Disorder Reviews: Why You Should Hate Video Game Orchestral Arrangements

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Martintox

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WHY YOU SHOULD HATE VIDEO GAME ORCHESTRAL ARRANGEMENTS

Long-time readers and easily distracted law students will already be very familiar with the ongoing debate as to the legitimacy of video games as a form of art. As obvious as it is to an insider that the medium has outgrown the primitive design and storytelling philosophy of the likes of Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, gaming falls victim to practices that damage its reputation as a domain of artistic expression. On the consumer level, there is no such thing as an “enthusiast” player in the same way that we would describe a connoisseur of music or cinema with actual things to say; the closest equivalent are pro gamers, who express their passion for the medium not through constructive discourse, but by throwing a fit whenever they find out you can’t harass underage women at a Smash tournament. On the journalistic level, most gaming “news” authors hold such contempt for the pro gamer audience (and rightfully so) that they spend more time shitting on them than cultivating any sort of interest in the art form. More harmful than either of these, however, is the industry itself. Although it matters little to companies if the format is seen as art or not, gaming’s current image problem allows them to capitalize on tryhards who want to be seen as more refined than your average Doom II-playing proletarian. These gimmicks are not just exploitative; they seek to undermine gaming’s natural identity, and the worst of them may well be the video game orchestral concert.

To understand how artistically backwards this trend is, one needs to understand the disingenuous methods through which people justify gaming as art, as well as the reasons why the musical world has evolved past the classical orchestra in the first place. What hurts video games’ standing alongside painting or architecture is that it has much longer been a format of the people than of the elites. Think about it: what does every reactionary do when they’re told they’re walking on top of an art exhibit? They act indignant and compare it unfavorably to a sculpture commissioned by a wealthy political or religious figure 600 years prior in an entirely different cultural context. Most forms of art are historically rooted in orthodoxies from across the ages that limited their production as well as their consumption. It’s only in the last couple of centuries that the means with which to create and experience them have become more accessible, thus leading to more individual artistic voices. That much may be obvious, but keep this in mind: these individualized works are still a direct extension of that orthodox history. After all, to innovate, you need to break away from past conventions.

Video games, by contrast, have developed in a much more democratized artistic structure than the “old masters” had. In fact, its breakthrough coincides with the increased prevalence of household televisions, in itself an event that made cinema more individual on the consumer level. Whereas other forms of media evolved in scope so as to acquire mass appeal, video games were made for mass appeal from the get go. It’s for this very reason that a lot of people still don’t take the medium seriously: it started off as a toy rather than a grandiose reinforcement of social or theological values. To be fair to those people, the industry itself does little to dispel the stereotype. Nintendo holds strong as one of the gaming titans specifically because it remains a child-oriented business with heavy emphasis on proprietary gimmicks such as the Switch’s hybrid design. It can be said that other art forms also feature similarly big profit-oriented companies, but the important part is that gaming as a whole is still heavily associated with this financial motive. The layman will probably realize that a movie such as The Lighthouse is very different from a Marvel theme park ride, but AAA games and art games are comparatively much closer in the public eye.

Now, indie developers and even larger studios have made plenty of attempts to take the medium beyond simple entertainment, and this has resulted in a fair amount of genuinely brilliant and innovative titles. However, some of them do this in very bad faith. Instead of wondering how they can take advantage of gaming’s interactivity — the one element that is truly unique to the form — to express ideas in an original way, they believe that the only way to create an art game is to make it more like a movie. This approach, a recent example of which would be The Last of Us Part II, is actively regressive: creators look back in time to do things that people already consider artistically legitimate, rather than move forwards and help give gaming its own distinct identity. Action-heavy games such as Gunstar Heroes are not shunned, far from it, but they are not discussed in the same breath as overhyped movie-games because they eschew tried-and-true elements like narrative in favor of gameplay, a field that still holds plenty of untapped potential.

