The Changing Face Of Music In Video Games

Music has always had an integral part in the world of video games. From infectious victory gongs to sweeping orchestral scores, for almost forty years it has been used to immerse gamers in a whole spectrum of vast and increasingly complex virtual worlds.

“The wonderful thing about music is its power and simplicity when it comes to establishing a mood,” explains veteran composer, Jason Graves.

“The music nails the emotion immediately. It’s more powerful than any lighting, wall textures or character dialogue could ever be. It’s really the heart and soul of the gameplay.”

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For more than fifteen years, Jason has climbed his way up the industry ladder, producing scores for not only video games but film and television too. His most recent credits include work on EA’s popular horror franchise, Dead Space, as well as Tomb Raider, Evolve, and Sony’s latest blockbuster shooter, The Order 1886.

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Since making the transition from TV and cinema, he has witnessed video games grow from a niche pastime into the world’s largest entertainment medium. In that time, video game soundtracks have also matured and adapted to new technology. The monochromatic choruses that once set arcades abuzz in the late seventies have evolved into an ever-growing catalogue of diverse and original scores. Coupled with modern day graphics, capable of producing lifelike characters and settings, video game soundtracks can create dramatic set pieces akin to those seen in multi-million dollar Hollywood epics.

Given their sheer size and scope, naturally, as Jason explains, video games demand a completely different approach when it comes to scoring them.

“Most games offer at least ten or twelve hours of gameplay, compared to the short hour or so of music in a film. If you include downloadable bonus content, replay value, and branching storylines you’re looking at upwards of twenty hours, all of which has to have music.”

The interactive nature of video games also has a huge impact on the way in which a soundtrack can take shape, as David Housden knows all too well. Having graduated from the University Campus of Suffolk, the young musician came upon success when, by chance, he was introduced to up-and-coming indie game icon, Mike Bithell. From there, David went on to compose for Bithell’s first solo project, Thomas Was Alone. The game was a resounding success that put the British indie scene on the map, David himself netting two BAFTA nominations as a result.

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Still, almost half a decade after his industry debut, David admits that composing for video games is something he has yet to fully get his head around.

“Interactive music as a concept is absolutely fantastic, but it’s very difficult for me personally. There’s something comforting in writing for linear formats (film and television) because you know that the audience will hear it exactly the way you intended, at the precise moment you intended it to be heard.”

“However, interactive music, when done properly, has the power to create an experience which simply isn’t possible with linear media. It’s like having your own personalised soundtrack being scored in real time, and in accordance with your moves. That is very special indeed.”

Despite their inherent differences, however, the line between film and video game soundtracks has continued to blur over the years. Since the late noughties there has been a sharp increase in the number of big Hollywood names joining the ranks of those who have scored for games, including revered composers such as Harry Gregson Williams, Ramin Djawadi, and even Hans Zimmer. Nowadays, David says, it’s easier to point out which “AAA” games aren’t drafting in Hollywood talent.

And it’s not just film composers, either. In recent years there has been a hike in the number of game publishers recruiting performing artists and bands to help score and curate their soundtracks. For instance, last year developer Evolution Studios drafted in Welsh trio, Hybrid, to produce a trance-infused soundtrack for its photo-realistic racing simulator Driveclub. Similarly, Battlefield creators DICE hand-picked electronic artist Solar Fields to score their dystopian first-person game, Mirror’s Edge. From the way he tells the story, it sounds as though their collaboration came completely out of the blue.

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“I got a phone call from Magnus Walterstad, audio director for Mirror’s Edge,” explained Solar Fields, real name Magnus Birgersson.

“He sent some concept art. I still didn’t know what the game was about or anything and Magnus asked me to audialize the art to see if I “heard” the same things he did while looking at the images.”

When Solar Fields sent a sample back, DICE said it was a perfect fit for the game and took him on full-time. According to him, the difference between Mirror’s Edge and working on his albums was “like night and day”. Instead of being a reflective body of work, the soundtrack had to evoke the moods of the characters as well as the game’s pristine cityscape setting.

With so much talent crossing into the realm of video games it’s no surprise that, on the whole, their soundtracks are gaining more mainstream awareness. Still, despite their growing presence and popularity, they are yet to garner the same level of recognition as their cinematic counterparts. The closest to a watershed moment for music in games came during the 2013 Grammy awards in which Journey composer, Austin Wintory, won a nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. Although a cause of celebration for the gaming industry, Wintory’s nomination also highlighted the disparity between video games and other mediums when it comes to mainstream recognition.

So, why don’t video game soundtracks receive as much exposure?

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“I’ve often asked myself this,” says Jessica Curry, lead composer and co-director of Brighton-based studio, The Chinese Room. Founded in 2007, the developer is best known for Dear Esther, an interactive adventure game which picked up TIGA’s “Best Audio Design” in 2012 due to the originality of its soundtrack.

“I always come to the conclusion that game music is trying to fulfill so many functions and sometimes the music can suffer as a result.”

David Housden also sees a barrier preventing game soundtracks from reaching a wider audience. This barrier, he says, is the general accessibility of video games themselves. Although they are becoming increasingly sensitive towards different minorities in modern society, most game developers are still targeting the pockets of the straight white male gamer.

“It’s a generation thing” he argues, explaining that the cultural divisions surrounding video games will eventually erode. “I believe it’s just an issue of time.”

Receiving a fancy gong at film and entertainment awards isn’t the only form of recognition, however, as Jason Graves points out.

“I’m honestly a lot more interested in other forms of recognition, such as the live performances and alternate arrangements that regularly occur all over the world. Game music has a huge, voracious fan base that is amazingly loyal and hardcore.”

