A Video Game Odyssey - an introduction to video game music

Robyn Miller - Riven video game soundtrack CD cover Video game scores surely have to be the most under-appreciated form of music out there. While film obviously takes artistic precedence over video games, this shouldn't mean that the latter medium somehow limits or vulgarises the artist's output... far from it. The origin of video games itself goes right back to early Cathode-Ray experimentation days of post-World War II (early 1950's), incredibly enough. The subsequent history of video game music, however, would take much longer to materialise into something au par with that of film. Approximately thirty years would pass with plenty of graphical and technological innovation, yet practically none in terms of the actual music used to accompany video games. This was apparently because of the limitations in the number of sound channels used in early computer chips and arcade systems.

Nintendo and the emergence of domestic games consoles

Arcade machine The 1980's video game market became dominated by Nintendo, originally developers of classic arcade games and now focusing their talents on family entertainment systems. The first Nintendo console was a huge success in the mid-eighties and marked a turning point in the history of video games. Due to the immense popularity of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, developers were now ready to push the envelope even further than before. Among the numerous increases in graphical and processing power, a unique form of electronic music was born out of the old experimental sound bites of the arcade generation and the newer multi-channel capacities and frequency techniques. Composition was now starting to play an important role in the process, with early technophiles busy transforming the bleeps and blurps of the Pacman era into something quite exquisite. Funny enough, these early experimentations may have informed the present genre of abstract electronica more immediately than the avant-garde works of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

game console with cartridge Super Mario Bros. is where the real fun begins. Although some important and interesting music did precede the Super Mario games (Pacman, Donkey Kong, ...) composer Koji Kondo would single-handedly pioneer the genre. In fact, Kondo's brilliant merging of his music in relation to sound design created what could be considered the first atmospheric gameplay. Atop the electronic keyboard work and inventive use of "noise channels" to create percussion patterns, the composer also categorized every sound into distinct libraries meant to emulate all different stages of orchestral composition. Through his clever use of separating bass-lines, harmonics, percussion and melody, Kondo breathed a new lease of life into the repetitive and uniform world of video game music with his jazzy numbers and even classical music influences. Some of the tunes were so upbeat that you would find yourself whistling them for days on end. Parallel to Mario's success, the Mega Man games also became synonymous with insane chirpy Japanese music, the latter arguably even more foward-thinking than anything that came out of the era.

Sonic, Myst: Riven and the Final Fantasy Series

Nintendo PSP Near the late eighties, another giant of the video game music emerged: Nobuo Uematsu, considered by many to be the most talented composer ever to surface in the video game industry. His work for the Final Fantasy universe - starting as early as 1987 - introduced fluttering melodies and rich harmonies that seemed to almost transcend the simple electronic bleeps of the era. In fact, one cannot avoid calling his early work "genius", especially considering the limitations of the electronic medium in which he was operating. During the early nineties, Sonic the Hedgehog became the ultimate definition of cool for countless kids and teenagers. Composer Masato Nakamura build atop the success of Kondo's music for Mario, with more of a funk-based approach this time around. Not only did the main Sonic title become as popular as that of its older brother, but Nakamura's individual music tracks for each level were hugely enjoyable. To this day, everybody immediately recognises tracks such as the one played over the "Green Hill Zone" stage of the game.

Robyn Miller - Myst video game soundtrack CD cover The world of consoles may have been the bees knees back in the late eighties, but by the nineties the personal computer was starting to show immense signs of potential too. Prince of Persia had already made quite an impact in 1989, often quoted as the best platformer ever created. In 1991, the adventure game Myst sparked two revolutions simultaneously: one was the masterful craft and feeling of its gameplay, and the other was that it featured the first computer game music to be given an award (although people would have to wait nearly 7 years before it was put onto CD). The work was composed with synthesizers by Robyn Miller (who later went on to score Myst: Riven in 1998) and great emphasis was put on ambience rather than dramatic composition to further highlight the contemplative quality of the gameplay.

playing a computer game Computer MIDI sound was used with great creativity throughout the nineties, first and foremost by Robert Prince with his score to the 1993 cult first-person-shooter Doom. Its explosive mix of hard rock and ghostly synthesizers contributed immensity to the grissly and oppressive atmosphere of the game. As with all good minimal music, it is hard to put one's finger on any given element of Doom's sound palette without ultimately failing to describe the whole. Running around corridors and witnessing dangling body parts suspended from ceilings via rusty chains obviously doesn't do much to reassure the player, but I suspect the real factor comes from the pounding and primal sensation Prince's music helps instaure in the game.

