Party in the XBLA: The Power and Beauty of Video Game Music

Most of us non-Miley Cyrus fans are tired of hearing the song “Party in the USA.”   From the clichéd opening rift to the seemingly simple lyrics, I hope that it is a fad that will soon die out.  But still, people young and old scream at the sound of those opening notes and belt the lyrics at a crowd of confused faces.  I wonder, “How can a song with such an uninspiring melody and lyrics be so catchy?”  Maybe I am too old, but no, I have friends my age and older who simply adore that song.  Perhaps it is only my disillusionment with mainstream pop.

Instead, I fill my iTunes playlist with songs that few would recognize, songs that only players of certain video games could appreciate.  Songs, though many wordless or in a language I do not understand, still mean so much to me after being on my playlist for many years.  I can dream to the sound of my inexperienced fingers playing “To Zanarkand” on the piano.  I know every word to “Suteki Da Ne” even though my abilities in Japanese are limited at best.

My obsession with video game music brought me to three performances (in different cities) of Video Games Live and two performances of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.  At these concerts, I have experienced perhaps some of the most profound moments of my life and realized I was not alone when a thousand other fans around me were brought together to that one moment in the game when this song was blaring from dusty speakers connected to an old TV set.

If you attend one of these performances (which I highly recommend regardless of whether or not you are a gamer), you will notice that most of the music you hear will be from AAA titles typically purchased at a retail store and played on a console for probably over thirty hours.  But what about music from the digital download market?  iPhone App games are making revenues in the nine digits.  Castle Crashers on the Xbox Live Arcade® sold one million copies within the first year of its release.  Does music from these digital download titles have the ability to move a crowd?

Some may argue that some production studios of downloadable games do not have the budget to make grand scores, but after six short hours on Castle Crashers, I was fairly impressed by the soundtrack (put together by members of Newgrounds).  A symphonic melody coupled by a faint 8-bit tune in the background, I could not believe what I was hearing.  I didn’t realize how a side-scrolling beat-em-up featuring four little almost-faceless sprites could passably be paired with such an epic soundtrack.  And sound plays a similarly crucial role in another notable Xbox Live Arcade® title, Limbo (which has sold over 300,000 copies to date), a game which has absolutely no music, just a melancholy silence, just as haunting and engaging as the wails of the Ocarina from the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TimeAs IGN so cleverly noted, the lack of text, dialogue, and musical soundtrack made Limbo into such a frightening and impressive piece of art.

The jury is out and statistics don’t lie.  The rise of the download era has begun in both casual and hardcore markets.  Now I ask, as downloadable games like Castle Crashers and Limbo gain as much praise and critical acclaim as their retail console counterparts, will the music (or lack thereof) of downloadable games be able to bring players together like soundtracks from games featured at Video Games Live and Distant Worlds?  Or has the music from these games already done just that?  Are there any XBLA players as mesmerized by the music of these games as I am of the music of Final Fantasy?

In any case, I shall at some point decide to dig through some links on Newgrounds and add some of those Castle Crashers tunes to my iTunes playlist, where they will play alongside the music that moved me to become a gamer.  Perhaps the next time I attend a Video Games Live concert I will hear Castle Crashers or perhaps the main theme of Tap Tap Revenge on the repertoire and as I hear the audience’s cheers around me, I will realize that it doesn’t matter what video game’s music I am hearing; that music, after all, is the universal language, a language we all understand, a language that connects us all.

As I hear “Party in the USA” for the Nth time in one day, I wonder if the only thing determining the song’s popularity is the message that all fans of the song subconsciously love so much: innocent little Miley learning for the first time that when thrust in an unfamiliar environment far away from her Nashville bubble, she can let loose and feel connected to the strangers around her with the power of music.

If music from Final Fantasy, Zelda, and all the other games I have come to love can bring me back to the most memorable moments of a game I played, and if a simple song by Miley Cyrus can get a whole dance floor hopping, then I guess it really does not matter where the music came from—video games or mainstream pop, a 30-hour RPG or a 6-hour-long downloadable game.  Video game music has the power to define an experience for a gamer.  It certainly has for me.