The Unappreciated Art of Video Game Music

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WORDS Avery Phillips

Music plays a large role in video games, but those behind the music don’t always get acknowledged.

Since Pong first hit the arcades and took the world by storm in the 1970s, video games have become a major media form worldwide. While there are many who still deride them as nothing more than shallow entertainment for those with a short attention span, video games are fast becoming recognised as a serious artistic medium with an industry rivalling that of films.

Unfortunately, the growing popularity of games doesn’t mean that everyone receives the attention that they deserve, particularly when it comes to music composition. While we are quick to recognise the music of The Sims (Will Wright), Pokemon (Satoshi Tajiri) and World of Warcraft (Michael Morhaime), the composers of these pieces often go unnoticed.

This isn’t surprising, as first and foremost we usually judge games based upon their gameplay and aesthetic.
But when we stop and think about the games that have resonated with us over the years, what is it that makes them so memorable? It might be the enjoyable gameplay, it could be the interesting story, it may be the glory of defeating that one seemingly undefeatable boss after your 42nd attempt… or perhaps it is the music which stirs our emotions, and makes us feel more than we thought was humanely possible.

The importance of video game music was recognised on a more mainstream level at the 55th Grammy Awards in February this year, when Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for Journey received a nomination for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media”. This was the first time that a full video game soundtrack received a nomination, despite game music being eligible since 2001, and was placed alongside soundtracks from Hans Zimmer (of The Lion King fame) and John Williams (composer of scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and plenty more).

It’s true that Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV won the Grammy for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)” in 2011, but the song was nominated due to being part of Tin’s album Calling All Dawns rather than as a video game piece.

Although he did not win, Wintory’s nomination demonstrated a growing recognition of the work that goes into game music composition. Unlike film and television, video games are an interactive medium, and as a result game music needs to be adaptable and appropriate for a variety of actions which can be potentially occurring on screen. While composing for Journey, Wintory would listen to and edit his music whilst it was being played in context, so that he could understand how his music would be experienced by those playing the game and ensure that nothing was out of place.

Another composer, Garry Schyman, used the technique of having a nine-piece brass ensemble record music in snippets when he was composing for Resistance: Retribution. These snippets of music were then combined in-game to seamlessly adapt to the intensity of the action happening on screen based on a number of triggers, such as solving a riddle or confronting an enemy.

The approaches taken by these composers are a far cry from those of the 8-bit generation of games, where composers were challenged to create music with a maximum of four simultaneous tones that needed to also withstand repetition for hours on end. The memorable soundtracks of Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda (both of which were composed by Koji Kondo) were born from this era of limitation, and though both are less than 10 minutes in length, the soundtracks are still remembered today for their creativity and evocative nature.

The best games are those with soundtracks that are so complimentary to what is unfolding on-screen that something is lost if you play the game without it. Wintory’s soundtrack makes Journey a powerful game, and what makes the soundtrack so flawless is the emotion that it captures; the sense of travel, the raw beauty of the landscape, the hope and guilt and strength of a character who never says a word. Wintory may not have won, but he has made his mark in history and proved that video game music can truly rival that of other mediums.

It is a shame that it has taken so long for video game music to receive the recognition that it deserves. There have been many great pieces over the years, such as “Suteki Da Ne” (Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy X) and “Ezio’s Family” (Jesper Kyd, Assassin’s Creed II) that have gone unnoticed by the wider world, but this year was a massive step forward in that regard. Hopefully it won’t be took long before we have another video game soundtrack being nominated at the Grammys, and perhaps next time we might even have a win.