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Running Errands

Editorial Written by Eduardo Friedman

Oftentimes, if not always, reviewers discuss the replay value of a game in their analysis. RPGs, barring few exceptions, have almost none of it, while adventure games are more likely to be enjoyed more than once. With music, it's not all that different; what is being judged is how long an album can be listened to without becoming a bore. And often, if not always, the soundtracks that you feel attached to come from games you feel attached to.

The Final Fantasy VI Original Sound Version still pleases me, after all these years. More recently, the Wander and the Colossus ~Roar of the Earth~ Original Soundtrack struck a chord with me as well and has yet, if ever, to become aurally stale. Is it just a coincidence that the two games I just mentioned are some of the most creative in their respective genres? Hironobu Sakaguchi's novella is still a benchmark on how to create a gripping story featuring several protagonists, and Fumito Ueda's gargantuan endeavor has some of the most impacting boss fights to date, not to mention a beautifully minimalist plot exposition.

Those games gave composers Nobuo Uematsu and Ko Otani a challenge. The former had to establish a theme for each character and re-use it again to establish a sense of purpose ("Locke" and "Forever Rachel," for instance, tell the story of the thief treasure hunter Locke, who wants the Phoenix to revive his lover, Rachel). The latter had to compose grandiose battle themes and, at the same time, emotionally shattering fanfares ("Grotesque Figures" and "The End of the Battle," respectively). The musical potential there is huge for both of them and Uematsu and Otani delivered.

I fail to see that potential in a lot of games nowadays. Maybe it's not that I fail — it just doesn't exist. Developers feed us the same kinds of plots, the same kinds of gameplay, and the same kinds of surprises over and over again. If games aren't taking risks, there's a huge chance that neither will its soundtrack. This should be the golden age of gaming! The only limits are... there are no limits! Instead, we're treated to a fundamental paradox of the industry: hardware provides creators free reign on their creativity, but, because of its high development price, those creators cannot be as creative as they want to be because the games need to sell. Yes, there's the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live! and the WiiWare, but let's stick to the blockbuster games for now.

I'm not saying creativity is good by default — if I did, I'd absolutely love Unlimited SaGa. It's got more to do with the potential for something new. Want an example? The settings of RPGs. They're either (tech-) medieval or cyberpunk. The potential for innovation there is drying up. An RPG set, let's say, in the 1940s, would have an enormous potential for surprising us. The era alone would warrant a new approach for composition — a jazzy score with a noir ambience would work wonders to revive the genre and shatter our expectations of how an RPG soundtrack should sound like. Also, a theme song would not be out of place — have a female bar lounge singer as a character and there you have it.

It's just that I feel the only aspect of game music that has been steadily progressing is the synthesizer and its operators, not the composers themselves generally speaking. Koichi Sugiyama has been the same for over two decades. The Dragon Quest series has that unmistakably classical aura that Sugiyama is so great at. I wouldn't change a thing. On the same token, Nobuo Uematsu is the musical face of the Final Fantasy series, which is known to be more open to different styles.

After departing Square Enix, Uematsu said he would be able to compose the music he wanted. The Lost Odyssey Original Soundtrack is his latest released soundtrack and, although there are some nice never seen before touches, some of the album is reminiscent of the composer's body of work for the series that brought him much acclaim. For example, "Howl of the Departed" features a very "Still More Fighting" influenced guitar line and "The Demonic-Possessed Man" has "Seymour's Theme" tattooed all over it.

That's very telling of how I perceive game music to be these days. I believe it to be an extension of the game industry: little to no deviation of the norm, rhapsody after rhapsody. It's high time to shake things up.

Koji Kondo, the master behind the score of Nintendo's flagship titles, said it best when he said that what separated games from films is interactivity. It seems obvious, right? Yeah, it is. But, musically, we're not hearing a damn grain of difference in terms of use. Game music has to be able to interact with what�s going on. Kondo himself is a great example of a composer who has tried such things; as a simple example from Super Mario Sunshine, whenever Mario got on Yoshi's back, a percussion line would be added to the music.

The same idea can be easily applied to RPGs. The party is passing through a forest, then is met with a common battle. Instead of the usual change of tune, why not increase the forest's tune's tempo and add maybe a bass line and a percussion line? Not only would the music stay consistent throughout the adventure, but it would also react to the situation. That was a basic example, and there are hundreds of things a composer can do to make the player feel more like a part of the game�s world.

When I walk into a convenience store or into a fancy elevator, there's some music playing. In other words, when I move to another location, the music changes. Sounds familiar, right? That's not interactivity, that's just me doing sideque... I mean, running errands. So, industry, please don't allow any more errands.