4. Sound/Music/Voice Acting
I’m grouping these all into one category. All three form an important part of what makes games memorable: the atmosphere. BioShock is impressive because it simultaneously captures a huge underwater city and the 1950s with its soundtrack. GTA: Vice City is an awesome game because of the tremendous soundtrack and voice talent.
Usually, the only games that fall short are older games. Ultima Underworld II, the sequel to an underrated classic in my book, grated on me because the footsteps were the loudest thing in the entire game. Some of the sound effects in the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans were much too tinny. Newer games aren’t infallible, though, as the beggars in the original Assassin’s Creed prove.
Apart from outright errors and an appropriate theme, the sound, music, and voice acting can only add to a game, never detract. Many of my all-time favorite games have tremendous music, and I remember the music long after I’ve forgotten the game. Every time I play through Deus Ex again, I sit at the main title screen to hear the entire song. Same thing with Gun, which, while far inferior to Red Dead Redemption, still captures the old west with the sweeping opening theme.
Then there are modern sports games. Madden is particularly guilty of trying to find hip new songs to play (although Madden 11 did a great job of fighting that, going with classics) that only have name value. EA Sports as a whole usually comes up short in this department. The MLB: The Show series is even more irritating. For games like this, I often mute the sound and listen to something else.
Very few games are notable for sound effects, which either tend to be appropriate or not. Voice acting is a little more valuable, and can help make characters more noticeable when you recognize the voice. Ray Liotta as Tommy Vercetti, Thomas Jane as Colton White, Cam Clarke as Liquid Snake, and Tim Curry as Gabriel Knight lend more credence and star power to a game. Sometimes, however, even unknown voice actors can really capture your attention, like Rob Wiethoff’s John Marston. It’s about strong characters having appropriately strong actors voicing them.
I have only ever purchased the music for three games in my entire life: two of the radio stations from Vice City, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy VII. JRPGs often have the best music, largely because the Japanese take video game music more seriously than most. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid games have music from the extremely talented Harry Gregson-Williams, an acclaimed Hollywood composer.
I have never completely refused to play a game because of sound or music, unless there are technical errors (bad static). But it’s a big part of making sure I remember a game.