Remember back when there was a time in the not too distant past where you and your friends could hum the theme melody of a video game just by simply mentioning the title? Think Final Fantasy, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Kong...and of course Super Mario! There wasn't really much thought needed to recall the melody from the depths of our memories. In fact, they were so memorable the tunes unconsciously became the "audio identification" of that particular game.
These days, most games across the range of indie, console, mobile are suffering from a very cancerous disease - Lack Of Originality aka "everything sounds the same" and/or "the music is there for the sake of being there". Why are we experiencing this and how do we remedy this? Hang on, I'll get there.
The point of this article here is not a melodic or thematic one, but of originality, uniqueness and attachment. Sure, some may argue that not every soundtrack needed a melody or theme per se. That is true, I can think of a myriad of games whose sonic characteristics transcend that of what we traditionally associate as the melody/theme - Case in point: "Journey". The soundtrack is mostly "soundscapish" with melodies and themes interwoven in it - Though not the kind of melodies that are easily "hummable". But it's the unique approach and sound palette that gives it its exclusive attachment to the game and a grammy nomination.
Another great example of a well crafted modern game soundtrack: FEZ by an old roommate of mine: Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace. http://disasterpeace.com/ <- Check him out!!
This video is about how blockbuster Hollywood movie soundtracks suffer from lacking character and originality. This is a good example of how over-attachment to reference tracks or in film terms "temp tracks" can truly ruin or undermine an otherwise amazing film. And I think both the film and video game industries are suffering from this problem.
I've worked with countless producers/creative directors/audio directors in the past that just get way too obsessed with the reference tracks that they pretty much just want a recreation of it with minor changes so as to avoid legal and copyright scuffles.
5) Stop trying to play it safe, don't be afraid to be original! Some people argue that there's just too many games out there and it's hard to be original. I staunchly disagree, I think they are just afraid to step out of the realms of sonic safety and be original. Granted that being original presents a level of risk and the results can't be predicted, so they always fall into the cushion of safety and play it safe by referring to the closest thing out there to the genre of the project and "reference" it.
That's not how great games are made, only mediocre ones. These games will not enter the annals of great video games and will be forgotten as quickly as they were made. Great games become great because of their commitment toward originality and uniqueness of storyline, game design, combat etc. Same goes with the soundtracks. No one will remember a mediocre soundtrack that's just there simply because. Most of the best games out there have amazing and memorable soundtracks, not just because they have the budget, but because of the commitment towards making something great.
I'm sure most of these lackluster games will still go on to make a lot of money and the mediocre music certainly still does the job. But I'd like to encourage and beseech developers and composers alike to step up a notch in creating something truly great that they can be proud of for a long time to come. If not for ourselves, do it for our customers and audiences who deserve great experiences in return for keeping our lights on and stomachs fed.
I'll sign off with what I consider one of the best modern game soundtracks I've heard in the past couple of years - The Last of Us(Music by Gustavo Santaolalla)