The emergence of Orchestral Scores

Bruce Broughton - Heart of Darkness video game soundtrack CD cover The late nineties and early 2000's were the golden age of video game music. Heart of Darkness marked another change in game music history, being the first game ever to contain original music scored by an actual orchestra. The game itself was released in 1998 and its soundtrack can be purchased on CD from Amazon... that is if you are prepared to pay the hefty prices often associated with out-of-print and collector's releases. The score was composed by Academy Award Nominated and highly prolific Bruce Broughton who, among many other things, has scored films such as the 1985 cult-classic Silverado.

orchestra While Broughton paved the way for a whole new generation of composers, others were busy reworking the electronic sound palette and sampled instruments with ever-increasing genius. Two very important names surfaced during this period: Mark Morgan and Michael Hoenig, the latter having participated in some of the scoring on Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi back in the early 70's. Mark Morgan's work on both Fallout games and Planescape Torment (1997,1998,1999 respectively) introduced some of the most gorgeous atmospheric music ever to be conceived in my humble opinion. Looking back at the 2D isometric landscapes of the Fallout universe, one soon realises that the music captures elements of a world that existed before the post-apocalyptic setting of the games. The music for the George Orwellian 1984-style Vault City integrates the sounds of military and sterile radio chatter into its otherwise soothing beats, warning the player that things may not be as ideal as they appear to be, whereas the dying town of Modoc is scored with ghostly and nostalgic synths as to evoke its once prosperous community. Michael Hoenig's work on the Baldur's Gate series (1998-2001) was just as spectacular. His swirling heroic-fantasy epics were a perfect complement to the rich voice-overs of Kevin M. Richardson and, to this day, represent some of the most flamboyant and downright exhilarating video game music ever composed.

A proliferation of soundscapes

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VIII video game soundtrack CD cover While the more fantasy-oriented scores were reaching their apex in terms of creativity, other trends were emerging during the late nineties too. The SimCity and Sims games required a completely unique kind of music to accompany their equally unique gameplay; a role that jazz musician and one-of-a-kind Jerry Martin was only too keen to embrace. The earlier Sims games had featured some rather inventive MIDI arrangements, but the mostly instrumental and electronic compositions of Jerry Martin - starting in 1999 with the third game in the series SimCity 3000 - really gave the games an extra edge. The main titles to SimCity3000 sound remarkably similar to Danny Elfman's theme for the cult TV-series The Simpsons (first composed back in 1989). SimCity 4 would go on to feature even richer sounds and compositions, abound with New-Age sensibilities, punctuating riffs from electric guitars and some mesmerising English Horn. By this time, Nobuo Uematsu too had released much splendid music for the Final Fantasy games. In 1999, he scored the eighth Final Fantasy and almost immediately gained acclaim for his "Liberi a Fatali" piece. Among many other talented musicians, the brilliant Shiro Hamaguchi made a triumphant return as conductor, fresh from his previous collaboration with Uematsu on the seventh Final Fantasy.

Jesper Kyd - Hitman Contracts video game soundtrack CD cover The Hitman series also became synonymous with quality music. Conceptually, there are notable parallels with the numerous James Bond scores (1962-2008), in that each in-game location comes with a specific cultural - and thus musical - atmosphere. The composer Jesper Kyd certainly knows his stuff; a perfect example being the Hong-Kong locations of the first game, in which a perfect blend of clattering gongs and industrial clangs support vast zen-like syths. It sounds something like the score to a scene set in a monastary in which Buddist monks go "John Woo" in a hail of slow-motion machine-gun carnage... if you can picture that. If you can't, then Patrick O'Hearn's score for Crying Freeman is probably a less eccentric example of the style. The music for the subsequent Hitman games would grow simultaneously more majestic and more daring, especially with Kyd's hypnotic score for the third game (Contracts) and its mixture of choir voices and dark rumbling sounds.

music studio In 2002, Jeremy Soule released his 30th video game score and what many admirers (including myself) consider to be his magnum opus: Morrowind (the third game in the Elder Scrolls series). Among other great titles, Soule had also scored Total Annihilation back in 1997 and would go on to score the follow-up to Morrowind and fourth in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion. Whereas some the action orientated music composed for Morrowind is impressive in its own right, the exploration (non-combat) music is where Soule's genius becomes obvious. Some critics accused the music of being too minimal to convey any emotion during gameplay, but if we are to assess the man's work properly, this should be done independently of the medium to which it comes attached. Soule's technique was to use synthesizers in conjuncture with traditional instruments, rather than opt for one or the other; the result is startling, with such high production and emulation skills that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish real instruments from electronic sounds. Oblivion was a tremendous success for Soule too, maintaining the same pace and technique but with extra layers of romantic orchestration. According to the press, the composer wanted to express his love for life and convey its ultimate fragility after experiencing a near-fatal car accident.

