Why is town music in RPGs always so insipid, annoying, and/or completely forgettable?
Think about it. With a few exceptions--notable, but few--town music is pretty much always a boring or outright unpleasant affair in RPGs. It’s either some uninspired, tired, vaguely upbeat (or gloomy, for some towns) affair that makes me roll my eyes with how lacking in creativity and feeling it is, or some obnoxious, grating ditty set on an eternal, ear-grinding loop. Or it’s just such an outright forgettable sequence of generic notes that it barely qualifies as background noise. It feels to me like basic town music is the part of every game soundtrack that the composer just outsources to whichever company it is that comes up with the background music to infomercials.
It’s kind of annoying to me, honestly. The rest of the game’s music may be excellent, with each track composed carefully to inspire a certain feeling relevant to the times of the game it plays during, to convey a mood or meaning via its notes, but everything always seems to fall apart the instant your party sets foot within city limits. At that moment, the only message the music communicates is “WELCOME TO TOWN,” its only mood, boredom. Obviously some are worse than others--sweet merciful Rempo is the standard town music for Final Fantasy 4 dull, and don’t even get me started on every generic town theme of every Dragon Quest ever--but next to no town theme is ever actually good or memorable.
Obviously, of course, there are a good handful of exceptions. Or rather, there seem to be. For example, I think the theme for the (sort of) town of Dologany, from Breath of Fire 2, is very cool and epic, and I think the same of the music for the town of Narvick in Lufia 2. The music for Windia in Breath of Fire 4 is very calming and enjoyable, as is that for the Moon Kingdom of Sailor Moon: Another Story. The music in Star Ocean 3 for Whipple Village is among my all-time favorite RPG tunes. And many themes that play during sad moments involving towns in RPGs (such as a town after it’s been burned/flooded/blown to bits/infected/whatever by the forces of evil) are quite good, too--I’m quite a fan of the ruined city theme in Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, and the one for The Legend of Dragoon. Ahto City from Knights of the Old Republic 1, Alistel from Radiant Historia, Valua City from Skies of Arcadia Legends, Murky Waters from The Witcher 1...the list actually goes on for a while of the town themes I find to be excellent.
But here’s the thing about all those exceptions. They’re all specialized, individual themes. The music for Dologany and Narvick are ONLY heard in those towns, nowhere else in the game. Each is the final town you visit on the game’s journey, and each is a location that is hugely important to the plot. They receive special musical attention to better convey their epic finality. The actual generic town music used for most other settlements in BoF2 is bland (though admittedly above the average of RPG towns), and the actual generic town music of Lufia 2’s communities is like audible Novocaine. And so it is for all the “exceptions” I just listed. They’re all tailored specifically for 1 single location and/or a specific plot event/atmosphere of importance. In fact, some come from games where EVERY town location has its own individual tune. And that’s not a bad thing! When every town is important to that degree, when you put some actual effort into making a theme for a town that’s unique to that town and/or its place in the game’s events, when you believe it matters, you can get some good results!
But when it comes to the authentic generic town music, the stuff that gets played for the majority of towns in an RPG...meh. When we take out specialized and/or singular town themes, I come up with very few pieces of town music that I think are particularly decent and memorable. Wild Arms 1’s town theme, Legaia 2’s town theme, and...wow, I can’t even think of a third. If there’s any situation where the phrase “the exception proves the rule” applies, it’s probably the situation where you have 2 exceptions in a pool of over 250.* For the sake of not having to mildly regret every time I decide to stop by a village for an equipment upgrade and a night at the inn, I wish game composers could put a little more effort, time, and/or creativity into their town music, give it more punch, more pizzazz, more SOMETHING. Or better yet, I wish more RPGs would adopt the practice of giving each town its own musical theme. After all, what CAN you expect from a tune composed with the deliberate purpose of being vague and generic enough to be layered onto like 50 different town locations?
* Okay, for accuracy’s sake, I must admit that not ALL 250+ of the RPGs I’ve played had any generic town music (a few, as I mentioned, give individual tracks to each town). But the large majority do have a generic town theme (a few even have multiple ones), large enough that I think the slight exaggeration is still okay.