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"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing - that's what counts." Richard Feynman.

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Video games songs and emotional responses.

Posted by Vert - March 22nd, 2011

So, firstly, this rant is more for my own personal indulgence than anything else; if you're reading this, you're more than welcome to do so and leave a comment if you like, but because there is no intended audience, trolls won't, exceptionally, be tolerated.

Anyway, the issue I want to discuss is one that's been troubling me for a while now: video game music. There are plenty of top 10/20/50/100 lists of the best videogame songs out there, just google the phrase and you'll quickly face a deluge of lists, including lists with most memorable or catchy songs or most nostalgic or etc.

Yet, most of these lists seem to have little to no thought behind what should constitute a good song, much less the best songs, instead just focusing on what the author believes is the best song out there, with little to no justification on their choices.

Sorry, what?

You're absolutely right to ask what the hell I'm talking about, since these types of lists are inherently subjective things, right? But that's the thing, although they are subjective, doesn't mean that there aren't some aspects we should think about before creating such a list. That is, there are things inherent to these songs that affect our choices deeply and that we should be aware of when making them.

Some of the potential factors that I'll be dealing with are things such as the good game factor, the emotional response factor, the "catchiness" of a song, the nostalgia factor, the repetition factor and how well a song complements a game.

Allow me to focus on one single aspect to begin with, the emotional response factor: the problem of separating our experience of listening to a vg song from our experience playing that game, in particular the emotions that we had in particular songs and scenes. This is a pretty big deal and can be one of the most problematic aspects these lists have.

Let me start with a well-known song: Aerith's theme.

Make no mistake, this <is> a good song. It's very delicate, pleasant and has a nice crescendo in the middle and certainly fits the character it represents very well. As such, it's a common choice for such lists. And that is a mistake.

The problem here is that Aerith's theme is irrevocably associated with not just the character, but also a scene: Aerith's death, naturally. This is one of the most emotionally charged scenes in vg history; one that has a deep gut reaction for most gamers and that produces powerful emotions (mainly sadness).

And that's the crux of the matter: when many people hear the song, they don't stop to appreciate its merits and flaws for its own sake and, instead, they immediately make the connection and that, irrevocably, makes the song all the more powerful and moving and, well, good in their mind.

But listen to the song on its own right: again, it's a good song, but it's nothing especial. Musically it's not very complex or that interesting, the pseudo-wind instrument that plays from 1:45 to 2:00 is completely out of place and annoying and the song has little lasting power, in the sense that you wouldn't want to hear it again... unless it provokes emotions for other reasons.

So it's not such a terrific song.

Now, let me show the opposite example to this one, the track The End of Battle from Shadow of the Colossus:

This track is, in many ways, very closely related to Aerith's theme. Just like Aerith's theme, it plays out in an emotionally charged situation, the death of each Colossi in the game and is strongly associated with it. It's a slow piece, albeit with different instrumentation and atmosphere to FFVIII's song, but with a similar tone. It even has a similar length of duration.

And yet, again noting that both are good songs, The End of Battle is arguably a superior piece, quite simply because it's a more complex and interesting song, containing different motions and themes within it, despite being more minimalistic. It's definitely a song one might want to hear again, so it endures. And although it was specifically created for the purpose of making us sad and/or reflecting the tragedy of what it reflects, it accomplishes this without necessitating the emotional reflex associated with the scenes in the game itself.

So, in summary, it's quite hard to separate our emotional response from listening to song from the emotions that we had when we first heard it when playing a game, a topic I'll talk about in a more general way in the future. But we should nevertheless try to do it, for the sake of trying to figure out what makes a really good song.