Video Game Music - current and future

Austin Wintory - Journey video game soundtrack CD cover To this day, video game music is both growing in popularity and in quality. Following its progression, from obscure geek-ish trend to established genre, is truly a fascinating odyssey. When in 2005, the extremely popular Amon Tobin scored the third Splinter Cell game: Choas Theory, it seemed as if the possibilities for expansion in regards to genre were virtually endless. Maybe in a strange surreal way, the world of video games has the upper hand over films in this respect alone, being an ever-expanding and highly experimental medium that inspires countless musicians to keep on pushing the envelope. In effect, the small timeline I have covered above is probably just the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, very few video game scores actually make it on CD and the overall market for such a genre seems dormant from where I stand. To conclude, here are some amazing titles available on CD that you can usually purchase through Amazon or on Ebay (although please note that some of these may be tricky to acquire due to their limited release):

And you even get books about Video Game Music! A new book called "Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack" by Andrew Schartmann in the "33 1/3 music chapbook series" looks at the background and genesis of Koji Kondo's famous theme. The book can be found via these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Selected Game Composers

There are now a staggering number of games for various computer and console platforms (not to mention mobile phone devices), and a large number of composers who have created music for these titles. It would be impossible to cover all such composers but here is a brief list of significant games composers, some of whom have also written for film and television:

    Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII video game soundtrack CD cover
  • Koji Kondo - many Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda series
  • Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy series
  • Masato Nakamura - the early Sonic The Hedgehog games
  • Jesper Kyd - Hitman Contracts, Freedom Fighters, Assassin's Creed
  • Robyn Miller - Myst, Myst: Riven
  • Martin O'Donnell - Myth, Myth II, Oni, and the Halo Series (first games job was sound design for Riven)
  • Jack Wall - Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Jade Empire and Rise of the Kasai
  • Robert Prince - Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, Commander Keen, Duke Nukem 3D, Axis & Allies
  • Austin Wintory - flOw, GroundTruth: Toxic City & Lock Down, Journey, The Banner Saga 1 & 2, Monaco
  • Bear McCreary - Dark Void & Dark Void Zero, SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs, Defiance, and the excellent God of War (reviewed here)
  • Bruce Broughton - Heart of Darkness
  • John Debney - Lair, The Sims: Medieval, Madden NFL 19
  • Video Games Live - album cover
  • Mark Morgan - Fallout series, Planescape: Torment, Zork series, Dark Seed 2, Descent 2
  • Michael Hoenig - Baldur's Gate series
  • Jerry Martin - SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 titles
  • Jason Graves - various Dead Space, Star Trek and Transformers titles
  • Patrick O'Hearn - Crying Freeman
  • Christopher Tin - Civilization IV (and his award-winning album "Calling All Dawns" including "Baba Yetu")
  • Jeremy Soule - Total Annihilation, Elder Scrolls titles: Morrowind and Oblivion
  • Amon Tobin - Splinter Cell: Choas Theory
  • Neal Acree - World of Warcraft series, Starcraft series, with "World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria" nominated in the Annual Games Music Awards 2012
  • Inon Zur - Prince of Persia series, various Star Trek and Baldur's Gate titles, Crysis, Dragon Age: Origins
  • James Hannigan - Reign of Fire, Command & Conquer titles, a range of Harry Potter and Football Manager titles
  • Rod Abernethy - The Hobbit, various Star Trek titles, Marvel Universe, Dead Head Fred, Rise of the Kasai
  • Michael Giacchino - Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty titles, film and game versions of The Incredibles, and film and game versions of Star Trek
  • Bill Brown - many titles in the Command and Conquer, Wolfenstein, and Ghost Recon series, and many more e.g. "CSI: NY" video game to tie-in with his work on the TV series
  • Harry Gregson-Williams – Metal Gear Solid series and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  • Joel McNeely - Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
  • Howard Shore - Soul of the Ultimate Nation (or S.U.N.)
  • Michael Nyman - Enemy Zero
  • Jeff Rona - one of several composers on "God of War 3" (the others were Gerard Marino, Ron Fish, Cris Velasco and Mike Reagan)
  • Joe Hisaishi - Ni No Kuni Shikkoku No Madoush (second country - review)
  • Winifred Phillips - Scraper: First Strike (VR Game), Jurassic World: Primal Ops, and many more
  • Lorne Balfe - "FIFA 19", various titles from the "Skylanders" series, "Assassin's Creed III" series and "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" series
  • Hans Zimmer - themes for Crysis 2 (music by Borislav Slavov, Tilman Sillescu, Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe)

And here are the websites of some of these leading games composers:

Author: Robert Purves, Updates: Jim Paterson