Sunday, December 8, 2019

General RPGs' Disproportionate Musical Quality

When it comes to RPGs, I have a lot of complaints. You may have noticed this. Whether it’s the faults of individual games,* game series,** recurring gameplay trends,*** developers,**** and even just the genre as a whole,***** I’m always down to dress down RPGs for their downsides. Role Playing Games are my favorites and I believe they’re the best type of video game as an expression of the medium’s capacity to be art, but they’re a far cry from perfect, that’s for damn sure.

But there’s 1 arena in which I have always been, and continue to be, frankly amazed by RPGs’ consistent quality: their soundtracks.

By and large, soundtracks are a shining cause for pride for the genre. Sure, not every RPG has a standout score from start to finish, but the worst they ever seem to get is to just be vague and forgettable background noise, which, considering how obnoxiously terrible most “real” music tends to be, is a pretty damn minor sin--I can only really think of a single RPG off the top of my head that was just outright bad with its music all around, and, well, Phantasy Star 3 is kind of its own category for obnoxiously poor quality in all regards, so I’m not sure you can even count it. And hell, a lot of the more generic, uninteresting soundtracks will have at least 1 song that stands out and really gets you into the moment--even Kemco games have something like a 50-50 chance of sneaking at least 1 quality tune into their lineup, and that’s Kemco, a company that I suspect may be entirely staffed by coma patients and certain species of jellyfish.

You’re just remarkably safe when it comes to RPG music, even in situations where you wouldn’t expect to be. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is somewhat famous for being “the bad Final Fantasy” (as though FF5, 8, 10-2, 12, 12: Revenant Wings, and every spinoff of FF7 don’t exist), but it has got a kickin’ soundtrack, mixing it up between rocking battle and dungeon themes, and outgoing and soothing music for many of its calmer settings. Chrono Cross is the RPG that perhaps best embodies the term “hot mess,” but its music is simply lovely. Legend of Dragoon is generally a subpar title, but a few of its songs are among my most favorite in the entire genre. Xenosaga 3 is an incomprehensible shit-show, but it’s got some hauntingly beautiful music for several of its settings.

Even in cases where no particular songs really stand out to you, RPG soundtracks at the very least seem to generally be very well-suited for the telling of their story and the creation of their atmosphere. I can’t say, for example, that any song in West of Loathing really grabbed me, but as a whole, WoL’s soundtrack is damned effective at selling its setting and style of a lighthearted, exciting Old West adventure.

There’s even been a couple RPGs in which the “soundtrack” has mostly been just background noises, which you can’t really even call a soundtrack at all...and yet, that was so perfectly suited for the games (Fallout 1 and 2, specifically), that 1 of my earliest rants was dedicated to talking about how great a design decision it was.

I dunno what it is about the genre, but RPGs have a remarkable track record with their music. They’re dependable for accomplishing what they need to for setting the atmosphere and mood of the game, and bad games and bad developers are unexpectedly capable of delivering some quality music quite frequently. Even when the rest of a game’s team should cast their eyes down in shame for what they’ve wrought, the composers of this genre have cause for satisfaction and pride.

* Can you imagine the idyllic paradise the world would be if Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 had NOT had Teddy in it?

** Dear Star Ocean: If you make being a sci-fi game a selling point, then actually be science fiction.

*** God I hate Weapon Degradation so fucking much.

**** Could we please just euthanize Bioware at this point?

***** Why are legitimately good romances and solid villains so damn uncommon in RPGs?

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