It’s true. Since 2002, Japanese publisher Square Enix has staged a number of sell-out “Distant Worlds” concerts, celebrating the music of its Final Fantasy series. Other big video game companies, including Sony and Nintendo, have also presented similar live performances. Even non-gaming related institutions have demonstrated their passion for video game soundtracks such as The London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2011 it released “The Greatest Video Game Music” which was followed up by a sequel album the following year.

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Fans have also gone above and beyond simply buying soundtracks for their favourite games, too. Established in 2002, MAGFest is the world’s very first music and gaming festival, bringing the two mediums together over a four-day period. The popular event, which has spawned a number of spinoffs across the United States, hosts a collection of cover bands, DJs, and artists recreating their favourite video game music.

Boston band Powerglove are a regular MAGFest fixture, performing a variety of classic tunes in their own unique heavy metal style.

“Much of the music we choose is from the games we played when we were young,” the band told me, citing retro hits such as Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Super Mario Bros.

“Sound banks in older games were very limited,” they say, “so games were forced to focus on melodies and harmonies.” However, despite their simplicity, it is these soundtracks that are usually the most nostalgic, featuring in hundreds of covers across sites like YouTube and Soundcloud.

Music doesn’t just enhance the way we interact with video games, however. Since the release of Dance Studio in 1987, developers have continued to explore the ways in which music can actually be used as a cornerstone in game design.

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Independent studio, Harmonix, has been doing just that for the best part of twenty years now. Founded in 1995 by Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, the two friends combined their expertise in music and computer science to create experimental software before setting their sights on the entertainment industry. They would go on to produce a number of major titles including FreQuency, Amplitude, and Karaoke Revolution with music always being their main source of inspiration. Then, in 2005, the company revolutionised the music game genre forever with the launch of Guitar Hero, which has gone on to sell a staggering twenty five million units worldwide.

“At the core of the music genre,” Alex says, “I think there is something incredibly powerful about physical action in synchrony with music.”

“The basic pleasure of this interaction is the heart of the experience. If you look at the earliest music games in Japan -and before that, the earliest music game in the US- they were all exploring the early frontier of music gameplay from wildly different angles, but the key innovation they all had in common was player input synced to on-screen music.”

After Guitar Hero, Harmonix were brought by MTV Games where they would go on to revolutionise the genre once more with the arrival of Rock Band. Much like it’s predecessor, Rock Band focused on players matching on-screen prompts by pressing buttons on a growing range of peripherals crafted to look like real instruments. In 2010, however, the two rivals sang a final dirge before going on hiatus, with both set to make a triumphant return at the end of this year.

Gazing at the dust-laden arcade cabinets of yesteryear, it’s hard to imagine that this is where our journey began. What was once a primitive arrangement of electronic pulses and blips is now an essential part in almost every video game to hit store shelves. It’s also staggering to think just how entrenched these soundtracks have become in both gamer and mainstream culture. Still, music in games has a way to go before it can ascend the pantheon, standing side by side with the revered raft of timeless film scores. With that said, don’t be surprised if, in the next five years or so, you see more and more awards doled out to game studios, much to the envy of the Hollywood elite.

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9 Comments

  1. There’s a very good podcast by the guys who do Cain And Rinse called Sound of Play which covers game music.
    It’s as integral to the experience as story, characters and graphics in my opinion. A game is nothing without good audio behind it but it doesn’t often get the praise that visuals or an emotive story does.

    • Sometimes, the music can be more important than any of those things.

      Red Dead Redemption has to be just about the single best game of the PS3 generation. So much of the atmosphere comes from the music. And it’s incredibly clever how the music works as well. You don’t even notice the tricks it’s pulling off to dynamically change the music. (Or the fact that everything is, out of necessity, in the same key of A minor)

      And then it has those 2 real songs during the game. One that lets you enjoy the view (and I hope everyone got it at the right time of day the first time) and one that just seems to fit with a mad dash home on horseback.

      Then Rockstar did something equally as impressive with GTA5. Get the same guy doing the music, except this time have him collaborate with Tangerine Dream. Well, possibly just the one remaining member (Edgar Froese). Arguably one of the most influential bands ever, with hundreds of albums over almost 50 years, including many, many film soundtracks. Then he suddenly agrees to do a game soundtrack at the age of almost 70. End result, rather good. And the significance of it is probably lost on most people who played the game.

  2. Well this has just filled me dread. Thanks. Meh.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article. I’ve always been a massive fan of music and audio in games, and I love to see it brought forward just like graphics as a defining element of the experience.

  4. I think they’d be a market for a console version of Ableton or some other DAW. A few devs have had a crack at a kind of “DAW light” like Beaterator on PSP or more recently the fantastic Sound Shapes, but I would love a full blown version of Ableton or Pro Tools or Logic – hardware wise all they’d need to do it made a little audio interface dongle thingy.

    • *is make

      • My guess on that front is that it’s likely this sort of thing is just not as profitable on consoles as devs/pubs would like – We haven’t seen any kind of music generator on a main console since the PS2 I don’t think. MTV Music Generator 2 was the last one of that ilk I believe (although I could well be wrong).

        Which is a bit of a shame, as Music & Music 2000 on PSOne were a great time sinks. Used to spend days putting tracks together using various blips & bloops & incorporating the random voice samples provided for comedic effect. Was great fun.

      • Man, I absolutely love music 2000! Would love if they brought out something similar, the rift editor in music 2000 was a powerful tool! Lately been using the free DAW LMMS, its excellent for a free DAW except my old ass laptop can’t handle it.

  5. When The Chemical Brothers played Chemical Beats at Glasto at the weekend, I couldn’t help but flashback to my first outing on Wipeout on PS1 all those years ago.

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