Sunday, January 31, 2010

the times they are a-changin' (final fantasy music edition)

Music has always been a favorite part of the gaming experience for fans of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. A few soundtracks clearly stand out as landmarks in videogame music history, and I would argue the first FF deserving of this status is FF VI. FF VI (released in the US as FF III in October 1994) broke new musical ground in several ways. Here are two examples: the opera scene is regarded as one of the most innovative and charming aspects of the story; and the idea of character theme songs, while not new, showed significant development in FF VI as it pushed the boundary of what is understood to be conventional musical style in games. These are real significant advancements in what we understand videogame music to be.

The FF VI Original Soundtrack (OST) is clearly a work of art. The master composer behind it is Nobuo Uematsu, who actually composed soundtracks for the first 5 FF's as well. So why was VI so special, so groundbreaking? Was it because developers had reached a point where the capabilities of the SNES were being pushed to the limit (Sony's Playstation, part of the "next generation" of consoles, would be released less than a year later, in September 1995)? Was it the musical inspiration derived from a great story? Whatever specifically led to it being so great, Uematsu was clearly at or near his artistic peak with the creation of this soundtrack.

In fact, it would be better to call it an artistic plateau. Uematsu continued to make great songs as the main and sole composer of FF VII, VIII, and IX OSTs (all for the Playstation). However, FF fans were in for a change with FF X, the first Final Fantasy to be released on the Playstation 2, arguably the most successful console in the history of videogames (definitely in league with the Atari, Nintendo, and SNES). Uematsu was no longer the only, nor even the main composer. That job had become a no-man's land, and instead FF fans were introduced to an OST composed by several composers, most notably Masashi Hamauzu (Uematsu's "apprentice"). The job of "main composer" continued to be in flux through FF XII. And now in FF XIII, Hamauzu is the main and sole composer.

It is very interesting to note these changes. While newcomers to the FF series -- or even gamers who have recently been exposed to it-- may not see the change, it is quite noticeable. I would argue the change of composer changes the experience of these games, though of course I cannot say for certain, since FF XIII is not due in the U.S. until March. But I noticed a shift in the tide from the last Uematsu solo work (FF IX) and the first "mix" (FF X) in 2001. To be honest, even at that point I was worried, or at least confused by the change in the music. Consider the difference between these two pieces of music, both from FF X OST. By the way, in this earlier stage of "composer transition" (things become more one-sided in FF XII), about half the songs are still composed by Uematsu.

I'm sure you can tell which one is Uematsu (quiz yourself if you're familiar with his work or if you checked out some of the links I posted above!). To a fan of Uematsu's work, the difference is stark. Aside from the more expansive and "atmospheric" quality of "Besaid Island", there is something about where the music belongs -- primarily in the background as opposed to the foreground -- that strikes me in these pieces. This is exactly what I argue: that the music itself plays a different role in some aspects of FF X, XII, and most likely XIII. It is a role that doesn't sit comfortably with someone who is used to an integrated gaming experience.

And here are two perfect examples of FF XIII's musical style, to further convince you of this change:

What are the implications? Final Fantasy is changing greatly, in ways that go much further than "no more towns" or linear dungeon maps. The music, which has historically been good enough that people are proud to actually own a copy of the OST, is switching hands at a critical point in the series. What, truly, is the future of the Japanese RPG -- does it even exist? Does Hamauzu's more expansive, atmospheric sound lend itself better to a completely different genre? What is --or what should be -- the relationship between music, game, and gamer? I would argue that all of these questions are becoming essential at this moment.

Of course, it's possible that my argument is overly dramatic, but given my attachment to the series I just can't help but think that greater changes lie ahead for FF series and JRPGs more generally, and that a key sign of this change is the retirement of Uematsu from the FF series.

And I would be glad to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. Uematsu is a genius and I firmly believe that Final Fantasy VI had the greatest music of any videogame I have ever played.

    That said, we are approaching... no, that's not correct. We *have* approached a period of time where the music itself is relegated to little more than background noise, something to ensure that silence isn't the only thing heard beneath the bubble-pop noises of a dialog box collapsing.

    The music in FF6 was a part of the game. Can you imagine walking into Zozo without that funky riff playing? Shadow walking onto the screen without the guitar?

    Music should set the mood of any scene and enhance it. That's not something you get in the later Final Fantasy's. Granted, I haven't played as many of them as fully as I would like (lacking the appropriate console), but the change in the music *was* very noticeable. The... pattern of traditional FF music is being followed, but the feeling behind it isn't there.

    Switching gears, one of my favorite Fantasy authors, Robert Jordan, passed away a little while back, leaving his Wheel of Time series incomplete. The final trilogy is now being written by Brandon Sanderson, with the help of Jordan's wife/editor and his body of notes (which Sanderson took 2 months to read through once!). Having obtained a copy of the first of the new books written by Sanderson, it is as if Sanderson is trying to copy Jordan's writing style, but is falling short of the mark. It's like me and my novelling attempts trying to emulate Jordan. This is what the change in musical style in the Final Fantasy's is like to me.

    Thinking about it, I believe I can attribute, at least partially, my current fascination with Classical music to a lack of suitable music in videogames, movies, and television. All of them are lacking. One could argue that the downfall of music in FF is simply reflecting a general loss we are experiencing.

    And since I haven't made any particular point, but have page-dumped, I'll end. Rob out.

  2. I didn't mean to generalize about all videogame music; I just wanted to focus on FF. But you may be right. However there are examples of newer games, such as Okami, which do have good integrative music.

    It's interesting that you mention classical music because videogame music sort of got me interested in new genres, when I was 11 or 12 or so. That's when I really started listening to classical music, too.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  3. We should also consider that not *all* video games need music intertwined with the essence of the gameplay. Of course, for RPG's I consider pretty essential, since I play RPG's 75% for the plot/story, and 25% for the rest (usually).

    I'm currently entrenched in Mass Effect 2, which is an excellent 3rd person shooter, with a decent storyline. I'm sure there's music there, but I'll be damned if I know what it sounds like. And that's the why I like it, for that particular game. Granted, there's usually gunshots and other battle effects going off, but without the music in the backdrop, it'd be weird. Also, if the music swelled in battle, it'd be distracting.

    Of course, I'd probably want to go into combat with my iPod.

  4. Revisiting this discussion after having played FF XIII for a little while...

    The music is present, and I think it contributes mightily. But let us pause, step back, reflect. FF XIII, so far, is different feeling in its entirety than any other FF I've played. All dialog is handled in a series of cutscenes, all of which are totally skippable. There is no "mashing A until the dialog boxes go away, why won't they go away!" which I actually liked, for some reason.

    I am a big fan of the ATB implementation and paradigm shifts. It forces me to watch, react, and play, instead of mashing Fight or pausing forever to ponder the ramifications of my actions. Switching between Relentless Attack and watching my cool, calculating Commando character cascade crazy kinds of hurt over the watchful regard of my boss, then switching up to let the Medic sweep in with Cure spells and watching my Synergist beef up the party with incessant castings of Shell is pretty awesome.

    And now, I need to go play some more. That is all.