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The Shifting Soundtrack to Games

/ Dec 28th, 2012 No Comments

Game Soundtrack

Game SoundtrackAs the medium of video games evolved from bits to blockbusters, so too did the soundtracks that scored them. From circuit boards blipping life into Tetris’ falling blocks in 1986 to arcades giving us a radio to select our own tinny theme for Sega’s OutRun – a mere 2 years later. Fast forward to the present. Many games and their respective series have internationally touring concerts held in their honor, attract acclaimed recording talent to contribute and are now scored by ‘composers‘, not ‘sound directors‘. You’ll find that the way we engage with music in games is still radically progressing.

In the same way this medium inadvertently became a creative platform for art and design, games continue to serve as the foundation for a creative music culture of its own design.

Striking the Right Chord

2012 has been a great year for game music. The sweeping classical compositions of Kid Icarus: Uprising, The Last Story and Gravity Rush helped generate a sense of soaring adventure. The chiptune-centric Fez soundtrack by Disasterpeace and Chipzel’s Super Hexagon mini score evoked game music from the 8-bit era brought forward. Sound Shapes crafted its shifting electronic ambiance (courtesy of Jim Guthrie, Beck and Deadmau5) to respond to the choices the player makes in the game. Rhythm game Dyad managed a trance heavy Rez-like world by way of a Sonic 2 special stage. Hotline Miami evoked the neon synths of Drive while hitting the chords of shoe gazing stoner rock. Finally, to top it off, the soundtrack for Journey gained a Grammy nomination in the ‘Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media’ category. This is the first time this has ever happened.

Charting the history of games, there are so many franchises that spoil us with their incredible playlists. Too many to mention here unfortunately. The music in games has always been crucial in conveying the intended feeling of the game, because playing games is often an extremely interactive and therefore personal experience. There are many music based games that exude this unique quality effectively; in many cases they can become the most important aspect of the game.

Finding the Rhythm.

Game SoundtrackNow, when talking about music games it is impossible to sidestep the one genre defined by music – rhythm games. I’m not talking about games like Just Dance, Rock Band or Guitar Hero, games that are played using replicas of real instruments and/or mostly feature music that isn’t original nor a product of the game. They’re more about commemorating popular songs from a separate industry, another creative world. I’m talking about games where the music and gameplay are unique, linked and take center stage.

In this vein, let’s begin with Parappa the Rapper. Parappa is considered the first major rhythm game to gain worldwide acclaim. This was a game where instead of each stage merely being complemented by background music, the music was the stage. Despite how basic (or controversially plagiarized) the tracks were, they excellently defined the world of the game making it such a memorable experience. Later Umjammer Lammy and Gitarooman would also marry a number of various musical styles to the new and distinctive sensibilities of a rhythm game world.

The trend for inventive rhythm games continued in titles like Taiko: Drum Master, Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Heaven/Paradise all exhibiting the same focus on gameplay combined with music. Curiously these were all adaptations of games originally only available in Japan (Taiko no Tatsujin, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and Rhythm Tengoku) that had garnered a cult following among fans living abroad and willing to import. The developers noticed this and localised to the wider audience. Basically rhythm games are more popular than they were previously given credit for.

With the 3DS showcasing Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure this year, along with next year’s Rhythm Hunter: HarmoKnight, the trend for rhythm games continues.

Games in Concert.

Back CameraSince systems have been advanced enough to properly do justice to them, numerous games have featured impressive recordings of a live orchestra. When Konami and Kojima got Hollywood composer Harry Gregson Williams to score Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001 it showed the world that yes, games were ready for the next level.

Now it’s not unusual for a Mario game to have a fully orchestrated soundtrack. In fact, the Super Mario Galaxy and Galaxy 2 soundtracks are especially good.

Seeing as many ambitious scores that preceded this development in sufficient sound technology were denied an orchestral adaptation, it‘s unsurprising that there have been numerous opportunities for concert orchestras to re-envision them. Hearing a concert orchestra perform music from cult classics like Actraiser, Chrono Trigger and earlier Castlevania efforts makes you realize the potential the original composers were aiming for when they programmed these plinky vivid anthems into our consoles.

Since the early 2000’s touring, reoccurring and one-off concerts have enabled this instrumental experience. The numerous Symphonic Game Music Concerts in Germany for instance and the Play! A Video Game Symphony performances or if you really wanted to experience people whooping and screaming in your ear all over the music you‘re trying to listen to, there’s the audience participation laden Video Games Live (…ugh).

There’s plenty of options on iTunes that are worth a look for those who want to try and recreate a concert experience, The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s recent Greatest Video Game Music collection 1 and 2 are especially good, even if that Sonic medley doesn’t really nail the theme music too well.

The most notable video game concerts in recent years would have to be the The Legend of Zelda – Symphony of the Goddesses shows and the Final Fantasy Distant World’s concerts commemorating 25 years of the franchises. Maybe it’s due to both series being fantasy themed, but the music of Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu truly comes to life in a renewed and powerful way as a live instrumental performance. There is so much beautiful music to choose from. It’s little wonder that ‘Aerith’s Theme’ was voted into UK radio station Classic FM’s top 100 amid a controversial arm waving fervor of snobby classical fans that failed to acknowledge the artistic expression of music from a ‘mere computer game‘. Well, like it or not, the most inventive and majestic music being composed right now can be heard in computer games because it is, quite simply, the most progressive artistic medium of our time.

The Sound of Music to Come.

Next year we’ll enjoy the gothic foreboding of Dark Souls 2 and Castlevania: LoS 2 (which according to producer Dave Cox, will have a soundtrack that boasts the largest orchestra ever to perform on a video game, another achievement unlocked for music in games). There’s also the suspenseful sinister ambiance that Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonel Marines and (hopefully, if it doesn’t go too ‘generic FPS‘) Bioshock: Infinite will evoke.

At the moment, we don’t know what musical highlights we will get in the new year. Among the big games, the more contemporary music anticipated in GTA V, Watch Dogs, Remember Me and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance will thankfully contrast the more movie-esque tones conjured in God of War: Ascension, Gears of War Judgment, Lost Planet 3 and Tomb Raider among others.

Although the styles in the heavier hitting titles tend to be safer and more formulaic, there is a diversity and a progression to the sounds and composers we listen to in games overall. How diverse? The aforementioned Grammy nominated Journey soundtrack was composed by Austin Wintory. What’s next for him? A Leisure Suit Larry remake. That‘s how diverse.

Keeping ears open in 2013 and beyond, they’ll be more eclectic and unusual soundtracks to discover. The good news is that this is so often the case in games. Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing more new creative and imaginative aspects in games just as much as seeing or even playing them.

Olly Jones
Olly Jones is a contributor to the editorial team at Gaming Illustrated. As an artist, Olly has created artwork to publicize games for Capcom, Ubisoft, Arc System Works and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Olly Jones
Olly Jones

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