Underrated: The music of video games

I seek not to write this post as a gamer looking to call attention to my hobby; I write this as a musician looking to call attention to criminally under appreciated realm of music: that of the video game soundtrack.

In many ways my fascination with music began long before I wrapped my fingers around a guitar at the age of 14. I think, that somewhere in the depths of my consciousness, I first fell in love with music with my eyes glued to the screen in the silver age of video games. And, looking back, I think it was possibly the best moment to begin to engage with music.

What is most powerful about a video game’s score lies in emotion and intent; something music should convey, but in this age, sorely lacks. Whilst playing any video game, regardless of variety, it’s score possibly faces a far more strict and elaborate challenge than any other in any medium. The soundtracks to films serve primarily as reinforcement to the emotional resonance of the film’s plot – a tool used by the director to shape audience perception through pace, power and key. The music of the video game realm faces a do or die challenge by the fact of its very nature: it must compel the player to want to achieve within the game realm. It must not only motivate the player to take action, encourage the player to choose the correct path, highlight the high-risk, high-reward scenarios encountered, and additionally provide emotional reinforcement to the plot or event at hand. That’s not counting, of course, the fact that each segment of score must be repeatable to allow gamers to finish a particular event within the game. That’s a tall order.

Despite all these restrictions, requirements and the expectation of the plain impossible, time and time again have composers met – and risen above – the challenges imposed on them in the video game industry, churning out not mundane trinkets of flower music, but fully fledged miniature symphonies in which, in all cases, you could – and would – probably imagine battling a dragon, zombie, or alien to.

It’s to my dismay that much of the scoring that goes into video games has gone appreciated, but not terribly recognised. Beyond the sparse award, or clamouring of YouTube fanboys seeking to praise a composer on the net, not much credence is given to a realm where some truly amazing pieces of art have been produced. The attraction of big names to soundtracking a video game – such as Hans Zimmer in Modern Warfare or Clint Mansell et al in Mass Effect 3, would seem to indicate that the scoring to video has since become more of an elaborate and attractive ideal than it was more than a decade and a few years to spare ago.

What I believe augments the emotional power of music in video games so profoundly rests upon the matter of engagement: to immerse a human being in a surreal experience, you are required to bombard them with stimulus enticing enough to warrant distraction, willing or unwilling, from the present. Thus, when examining the tracks heard in your average feature, themes are maximised, and the orchestration of songs within the game are optimised for dramatic and emotional impact.

In the future, I’d love to see the music of video games recieve a far larger presence within the music world. During my time as a gamer, I’ve oft downloaded several scores from games I’ve played simply for listening pleasure. Seldom is a completed album so consistent, so brilliant, and so powerful and moving. The soundtracks which resonate through the current gaming scene have far more emotional power than the soulless drudgery of today’s pop music trends. It is my unabashed hope, that in the years to come, the work that goes into soundtracking video games becomes a far more recognised and appreciated art.

Hear are two examples of themes which blow my mind – Enjoy!

Dragonborn – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim theme

Suicide Mission – Mass Effect 2 theme