies. Listening to the soundtrack of Mass Effect is one long snoozefest without the gameplay to support it.

But let's play devil's advocate, and let me declare the modern video game soundtracks that I do remember. Persona 4which is originally for the PlayStation 2 (so, no, Golden doesn't count). Lost Odyssey—one of the best soundtracks from Nobuo Uematsu, but was made at the beginning of the Xbox 360 in 2008. Braidwhich is an indie title also released five years ago in 2008. More recently, Hotline Miami, JourneyBastion, and Fezall of which are, again, indie titles.

Where are all the modern triple-A titles with unforgettable soundtracks? You tell me. 

Daniel - NO: Sure, I think it's fair to say that many triple-A games have largely abandoned the inventive, alternative tracks gamers come to know and love and live and die (in-game) by. Battlefield 3's most memorable track is from Battlefield 2, Assassin's Creed III abandoned the stylings of Jesper Kid in favor of tugging at those 'Merica-branded heartstrings, and licensed tracks have continued to encroach on the territory normally reserved for bits and beeps.

But in arguing that the modern console generation has not provided a welcome environment for awesome game soundtracks, you also argue that it has. I don't think anyone defines the modern console generation by just AAA shooters. Journey, Fez, Lost Odysseyall of these games exist alongside the BWAAAAA popularized by Hanz Zimmer and Call of Duty.

That means the modern console generation continues to play host to awesome game soundtracks, but maybe not as many as your nostalgia glasses catch in the rearview mirror. What's more, I don't think licensed tracks hurt a game if it's done in the right way. Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV come to mind, but even Bioshock Infinite had some incredible licensed tracks (with a little twisting and turning to fit the setting).

I mean, when a movie soundtrack features licensed tracks (but still does an awesome job of it), do we say the soundtrack sucks? No. It just adds another layer to our memory of a certain track. The fact that games can provide a better time and place for certain tracks furthers the point that games and licensed tracks can be friends, even if you think picking one perfect song out of millions of possiblities is still "phoning it in."

The biggest games, the ones with thousands of people working behind the scenes to ensure that X company sells Y million copies on day one, the games that have been chiseled and washed until they're so palatable to so many people... sure, those soundtracks suck, but it's not fair to throw the many babies this generation has given us out with the bathwater.

Portal 2 sticks out in my mind as one of the best soundtracks ever, not just within this console generation. I love the preprogrammed beeps and bloops, and even more I love the way modern technology and programming allows the music to accelerate or change according to the action on screen.

Soundtracks these days have to be 10 times as varied and deep and long as classic gaming soundtracks. They're procedurally generated, they're fully orchestrated, they're reactive auditory experiences. Not every retro-soundtrack is a winner either.

OK, can we stop fighting and just listen to the Persona 4 soundtrack together?
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