Making the case for video game music

Illustration by Emely Pascual

Quentin Rice, Staff Writer

The idea that video games are only for the elusive “basement-dwelling nerd” has subsided over the years. With the advent of streaming, and as the first generations of kids with home consoles get older, gaming has become more ubiquitous than ever. That growth has allowed more gamers to talk openly about everything they enjoy about gaming. Perhaps what they have most in common is their love for and identification with the music that accompanies their favorite games.

Video games are a strong cultural force, even a massive money maker — last year GTA V was certified to have made more money than any other piece of media. Perhaps it is no surprise that more effort is being put into every aspect of game-making. Video games are unique in that they are essentially a combination of many art forms: graphic design, sound design, storytelling and programming are all essential parts of a good game.

It’s a shame these aspects are still scoffed at by some, because video games still carry a “nerdy” tag. Nowhere is this dismissal more egregious than in the music department.

For many games, music’s chief responsibility is world-building. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild makes scant use of music outside of combat, but the light piano flourishes upon sighting a new mountain really draws the player in. Minecraft’s legendary soundtrack serves its game masterfully, aiding the serene and almost therapeutic slow-paced atmosphere. It’s a favorite study ambiance for many college students.

These soundtracks, while they do so well, serve the same purpose as most game soundtracks since the dawn of gaming. But the fast pace of technology is helping game developers find new uses for their soundtracks.

Video game music shares a lot of traits with show tunes. In a game that focuses on storytelling, the music can become so intimately tied to certain moments that the emotional impact is almost unbearable.

A perfect example is “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII. Aerith’s death is one of the most iconic and upsetting twists in gaming history, despite how poorly the 1997 graphics have aged. The way “Aerith’s Theme” plays through the boss battle following her death created a supremely devastating moment that was drilled into the memory of many gamers who grew up with the title.

FFVII’s soundfont also plays a big part in all of the surprising and charming moments it sports. Hardware limitations made it difficult to use real, organic recordings in games, so many composers used the same set of MIDI sounds to compose an entire soundtrack. This is a soundfont — think of it like a typeface, but for electronic instruments. This can lend itself to the massive emotional impact in certain games.

Earthbound is another title that uses a very characteristic and almost cute soundfont. The game’s soundtrack full of muted MIDI trumpets, electronic blips and muffled bass grooves do wonders for its memorability. The tight association between these games and their soundfonts can make modernized remixes a bit hard to listen to. I often cringe at the organic versions of Earthbound’s music in the Super Smash Bros. series.

Fans of musicals will know that a leitmotif is a musical riff used to evoke a certain theme or character. Star Wars is rife with leitmotifs. The audience knows when the main riff from “The Imperial March” plays, Darth Vader is near. Recently, game developers have found fantastically creative ways to use leitmotifs in their games.

Cuphead, released September 2017, is a technical masterpiece and a love letter to run ‘n’ gun games from the ‘80s and animation from the ‘30s. Animated just like an early Disney cartoon — every frame was painstakingly hand-drawn — Cuphead flaunts an absolutely bombastic three-hour soundtrack of big band jazz numbers by Kristofer Maddigan. Aside from the massive talent displayed on the record, what impresses me most is that many tracks use the same lick of four notes in such drastically different ways that it can be difficult to pick up on at first. A swanky club number, a  lighthearted, bouncy tune and a Bond-esque spy theme all use this same lick, but share absolutely nothing else in common.

Cuphead’s soundtrack serves its game perfectly, but it is also a fantastic jazz record all on its own that can be enjoyed by someone who knows absolutely nothing about video games. There aren’t many games that achieve this to the extent that Cuphead does, but when it’s done right it really is something I wish more people could partake in.

The Persona series from Japanese developer Atlus has mastered this. The series has long been known for its eclectic soundtracks that fuse soul, rhythm and blues, alternative rock and even hip-hop. Composer Shoji Meguro has created absolute treasures for all five games, but he nailed the J-pop-informed acid jazz with the most recent installment, Persona 5.

The first time Lyn Inaizumi’s voice soars over battle in “Last Surprise” is simply impossible to forget. Meguro’s odd fusion fits Persona 5’s odd world so perfectly, but even after 100-plus hours logged in the game, I still want to listen to it when I’m not playing. If this album were released as its own work under a band name rather than being attached to a video game, I think it would be the topic of a lot more conversation in the music world.

Licensed music has also seen some creative use in video games. The ‘40s swing tunes in the Fallout series, the ‘80s hair metal in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and José Gonzáles’ “Far Away” in Red Dead Redemption all serve the age-old duty of world building by literally bringing the game into the real world.

The traditional album structure and the culture that builds around an artist are difficult to replicate with video game OSTs on a broad scale. But, while records can certainly tell stories, they cannot produce the same slap-in-the-face moments that video game music does in tandem with its story. I want more people to experience these slaps. And I want more people to be exposed to the fire that video games can create.

1 Comment

  1. Assassin’s Creed Symphony just performed a montage at the 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo and will begin their world tour pn June 29, 2019. Stupendous!

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