Xenoblade Chronicles – Doing Music Right

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.

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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.

Colony 6 – Silence
Colony 6 – Restoration
Colony 6 – Hope
Colony 6 – Future

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.

Satorl_Marsh

Now compare the songs, the area changes and the songs sound almost completely different

Satorl Marsh – Day
Satorl Marsh – Night

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.

4. Moments

xenoblade-chronicles-shulk-fiora

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.

5 thoughts on “Xenoblade Chronicles – Doing Music Right

  1. I feel like Animal Crossing New Leaf and Pikmin 3 do this very well also (I can’t comment on other games in those series since I haven’t played them). Animal Crossing has new music every hour, some variations of the same theme, some more original. They attempt to have the morning songs feel like the morning and the night songs feel like night. And the songs will change slightly if it’s raining or snowing. Main Street has it’s own theme that will change slightly as shops are upgraded. The museum has different arrangements for every room. And you can make your own town tune that is played under different circumstances, always sounding slightly different.

    Pikmin 3 is the same but to a lesser extant because there’s fewer areas in the game. But each area gets morning, day, and night arrangements and arrangements for rainy days.

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    1. Good point, in fact Animal Crossing is an even better example than Xenoblade. I guess it’s more like “Nintendo: Doing Music Right”.

      Pikmin 3’s music is beautiful in a strange, alien way. There’s some great melodies there but they’re really un-intrusive and there’s zero hype whatsoever. I’d say it’s perfect thinking music. When you play without sound it’s like you’ve left the planet.

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      1. It’s true. Listening to some Pikmin tracks again, it seems like they incorporate a lot of sounds of nature into the music, rather than them just being sound effects. And it’s really hard to spot the differences in arrangements if you aren’t looking for them. So yeah, it is really trying to be un-intrusive.

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  2. First time I popped Xenoblade in my roommate absolutely fell in love with the track that plays over the title screen, if you can even call that beautiful day/night progression a title screen. He took to turning the TV off (we have a receiver) and just listening to it when he went to sleep. I told him I could get him an MP3 but he preferred to listen to it that way since he could turn the TV on any time and watch the sky if he wanted.

    There is something just so strange and haunting about that game.

    My favorite track, of what I’ve heard so far as I haven’t finished it yet (REALLY taking my time and enjoying this one), has to be the day cycle of the Gaur Plain. The first time I heard that fade in and saw this huge expanse open up before me I realized that this was going to be one of the best games I would ever play.

    I saw a TV program once on the making of Halloween, the 1978 horror film. Apparently they screened an early version of the film without any music and people hated it. When they added in the music and screened it again, all of a sudden people loved it. It’s amazing that music can have such a profound impact on us and we don’t even realize it most of the time. I would never have thought about watching Halloween without it’s iconic soundtrack. Just as I could never even imagine playing Xenoblade without the gorgeous and powerful music that accompanies it.

    Oh, and Animal Crossing grabbed me on the GC as well. When I noticed that the music changed each hour it actually made me want to play more just so I could see what song was going to come up next. There’s also the music from the title screen from the original Legend of Zelda. Nearly the entire soundtracks to both Final Fantasy VI and VII… I could go on and on.

    People really don’t pay enough attention to music in games anymore.

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