When it comes to video game music interviews we, as game journalists, often seek out composers from a specific video game and ask them to talk about their influences and inspiration. But how should we critique video game music in the first place?
Video games are a medium that integrate several art forms into one and, of those art forms, music is usually at the bottom of our list. Video game music is one of the last things we get talk about when we discuss a game, and that’s if we talk about it at all.
I sat down with musician, composer, and private instructor Edwin Garcia to find out what video game journalists are doing wrong and how we can get better. In addition to having a degree in Jazz Studies, Edwin has been a gamer since the early 90’s.
Nerd Much: When we critique game music the main question we ask ourselves is “does the music effectively enhance and support the overall story or experience of the game?” How do you think we should go about approaching that question?
Edwin Garcia: Part of it has to be about removing your bias as to whether you like the music or not. A good way to judge it would be muting the game and seeing what we lose that’s not just dialogue. And if you wouldn’t lose anything then the music didn’t do a good job. Now in some games that’s not a big deal, such as a sports simulator because the music is intended for background. So, it’s also intent. You can’t judge the music of a sports game the same way you would judge an indie title that’s supposed to be dramatic or a Resident Evil game that’s supposed to be suspenseful/thrilling because it serves a different purpose. So it also depends on the purpose. Every game is different so [the way you critique the music] has to be approached differently each time.
Video games are technically a visual thing more so than an aural thing. And so you have to take into account what kind of impact the producer wanted [their music] to have and whether they accomplished that or failed.
Let’s say that we feel like the music did accomplish it because the music is dark and the game’s theme is dark. How do we go about discussing the music in a way that’s more intellectualized than “yeah this works because they both match up.” Where do we go from there, once we establish whether the music was or wasn’t effective?
Using more descriptive words: how did it match up? what did it make you feel? If you can’t answer those questions then you’re either not listening well enough or the game didn’t accomplish what you thought it did. If you’re like “oh it’s okay,” well okay’s not good, it’s just not annoying. So that’s not a good soundtrack; it’s just not an annoying one. You have to get more descriptive about how it makes you feel and if the music itself added into any of those feelings. If you listen to music, in general, there’s music that can do that to you. Music that can make you sad, excited, anxious. And if the game music isn’t matching up with your experience on screen then it didn’t do a good job.
So you started to touch on this already but you mentioned that if you don’t have a lot to say about it either the game failed or you’re not listening well enough. What does it mean to be a good listener when it comes to video game music or even just music in general?
Game reviewers in general have to work at raising the standard for what they do. Really, any type of journalist should raise the standard for what they do. The way they play a game should be “better” than the way I play a game; it should be more observant. I’m just a casual player so it doesn’t really matter. I can just do whatever, but I’m not writing about it or trying to express it in anyway so it’s fine… [Critiquing video game music] isn’t so much a difficulty thing, it’s a focus thing. I mean, it always helps to know [music] theory and be able to detect pitch and all that but you don’t even necessarily need to do that.
You just need to play [the game], have a notebook by you, and write down any emotions you felt. If a game made you feel sad: what did it do? “I don’t know it just did” that’s not good enough, not if you’re a writer. [It should be] I felt sad because the oboe sounded sad, or the clarinet, or the top voice, or there was a trill… When the orchestral music came in it made me feel sad. That’s at least something. So I would say writing down emotions, minutes that it happened if it’s the song, moments that it happened if it’s the game. Just being descriptive, even in the most common casual way, is a good stepping stone. And then you can always edit it and say okay, now that I’ve re-listened to it or replayed it I can say this a little better.
You mentioned some instruments and used phrases such as voice and trill. Going off of that, what’s some vocabulary and basic knowledge that you think would be helpful for people who write about games to have in order to talk about video game music? I know you said you don’t need full knowledge of theory or anything but what do you think are some basic terms that everyone should know? (i.e be able to pick up on/talk about)
I think you need to think about your favorite music and how you would describe that. I don’t think there are any specific terms you need to know. You don’t even have to use any musical terms if you can describe it in a way that connects to everyone. The issue is connecting the music to everyone else even if they don’t know the music that well. Because if you know it well then that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that anyone else is gonna know what you’re talking about. I don’t know… [maybe] simple things like dynamics… though you can just use descriptive terms like tense, anxious, calming, and then connect it with general things that people understand such as strings, drums, synth, etc.
