(this post applies to those games that wouldn’t obviously be more suited to a more adrenaline-based soundtrack based on rock or hip hop or accordion, etc.)
I’m all for epic orchestral soundtracks. There’s nothing like hearing a huge orchestra playing grand themes and sweeping us up in the excitement of victory and moving us to tears in times of strife.
But only in the right games.
Not every game calls for a full orchestra with a choir, just like not every game calls for a hip hop or a rock soundtrack. But so many games could benefit from pulling back a little and experimenting. Especially in the world of indie games where the gameplay is often new and innovative, why not come up with a new and innovative music ensemble to complete the picture?
The first couple of Katamari games did this beautifully. Their ensembles ran a huge stylistic spectrum. There were lovely lush orchestral pieces, but there were also some pieces with almost unidentifiable instruments playing the Katamari themes in new and interesting ways. And it was all executed masterfully. The mish mash of ensembles fit the gameplay, just like the way the ball grows bigger by collecting a mish mash of random objects.
It would be refreshing to hear a soundtrack that had only piano. Or maybe a soundtrack that had classical instruments, but only two at a time. Not every game art style uses the same palette of colors. Why should the game audio style? It really comes down to the game. I’ve just seen too many games with a forced orchestral soundtrack.
Granted, this isn’t a huge problem. But it does seem that far too often the first template game composers go for is the orchestral one. Why is this? Well, probably because writing for an orchestra is actually easier than writing for smaller ensembles. You have an incredible amount of colors to choose from. There is a wide variety of cliches to throw in, ever so effortlessly. A bigger ensemble being easier to write for seems a bit counterintuitive. And certainly, making a fresh and interesting orchestral piece is very difficult. But to throw together something acceptable is a cinch with an orchestra.
Part of the reason for this blog is to help improve the quality of game soundtracks and “acceptable” doesn’t cut it. We want “awesome” or “yowza, I’m speechless!”, right? Originality within the music and within the music’s colors heads us in the right direction. This isn’t all on the composer’s shoulders, of course. All you game devs out there should think carefully about your music direction. Sure, consider an orchestra. But maybe step back a second and think if there is any other sound you might like. Solo guitar? Some Jethro Tull flute and cello? Give it a shot.
I love playing Peggle. PopCap did a great job making a fun and addictive game. It’s the definition of a casual game. Play with one button. Play as long as you’d like. Easy to learn, hard to master. It is genius.
BUT they made a strange choice for the victory music. After you’ve cleared the last orange target peg, part of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays. It’s a magnificent piece of music, perhaps one of the world’s greatest composer’s greatest achievements.
The problem is, it gets old. Really old. The first few times you hear it, you can’t help but laugh. Such a grandiose piece of music for such a silly cartoon-y game, those goofballs! But, like I said earlier, this game is addictive. You’re going to play through several levels in one sitting. Then more after you get some pesky work out of the way. Then more… and more… and then the Beethoven has worn out its welcome. Something that’s fun and different at first (Beethoven is pretty different for a casual game, or most games) but then wears out its welcome is just a novelty. And novelty is not what you want for such an important part of the game.
You want to be rewarded when you clear a level. Sure, at first it’s a fun reward. But there are a few properties of this music choice that make it unsuitable for prolonged use. 1) The choir is singing very loudly, some would say it sounds shrill. Yeah, it’s definitely shrill. 2) The quality of the audio file itself is pretty bad. It almost sounds clipped. 3) The music itself is very old and has been heard too much already in many other contexts.
The Ode to Joy is brilliant when heard in context, in the last long movement of a huge symphony. It’s rewarding in and of itself. When you take it out of its context, you are playing with fire. How do you do it justice? Well, that’s what gives the player the initial chuckles. The jarring juxtaposition of genius and silliness. But, the genius soon loses out to the silliness and we need to hear something else.
I tested out a couple other pieces of music. The theme to Star Wars had a similar problem, though it was much more tolerable because it has no choir. What I finally settled on and have loved hearing through the hundreds of levels I’ve played (I’m one level away from the top level possible… man, I played Peggle a lot) is part of Buckbeak’s Theme from Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. It is not as bombastic as Beethoven’s piece but still says “victory!” in its own more relaxed, majestic way.
If you want to try your own music, just convert whatever music you want to use into OGG and rename it “odetojoy.ogg” and place it in the directory “Peggle\music”.
As for the rest of the audio in Peggle, I enjoyed it. The in-game music is nothing to write home about. Some bland tracks, but it keeps out of the way (see Seinfeld post below). The sound effects are very good and the got the most important sound just right, the bouncing on the pegs. They do their trademark rises in pitch after successive peg hits. Very nice.
Anyway, now you know my big gripe with the game. Now you should go play the game if you haven’t yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do if the rumors are true about Peggle coming to DS, by the way. I will play through it again.