I remember being twelve years old.

Ms. Nalli, in her eternal wisdom, had assigned us a project: We were to develop a presentation about our favourite music video.

The problem was, I’d never watched a music video before. I didn’t even know where I would go to find a music video – bear in mind that this was 2003, well before YouTube. Ms. Nalli may as well have asked me to locate some cocaine and bring it to the class.

The bigger problem was, I didn’t like music.

In the end, I flipped through channels on TV, and it so happened that I eventually landed on Country Music Television. Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” came on, I got a chuckle out of the music video, and away I went.

You’ve never seen me half-ass an assignment like I did this one. I could not have cared less about my presentation, and my cavalier attitude rubbed Ms. Nalli the wrong way. She smote me with a “D” on that assignment. As someone who probably cared too much about his grades in elementary school, that should have upset me. Yet incredibly, my indifference toward music was powerful enough to defeat my academic concerns, and I shrugged it off.

 

I tell that story occasionally whenever I’m asked what music I liked as a kid, because people can’t believe that someone could hit their teenage years without being a fan of some kind of music.

Upon further reflection though, I may have had one crucial detail wrong in this story all these years:

I did like music back then. Of course I did.

True, I probably hadn’t ever seen a music video. True, I probably had only a vague idea of what MTV and MuchMusic were.

But by the time I turned 13, I’d already played a ton of video games. And I’d already listened to a ton of video game soundtracks.

 

When most people think about video games, they tend to think of the graphics and the gameplay first – not about music. And to me, that’s crazy. A good soundtrack can salvage a shred of dignity for an otherwise awful game, and a bad soundtrack can turn an incredible game into a forgettable one.

The key is to anticipate what the player is feeling at any given point in the game, and compose music to match. It sounds simple, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. When done right, you’ll give the player an experience that they will remember forever.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Pokemon Red/Blue/Green (1996)

Back in 1996, handheld games relied on extremely primitive technology to set the tone. Visuals were colourless and unimpressive, and the audio wasn’t much more than a series of beeps and boops.

How on earth do you get the player to quiver in fear then?

Lavender Town, that’s how. Play the first four notes of this theme in front of anyone who played Pokemon Red/Blue in the 90s and you’ll see them visibly shudder as a chill crawls down their spine.

The player first arrives in Lavender Town after a slog through a particularly annoying deep dark cave. You’re exhausted, your Pokemon are dying, and you just want to hear the comforting sounds of an upbeat city theme.

Instead you enter a town which has as its defining feature not a Pokemon Gym, like every other city you’ve been in up to this point in the game, but a graveyard. It’s unnerving in the extreme, and the theme song just drives the point home.

This theme is rather legendary among gamers for the myths surrounding it. You can read all about Lavender Town Syndrome here.

Golden Sun (2001)

The first two games in the Golden Sun series will take you a combined 60-75 hours to get through. This theme plays for a total of one scene in the first two hours of the game, and that’s it.

Despite that, it’s still fresh in my memory nearly 15 years later. Why?

Once again, it’s because the composer managed to capture the player’s emotional state at that point in the game perfectly. Like the lead up to Lavender Town, the lead up to Inner Sol Sanctum (where this theme plays) is a bit of a slog. Once you get through, you find yourself in a mysterious and sacred place. The beginning of the theme fits that tone perfectly. At the same time, the player is aware that some major shit is about to go down, and the theme acknowledges this by building in strength over the first minute or so. It’s subtle, but it’s extremely effective.

Golden Sun is one of my favourite games of all time, and I could probably come up with 20 more examples of killer themes used in the game, but I’m going to exercise some restraint and move on.

Sonic Heroes (2003)

Unlike the first two games I’ve looked at, Sonic Heroes was a bad game. It wasn’t unplayable, but it certainly served to foreshadow the unfortunate direction that Sega would be heading with its most famous mascot.

I don’t have any records to show how many hours I put into this game in 2004, but a safe estimate would be in the 40 hour range. Those 40 hours are a black hole; I can barely remember any of it.

But I do remember the final boss battle. Not because it was a particularly exciting or intense final boss battle, but because of the battle theme.

I think it’s a risky move to put lyrics in a video game soundtrack. Throwing in lyrics makes it more difficult to establish a connection with the player’s emotional state, and most of the time you’ll only end up distracting the player.

Used sparingly however, lyrics can be effective. This particular theme stands in contrast to the rest of the game’s soundtrack, which is purely instrumental aside from a few intro themes. It works because the lyrics aren’t overly complicated, and the same refrain is repeated over and over: “Let me show you just what I’m made of.” That’s exactly what you want to hear when beating up on a game’s final boss.

Without this theme song, I’d likely have forgotten all about Sonic Heroes. Instead, I’m still talking about it 12 years later.

Xenoblade X (2015)

Finally, here’s an example of what not to do.

Xenoblade X is the spiritual successor to a 2011 game called Xenoblade Chronicles. Now, Xenoblade Chronicles had it all. A beautiful world to explore, captivating characters, a plot full of twists and turns, cockney accents, and a killer soundtrack. It probably ranks somewhere between #10 and #8 on my list of favourite games ever. Lofty praise indeed.

When Xenoblade X was announced, I may have peed a little. For seven months I waited for the game to be translated into English. I was ready to dump 150 hours into this thing.

Then I got into my first battle, and the above theme started to play.

There’s nothing wrong with the first 40 seconds or so. It’s a battle theme, so something up tempo and aggressive fits the mood perfectly.

And then 40 seconds in, the song changes its tone, its feel, and even its genre. It’s a sudden,  jarring shift that takes the player completely out of the game for a moment. It goes from being a theme that meshes with the game’s fantasy theme reasonably well to one that isn’t even close. Rap and futuristic fantasy is not a match made in heaven. Instead of complementing the player’s emotions, this theme creates a discord which pulls the player out of the immersive experience they were having.

Aggravating matters further, this is the standard battle theme, which means that if you play Xenoblade X, you’re going to be hearing that music over, and over, and over again. If nothing else, it encouraged me to try to defeat enemies in 40 seconds or less, lest I have to hear that garbage again.

I ended up playing the game on mute – something I virtually never do – and ultimately I just lost interest.

 

Video game soundtracks are extremely important. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, they can absolutely make or break a gaming experience.

Next time you’re gaming- be it PC, console, handheld, or smartphone – put down the controller for a moment and just try and take in the music. If the composer has done their job, you won’t regret it.

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