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Gaming To Hell In A Handbasket

The trials, tribulations and musings of an MMO veteran trying to find the next holy grail.

Author: Strayfe

Audio Files: MMO Music Top 10

Posted by Strayfe Friday May 20 2011 at 1:19PM
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If there's one thing that almost everyone on this planet can agree with, it's that we love music.  Not the same music, mind you, but nearly everyone has a song, or a group, or a vocalist, or a musician whom they can listen to for hours and hours on end, happy as can be.

There's a reason for this.  Music is the universal language.

Most of humanity is able to pull the intended emotion from a song, even if its sung in a different language, or even if the words and lyrics themselves are nonsense.  Certain instruments, passages and keys convey certain feelings in nearly everyone who hears them.  There have been studies done as to why this is the case and scientific links between the golden ratio (natural math, look it up, quite interesting) and music that all point to one thing - music is very closely tied to who we are as a species.

That being said, I have a question for you guys.  Why are most MMO soundtracks one or more of the following: A) ignored or nonexistant, B) full of generic 15-30 second loops, C) completely devoid of even the slightest memorable piece, D) full of out of place amateur orchestra pieces or E) sound like they were composed with one or two instruments by one guy, in one day, with a gun to his/her head.

I'm really tired of booting up every new MMO, only to hear the same stock-standard music everywhere I go.  With music so important to us as a culture, why don't companies put more effort into the auditory experience of their customers? 

My answer?  I honestly don't know.  It seems to be accepted practice to include some mandatory, period-appropriate instrument in most zones of most games, even if you only hear it for a few seconds, but there is no heart, no effort put into most of it.

Fortunately though, that's not always the case.  Today, I will set out my top 10 MMOs with the best music/ambience/overall audio experience, as well as a couple of my favorite tracks for the benefit of those who may not have played.  Of course, your opinion may be different, but that's why this is my blog and not yours.  Feel free to start your own!  Community is always encouraged.

#10 - Dungeon Fighter Online

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrvfOnN30Ts and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5y49LEVFpk

Come on now.  If the music in this game doesn't get you pumped up to kick some major ass, nothing will.  Perfect for a 2D beat-em-up.  The only reason DFO isn't higher is because the instrument and sample quality are fairly low and the game seems to suffer slightly from "30 second loop syndrome".

#9 - Lord of the Rings Online

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3dPApPyIGs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYfBuV_twio&feature=related

Turbine did a good job with LOTRO, no doubt about it.  Like Dungeon Fighter Online, the game does contain a lot of "30 second loop syndrome", but the pieces are all very well done, fit their situations perfectly, and add a real sense of immersion to the game.  Plus, lets not forget the ability to compose your own music using the LOTRO music system.

#8 - Fantasy Earth Zero

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwoCdplw3Xk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdFFDdfo2Fs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqNbVSQppFI

Sadly, the game is no more.  Useless company, GamepotUSA, shut it down far too soon.  An amazing game concept ruined by a terrible host and some latency problems that they absolutely refused to address or fix.  I still wish a competent host would pick this one up again.  The soundtrack is a large part of that too.  Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics/Final Fantasy XII), the music has everything you'd expect from a veteran composer of a series notorious for its incredible music. 

The pieces are orchestral or piano based, depending on the circumstances and fit the game extremely well, whether it be lazily beating on monsters in a field, or in the midst of a hard-fought, contested pvp war with another nation.

#7 - World of Warcraft

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu00ywIcW8M and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXhx40DcU6Y and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_jJtySnwpA

WoW is really hit and miss for music.  On the one hand you have some incredible orchestral pieces like the above, Lament of the Highborne, some of the trailer music and a good portion of the dungeon music.  On the other hand, you have a pretty much endless supply of boring, uninspired, 20-30 second loops that rear their head once every few minutes and then fade into obscurity.  The problem with Blizzard's music is that they aren't able to compose in anything but SUPER EPIC ULTRA 300 PIECE ORCHESTRA STYLE, and a lot of areas suffer for that because they just aren't suited for it.

That being said, there is still a lot to love about WoW's soundtrack, and Blizzard clearly puts more effort into it than the vast majority of other companies out there.

#6 - S4 League

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRf9b8hplpo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaMdEzMGXLk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmUYZ5caM70

To be honest, I didn't know what to do with S4 League on this list.  Personally, I love the soundtrack.  I think it's the best OST for an MMO shooter ever, but it's a bit on the obscure side.  Many of the songs are vocal techno/trance, and there's also a song that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Power Rangers.  In short, it's quirky but incredibly effective.  Too quirky to put any higher than this though, and if you aren't a fan of, or at least tolerant of electronic music, you won't enjoy the game at all because the music is a large part of it.

