Xenoblade Chronicles has been out for a few years now (depending on your region) and I still listen to the soundtrack almost daily. With almost one hundred well-composed songs brimming with heart and energy, it’s incomparable to anything else in music let alone videogames. Many RPG’s have large impressive soundtracks and it’s a huge strength of the genre, but Xenoblade pushes creativity to new heights with the variety and consistent quality throughout. There’s enough here to find something different to listen to every day and for every mood. I think music in videogames is very important, and while not every development team can form a super band of composers like Xenoblade, they should at least try. There’s no reason to let the powerful magic of music go to waste and I’m going to outline some things Xenoblade does right and why it’s the absolute pinnacle of videogame soundtracks.
1. Multiple Layers
I’m not talking about multiple layers in one song, which almost all of them have; but multiple versions of melodies for different situations. My favourite example of this takes place throughout the rebuilding of Colony 6. This area of the game has 4 stages of reconstruction and the music gets slightly more optimistic each time.
Just by listening to these in order you can feel the progression of the town. They all sound effortlessly good on their own and it seems like a magical feat, but it’s not really difficult to achieve this when you consider the approach. They all have a purpose. When music is composed with a specific feeling and environment in mind, it has a much bigger impact and connects to the player. The important thing here is the same melody is in all 4 songs, just presented in a different way; exactly how a town grows.
Not all games have environments that transform but almost every game has a feeling of progression as you play, and characters may become different instead. Another example of this is battle music getting more intense with bosses, and Xenoblade throws some hard-hitting guitar riffs when an enemy is extra strong. Some Tales games also do a good job with this as the standard battle theme evolves through the game as heavy events unfold and change the scope of the world.
2. The Small Things
This song is only played in a tiny corner of the map, where refugees have set up their own little escape from the world. The composition is a mix of hope and warmth, with a little unease to start with. The chords are steady and reflect the routine of people who are content living in their own little bubble. The song makes me feel like I’m in my own happy corner, staring out at a bad place thinking “thank god I’m not there”. It’s extremely stimulating to listen to when I’m thinking about something distant. I’m using this one song as an example because it’s done quite a lot through this soundtrack, there is very little repetition. I would say 90% of games re-use songs in different areas, which is OK if the songs are good but Xenoblade’s approach isn’t about good, it’s about purpose. In my opinion there’s no point adding an area to the game if you’re not going to give it an identity.
3. What Time Is It?
Every single area in Xenoblade has different music depending on whether it’s night or day. Makna Forest’s music tones down and gets slower as the heat of the day eases off, and Frontier Village gets more relaxed as cute little Nopon’s get ready to sleep. My favourite area for this is Satorl Marsh, which completely transforms from a dirty swamp in the day, to an absolute dream of beauty at night. Just look at it.
Now compare the songs, the area changes and the songs sound almost completely different
The daytime music has a rather steady ominous baseline that keeps the same groove while the piano runs rampant. It’s rather unsettling and feels almost like survival music when the drums kick in. Night falls, and with it comes a soothing echo of female vocals over a structured melody. Looking at YouTube you can see the night song has significantly more views than daytime, because it’s 5 times better? Because the day song is the invitation for this song to exist. It’s necessary to have both to heighten the impact of relief and beauty when the sun goes down and the marsh becomes less threatening. This emotional ride that most games struggle to achieve in their entire length, is created in one area of the game. How? Because they can. Because videogames give us this opportunity to relate multiple music pieces directly to our experience and the environment. It’s not hard, you just need to have the approach that music will have an impact.
Xenoblade goes further than just making songs for environments and characters, it creates music for specific moments and feelings. This is something Zelda games also do really well. Before the moment has even happened, you know it’s coming when music like this starts up. You feel the emotion of something the character is about to say before they say it, this creates the incredible feeling of being part of the moment because their mood is translated through the music before they say anything, and you’re already in a reflective mood to instantly relate to the dialogue.
5. More Than Music
This is the point I’m going to recap the article with and have touched on multiple times. Xenoblade’s soundtrack has unbelievable effort put into it, if you read the Iwata Asks you can see how much the soundtrack meant to not just the music team, but the director of the game. The guy pulling all the strings in terms of story and graphical development knew the importance of the musical score. This ensures everything connects together and helps bring out the strength of every element in the game. The quality of the music improves the graphics, gameplay and writing.
My message to all developers is to start treating music with more respect, a lot of modern games simply throw in a few ambient violins and call it a day. Even worse is when games just copy and paste a few already existing licensed songs into the game. I find it ridiculous that huge studios like EA, Ubisoft and Activision can hire hundreds of staff but not a single creative musician. You can still make a good game without original music, but a great videogame needs great original music. It’s as simple as that.