Video game soundtracks aren't what they used to be. Oh, you have heard this before? Probably not the way I mean it. Which is - mostly - in a good way. What I am referring to are the technical advances that have come up and that are going to keep coming. They have been used in very unique and creative ways so far, when I think of what is probably going to come, I get pretty excited.
I don't want to go too deeply into game studies here, but I have to explain a few things to clarify which properties make a good game soundtrack to me. Just awesome music isn't enough. Due to the ergodic nature of video games, their music must be produced with way different parameters in mind than, say, a movie soundtrack. The game ultimately doesn't happen on the screen, but in the consciousness of the player. As such, the music plays a crucial role, adjusting and enhancing, sometimes even complementing the experience. Game music should not just support what is on screen, but also tell the player what is not (yet) on the screen.
For example, in Super Mario World's soundtrack by Koji Kondo, there exists this athletic theme. I played this game a lot as a kid, together with my older sister, and I remember, quite clearly, whenever we entered a new level and I heard this tune in the background, I immediately knew "Oh no, this is going to have a lot of precise jumping and I will probably die a lot." I didn't realize at the time, that my brain had connected the tune with actual, well, athletic stages. SMW is actually a good example for what I am going to be talking about here, as it is also the earliest game I remember, that had an adaptive soundtrack. While very rudimentary, whenever you rode Yoshi, the music seamlessly switched to a version, that had bongos in it (you can hear them come in at about 1:13 in the youtube video, I linked above). I am under the impression, that Nintendo in general has been one of the most important innovators regarding adaptive soundtracks. For further information about, what exactly adaptive (or sometimes interactive) soundtrack means, you can check out this video by Mark Brown, it does a great summary.
Adaptive soundtracks are common practice now, and I think that's a good thing. While it makes the tracks harder to listen to outside of the game, the overall game experience is greatly supported. It also brings new challenges for composers to solve creatively. One set of games constantly tries to bring new music mechanics into their gameplay, and these are obviously music games. First of all, what is a music game? Very vaguely, it is a game that uses music as some kind of mechanic in its gameplay. (I have a steam curator page up, where I recommend such games, both good and bad.) My own categories will differ a bit from the wikipedia page. Very roughly, many games are autoscrollers of some sorts, where certain movements have to be placed on certain beats. These include games like Audiosurf, where you import your own mp3s, Bit.Trip Runner or even rhythm games, like Dance Dance Revolution. Even the music levels in Rayman Legends can be sorted into this category.
Then, there's different games, where your movements aren't restricted by the music, but you are part of a much larger, acoustic world and have a direct influence on the sound. Games like this include the very experimental and minimalistic Proteus or the first person puzzler Fract OSC. There's a lot of games "in between", but this quick overview should be enough for where I'm going here. In preparation for this post, I played some Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians and Crypt of the Necrodancer, which I both hadn't really tried until now - shame on me. Both of these games fall in-between, whereas Necrodancer is more of an autoscroller, as it is bound to the length of the tracks. Beatbuddy however, feels more like a normal exploration puzzler, where the background music is an essential part of the level mechanics.
I really enjoy, that more concepts are being tried out, but I have the feeling, that we are not quite there yet. Not for a long time. Look at Beatbuddy for a moment. The games mechanics are fun and interesting, but the whole game feels like it is supposed to only serve this purpose and just so happens to be an exploration game at the same time. The character, enemies and surroundings are designed to represent music in some way or another, which makes it a bit too much for my taste. I don't need to be constantly reminded, that I am playing a game with an interesting music mechanic here. In the addicting Necrodancer and most auto scroller games, it feels the other way round. While I really like the feeling of performing dance moves with a partner (I took many dancing lessons back in the day... good times), the problem remains, that the game can technically be played without sound. The levels of Rayman or Bit.Trip Runner, even worse, while pretending to be music driven and probably developed with the best intentions following this claim, feel more like coincidentally going along the music track. While movement is sort of synced with the music, you can perfectly play these games without sound. Blindfolded, however, is next to impossible, which it shouldn't be.
The game 140 marks the closest thing to a milestone in this regard, in my opinion. If you haven't heard of this game yet, you should quickly watch the official trailer or - if you really want to - this video I made for the 2013 /v/GAs. This game is very dear to me and undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most, inspiring music games I played so far. How does it achieve that? Firstly, it hasn't written "MUSIC" or "RHYTHM" all over its content, all the music mechanics are 'just there'. The title only vaguely hints at music with 140 beats per minute as the core element of this game and the surroundings - except for the background, which vaguely resembles a loudness meter - aren't inspired by sinewaves or clefs, but rather abstract geometric shapes. With the almost complete absence of sound effects, the music alone is totally sufficient in setting the right tone. The game is described as creating synesthesia during gameplay and as a synesthetic myself I can confirm, it does a pretty damn good job. Secondly, it is a shining example of a completely textless game. No tutorials, no explanations (except for the unity launcher), just you and the experience. The only criticism I can find is, that the idea and execution bears so much potential, I'm certain, a lot more than just its three levels could have been developed, if money and time had been at hand.
I wonder how long it will take until 140's mechanics will find their place in different games. Don't let the music just react to what's on the screen - let the screen react to what's in the music. Give hints to the player about their surroundings not just through visuals, but auditory clues. It appears to me, music games don't know yet, where their true
potential lies (metaphorically speaking) and a few more breakthroughs
will have to be achieved. I am convinced, the way will inevitably lead
to a mix of current music game mechanics and adaptive soundtracks of
'normal' games. In other words, the music mechanics should be 'just
there' and 'just work', not distract from but rather support the
gameplay experience. Beatbuddy will play certain patterns in the
music and relate them to enemies. But why limit mechanics like this to music
games only? A certain instrument indicating the presence of a certain
enemy or gameplay situation is a great example for music hinting at what can not be seen yet.
If I ever make a larger video game project, it'd probably be a textless metroidvania with a fully developed audio engine. The music would not only adapt to your location but also to the enemies in your surroundings, hinting at what to expect in your current room. However, I am aware of the amount of work you need to put into and the troubles you encounter while developing games, so this idea will not happen anytime soon.
I lately (01.05.2015) got the world record in speedrunning 140 (hurray) and Jeppe Carlsen, the developer was so generous to give me five Steam keys of the game to give away for it. Since it is free code friday, I decided to give it to anyone curious about this game and open for new mechanics in music games. If you're interested in getting a copy, post a comment where you tell me what your favourite music game or minigame is and why, and that you would like a copy. The first five to do so by the end of the month will get their key sent to them. But please don't let this game rot in your backlog, it is way too worth playing and not very long, too.
Update: I wasn't aware there is no possibility of contacting the user who commented directly. If I don't know how to reach you, you can send me a quick message on my Twitter or my Google+. If any living soul is still interested that is.