#5 - Mabinogi

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIOIN0VwMug and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM71lyQijBQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X97N65dTWM

Ah, Mabinogi, I really wanted to love this game.  I wish it had a bigger and more active community, because there really is a lot to love here, not the least of which is the incredibly awesome and old-school RPG sounding soundtrack.  Everything from the turn-of-the-millenium synth that serves as the base for most of the tracks to the wide variety of themes compliments the cel-shaded anime graphics well, and serves to pull you into a celtic-inspired fantasy world as seen through eastern eyes.

From a purely technical standpoint, the music isn't all that complicated or grandiose, but listen to the samples and you'll find just a few of the songs in a memorable and extremely catchy soundtrack that handles the game very, very well.  In addition, this is another game where you can compose your own music and, in my opinion, the system works even better than that used in Lord of the Rings.

What more can you ask for?

#4 - Eve Online

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3zohj9NKXE and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7zI5r6LxVE and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J4H3o2om7c and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BemazRFEsrA

When I first started playing Eve Online, I had literally zero expectations for the music.  There's no sound in space, after all, and I sort of expected that to be reflected in the game, but I was quite pleasantly surprised by Eve's music.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you do ambience properly.  Strings and slow, building synths dominate the game.  90% of the time I didn't even realize that any music was playing until, all of a sudden, I would pause to do something and notice it in the background.  I would immediately think to myself, hey this is awesome.

But the game doesn't stop at ambient, which also surprised me.  I remember the first time the first sample above played when I entered an acceleration gate, I thought something had popped up in my browser window.  When I realized it hadn't, I quickly wondered how badly I was about to be screwed.  That's the kind of emotion you want music to convey, the perfect background, the "Oh shit." moment.  Jon Hallur Haraldsson is to be commended for his job on a soundtrack that could easily have been nonexistant or dreadfully repetitive and annoying.

#3 - Atlantica Online

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXR8jdNUYbo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c21tz1-nf1o and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6N7La3CiK4 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OuPrTr-UL0

Another game that does an incredible job of mixing styles and instruments and setting the mood all through the game.  Atlantica was the first free to play game I ever played, and one of the reasons I stuck around as long as I did was for the music.  Being turn based, Atlantica could have suffered from repetition, but it avoided this by having a different track for every outdoor area, every dungeon, six different battle themes, and nearly a dozen different town themes.

The music does have an orchestral leaning, but the variety of instruments used, sample quality, and numerous styles (find me another MMO that has a Western-style shootout song in it used well) make it one of the most appealing soundtracks you could ever hope to find in a game.  I could easily see this soundtrack being composed for a popular single player game and getting rave reviews and a cult following.  Highly recommended... too bad the cash shop ruined the game.

#2 - Sword 2 (Granado Espada/Sword of the New World)

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_L-fDedv_k and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9ZRkNIrUm0 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1PtV7dwNuA& and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIu9VUZIy7c&

Sword of the New World, an average game with the distinction of being literally the only MMO I've ever KEPT playing simply for the music.  Surprisingly, with a high quality score like this, the game is free to play.  There is not a single bad track in this game and it has everything from eastern influences, metal, techno, violins, waltzes, piano pieces, and sometimes all of the above in the same song.  Composed by the same team responsible for Ragnarok Online, the instruments and synths are all extremely high quality.  This and the #1 might as well be 1a and 1b.  Yes, that's how much trouble I had ordering them, and I never thought I'd say that when the following game is involved:

#1 - Final Fantasy XI

Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p84MwUCJtNo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHGUmnrkYi8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq87fRPXwLg and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvSoMqccyyM and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsLkGEDwLLc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6Q3GMCPJQM

This shouldn't surprise anyone.  Although Squaresoft is gone and Square-Enix fades progressively more with each release, over the years they have employed countless top of the line composers (Nobuo Uematsu, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Yasunori Mitsuda and now Naoshi Mizuda) and are responsible for hours upon hours of my favorite game music ever.  FFXI is no exception, and when you consider that the game itself is responsible for stealing 4 years of my life, longer than any other MMO, you can imagine the memories that go with the music in this game.

