Sep 24th, 2017, 02:00 PM

Press Play to Start — Part 1: Introduction

By Ofir Ben Dor
Image Credit: Video Games Live/ Marketing & Press/Media Assets
Welcome to the world of video game music.

Many of us have large playlists filled with songs we like to listen to on loop; whether at the gym, while studying or just for fun, we each have music that that puts us in a good mood. Here is a question for you then — is there a piece of video game music on your playlist? Considering that video game music has been around for about as long as video games, is it not strange that its mainstream presence is scarce at best? Beyond the small references which may pop up in movies and TV series and the few notable exceptions (such as the theme of Tetris), the entire industry of video game music has never truly left the medium of video games.

It would be wrong and misleading to say that video game official soundtracks (OSTs) are only known to gamers; in fact there are many live concerts of them — from Video Games Live to Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddess — and some OSTs become more famous than their own video games. Take, for example, the soundtrack to 2015's Undertale that has millions of views on YouTube — even though the game only sold roughly 3 million copies. Toby Fox, the creator and composer of Undertale, even said: "The creative process that went into making the music was awesome. I would say that music was the most fun, seconded by creating the story."

It would be more apt to say that video game soundtracks are underrepresented and underappreciated in mainstream music, and it is a shame. Many composers express how difficult it is to compose music for video games; for example, Petri Alanko, who recently composed 2016's Quantum Break, said that one should not "think it’s easy because 'It’s just game music.' It’s definitely not easier to write for than TV and film." Gary Schyman, composer of the Bioshock franchise, adds to this when he says to:

"First make sure this is something you are very passionate about as you're looking at one of the most competitive industries in the world."

There is a good reason why composing for video games is so difficult, as this short article from GameSound.com put it: "you don’t know when various story elements will actually happen [...] when composing for video games you have to write your music to be flexible, and know how to quickly change from 'wandering around' music to 'battling for your life,' while not sounding obvious or abrupt." Knowing how much effort is used to create these soundtracks, whether they are instrumentals made by synthesizers in the 80s or the large orchestral pieces with vocals of today, and not seeing them receive a much greater appreciation for it outside of the medium is the main reason why these series of articles exist.

One does not need to know and understand video games to enjoy and appreciate their music.

The Music Itself


From: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations (2004). Composer: Noriyuki Iwadare.

The jazzy, calm and melancholic piece above is the main theme of the rival character in the game. Ace Attorney as a series does not have any voice acting (apart from some scenes in the newest games), so in order to better express the characters personality the game relies on its dialogue, simple facial expressions and — most importantly — the music. Most music in video games is created with the purpose of setting mood and atmosphere, some of it (like this piece) is also used to give a character more personality.  The composer of the franchise once expressed his beliefs when it comes to music:

"I personally think it works better when there is a melody that the players can hum to. Humming to it will help the players not get tired of it [...] I believe it's better to get noticed than the music being left unnoticed in the game"

It is important to point out that there is no real, singular, correct theory when it comes to composing soundtracks. One of the greatest things about video game music is the incredible variety in the different styles and genres that find their place in it. While genres like jazz, disco and classical music have practically disappeared from the mainstream — they have found a new home in video games. Not to mention the numerous genre-hybrids that video games have created.

A proof to how large the range of video game soundtracks can be, is found in 2008's Kirby Super Star Ultra — composed by Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando. On one hand there is Green Greens, a series staple —

It is fun, whimsy and adventurous; the perfect music for the first level. It also tells the player a bit about Kirby himself — while he may be ready for the perils ahead, he is sweet and innocent at heart. Meanwhile on the other hand there is Airship Fortress Kabula — A fast-paced, hectic soundtrack that, while remaining true to the the adventurous tone of Green Greens, is clearly more tense.

Not to mention the chaotic and mechanical, nearly metal, theme of Galacta Knight. All of these come from the same game and are composed by the same two composers.

A great quote by Bénédicte Ouimet, music supervisor at Ubisoft Montreal, explains exactly why video game music is so great:

"It helps create a link between the game developers’ intentions and the players’ experiences [...] even if we don’t necessarily notice the music, we feel it"