This issue of games imitating movies extends to their use of music as well. It’s long become the norm for big budget flicks to contain a generic orchestral soundtrack that emotionally manipulates the viewer without making its presence known, and the use of temp music has only made this more prevalent through what I can best describe as musical inbreeding. Video games are no different, and it’s all the more tragic when you realize that console limitations have allowed for much more creative OSTs than what we usually hear today. Over the course of the first three Streets of Rage games, Yuzo Koshiro was able to coax some brilliant material out of a shitty six-channel Yamaha sound chip. Streets of Rage 3, in particular, was host to experimental techno pieces that were ahead of their time in electronic music at large, not just in gaming — that soundtrack continues to filter plebs to this day. Early game music is rife with legendary artists like Koshiro or David Wise and Eveline Fischer (of Donkey Kong Country fame), whose limitations allowed them to carve sounds that could not have been made without the equipment they were obligated to use.

[10000 character cut-off]​
 

Martintox

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Eventually, console technology came far enough along that CD quality audio became commonplace; this prompted studios to hire full orchestras instead of paying a few people to fuck around with synthesizers, and things only took a turn for the worst. A particularly telling example of this is the musical evolution of the works of hack extraordinaire Yoko Taro. There are many great things about the feminist masterpiece Drakengard, but one of its biggest assets is Nobuyoshi Sano and Takayuki Aihara’s soundtrack, in which they manipulate and loop samples of orchestral performances in a very startling and memorable way. The game’s music is so unique that I still haven’t found anything that comes even remotely close to it (if you know something similar that you didn’t make in Audacity in 5 minutes, tell me about it and you might get featured in my next Disorder Playthrough!). Compare and contrast with Nier: Automata, where most of the compositions are so instrumentally bloated they feel like the punchline of a “your mom” joke. The gaming industry has managed to sabotage a growing musical scene that has produced forward-thinking material, all this because orchestras are an easy way to be taken seriously.

So, what’s so bad about using an orchestra? Strictly speaking, there would be nothing wrong with it, but much like with movies, most orchestral game soundtracks are content with imitating Two Steps From Hell’s generic “cinematic classical” style ad nauseam. Modern composers have long moved past these kinds of pieces in favor of more adventurous arrangements and compositional techniques. Some, most importantly, have made a concerted effort to free the moving parts of the orchestra from the stranglehold of the author and conductor. The traditional model of the orchestra is one where 30+ people sit in a half-circle to play a piece in a very specific way for the benefit of a large middle-to-upper-class audience. This is not a collective of individuals contributing to a larger whole; it’s a musical dictatorship. The democratization of the medium has led to a major break away from this restrictive setup: you have smaller, non-conducted ensembles as well as individuals who use digital audio workstations to build large soundscapes without the need to compromise their creativity or worry about contributing to an oppressive musical-industrial complex. Even full orchestras get a taste of this: the likes of John Cage and Terry Riley have written works in which each musician in an ensemble has direct agency in the performance, instead of being at the mercy of a guy with a stick.

All of this brings us to video game orchestral concerts, in which this sort of deviant thinking isn’t welcome. I have watched a few of them online (as if I’d pay money for them), and each time, it simply came off as a pointless exercise. It’s not like they’re going to play anything actually interesting: most concerts consist of either old video game themes rearranged in a completely predictable way, or straightforward performances of game music that was already orchestral and predictable. Square Enix are particularly bad about this: they really want you to know they used to have one of the few half-competent composers in the business, and so Final Fantasy orchestras have become the bane of concert halls around the globe. Yoko Taro has very much been on board with this idea too: he’s even gotten Keiichi Okabe to make worse arrangements of music from the original Nier to better suit the orchestral format, and Automata-onlies eat it up. There is nothing redeeming about this trend: it’s an active suppression of genuine musical experimentation so as to make middle-class plebeians feel special for having played Ocarina of Time when they were kids. If you actually want to celebrate gaming’s musical history, you should go to a rave with a particularly savvy DJ or look for a Pepsiman surf punk tribute band, because either of these are much more respectful to the medium and the individual visions therein than the traditionalism that is trying to consume it.