Perhaps you might say that nostalgia colors my view, but I don't think so.  The game has quite possibly the most tracks of any MMO OST ever, and there's not a bad one in the bunch.  From the atmospheric, to the mysterious, to the edge of your seat battles, FFXI represents the pinnacle and standard for music in an MMO.  I have gone to zones and fought battles again and again simply to hear the music in that particular area, even though I've had nothing to do in it.  Composed mainly by Naoshi Mizuta with Nobuo Uematsu coming out of 'retirement' to handle a few tracks, there is very little to find fault with in this soundtrack.

The only flaw would be the occasional zone without music, but SE has said that this was done intentionally in many cases to add to the mood in the game.  When you go through a game listening to beautiful music, only to run into a zone that doesn't have any, you wonder why, what's special about this area that makes it silent.

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And there you have it.  Maybe you're a music lover and have found a new game to try, maybe you've found a new track to listen to, or maybe just a new perspective on MMOs.  Whatever the case, music should be a prominent part of any triple A title released, and not an afterthought the developers feel like they can half-ass.

TERA, Fantasy & Censorship

Posted by Strayfe Sunday May 8 2011 at 9:17PM
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I think I may have shown up a bit late to the party on this one, but as somebody famous once said:

"Better late and opinionated than early and silent."

Okay, so that was me who said that, and no, I'm not really famous, I just needed a good lead-in to the article.  Journalistic license and all that, you understand, right?

 

TERA Online, the next generation Triple A action-MMO from En Masse Entertainment has come under fire recently from its own potential playerbase.  The reason?  The looming threat of 'westernizing' the Elin race.  For those unfamiliar with Elins, I give you the following screenshots and videos:


Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgPBIGWqQEo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf6zpXAK990

 

AW MAH GADZ - SAEV DA CHILDRINZ

Scroll up to my introduction and you'll notice I put 'westernization' in quotes.  Having looked at these screenshots and those two videos, can you guess why, ladies and gentlemen?  Of course you can!  You're warm blooded Americans!  You're fine upstanding European citizens!  I bet the first thing every one of you thought is:

"Oh my god, somebody should censor this!  These are little girls wearing overly-sexualized clothes and their very existence in the realm of entertainment mediums is a shining beacon for pedophiles everywhere.  Also, I will be taking a trip to Middle Earth later, who wants to join me?  What?!  What do you mean Rivendell isn't real?!  HOGWASH AND POPPYCOCK!"

Sure, I'm laying it on a bit thick, but that's what I do.  TERA Online intends to censor the Elin to some capacity for western audiences, confirmed in a rather old interview which can be found here.

Naturally, as with many similar issues of censorship, the backlash was immediate and resounding.

Over here is a (now locked) TWO HUNDRED page thread on the official TERA forums, followed here by another 170-plus (at the time of this blog) page thread on the same subject.  There have also been rumors that Elins were originally going to be excluded from TERA's western release for their ... ah... obscene... depictions of... ah... skin or... something obscene ... or...

No, I can't even finish that sentence.  The absurdity of the whole situation is simply overwhelming.  Elins, as cute and child-like in appearance as they are (open for debate... I've never seen a child with hips like that), ARE NOT CHILDREN.  They are an imaginary race of humanoid females who are a part of an imaginary fantasy world where other fantastic things exist.  You know... those things that make up the Fantasy MMO genre?  Magic, epic swordfights, talking animals, medieval kingdoms?  All those things that don't exist in real life?

Fantasy is used as escapism.  Those of us who play MMORPGs enjoy the idea of working to advance another persona, whether it be by the stats, gear and numbers, or through character development as a roleplayer.  We do not walk through every game we play with a hawk eye, attempting to draw or create parallels to real life in every pixel.

I can't throw a fireball at someone I don't like.  I can't grab a giant, glowing blue axe from my closet and wander into Canada to start some cross-country PvP.  If I go to Compton, there won't be anyone on the street corner with a giant exclamation point floating over their head, begging for every passer-by to complete some vacuous and mundane task to earn reputation with the local thug-guild and a few benjamins for their new dubs.

So why is this all okay?  Why is it okay to have fantasy races that summon demons and the undead?  Human sacrifices, blood and gore, and all these other fantastic elements?  Obviously these vaguely promote some sort of slightly undesirable behavior and should be censored accordingly as well, right?

Of course not.

There are people, mostly the religious type, who have been trying to censor these things for years.  Listen to most of them for even a moment, talking about how World of Warcraft is satanic, and the average person will take them for what they are, an utter nutjob.

Poke through either of those TERA threads, however, and you'll find a rather sizable group of people who believe that the way Elin are portrayed somehow promotes and glorifies pedophilia, that anyone who enjoys looking at the Elins as presently constituted are pedophiles or have pedophilic tendencies, and even that the race should be removed entirely due to societal bias on adolescent sexuality.

