Remember Me?

"We who are about to rock salute you."

Let’s play a game!

It’s quite simple, and you should enjoy it, unless you’re some sort of daft punk who hates music. All you need to do is adjust your volume to proper levels, click on a link, and close your eyes. Once you’ve guessed the name of the song playing, you can open your eyes, check to see if you were correct, and repeat, until you’ve heard all the songs listed. Then we’ll have a think about it.

  • If you can guess what this is, congratulations, you are alive.
  • Here’s another easy one.
  • Honestly, if you haven’t heard this, there is no hope for you.

Right, so, easy, no?

  • This one, you should recognize, but… well… hm. I’ll get to it in a moment.
  • Again, I expect you to recognize this, maybe.
  • I’m not sure if you could call it a theme, but it should be somewhat recognizable.

Was that more difficult? I expect it was.

Surely you recognized those songs, Princess Leia!

I didn’t actually see Star Wars, Mission Impossible, or The Pink Panther until very recently, but I knew those themes. Ask me to hum them for you, and I probably could. Ask most people and, unless they’re horribly tone-deaf, chances are they can hum, whistle, or sing those tunes with great ease. The latter songs, though? I’m sure many people have played or heard of the games they come from, but I doubt many people, when asked “hey, do you know Fallout 3/Bioshock’s/Assassin’s Creed 2’s theme,” would be able to recall the tunes right away. Show them a picture of the games, and you’ll have instant recognition–but you can do that with the films, too. Star Wars looks distinctively Star Wars, and pretty much everyone should be familiar with the cartoon Pink Panther.

See, video games have a problem. Any sort of audiovisual entertainment, whether it’s a television show, a movie, or a video game, relies on certain cultural shorthand for recognizability. A theme song, a logo, or a character are all symbols that can be used to convey a lot of information in a very small amount of space. The Jurassic Park theme immediately conjures up pictures of dinosaurs in my head, and at the same time, the fact that it has multiple connections to Indiana Jones and Jaws (John Williams composed their soundtracks, and Stephen Spielberg directed the films), means that I might start thinking about them as well. Essentially, it’s about conveying an idea, or many ideas, without words. It’s like a signature–a thing that says “yes, I am a part of this idea or from this person, whatever it or whoever they may be.”

This Bat-symbol means something to most people:

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a symbol is worth a million.

This one does too:

Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!

The Bat-symbol is visual shorthand for the idea of Batman, but there are multiple interpretations of the character. Adam West’s Batman isn’t like Michael Keaton’s or Christian Bale’s, and as a result, the Bat-symbol changes. It’s still a Bat, so you know it’s about Batman, but one particular symbol makes you think about the Nolan films and another makes you think about the Burton ones. You see, it’s all about identity. Give a game a symbol, a logo, a distinct character design, or a song, and you give it a unique identity. If someone were to write replace the letters B-I-O-S-H-O-C-K with H-A-L-O, you’d still know it was Bioshock’s logo. But if you replaced the Bioshock theme… well, it doesn’t really matter. Bioshock’s theme is nice, but ultimately insignificant. It’s soundtrack music–designed to stay in the background. The same is true for most video games; the music simply isn’t good, or at least distinct, enough to burrow itself into our cultural identity.

I know a good number of people who think that certain JRPGs they played as children and teenagers have great music. As a former music teacher and honor band member, I honestly couldn’t tell you that Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy have great music. It’s mostly forgettable unless you have a certain emotional attachment to the game itself; otherwise, the music doesn’t really stay with you. Firelake’s Dirge for the Planet is a fairly forgettable song, except for the fact that it’s inextricable from my time playing STALKER. It’s a song that plays on the radio in the few safe places in the entire game. Hearing it is intensely comforting to me, but to people who haven’t played STALKER (or had their music turned off), Dirge has no meaning. Half-Life 2, Earthbound, and Dragon Age have such forgettable soundtracks that I have replaced them in my head with Armin Van Buuren, Scorpions (specifically, the Rhythm of Love), and Electric Six/Led Zeppelin, respectively. Mass Effect may have a theme song, but that didn’t stop Bioware from using Two Steps from Hell’s Heart of Courage in place of it during the trailer.

Now, I did say that it’s true for most video games. There are a few exceptions, most notably Halo and (before it’s even out, no less) Skyrim. If you hear them once, it’s unlikely you will ever forget them.

Ultimately, I think games could do with a more distinctive identity. With greater, more distinctive themes, they could push themselves further into the general pop cultural consciousness. As it is now, game music is basically forgettable drek, cared for only by the people who already love the games that each song is from. Come on, games industry, let’s do better, shall we?

    • icemonk
    • July 28th, 2011

    Hey doc, I’ve been reading your stuff on here and kotaku for a long time and I just want you to know that your a really good writer. You make good points and are very well spoken (written?). Keep up the good work.

    P.S. Do you have a favorite video game song that you like?

  1. @Icemonk: I appreciate the kind words. When it comes to favorite video game song… hm. In terms of music that comes from games (and nowhere else, like Derezzed, which was in the Tron Legacy video game), I’d probably have to say the Halo theme. It’s the only video game song I listen to with any regularity, and I’ve been listening to it ever since before I knew what Halo was.

    @The guy who likes to insult me and not leave a name so I have no name to call him by: I’m not going to keep your posts around if all you’re interested in doing is stirring up drama because you have a bone to pick. Again, you don’t get to accuse me of disregarding everyone’s opinions just because of the way I write or how I may choose to comment on Kotaku. You’re still welcome to comment on anything here or even disagree with the points I’ve made, but I’m not interested in baseless insults.

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