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THE UNDERTALE REMINDER

Toby Fox organized an Undertale orchestral concert to celebrate its fifth anniversary, and it’s exactly as terrible as it sounds. Sure, the soundtrack itself is highly repetitious and apes Earthbound on more than one occasion, but the rearrangements completely suck out however little soul the original versions had in their own right. To speak positively of a con job like this is to show a level of bourgeoisie only matched by those who think Dark Souls III has the best music in its series.​
 

bluegate

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For me personally, putting it simple; the melody gets lost within the cacophony of 500 instruments.
 
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There's nothing wrong with orchestral music. A lot of orchestral music in gaming is made by one person using sample libraries where most gamers wouldn't be able the difference from the real thing. Hiring a live orchestra may be pointless, but they need all the work they can get nowadays.

Most of the games with orchestral music are high medieval fantasy games. Do synthesizers make thematic sense in a world without electricity? You could argue that modern orchestral instruments didn't exist during that time period, but the horn and viol isn't as big of a stretch as something ridiculous like oscillator synths.

Also, do you really want video games to have composition like Bartok and Toru? Do you really want to go back to tracked music like Warcraft II? Would LoTR be better with a jazz or EDM soundtrack?
 
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BrawlMan

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I appreciate for giving recognition to the old guard; especially Yuzo Koshiro, but there is nothing wrong with symphony. The only time its'a problems is if all you play is the mediocre or standard-run-of-the-mill AAA games of the COD/Marvel/Destiny/etc variety. There are AAA games that have do more than symphony or make their symphony unique and memorable. You just have not been looking hard. Not to mention the AA and indie scene got plenty of soundtrack variety that stand out. I can't help, but feel this is a....


 
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Gordon_4

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Last I checked he also never made a Game OST in his life.
No, just Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, ET and a slew of others. There's no special way to make an OST for a game. Creating a soundtrack or indeed a sound for anything is a matter of skill. John Williams is skilled.
 
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bluegate

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No, just Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, ET and a slew of others. There's no special way to make an OST for a game. Creating a soundtrack or indeed a sound for anything is a matter of skill. John Williams is skilled.
I didn't mean to say that John Williams couldn't compose a Game OST.
 

fOx

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I feel like you come close to hitting the nail on the head, but then you fall just short.

Yes, you are correct about writing in games. Because game are an interactive medium, all stories should be interactive in nature. Any game that fails to capitalize on this is failing to capitalize on the very thing that makes games unique. Too many titles have linear narratives that unfold the same way every time, regardless of player actions. A game that has a non interactive story is a badly written game. But here's my question to you: why is music any different?

Video game music shouldn't just be freed from the domineering control of conductors, it should be freed from musicians as a whole. Instead of treating music as a background accessory, all video games should make music interactive on the part of the player. Like with writing, any game with non interactive music shouldn't have music at all. A few games, like guitar hero and parapa the rapper, have made half hearted attempts at addressing this issue, but all of them have fallen short. They make the same mistakes as games with linear stories: they force the player to follow a linear set of events, and then grade them on their ability to do so perfectly. But this is antithetical to the very nature of music. For instance, as a teenager, I was initially very excited to play Guitar Hero World Tour. But when I tried to play a jazz inspired improvisational version of Limp Bizkit, what happened? The virtual crowd boo'd me off the stage, and I wasn't even allowed to finish. There's not room for player interpretation or creativity. You're just following a rote series of inputs into a computer. You may as well be at work. Real games should instead give players total musical freedom. Very few games have really attempted this, with the only games that come to mind being Ocarina of Time and Fruity Loops.

There's nothing wrong with orchestral music. A lot of orchestral music in gaming is made by one person using sample libraries where most gamers wouldn't be able the difference from the real thing. Hiring a live orchestra may be pointless, but they need all the work they can get nowadays.

Most of the games with orchestral music are high medieval fantasy games. Do synthesizers make thematic sense in a world without electricity? You could argue that modern orchestral instruments didn't exist during that time period, but the horn and viol isn't as big of a stretch as something ridiculous like oscillator synths.

