Friday, March 30, 2012


Playing LOTRO last night, standing by the vault NPC in the last homely house, i was struck, as usual, by the musical manifestation of the apparent struggle against quality in games. The entrance hall to Elrond's home is also the site of the vault in Rivendell, so it's a spot where many players will spend a bit of time. The hall itself features one of the few notable music tracks in the game, a couple of airy vocal pieces. It creates excellent atmosphere... or would if some dimwit hadn't had the bright idea to dump an NPC right next to the vault endlessly repeating a ten-second simplistic sound loop that gives the impression he's trying to inhale his flute.
It's interesting that the same companies that insist they must charge fifteen-dollar monthly fees can also afford to shoot themselves in the foot by counteracting the best effects they are capable of. Whoever designed the last homely house apparently had this quaint idea that, hey, music is good and NPCs playing instruments are good, so lumping them together must be double good, and never gave it a second thought.
After all, sound is a minor issue, right? We have glowing swords now.

No. Sound matters. Game companies used to know this. Backtrack a bit. We're in the 90s. We all love our games' graphics. Pixellated, static, crude, cartoonish as they are, they are a major selling point. They are not, however, the only selling point. Every aspect of a game is expected to hold up under scrutiny. Game reviewers always have a special section for sound, and music tracks help fill in long loading times on those old pentium-without-a-roman-numeral computers. Voice acting is beginning to play its role. Sound is expected to do its part in suggesting the appropriate mood and game companies invest in composers to get it done right.
Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries has driving, electronic tracks that your giant robot can really tap his twenty-ton boots to.
Warhammer 40k: Chaos Gate has faux-latin, macho choral music to march your fanatic space marines forward.
Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and 3 have individual themes for each faction to put you in the grasp of the enchantress or the grave.
Morrowind manages to re-create the rocky shores of Vvardenfell island musically.
Diablo has what is still the single most memorable original music track in any game i've played, the Tristram theme. The game would not have been nearly the same without that feeling of desolation it created.
Even a game like Half-Life, which did not invest in music specifically, showed how important positional audio can be in creating atmosphere. Circling a gigantic metal chamber for fifteen minutes while hearing ear-splitting banging coming from inside may have its nuisance factor, but it creates tension and suspense and it is memorable.

Time passes. Graphics get better. Game components start becoming defined, standardized, categorized, restricted. Everyone knows what a mob is, everyone knows you're supposed to shoot it. Everyone knows that boogeymen jump out at you and your military units have to be upgraded. Along with this, the need for atmosphere seemingly decreases. Games can be sold to customers who demand a very particular endorphin boost. They're not in it for the experience as a whole, they just want to shoot something, blow up a base or see shiny lights around their elf characters. It is no longer necessary to create individual themes and personalities for areas of a game when computer games themselves start being churned out on an industrial scale.

Compare Oblivion to Morrowind or HoMM 5 to its predecessors and find me any music with as much individuality as they used to show. Compare current MMO music to EVE-Online's bleak, lonesome feel.

Blizzard entertainment deserves special mention here. For better, then worse, it has been at the forefront of the industry for a couple of decades now. Through Diablo, Starcraft and Diablo 2, they possessed an excellent composer. His work was so good they were willing to let him hire an orchestra for the Diablo 2 expansion. It was recognizable enough that i picked the little he did out of everything else when i re-activated for a bit during the first WoW expansion. Steadily, though, Warcraft music became less and less interesting, more generic. The best example is the track in one of the taverns in WoW, in the undead starting area. This utterly inspired minute of creepiness is what they started with for that spot, and this nondescript whooshing is what they replaced it with. Yes, that's right, years after the game was released, they paid some employee to go back, remove the track they had paid for before, and replace it with something less interesting, more bland, less recognizable. This is not just stupidity, not just catering to stupidity. It is going above and beyond to champion the cause of stupidity.

I don't want to entirely sound like an old fogey yammering on about how 'they don't make 'em like they used to'. There have been games with decent music after 2000.
In Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, you'd occasionally pause by some radioactive waste dump to share a tin of spam with a bunch of hooded, gruff soldiers of fortune sitting around a trash-can fire, and chances are one of them would pull out a guitar and strum a bit of this to chase the shadows off.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines had, overall, the best music of any game i've played, hiring various artists' licensed songs for specific spots in the game. I won't link everything, but Chiasm's Isolated, The Genitorturers' Lecher Bitch, Daniel Ash's Come Alive would be the high points. There is another one that i'll mention in another post because it falls more under the category of creating a good scene.
The introductory theme to Dragon Age is noteworthy, even if the rest of the game's music is relatively bland.

Yes, there are some examples of good music in games still, but unfortunately it seems the current theory is that music only deserves token roles, that it should be as unobtrusive as possible, just a little fa-la-la or zing-whoosh here and there to break up the silence. We're not meant to pay attention to it. That's really my point here: many of us do notice it. We enjoy it, and we seek it out. Look at how many examples i've been able to find on youtube.

I have just learned that Matt Uelmen, Blizzard's old composer, is finally doing more music for a different company. That alone means that i will be looking into their games, if not buying an older one outright, because attention to quality in one aspect suggests the same attention to other aspects. Sound is still a selling point, no matter how much industry leaders might be trying to deny it.

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