Keeping Score: The Music of Video Games

September 23, 2011 at 8:07 am | Posted in Video Games | 2 Comments

Trip-o-let, trip-o-let, trip-o-let, trip-o-let ...

I was a band geek. I know this is a rather awkward intro, but hang with me.

That actually might be putting it lightly. I played almost a dozen instruments in various wind ensembles, big bands, jazz combos, and corps bands. For good measure, I even spent a year in a jazz choir. A handful of years removed from academic music performance, I still play saxophone and keys in a few local area groups. To put it another way, my world is a very aural one. I love sounds and music and I really love observing how all of that impacts whatever it may accompany. This heavy-handed introduction leads us, of course, to this week’s edition of Lane Has Entirely Too Many Thoughts on Entertainment.

Video game music, a commonly overlooked part of the gaming experience.

The first time I can recall a game soundtrack popping out at me was a summer in the late 90s. For some reason or another, I was on a Super Nintendo kick. At this point, that system was a generation (nearly two, in fact) behind the current console crop. This gave me the benefit of being able to pick up games cheap from the local video game retailer. One of the purchases I made that summer was Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, a Japanese role playing game of some acclaim*. The game wasted no time demonstrating that the music was going to be something to behold.

*And by some acclaim, I mean nearly universal praise and love

Chrono Trigger was beloved for a very creative plot and gameplay system that provided for multiple endings. However, well over a decade after my initial playthrough, it wasn’t the characters, the story, or the battles that stuck out in my mind (though they were all very good, mind you). It was and still is the music of Yasunori Mitsuda. If you ever take the time to listen to the Chrono Trigger OST from start to finish, you can’t help but notice there’s a very distinct structure going throughout. The grand march of the intro, the character themes, the battle music. Where other games of the era slapped quickly thrown together music together and hit repeat, Mitsuda crafted something worthy of a film score and put it in a video game.

Every piece of scoring was pitch perfect for the scene it appeared in or the character it represented. Take, for example, the brilliantly written Schala’s Theme. This piece was written for a character that, really for the entirety of the game, was shrouded in mystery. Her ultimate fate wasn’t revealed until a sequel was released years later. Now, take that “shrouded in mystery” motif and then listen to her theme:

Works well, no?

As wonderfully written as the Chrono Trigger soundtrack was, the technology definitely held it back somewhat. There was only so much a sixteen-bit sound processor could accomplish. Enter Sony and the Playstation. Before Sony burst onto the scene, games on the console side of the spectrum were limited to being stored on bulky cartridges where storage space was a premium. Somewhere along the line, Sony realized that optical discs were a much better medium. Suddenly game developers went from the sixteen total megabytes of storage capacity on an SNES cartridge to a whopping 640 megabytes on a CD. One of the areas that benefitted most from this extra storage? Music and sound, and few took better advantage of this than game composer Nobuo Uematsu.

This was Liberi Fatali, the introductory music used in Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VIII. An actual orchestra and choir? In a video game? Remarkable what some additional storage space can do for a game.

Western developers were also happy to take advantage of the advances in storage technology to improve the aural ambiance of their games. Many modern console gamers cut their teeth on Halo: Combat Evolved. The hook? Certainly, the jarring beginning where everything is exploding around the player left and right is a good draw, but Bungie grabbed the player right at the title screen with this dark and gritty composition that screamed science fiction fun was about to go down.

There is perhaps no game that has created a soundtrack as effective as Bioware’s Mass Effect. I’ve talked about this game before, but all you need to know is that it’s a sprawling, immersive space opera (now where have we heard this description before?). Countless unique worlds and environments, a diverse cast of characters and species, an intricate and immersive plot. It’s an ambitious premise that aimed to create an even more ambitious atmosphere, but pretty visuals and stories can’t do all of the work. Enter in the soundtrack by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick.

Now, while you’re listening to this, imagine you are wandering through the underbelly of an alien world where one wrong step or one ill-spoken word can land you in a universe of trouble. This is just one of the unique themes the Mass Effect soundtrack helps to craft. As well written and designed as the game is, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the music behind every scene.

The music of video games have come a long way since Koji Kondo composed the Super Mario Bros. theme on a small keyboard in the early 1980s. Gradually they have become more complex, more refined, and stunningly, more accepted within the realm of music itself. Professional film scorers such as Clint Mansell of Black Swan fame are making the jump to video game scoring. Bands like the Faunts work to get their music into games. Symphony orchestras are playing the music of Mitsuda and Uematsu:

Perhaps I’m strange for spending so much time on video game music and deriving so much joy out of it, but like I told you, I was a band geek. It’s what I do.

Posted By: Lane Winree for Roqoo Depot.


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  1. Ahh, the Halo theme. That does have an epic resonance to it. Interesting that orchestra’s are picking up and playing game music. Adds a lot more character to those old themes.

  2. Bravo Lane. Awesome piece!

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