Also, do you really want video games to have composition like Bartok and Toru? Do you really want to go back to tracked music like Warcraft II? Would LoTR be better with a jazz or EDM soundtrack?
I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with this. This perspective completely ignores the ties between orchestrated music and white nationalism. For centuries, orchestrated and classical music was held up as the pinnacle of musical culture by white, western, colonialist European powers, and later by the united states. To this day "music theory" is still just synonymous with "white European composers in the 1800's." Even worse, many classical musicians, like Wagner, paved the way for nazi ideology, by celebrating the idea of Germanic Arian culture, and the superiority of the European culture. Orchestrated music has never taken responsibility for its role in colonialism or nazism, or for the part it played in white nationalism, to the point where it has now become a dog whistle for white nationalists all across America. Despite this, it is still utilized in modern films and video games, much to the chagrin of minorities across the country.
 

Gordon_4

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I feel like you come close to hitting the nail on the head, but then you fall just short.

Yes, you are correct about writing in games. Because game are an interactive medium, all stories should be interactive in nature. Any game that fails to capitalize on this is failing to capitalize on the very thing that makes games unique. Too many titles have linear narratives that unfold the same way every time, regardless of player actions. A game that has a non interactive story is a badly written game. But here's my question to you: why is music any different?

Video game music shouldn't just be freed from the domineering control of conductors, it should be freed from musicians as a whole. Instead of treating music as a background accessory, all video games should make music interactive on the part of the player. Like with writing, any game with non interactive music shouldn't have music at all. A few games, like guitar hero and parapa the rapper, have made half hearted attempts at addressing this issue, but all of them have fallen short. They make the same mistakes as games with linear stories: they force the player to follow a linear set of events, and then grade them on their ability to do so perfectly. But this is antithetical to the very nature of music. For instance, as a teenager, I was initially very excited to play Guitar Hero World Tour. But when I tried to play a jazz inspired improvisational version of Limp Bizkit, what happened? The virtual crowd boo'd me off the stage, and I wasn't even allowed to finish. There's not room for player interpretation or creativity. You're just following a rote series of inputs into a computer. You may as well be at work. Real games should instead give players total musical freedom. Very few games have really attempted this, with the only games that come to mind being Ocarina of Time and Fruity Loops.


I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with this. This perspective completely ignores the ties between orchestrated music and white nationalism. For centuries, orchestrated and classical music was held up as the pinnacle of musical culture by white, western, colonialist European powers, and later by the united states. To this day "music theory" is still just synonymous with "white European composers in the 1800's." Even worse, many classical musicians, like Wagner, paved the way for nazi ideology, by celebrating the idea of Germanic Arian culture, and the superiority of the European culture. Orchestrated music has never taken responsibility for its role in colonialism or nazism, or for the part it played in white nationalism, to the point where it has now become a dog whistle for white nationalists all across America. Despite this, it is still utilized in modern films and video games, much to the chagrin of minorities across the country.
Well, there’s another thread gone south.
 
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fOx

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Well, there’s another thread gone south.
I never understood this type of attitude. Why bother commenting if you don't want to have a discussion about music in video games? Do you just want an echo chamber about how great the soundtrack is in Lego Island?
 
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I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with this. This perspective completely ignores the ties between orchestrated music and white nationalism.
That was not the angle I was going for but fine, orchestral music is eurocentric. These games are also eurocentric because they take place in a fictional European setting based on Frankish culture.

I would agree that romanticist cinematic music has associations with Wagner and Nazism. As for orchestral music as a whole, the association lessens when we move into the contemporary era when it came under the influence of Jewish and Russian composers and were banned by the German state. We cannot also forget Wagner's music is still controversial amongst Jews and Eastern Europeans.

The link between orchestral music and colonialism really doesn't go much beyond being a part of a greater culture overtaking a smaller one. This is like saying choirs should acknowledge their role in the dark ages and the crusades, or how electric bands should acknowledge their role in American imperialism.
 
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