The problem with this entire line of reasoning is simple.  It's not real.  Elins are created using 3D modeling and compositing.  They are part of the lore of a fantasy world which exists only as a block of data on a series of servers.  They are not Human children.  They are scantily clad because, in all cases of fantasy, sex sells.  We want escapism.  We want to be muscle-bound, perfect badasses, beautiful, exotic women, or mischievous nature spirits (the lore behind Elins).  We do not want to be Dave and Kate, the slightly overweight, out of shape accountant and his dorky secretary.  We have real life for that.

I'm not sure about anyone else in the world, but I learned to distinguish fantasy from reality when I was about three or four  years old.  It's one of the first lessons I believe any child should learn.  Entertainment, gaming and television in all of its forms gives us as a society an outlet to explore feelings, ideas and thoughts in a controlled, safe environment that would not be acceptable in real life.  It gives all of us an avenue to confront and handle situations or components thereof that may get us in real trouble if followed to their logical conclusion in reality.  THIS IS HEALTHY.  IT IS NOT A BAD THING.

Pedophilia IS a terrible thing.  Sexually utilizing a child for your own perverse pleasure is about the lowest thing someone can possibly do.  I'm right there with the rest of you when I say, string em up, cut their dick off, hang em upside down and leave em to rot.  I would be unequivocally naive though, if I were to suggest that it could be eliminated entirely.  People will always break the law, any law.  There have been studies done as to why, and I won't get into those, but it's going to happen.

Society as a whole has lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.  A lesson that should be taught and instilled in any child from an extremely young age has either been ignored or coopted to suit the insular views of the parent.   Should I infer then, that the average person has the emotional and social development of a three year old?  I could, and from a logic standpoint, I wouldn't have a difficult time proving it, but unfortunately, things aren't that simple.

Censorship always comes down to one argument.  It's the same one that all pro-censor groups use as their ultima ratio.

"We should censor X and Y because it's a bad influence.  Children who see X and Y on television/movies/in games may turn around and do/say/become X and Y in real life."

Let me offer you an anecdote.  My first summer out of high school, I was 19 years old, and I had the opportunity to take some volunteer work for a non-profit company engaged in caring for and rehabilitating developmentally and learning disabled adults.  During my second week of the two-month long program, I was assigned to work with a man who we'll simply call Jim.  For all of his faults, Jim wasn't a bad guy as far as developmentally disabled people go.  I didn't have hardly any problems with him until one day.

We were doing arts and crafts, as I recall, something to do with colored stencils (those things that have the shapes, stars, circles and what not that you trace and color in).  Things were going great until I showed him the next step in the project which involved a couple of stencils in the shape of triangles.

The man went completely and totally apeshit, flipped over the table and started attacking and literally going berserk on anything within range, including me.  I wasn't exactly small or a wimp at the time, but I felt like I was getting pummeled by the fucking hulk.  It ended up taking about a dozen people to restrain him and prevent him from tearing the place apart.  When things had finally calmed down, and I was explaining what had happened to set him off, I mentioned the word 'triangle' again, not realizing the problem, and Jim went completely apeshit yet again.

Turns out, the shape of a triangle or the word 'triangle' triggered some strange thought process in his head, causing him to go into berserk mode. 

Should I go on a crusade for the rest of my life against triangles?  Should I call up every television network and demand that any instance of a triangle, or the word triangle should be censored because it might make someone lose their mind and kill?  Of course not.

Do you understand the slippery slope you run into when you demand that everything be censored, simply on the POTENTIAL for a problem?  It's wrong. 

There are people out there who will find different things offensive.  Personally, I find most celebrities to be pathetic, horrible role models whose very existence degrades the Human race.  Should I call for their censorship?  Of course not.  I may not like them, but they are a part of society.  If I go and kill somebody and claim that Britney Spears made me do it, should Britney be banned from all media?

If someone plays TERA and sees an Elin, then goes out and molests a child believing that they look like one, the problem lies with the individual being a fucking lunatic and not on the game for containing fantastic content that serves as an escape for millions of normal people who have no problem with them.

If I find Elins to be hot, alluring, cute and awesome, does that somehow make me a pedophile?  Despite the fact that I would go to my own grave before harming a child in real life?

Society - Take some personal responsibility and quit ranting, raving and carrying on about these mysterious 'potential scenarios' and strange, bizarre leaps of logic. 

Let fantasy be what it's meant to be, a healthy escape for people disenchanted with the daily grind of dealing with the exact types of people trying to censor it.