So, on my recent post on my favourite soundtracks, Malcolm the Cynic left a comment linking to the “To the Moon” soundtrack, calling it “the very best”. Now, I’m pretty certain that he didn’t mean this as a real qualitative comparison, but it got me thinking about what it would mean for a soundtrack to be “the very best”.
The thing about soundtracks for video games, specifically, that’s different than regular music is that it’s difficult to evaluate them independently of the games in which they appear, because their primary purpose is always to supplement the game and gameplay. They are there to make the cutscenes more memorable — which they share with soundtracks of all sorts — but also to play in the background and enhance the gameplay experience. They thus not only provide background moods for the narrative, but provide background moods for the gameplay, and as such have to encourage the player to play the game according to the gameplay: cautious when necessary, aggressive when necessary. It has to enhance panic when you need to move quickly … or, in fact, even and perhaps especially when you don’t. It has to provide the background to scare you and make you tense if the game is supposed to be doing that, without distracting you or clashing with the gameplay that you’re supposed to be experiencing at the moment. Which can, as an aside, lead to the odd case like I had in Mass Effect 2, where I had a foolproof way to determine when to take cover because combat was happening: listen for when the music change to the battle theme [grin].
Anyway, given this, video game soundtracks can pretty much only be evaluated based on how well they support the game they’re in. Yes, we can enjoy them musically, but ultimately their qualitative value can’t be judged separately from the work they were created to support. For example, I’ve listened to the “To the Moon” soundtrack, and musically I enjoy it but find it a bit repetitive, as it is mostly just repetitions on the same theme. But while I haven’t played that game, I can easily imagine that, given its subject matter, that’s precisely what you want there. On the other hand, Suikoden III has a much wider variety of musical styles because it’s meant to convey themes for a wide variety of locations and cultures. Should we argue that “To the Moon” is inferior because it doesn’t have more variety, or that Suikoden III is inferior because its soundtrack is less consistent? The truth is that both fit their games well, and so that shouldn’t be what determines their quality.
I’ve commented before about Persona 3 and Persona 4 with regards to their soundtracks, in that Persona 3 is better musically but with Persona 4 when you listen to it you associate the themes with specific people. Given that Persona 4’s dungeons were definitely more character associated than Persona 3’s, this makes sense, as without any other reason to care about the dungeon one wants that music that you’re going to be listening to for hours — a major difference between movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks — you want it to be entertaining and definitely not boring, while in Persona 4 you want it to remind you of why you’re here to drive you forward. Again, the different soundtracks drive different experiences in the game, and thus fulfill their purpose, I’d say, roughly equally well.
Ultimately, being the “best” soundtrack is less important as being one that properly enhances the gaming experience. So while it’s not completely subjective, it’s not really objective either. Perhaps it’s best if we just enjoy them, and not argue over them or rate them beyond “I really like this one”.