For as long as console role-playing games have existed, so too have existed various soundtracks to enhance the average gamer’s gameplay experience, both in Japanese and Western RPGs. This editorial will take a look at the specifics of game music and what they need to be successful game enhancers.
Among the first things a videogame soundtrack needs is a main central theme. Most Japanese gamers are undoubtedly familiar with composer Koichi Sugiyama’s overture for the Dragon Quest franchise, not to mention his various sweeping orchestral themes for the rest of the soundtrack. Sugiyama’s main theme for the franchise, however, typically doesn’t play part in his other compositions for the series’ various tunes, except maybe before the ending credits when it gains final prominence before the unique closing credits theme.
One title that perhaps takes central themes to the nines is SaGa Frontier 2, with composer Masashi Hamauzu in fact providing more than one central theme, alongside several remixes, for tracks such as the title screen theme and the main battle themes, which share the same core notes. Such remixes can make a game’s soundtrack more memorable, although some may lament the repetition of such themes and yearn for more diversity in a title’s soundtrack. Even so, some titles can sport central themes without too much repetition, such as Xenosaga Episode I.
To speak of the first installment of the Xenosaga trilogy brings up the actual use of music in games, with Episode I featuring a rather stingy use of its main themes, what with many areas completely lacking music, with ambience often failing to fill that particular void. While technical limitations of early videogames restricted how much music composers could provide for titles, for contemporary games to completely lack music for many areas is simply inexcusable, especially if there are around forty compositions in a soundtrack as is the case with Xenosaga Episode I’s tunes.
Another need for game soundtracks, especially if they have diverse playable casts, is for each character to have their own theme, perhaps a few remixes of said theme. Many SaGa games such as Romancing SaGa on the Super Famicom and its PlayStation 2 rerelease, Minstrel Song, do a general decent job in this area, with each of the main selectable protagonists having their own themes. As well, Final Fantasy VI sports different themes for much of its cast, with remixes during the ending credits.
During cutscenes, especially if a game is devoid of voice acting, it’s often necessary for composers to fill the void of said narrative portions to enhance their memorability, although voicework and moving music can often coexist, as is the case with the Digital Devil Saga duology for the PlayStation 2 thanks to composer Shoji Meguro. Music, alongside competent voice acting should developers choose to record voices for their games’ characters, can definitely more powerful scenes make, with Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, for instance, featuring the moving “A Small Departure” thanks to composer Hitoshi Sakimoto and music director Yasunori Mitsuda.
In summation, videogames, particularly RPGs, need several things for successful soundtracks such as central themes, actual music presence, individual character themes, and emotional cutscene music to be successful. While voice acting has in past console generations arisen to become a prominent voice in videogames, excellent music and good voicework can most certainly coexist to provide an enhanced videogame experience.