I don’t think you have to use, for instance, words like crescendo because there may be some people who don’t know what that means. You can just replace those words with [their definitions]: i.e [the music] rose or it fell or reached a climax. Instead of saying dynamics you can say it got dramatically louder or quieter. You can still be describing the same thing but I think it’s better if you use more general language as opposed to direct musical terms.
What do you think are some common pitfalls that video game journalists fall into when critiquing video game music? Aka what is everyone doing wrong?
They just say it’s neat or it’s not neat. And I’ve never seen… I mean I’d have to really think about it… but I’ve never seen anyone do it in an even remotely intelligent way. It’s always like “I don’t know, I really liked the Metal Gear Solid soundtrack.”
They don’t really ever do anything [with the music]. Not only is it always a footnote but it’s always a bad footnote. It doesn’t really add anything [to my understanding].
What do you mean “footnote”? Tell me more about that.
It’s just like literally two sentences and then [the writer] moves on.
And what’s the drawback of video game journalists making music a footnote in their game criticism? Why should music be more than a footnote?
It should be more than a footnote because for many games if you would mute the music you would lose a lot. Now I know a lot of people who do mute [their games], myself included because I don’t think the [music] is very good, and then I don’t lose it because I put my own music on that either matches the experience or the current mood that I want. I’m currently playing Super Mario 3D Land and I usually have the sound off for that.
But, as a writer, when you [make music a footnote] it’s just lazy writing. You don’t want to dig deeper, you don’t want to take the extra time. And is something that maybe some gamers don’t even know they’re missing because they’re not used to experiencing.
And, more than anything, for the journalist it’s a missed opportunity because they didn’t write about it in depth. With so many people writing about games (today) I think every individual journalist is thinking “what can I do to break out or stand out [in the industry]?” and [writing about music] is the kind of thing that would put you in a category that no one else would be in because they’re not doing that work.
Writing critically about video game music is what would make your review better than the other 10,000 reviews of Battlefield 1 I’m gonna read.
So I think it’s a missed opportunity because you could be looking at this game in a different, better way that no one else is doing: from an individual standpoint that would be the benefit. And then obviously the reader would benefit because they’ll be like “oh I never thought of this; that’s interesting” and that’s how you can get the topic started.
So you mention that you often mute game music. Besides the fact that you might want a different mood or want to listen to something else, one thing you mentioned is that “is usually not good.” What about the game music you’ve listened to, to you, is negligible? You know… why are you playing Super Mario 3D Land with the sound off?
Well, Super Mario 3D Land is different. I don’t think their goal is to have an incredible audio experience. It’s a different game. They’re very creative in other aspects but music’s not one. [The Mario development team] has kind of decided that they have a certain sound that they like and they haven’t moved from that sound in a long, long time. So [music] is kind of an afterthought. Once you’ve played one of the Mario games you kind of know what to expect [musically]. Which is fine. Just like Madden doesn’t need the sound of it, some games don’t need it if that’s not the focus. For instance, suspense in a Mario game comes more from your own struggle than the character’s struggle.
On that note, what’s a video game that you think has a really good soundtrack?
Child of Light is pretty good. It had some simple melodies that kind of worked. They were small pieces but they were effective.
Who do you think does a good job at talking about game music, if anyone?
Almost no one. When Somecallmejohnny talks about it its pretty good, he does some of the things I’ve talked about. He’s descriptive. And even when he doesn’t do a good job or great job he still gives me something. [His] Sonic series, his Metal Gear series, overall he does a good job generally. He gives it more time than 2 seconds. He still doesn’t give it anywhere near the time that he gives everything else, but that’s understandable. I always walk away with some insight into the sound.
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