At the start of the month, my fellow Gaming Guru Bradley Fisher wrote about his top five gaming soundtracks of all time, which got me thinking about music in video games in general. Often I’ll find myself humming some 8- or 16-bit Zelda, Sonic, or Mario tune, which is credit enough to these series’ legacies both musically and from a gaming perspective, but putting this catchiness aside for a moment, I wanted to take time to consider the real power and purpose of a game’s music.
Being a musician, a video game’s music has always been something I’ve had an avid interest in. CDs and soundtracks tied to gaming litter my collection of gaming memorabilia, and when, during a good ol’ iPod shuffle-session, a tune from Final Fantasy or Super Smash Bros. serenades me from the speakers, I can’t help but smile. The haunting orchestral arrangements or goading gangs of strings and cymbals churn me through old memories and older excitements, reminding me not only of the brilliant games I’ve played through the years, but of the epic pay-off so many gaming stories supply us with time and time again. And, much like the video games that grace our fondest recollections, the truly great musical moments of these adventures stay with us long after the power switch has snapped into the ‘Off’ position. But what is it that makes the music just so pivotal in producing a poignant gaming experience?
To help me find and understand the answer to this question, I thought back to one of the first video games that had me hanging from it’s every note and song – Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Released in 2000 in Europe, the soundtrack was a mishmash of various bands and artists spanning the genres with everything from hip-hop and rap-metal, to pop-punk and rock, and it has long remained a talking point for those who enjoyed Neversoft’s action sports title. Just at the mention of the game, my excitement kickflips into life, but before I remember the excellent physics, addictive gameplay, and superb trick system that defined the skating genre for so many years, it is the soundtrack that comes to mind. Reminding my band mates of the game’s soundtrack inspired a similar response to mine, and led to one of them immediately firing up YouTube to crank the chaotic, teenage tracks into life again. And though the soundtrack isn’t everyone’s bottle of Frosty Jack’s, it fit the subject of the game perfectly, and has seen similar soundtracks produced for sporting games ever since.
When bands aren’t broadcasting their bass lines and brooding lyrics behind the games we play, we are often graced with huge orchestral orgies that have a totally different immediate effect, but an almost identical outcome. Video games from the Final Fantasy series are renowned for this kind of epic score, and, more recently, games like The Last of Us and Assassin’s Creed have received equally positive review. The Last of Us developers Naughty Dog had the honour of working alongside two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain and Babel), which may go some way in explaining the brilliance and accomplishment of the game’s atmosphere, but even games with lesser credibility in the music department do similarly exquisite jobs. This merging between movies and gaming isn’t unexpected here; after all, both mediums aim to create a sense of escapism and empathy at the very least, and music unquestionably helps both achieve this goal.
Though our response to music is a subjective one – it differs from one person to another – what is universal is that music does affect us, and alters our emotion. Science and psychology have thrown theories around for years, but no single reason for music’s influence on our emotions and memories has been agreed upon. It has the ability to move us, to remind us, to calm or enrage us, and even has the capabilities to ease the effects of pain and lessen depression. Within gaming, music plays a similar role: it accentuates the fear we’re faced with, brightens the colours of the landscapes, and acts as a fanfare for our favourite age-old characters, all without even breaking a sweat. These attributes are in-built into its very design, as the idea is to create a kind of stimulation without causing undue distraction. Though we may take the soundtracks for granted, placing them lower on the priority list than graphics or plot, if we were to play our video games on mute for several hours we’d soon notice just how underwhelming the whole experience is by comparison. Evidently, music has more to offer than simply padding out the dreaded loading screens.
Alongside video-gaming, music is one of my greatest passions, so when the two meet in sheer and utter harmony, I can honestly say I become a greater fan of the game in question. Whether it’s The Legend of Zelda, Banjo-Kazooie, Timesplitters 2, or Tetris (don’t dare deny your unadulterated LOVE for the game’s iconic tuneage), some of the magic associated with these titles would be missing without the invaluable vibrations of air we so often take for granted – and that goes for any game you’ve ever loved or applauded. Make sure the next time you take to the armchair for a bash on your chosen box of gaming glory that you give some time and thought to the effort expended into the soundtrack: without it, the gaming universe would be a sadder, sombre-er, silenter place.