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"Chrono Trigger has awesome music!" Do you agree or disagree with the person who said this? Are you sure of that answer? If you dive a little deeper into your feelings, you may be surprised at what you discover. Perhaps you will end up admitting that you overlooked a few good tracks, or that you really were tired of hearing the battle music over and over. Then again, you might decide that your first thought was correct after all, and your opinion will stand unchanged. Either way, it is worth careful consideration. Many of us tend to make snap judgments based on hazy memories, or hold biased opinions because we see the games we love through rose-colored glasses. Although objectivity can be difficult sometimes, I ask you to momentarily cast aside your filter of love, hate or indifference towards the RPGs you know, and consider their aural merits alone. What constitutes a truly great RPG musical score?
Most RPGamers have some sort of opinion on game music, even if they do not consider it as a major factor when choosing or judging a game. However, sometimes opinions clash and debates ensue. This is inevitable because we have individual tastes in music, but it is partly due to another factor: not all game music is judged in the same way.
There are several ways to consider game music: as a stand-alone soundtrack, as a reminder of certain special moments, or in terms of the texture it adds to the game. At times, I catch myself thinking that Final Fantasy VI had the best score of any game; at other times, I am ready to claim that Yasunori Mitsuda and Hiroki Kikuta are better composers than Nobuo Uematsu. My shift in attitudes is not a result of indecision on my part so much as it is a change in mindset. At one time I am thinking about how the music affected me while playing the game; at another point I am deciding which CD to listen to. The difference in situation changes my whole preference in music.
The score of Xenogears is hailed by some as the best RPG music of all time. I can certainly understand this view; I cherish my Xenogears soundtrack CD. However, when playing the game, I actually got so annoyed with the music that I put my TV on mute and listened to the radio instead. I was tired of hearing the same music over and over again: the creepy drone of the perpetual dungeon music through a seemingly endless labyrinth of passageways, the frequent jarring interruptions by a battle theme heard far too many times. Even the best songs, played in excess, become stale. Since most of the time I clocked playing Xenogears was spent in these monotonous dungeons, my memories of the music I actually heard while playing the game mostly concern this same feeling of boredom and irritation. During the dramatic scenes when some of the best songs were being played, I was so busy trying to make sense of the plot that I could not spare much attention for the music itself. Although the music of Xenogears was excellent as a CD collection, I do not feel that it enriched the game in a laudatory manner.
Genso Suikoden is an example of the reverse phenomenon. While playing the game, I adored the music. It added exactly the right atmosphere. The sad music lent an air of poignancy to heart-wrenching scenes; the army battle music was tense and thrilling, calling the characters to action. I acquired the soundtrack three years ago, but I have only listened to it a handful of times. As a music CD, it is not nearly as impressive; though the music truly enhanced the game in the manner of great RPG scores, I rarely feel the urge to listen to the soundtrack alone.
Although they are representatives of opposite problems, I consider the scores of both Xenogears and Genso Suikoden to be praiseworthy works. There is no such thing as a "perfect" soundtrack; each one has its flaws, just as every RPG does. Most game music tends towards one of the two categories, either working well in the context of the game or being suitable for listening to on its own. Neither purpose is inherently better; they are both important functions of soundtracks.
I believe the difference may be rooted in the attitude of the composer: if the aim is creating a listening experience in which every track sparkles, the soundtrack may emerge as a good listening CD, but it may become dull or distract from the game at times. If the focus of creating music is on enhancing the game itself, the score will add texture and depth to the in-game experience, but it may not be the sort of music one wants to listen to in the car. Because of the scope and breadth of the worlds comprised in many RPGs, it is extraordinarily difficult to produce a soundtrack that fills both of these niches. An RPGamer review of Final Fantasy VII by Brendan McGrath states that although some of its music tracks are somewhat dull, it was intended that way. "The music for the sewers is not exactly going to be ethereal," he points out, "IT'S THE SEWERS!" If a game's soundtrack truly fits the game, it will probably have its low points. This may be perfect within the game, yet make for a CD that nobody wants to listen to. By contrast, I have often felt that I wanted to stop playing the game just to listen to the music. This speaks well for the score's potential as a music CD, but in this case it is distracting me from my gaming experience rather than enhancing my immersion in the world of the RPG. This is a flaw that many soundtracks bear with pride; nevertheless, it is a flaw. The music's intended function is to support the gamer's experience, not to stand alone as a catchy song.
There is another way in which a musical score may excel, one which is tied to sheer emotional subjectivity: How well does the soundtrack evoke memories from the games? Those of you who are familiar with Final Fantasy VII may recall a certain song that played only a handful of times in the game, yet which distinctly marked one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed in an RPG. When I hear that song, I feel some of the emotions that I felt during the scene. My mouth is dry; my eyes are burning. The music evokes this response not because of its own beauty, but because it is inexorably linked in my mind to a very special moment. Had this song played many other times throughout the game, it would not mean what it does to me. The careful placement of certain songs at various points in a game can have a strong effect on the music's power to evoke poignant memories later on. With restraint and a full knowledge of the emotional impact of a scene, composers can transform a pretty song into a lasting reminder of a game's great majesty.
There are many different functions at which a soundtrack can excel, and we ought to remember that concept when discussing video game music. Now, there are probably few groups who like to argue and debate more than RPGamer editorialists. We are a select minority of people who have the time to sit down and play 30-hour video games; but that is not enough for us; we go on the Internet and spend even more of our time reading what other people have to say about games. In the manner of all humans, we like to complain; of course we are going to argue about game music. However, if we do not realize what we liked or hated about it, our arguments are nothing but flat statements of opinion. It is not enough to say, "Chrono Trigger had awesome music." Why did it have awesome music? Were we wowed by its brilliance while playing the game? Did we find many hours of pleasure listening to the soundtrack long after finishing the game itself? Or is it simply that listening to the CD evokes poignant memories of the game? Each of these reasons may lead to completely different choices and preferences.
So, the next time you find someone who disagrees with your opinion about the music of a game, step back and consider whether you really have the same purpose in mind. Upon further reflection, you may discover that you actually share the same opinion and do not even realize it.
The arguments within the editorial are watertight, the only real flaw being that the entire editorial is based upon the same intrinsic point about the different ways game soundtracks can be good. Overall, however, a very good editorial indeed, well deserving of a very high mark.
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